By Dojo Master
Double Dragon 3: the Rosetta Stone was a complete failure in the arcades. While it featured a decent storyline and an innovative shop system, it actually cost real money. Gaining another player also cost money. In short, the game was merely a quarter muncher. The graphics were a step down from the second game, and the enemies were cheap and uninspired. The design and game play were also nothing special. In fact, you could say that the game just sucked. The only neat thing about the arcade version was that some cabinets featured a three-player mode. The game was made by a team outside of Technos, which, to me, explains its failure. But somehow Technos managed to fix these problems and create what should have been Double Dragon 3 in the arcades. Double Dragon III: the Sacred Stones is Technos' take on what the third game in the series should be.
The two-player mode is back and better than before. Billy and Jimmy now have cooperative moves that actually double the strength of their attacks. The difficulty is set on extremely hard in this game and each player has only one life. Mess up once and you're dead. But there's some saving grace. Players will earn two additional characters through the game, so if you're playing with a friend, each person will actually have two lives. And if you're playing by yourself, that's three lives.
The arcade storyline has been adopted here so the Lee brothers are once again flying around the world collecting stones and beating up anyone not of the same nationality as them. Hooray for martial arts racism!
DD III incorporates the world-based theme from the arcade version where the Lee brothers travel to five different countries in search of the Sacred Stones (previously called the Rosetta Stones). Each mission introduces a new country with original theme music, characters, weapons and layout. For example, China features a wide outdoor level that displays the Great Wall in the background, whereas Japan features a multi-level fortress with Japanese-style architecture and bamboo-spear booby traps. The developers took the time to decorate every level's foreground and background with objects and scenery resembling each country's respective culture. Pottery, kanji scrolls, statues and steel girders adorn various levels and a variety of bright colors are used to maximize the graphical impact. The dark, post-apocalyptic scenery of the previous game has been ditched in favor of more natural setting, and frankly, I enjoy it. Animation is fluid and the graphics display the full potential of Nintendo's 8-bit system.
DD III implements a new wide-layout design allowing players to travel quickly from side of the level to the other and it drastically changes the fighting strategy from the previous games. Except for when entering doors or climbing ladders, players can generally pursue or be pursued by enemies from one end of the level to the other. There is no more waiting for the "go" arrow. The levels feature less platform jumping than the previous versions, but they are still balanced enough to avoid unnecessary repetition. However, the platforms in Egypt can prove to be quite troublesome, and when each player has only one life, a single misstep can be fatal.
Before each mission, a world map displays your destination. It's not as cool as the cinematic cut scenes in the previous adventure, but there is an opening cut scene describing why the brothers are flying around the world beating people up.
Unfortunately, DD III suffers from a flickering problem. What this means is that when you're playing the game in two-player mode, the sprites will begin to fade. Parts of your character will mysteriously vanish, and you'll begin wondering what is going on. I think it has something to do with the hardware limitations of the NES, but I have never noticed it in one-player mode.
The sound is above average. The musical score doesn't have any of the iconic or fast-paced tunes featured in the first two games, though the title screen does play a remix of the original theme (something I never noticed as a child). The original Double Dragon still has the best musical composition while the second has cleaner sound overall. For DD III, Technos managed to create an authentic atmosphere for each level by using music derived from each country's culture. It's quite noticeable in China and Japan especially. It's also nice that the music changes when a boss enters the arena. The ambiance of impending danger adds to the game's mood.
Double Dragon III wins high marks in my book because two of the bosses join your team after you defeat them. Chin, the Kung Fu master from China, will join your duo starting in Japan, and his slow but extremely powerful attacks will prove quite useful in taking out enemies quickly. Ranzou, the ninja boss from Japan, will become available starting in Italy. While his attacks are fairly weak, his speed is unmatched and his aerial combat skills are second-to-none, making him fairly useful in boss fights. The added lives and varied attributes of the two extra characters prove invaluable in the later missions, and the two (former) bosses serve to change things up from the past two titles. Simply put, they're loads of fun to use and they provide a different feeling from the Lee brothers. While additional characters were available in the arcade game (at the cost of actual money), they have been implemented much better here because you can select any character at any time and also have access to his special weapon.
