Pocket Power: Double Dragon

Handheld gaming is more than a compromise of power and portability. Whether it’s the ability to play anywhere, multitask or hold an entire console in your hands, it’s a special experience consoles have never replicated. In a world where high resolutions and teraflops reign supreme, we take a look at a portable relic every month and reflect on what makes it memorable. Be warned, spoilers may occasionally populate these articles.

Double Dragon is one of the most celebrated arcade beat ’em ups of the late ’80s. Its popularity spawned a few sequels, a TV cartoon and movie, along with paving the streets for other games like Final Fight, Streets of Rage and Rival Turf. The original arcade title enjoyed continued success on home consoles, though certain concessions had to be made with some of the ports. One of the later ports was to Game Boy in 1990. Bringing a popular arcade game to a new handheld platform even three years later still required many concessions to accommodate the hardware limitations, but that doesn’t mean Double Dragon on Game Boy doesn’t pack a punch.

In order to be ported to the NES, Double Dragon needed to be shrunk down a bit. To get Double Dragon on Game Boy, the NES port needed to be shrunk down even further. Besides the obvious de-colorization, other concessions needed to happen to make this work. The two player co-op that had been changed to two player alternating on the NES was completely removed. The only two player mode on the handheld port was the versus battle which required both players to own a Game Boy, Double Dragon and a link cable. The available characters changed from a roster that included the Lee brothers and members of the Black Warriors gang was simply reduced to the Lee brothers.

In general the Game Boy version was a downgrade from the NES, but not every change was negative. The levels were redesigned so it wouldn’t seem like a complete duplication for those who owned the home console version. A couple enemies learned new techniques to keep the Lee brothers on their toes, but the biggest gameplay difference came with the Lee brothers themselves. The NES Double Dragon used an experience point system where throughout the game Billy would learn new techniques. This was a good mechanic in that it gave the player a sense of powering up, but seemed ridiculous since Billy and Jimmy were supposedly black belts and veteran street fighters. The Game Boy version has Billy able to do jump kicks from the get go which just makes more sense.

The story of Double Dragon is basic. Billy and Jimmy Lee are twin brothers who are martial arts masters. Billy’s girlfriend Marian gets kidnapped by the Black Warriors gang and the two brothers need to kick and punch their way through different environments leading to the Black Warriors’ hideout to rescue Billy’s main squeeze. The rescuing of the damsel in distress by beating up the baddies is a concept that predates video games, but how this exactly plays in Double Dragon is interesting since it varies on which port we’re talking about. In the arcade Willy is the leader of the Black Warriors and he’s tough to beat because typically the person who brings a machine gun to a karate fight wins. If Willy is defeated during a co-op game, Billy and Jimmy now face off with the winner gaining Marian’s heart because it’s tradition for a woman to leave her boyfriend if his brother beats him up during her rescue attempt. The NES version steps around this sticky issue by just deciding Jimmy Lee is the leader of the Black Warriors, which makes the kidnapping of Billy’s girlfriend even more twisted. The Game Boy has all but written Jimmy out of existence so Willy is back in charge of the Black Warriors, but there’s no fratricide at the end game so Billy and Marian can be together uncontested.

Double Dragon adheres to the standard beat ’em up formula. The player controls Billy in a 2.5D plane where he moves around to properly line up his attacks while avoid his enemies and other environmental hazards while also trying to complete various platforming challenges. One of the classic beat ’em up staples is dealing with enemies and their weapons. No matter how good someone’s karate skills are fighting someone with a baseball bat or whip is going to put them at a disadvantage, but one of the fun ways to deal with these opponents is to knock them down and steal their weapon. For whatever reason Double Dragon weapons are brittle and disintegrate after only a few uses, but they are a nice way to bring the pain while they last.

Double Dragon and beat ’em ups in general are best experienced on two player co-op. That isn’t possible on the Game Boy version, but even with the technical limitations it delivers a fun street-fighting experience. There’s only four missions so it can be completed in about twenty minutes for people who have mastered it. It’s short and sweet so it doesn’t ever wear out its welcome, but like many of these older games it has a decent challenge level that’s going to take time to master. There are better beat ’em ups out there, including Double Dragon Advance that came out about fifteen years later that was a more faithful representation of the arcade original with bonus content, but for its time this was an impressive portable beat ’em up.

Technical concessions had to be made to make this game happen, but considering the hardware limitations, there isn’t too much to complain about here. The graphics look close in quality to the NES counterpart when you take color out of the equation. The Game Boy speaker doesn’t do any justice to any music, but with some headphones the iconic theme is recognizable and sounds about as good as can be expected for 8-bit chiptune. The game mechanics themselves are responsive so the overall quality of Double Dragon for a handheld port is relatively impressive.

Beat ’em ups have come a long way since the Double Dragon, but the original still holds up well. The Game Boy port of Double Dragon did have to scale down many aspects of the arcade version. Despite all the concessions to get Double Dragon to run on Game Boy’s hardware, it maintains the essence of the gameplay. It might not be the best version of Double Dragon around, but it still scratches the classic beat ’em up itch.

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