Arcade beat ’em ups of the past – Double Dragon

This time around, the flyer for the NA release of Double Dragon actually looks pretty great with sharp screen shots and both Spike and Hammer (Jimmy and Billy Lee in Japan) ready to serve knuckle sandwiches on the street. As with Renegade, Taito was the distributor for the game in the US. Unlike Renegade, Double Dragon didn’t undergo a facelift and was brought over largely intact.

Technos’ Renegade in 1986 could be a tough game to warm up to in the arcade. In my case, I didn’t particularly like my experience with it as much as I did the individual pieces, preferring to lay a few tokens down on a good, linear game of Kung-Fu Master than go back to Renegade.

The thing is, Technos seemed to realize that.

They would go on to redefine everything they had learned in making that game to come out with something that was so different as to wonder if they were the same studio a year earlier. Taking the pieces that worked well from Renegade, they stuck them into a new cabinet, energized them with new graphics, overhauled the combat, and gave us Double Dragon in 1987. Beat ’em ups wouldn’t be the same since.

The Japanese flyer also wasn’t half bad, though the two main characters didn’t tattoo their names the way their Western counterparts did.

At the time, I had no idea Technos did both Renegade and Double Dragon — the two seemed like night and day and had the Taito name emblazoned on the cabinets. I also had a great time in playing Double Dragon, especially after realizing that it had two-player co-op. Two players could take on the mean streets and beat down thugs together! Let’s do this! It was nothing like my experience with Renegade which was a really good thing.

Technos kept only the essential elements that their team broke ground with in Renegade — the use of eight way movement, the illusion of scene depth, jumps, kicks, punches, and beating down bad guys by the dozen. And then they created a dramatically different game from those pieces, much like what they would also do with the fantastic River City Ransom on the NES in 1989.

Instead of a large area several screens in size filled with a mob of enemies as it was in Renegade, players scrolled towards the right along a path and encountered batches of enemies instead of everyone all at once. Areas were further broken up into four “missions” starting in a neighborhood, moving to a factory area, woods, and finally, the enemy ‘base’ in the mountains. Boss fights awaited at the end of each.

There were still no health gauges to give you an idea of how well you were doing against the bad guys, but our heroes still had theirs. Continues also placed players right back where they had died though it would also reset their score to zero.

Combat was now based on which direction your hero was facing — you didn’t have to use a specific attack button to actually attack to the left or right of your character — allowing players to focus more on fighting enemies than juggling buttons. Players could also now pick up dropped weapons like bats and whips and use them against enemies. Not only that, but barrels and even boulders could be lofted towards foes.

Co-op added injected even more fun to the gameplay. Players can grab and hold enemies (who can also do the same to the players) allowing them to be pummeled by their partner. At the same time, players also had to watch their attacks didn’t hit each other, either!

Even the hardware was different and stood out as an example of the kind of custom work often found in arcade cabinets of the era. To save on costs, the brains of the game were built on top of two 8-bit processors — the HD 6309 (which was the main CPU) and and an embedded microcontroller CPU, the HD63701. Another CPU, Motorola’s M6809 (of which the 6309 was Hitachi’s CMOS version), worked with Yamaha’s YM2151 for sound and two of OKI’s MSM5205 speech synthesis chips to create the sounds such as the great theme music. It was a cheaper solution to going full 16-bit with something like the immensely popular Motorola 68000 CPU which were also used as the brains behind the Commodore Amiga 1000 and the 500.

Marian's about to have a very bad day. I had no idea what anyone's name was in this game until the NES port came out with an actual story that identified who everyone was. Most anyone that dropped in a quarter or a token to play the game likely had no idea what the flyers above had shared with the arcade operators.

This scene brought up a lot of controversy that continues today. 

Gameplay revolved around a damsel-in-distress “story”, a particularly brutal one, with said damsel getting gut punched at the start of the game before being carried away by a gang of thugs. A garage door opens revealing a badass car, and the hero (or heroes if two players are playing together) come out to rumble. Simple plot without a lot of exposition with a similarly simple ending, though with a twist. If both players make it to the end, they’ll need to fight it out after defeating the boss to determine who the girl goes home with.

As concerned as Final Fight’s developers were in assessing how offended American audiences would get a few years later over women being struck in a video game, Double Dragon literally didn’t pull any punches when it came to its opening scene while at the same time, sending in women thugs armed with whips against players in a bid to even the field.  On the other hand, Technos used all-female gangs to curb stomp players in Nekketu Kouha Kunio-ken (where you rushed to avenge your friend, Hiroshi, after he’s beaten down at the beginning of every stage by a variety of enemies) and in its Westernized counterpart, Renegade (which did away with the whole ‘avenge the friend’ plot).

The end game took place in an enemy base stylized as some kind of ancient temple with traps. Blocks would jut out of the wall to trip you up and there were statues with giant spears ready to skewer passers-by, making a tough game even tougher on players.

The end game took place in an enemy base stylized as some kind of ancient temple with traps and with few enemies. Blocks would jut out of the wall to trip you up and there were statues with giant spears ready to skewer passers-by, making a tough game even tougher on players.

Double Dragon was tremendously popular in the arcade, especially as a game that friends could play together, and its success spurred others to try and emulate its success (or in Final Fight’s case, try to outdo it).

It was also ported to pretty much anything around in 1987 with an electric pulse such as the Nintendo Entertainment System where Technos gave it a number of changes such as dramatically expanding the stages/missions and adding in a vs. mode using six of the characters from Billy Lee, to Linda (the woman with the whip sans whip), and even Abobo (the big muscle guy). No co-op, though (Jimmy was turned into the final boss at the end), but the versus mode was great fun along with the expanded NES gameplay.

