By Dojo Master
Double Dragon mania swept the country immediately following the release of the arcade classic in 1987. Arcade owners listed the game at the top of their most wanted lists and as the highest-grossing game for that year. The NES version debuted a year later with no less rave. Nintendo Power, the massively popular NES magazine in the late '80s, featured the game in its first issue (though the staff mixed up the Billy and Jimmy artwork), foreshadowing the gaming impact that DD would soon have in living rooms across America. Since the NES had a stranglehold on the market in 1988, all attention was focused on what was the premiere port of DD for that year. Proclaim reached its height in Volume 3 of NP when the magazine listed the game as #1 in the Player's Picks section of its Top 30 Player's Forum page. At 2,999 points, Double Dragon beat out Super Mario Bros. 2 by 127 points. Double Dragon managed to stay in the Top 30 charts for several months even following the NES release of Double Dragon II: the Revenge.
The game received critical acclaim for several reasons. For one, it was a fairly decent translation of the arcade game at the time. For another, it added several new levels and a tough new enemy. Most of all, it managed to retain the fun factor. The levels have just the right difficulty setting with minimal repetition - until the end of course when Willy comes out and puts several holes in your face. Then you'll start ripping your hair out and yelling the usual obscenities.
Unfortunately, this game has no lack of flaws. The top of them all known to every Double Dragon fan worldwide is the lack of the two-player cooperative mode from the arcade. For some reason, it seems that Technos didn't have the programming knowledge at the time to include it. So, gone is the two-player butt-kicking fest that made Double Dragon stand out as the king of beatemups. Despite this setback, Technos proved that a one-player Double Dragon game could be still be enjoyable, even on arcade-inferior hardware. Since Jimmy appeared to no longer be of any use, Technos modified the storyline and placed him as the nefarious Shadow Boss, superior to machine gun Willy. The developers even included a special Mode B game where players can select from six of the main characters and duke it out with the computer or a friend in a one-on-one fighter using larger sprites of our hero and hoodlums.
You'll most likely notice the several glitches in the game; more evidence of Technos lack of expertise in its earlier days. There are so many in fact that I've seen websites who give awards to games with "More glitches than the original Double Dragon." Some of them can actually be helpful though, and you can check them out in the codes section.
Technos actually did a decent job with the graphics. The programmers managed to emulate the superior arcade graphics with detailed foregrounds and backgrounds while still maintaining the overall design of the original levels. The detail has dropped from the more powerful arcade hardware, but the graphics are well done for an early NES game. Mission 1 has been included in a slightly modified form and the conveyer belt has been included in all its glory. Mission 2 has been changed to include a lengthy climb to the top of a construction building where Chin awaits. Several new sections have been added to Missions 3 and 4, including the lengthy cave level, which is animated with flowing waterfalls, falling spikes, boulders and neon lighting. Players will find themselves jumping onto many a moving platform throughout the game and climbing quite a few ladders, fences and shear hillsides in an attempt to infiltrate the hideout of the Shadow Boss. Pits, spiked floors and the deadly stone walls in Mission 4 add to the difficulty. It's a nice balance between fighting and platform jumping that will test every gamer's martial arts skills and timing. There are several different areas to complete within each mission, so simply saying that there are four missions is an understatement.
Despite the "blown speaker" sound effect in Mission 3, the music is fairly well translated from the arcade game, and in some cases, even improved. Of course, the characters have that jumping Mario sound to them, but so does every other NES game. Most of the musical score has been adopted from the arcade but the tunes no longer change when a boss enters. Jimmy Lee is the only exception. The game switches to City Slum when he enters. City Slum sounds excellent as does the title screen music, which is played fittingly during the last level. The rest of the themes have been adapted rather well from the arcade.
The classic lineup from the arcade returns, but Technos ditched Jeff in favor of a new enemy: Chin. The enemies progress in difficulty throughout the entire game so it actually feels like you're fighting more than the same five people all the time. The enemies will even gain jump kicks at the same time as you. Linda can be a particular pain in the butt with her punches. She will often overwhelm you if you attempt to duke it out with her. Williams and Wroper can be extremely irritating toward the end of the game as they consistently knock you out of midair with a single punch, yet somehow always land jump kicks against you. Luckily for us, Abobo stays on the ground, but he's the hardest enemy in the game next to Willy. All of the enemies can duck against your jump kicks and use weapons. Willy is easily the hardest enemy in the game, even more so than Jimmy. His bullets do maximum damage and it's difficult to land a jump kick against him. Jimmy provides the best fight, though not the most difficult one, as he uses the same full arsenal of moves that you have. It takes quite a bit of cunning and patience to overcome what is in essence a doppelganger adversary, but Jimmy makes for a worthier final boss than Willy and adds a greater feeling of accomplishment to those who actually complete the game.
There is a great selection of weapons but smart players probably won't use them in the beginning of the game since they will want to earn hearts quickly by resorting to punches. Whips are basically the weakest weapon and aren't necessary against the simple enemy that carries them: Linda. They would have been more useful against Abobo, but Technos designed the game so players never get to use any weapons against him. Baseball bats can be helpful against Will to stop his jump kicks. Dynamite doesn't appear that often but proves to be a powerful weapon. The rock only appears in the lower section of the cave level when players fall down while trying to cross the moving platforms. The barrel appears in the first level only but will once again be avoided by smart players. Knives are the most helpful. They instantly kill lower level enemies and take off about 75% of Chin's life bar.
Controls and Moves: B+
One thing that is instantly noticeable about this version is its poor combat system. Basically, enemies don't get stunned. So while you're unleashing your barrage of punches and kicks, the other guy is fighting right back. This causes players to lose quite a bit of energy when they shouldn't, and it proves to be a serious problem for those who choose to take Abobo head-on. There is also the controversial heart system that is featured only in this version. As you land successful attacks against your opponents, you will gain points. When you reach a certain number of points, you will earn a heart (up to seven total - you start with one). Each heart gives you a new and necessary move with which to take down the Black Warriors. The moves include the infamous backward elbow and the straddling face punch. But it leaves me and everyone else wondering why Technos didn't just include all of the moves in the beginning. Perhaps it's the company's attempt to implement some sort of RPG element.
There are two modes: Mode A and Mode B. Mode A is the normal arcade-style game. Mode B is a special tournament fighting game where players can use any of the game's characters, except Willy. Both modes are available for one or two players, but the two-player setup on Mode A is not simultaneous. Instead, players have to wait for each other to die in order to play the game, much like Super Mario Bros. The two-player game in Mode B offers weapons for certain characters.
The original NES version has been shunned because of three reasons: the heart system, the no-stun problem and the lack of a two-player cooperative mode. Despite these issues, Double Dragon succeeds in being a highly enjoyable single-player game. There are more levels than any other version (from that era), a variety of moves that don't take too long to earn, tons of weapons and an excellent version of Abobo. This version has some of the best level design I've seen in the series. It's a balanced mix of enemies and obstacles, which I would have liked to have seen in Super Double Dragon. The greatest feature however, is fighting Jimmy Lee at the end. No other version has that, despite the Game Boy version's misleading story. It even proved to be a great plot for the pilot episode of the cartoon series. Perhaps because the game was designed for only one player, DD on the NES has possibly the most enjoyable one-player game in the trilogy. As far as console ports during the late 1980s were concerned, the NES version stood out as the best and was rivaled only by the Master System version.