Welcome to Save State, where we enjoy retro-styled beat ‘em ups. In the last couple of months, Double Dragon gained a new entry in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons. Featuring a fun combination of roguelike elements and tag-switching combat mechanics, Double Dragon Gaiden is an attempt to capture the old school flavor of the past Double Dragon titles with a modern flair. The tag system, especially, adds a lot that I feel helps Gaiden succeed where Double Dragon Neon wasn’t quite able to improve upon the series.
Double Dragon Gaiden is incredibly simple to pick up and play when compared to its peers in the beat ‘em up genre like the flying air combos of River City Girls 2 or consuming health as a resource to maintain a 300-plus hit combo chain in Streets of Rage 4. You move around the fighting arenas, performing punches and kicks and inputting special attacks by pressing a button plus a direction, similar to how you’d use a special attack in Super Smash Bros. You can cancel normal attacks into specials with ease, have a remarkably generous window to juggle foes and maintain the combo counter, and can use your tag ability to bring in your partner both offensively and defensively.
While it’s easy for you, the player, to juggle enemies, it’s also quite easy for them to juggle you in return. That’s where Double Dragon Gaiden’s tag system comes into play- using your special meter, you can swap characters to extend your attacks or free you from a combo that would otherwise have killed your current character. Your special attack meter can be used to fire off powerful attacks, like Marian’s rocket launcher (yeah, she brought the whole armory to a knife fight), but using your specials with reckless abandon can leave you unable to tag out when situations get hairy.
The roguelike nature of Double Dragon Gaiden is interesting and novel, but it doesn’t do a lot to obscure the fact that there’s only four stages to play. You’re allowed to select which stage you want to tackle first when you play, but each other stage gets progressively more challenging the longer you wait to tackle it. This effectively means that the order in which you play the stages will more or less become set in stone based on how annoying you feel the bosses become if they’re left for last. It is neat that new traps and enemies will show up in boss fights based on them getting to prepare for an encounter with you while you’re off destroying other gangs, but the system didn’t change much outside of the first couple playthroughs of the game.
As you play Double Dragon Gaiden, you’ll acquire loads of cash from enemies you defeat. Losing both of your characters during a level will require you spend some of your cash reviving them and trying again, and once you run out of cash, that’s it, your run is finished and any remaining cash is converted into tokens you can spend to unlock things, from characters to concept art. Double Dragon Gaiden heavily rewards players who can tackle rooms of enemies flawlessly- killing multiple enemies in one special move, for example, will guarantee a health pickup item, like a delicious roasted turkey that refills a big chunk of your health bar. If your health is full when picking up healing items, however, you get a nice stack of cash instead, which will help you unlock new characters much faster.
With each stage you clear, you can buy one upgrade bonus for each of your chosen characters using the money you’ve acquired so far in your run. Upgrades that let you use your specials more often or that increase their damage are always useful for Marian, who has some of the best special attacks in Double Dragon Gaiden. Other upgrades can knock enemies down when you tag out so your other character can drop in safely, another increases your speed, there’s even one that fully restores the health of the partner character if the other gets knocked out. Of course, these upgrades all cost the valuable currency you earn during your run, which means that you’re effectively taking away from the cash you can use to earn tokens at the end of the game.
I’ve alluded to unlockables multiple times without elaborating, but really that deserves its own full paragraph. The amount of unlockables in Double Dragon Gaiden is incredible- on top of the four playable characters you begin with, you can unlock a whopping 9 more who all play completely differently from one another, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can also unlock artwork, music, and gameplay tips (which, I don’t understand gameplay tips being locked like this at all, that was a strange choice).
One really unfortunate thing with Double Dragon Gaiden is that it doesn’t have native online multiplayer. On Steam, this can be remedied via Steam’s Remote Play ability, which lets any player on your friends list log in to play as player two as if they were right there on the couch with you. However, players wishing to pick this up on the Switch, Xbox, or PlayStation 5 would do well to know that, as of the time of this writing, the only way to play with your friends is to have them in the same room as you. This might be added in a future update, but there’s no way to know, for now.
The gameplay seems a little slow and methodical at first, but the upgrades can either provide you with new options in taking on foes, or can make your preferred attacks even better. Which, on your first time through Double Dragon Gaiden: Don’t ignore the upgrades at the end of each level. Acquiring tokens after losing or winning a run is fine, but your characters will feel really weak on the later stages if you don’t at least get a damage upgrade or two, because you won’t have the experience with the boss’s patterns to make up for not having the damage increases.
What Double Dragon Gaiden really shines at is that it has a lot of different characters to play as, and customizations you can earn during a run to change, however slightly, how you approach it. While it’s unfortunate that there’s so few stages, playing as Marian and Billy will be a completely different experience from playing as Jimmy and Matin, and many of the boss characters are absolute blasts to experiment with. If you enjoyed beat ‘em ups like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, you’ll likely also enjoy Double Dragon Gaiden, however, if mechanical complexity like Streets of Rage 4 is what you crave, Double Dragon Gaiden may leave you wanting.
That being said, I think it’s time to bring this entry of Save State to a close. And as the late, great Bob Barker used to say, please remember to have your pets spayed or neutered.