Linda vs. Linda! Abobo vs. Abobo! Double Dragon on the NES was like having two games in one cartridge.

Linda vs. Linda! Abobo vs. Abobo! Double Dragon on the NES was like having two games in one cartridge.

For single player, the NES version even had “Technical Levels”. Players started out with basic punches and kicks, but as they earn new levels by earning points defeating enemies, they learn more fighting techniques. An indicator next to the life bar showed how many points they were away from the next level, a maximum of seven, every time they passed the limit of 999 points. The actual score was kept to the right.

As was typical for home ports to systems like the NES back then, the manuals gave away a lot of information that the arcade version didn’t have. Though the control panel on the cabinet listed Player One and Player Two positions as “Hammer” and Spike, respectively, the manual renamed both as Billy and Jimmy Lee along with giving a name to the “damsel-in-distress” as Marian. Enemies were also given names and descriptors including height and weight.

Double Dragon's manual was illustrated with a number of great anime-styled drawings and tidbits of info...

Neither Jimmy or Billy were related to Ken from Fist of the North Star, but the art was still very cool. Double Dragon’s manual was illustrated with a number of great anime sketches and tidbits of biographical background info…

...including names for the enemies, height, and even weight. A lot of console manuals back then did the same thing, a far cry from many of the paper-thin cost and material saving versions that have largely supplanted these in the years since.

…including names for the enemies, height, and even weight. A lot of console manuals back then did the same thing, a far cry from many of the paper-thin material and cost saving versions that have largely supplanted these in the years since.

The game had also ended up on systems ranging from the Sega Master System (which actually retained the two-player co-op and showdown from the arcade original) to the Amiga, Atari 2600(!) and Atari 7800 in 1988, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, the Atari Lynx, and on Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360.

It also spawned a legion of sequels, though not all of them were done by Technos Japan. Double Dragon II in 1988 was Technos-developed while Double Dragon III in 1990 was developed by East Technology and produced by Technos. Super Double Dragon (which was the fourth game for the series) on the SNES was a Technos-developed project as well as a standalone title apart from the coin-op storylines.

Double Dragon V in 1994 was only licensed by Tradewest who published the ports for Double Dragon on consoles like the NES. But Technos would step back into the arena with a fighting game on the Neo Geo called…you guessed it…Double Dragon in 1995. Million, who bought up Technos’ IP after it went bankrupt, came out with Double Dragon Advance in 2003 for the Game Boy Advance. And in 2012, WayForward Technologies brought out the retro-styled Double Dragon Neon.

Double Dragon also paved the way for a score of 2D, and eventually 3D, beat ’em ups, such as those from Capcom and Konami, to incorporate many of the same features including the co-op angle that was proving to be popular in other games such as 1985’s Gauntlet from Atari. Now, instead of dungeons and sports games, beat ’em ups could reap the rewards of double-teaming enemy hordes of AIs, something that could even be used as a precursor to certain modes of gameplay today such as horde mode.

Double Dragon even had a cartoon series created around it that debuted in 1993, albeit some years after its greatest period of success but still recognizable thanks to sequels and console-only titles. The series used the backdrop created by the storyline seen on the NES now expanded with a host of new characters, plotlines, sub-characters, and in-series mythology. It lasted for two seasons for a total of 26 episodes.

It also had comics made for it, action figures, the works, though like the cartoon series, came out a few years after the first game became an arcade hit. Fan site Double Dragon Dojo has a huge listing of all of this stuff with pics if you’re curious about what some of it looks like along with a bit of history, but it was as if there was a Double Dragon revival in the early 90s.

This isn't really in the arcade game, but it was in the cartoon series.

This isn’t really in the arcade game, but it was in the cartoon series.

It also led to 1994’s movie adaptation. People still knew what Double Dragon was, but it always felt as if the toy line, cartoon, and the film were overreaching in their estimates on just how popular it still was by then after its audience had grown up. It had been seven years since the first game and in that time, many others had stepped up to the arcade plate especially from heavy-hitters like Capcom with a string of hits ranging from 1993’s The Punisher to fighting games such as the immensely popular Street Fighter series and licensed spinoffs like X-Men: Children of the Atom.

The movie starred Robert Patrick, probably better known as the T-1000 from 1991’s Terminator 2, as the uber villain after the missing half of a mystical medallion called…well…the “Double Dragon” and it was up to Billy and Jimmy to try and keep it from his hands. Aside from a few names, the movie really didn’t have much else to do with the actual game — or gave general audiences any idea of why they should go and see it — ultimately making it a boss office bomb and earning an unenviable place on lists for the worst moves ever made.

Maybe it should have remained just a game.

While the toys, cartoons, and film did their best to keep the Double Dragon flame alive in the 90s, it was a tough act to follow in the face of increasing competition and the slow decline of arcades as consoles and PCs began keeping the same experiences at home.

At the same time, nothing can take away the unforgettable impact that Technos’ about-face with Double Dragon had challenged not only players, but developers, in being the biggest beat ’em up benchmark on the block in 1987, a legacy kept alive by countless others today from the streets of Metro City to bounty hunters in space.


3 responses to “Arcade beat ’em ups of the past – Double Dragon

  1. Pingback: Arcade beat ‘em ups from the past – Blade Master | World 1-1·

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  3. Pingback: Happy Holidays, Die Hard Arcade style | World 1-1·

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