The disposable, recurring enemies each have their own country of origin, but they'll reappear throughout your journey. There are Kung Fu masters, ninjas, muscle men, Roman warriors, drunk Americans, and surprisingly, even mummies. The enemies have been designed to utilize the wide level design mentioned earlier. Besides attacking you at full running speed, enemies will also chase you down if you attempt to evade them. In the case of ninjas, they actually run faster than the Lee brothers (making it impossible to outrun them) and throw shuriken as well. Some characters, such as Romans and ninjas, feature unlimited projectiles, so large distances no longer ensure safety. The enemy AI is both intelligent and difficult, so the varied attributes from the three different heroes (Billy and Jimmy are technically the same) help greatly.
I've seen complaints that the AI in this game is overpowered or imbalanced, but I don't feel that's accurate. The problem is that you cannot approach an enemy head-on most of the time without getting clobbered because they will either 1) keep jump kicking every time you get back up, or 2) hurl their unlimited projectiles at you. This problem is easily remedied by simply approaching opponents at an angle since you have a certain amount of depth to work with (like most other beatemups). Also, most enemies can be taken care of with a simple cyclone kick, and if you get the timing down right, you can even jump kick your foes out of mid air or pass safely through their jump kicks with a hair throw (a nifty trick). So as long as you don't stand in place, but instead make sure to dodge incoming attacks, you'll do fine. That's not to say that the enemies in this game aren't hard - they are. But I don't feel that they're imbalanced considering this is an NES game.
There aren't many weapons this time around, but Technos added an innovative new feature. Each character carries his own special weapon which is accessed through the character select screen and can only be used a certain number of times in each level. Billy and Jimmy use nunchucks, Chin has an iron claw and Ranzou carries 20 shuriken (as well as a sword that is used in place of a punching attack - it does not have to be activated like the shuriken). Each time a weapon strikes an enemy, the number of available hits decreases. When the number reaches zero, the weapon disappears until the next mission. Both the nunchucks and the iron claw deal massive amounts of damage, and they prove to be invaluable assets during the incredibly tough boss fights. However, the shuriken deal little noticeable damage and are mostly just fun to fool around with.
There is also a more traditional lineup of weapons, but it's much more limited than what we saw in the previous games. Standard enemies carry bottles and knives, which deal moderate damage and attack in an overhead swinging fashion (the knife can be thrown). The Chinese carry sais, which are used like bottles. In essence though, the bottle and sais are exactly the same. These three weapons are the only ones available to you aside from your special weapons. A larger and more diverse weapon variety would have been nice, but the special weapons help to mix things up.
Controls and Moves: A
The controls are more responsive and simplified than the previous two games. Players can finally run by quickly tapping the control pad twice left or right. Running helps quite a bit when you become overwhelmed by enemies. You can also move up and down while running to change your line of attack. The Renegade-style left/right attack system has been dropped from DD II and it's back to the original forward-only attack style. Punches and kicks are somewhat weak, but they have their place in close-range fighting. The aerial attacks from DD II have actually been improved and it's now easier to execute the cyclone kick, which is indispensable for taking out goons on both sides. Moving forward while jumping and pressing A causes the character to perform his own unique flying attack. The Lee brothers have the hair-flipping somer assault, Chin has the comical flying headbutt, and Ranzou has a flying sword slice. Besides those moves, each character has the standard jump kick, which can be done off of walls and another player (if you're in two-player mode). The Lee brothers also have two unique cooperative moves that help them keep pace with the new characters. There is the double cyclone kick, which is executed by having Billy and Jimmy stand in the same spot and perform simultaneous cyclone kicks. The double cyclone kick inflicts incredible damage and can cut through enemies faster than nunchucks. There is also the cooperative jump kick, where one player runs and jump kicks off the other, resulting in a much longer-range flying attack. It's essentially the same thing as doing a jump kick off a wall.
If you press the select button, you'll bring up the character select screen, which has an RPG-style appearance and shows your health bar and weapon status. Technos was extremely insightful with this feature and allowed for each player to select any available character at any time, which helps if one player is less advanced than the other. So let's say player one is using Billy and has more energy than player two, who is using Jimmy. The players can bring up the character select screen and switch characters, giving player one Jimmy and player two Billy. This is particularly helpful because each character has only one life.
The one-player game has only one mode. The two-player game has Mode A or Mode B. In Mode B both players can hurt each other. In Mode A they can't.
Technos' direct involvement with this title makes up for the terrible quality of the arcade game. While the NES version is based loosely on the arcade version, it once again deviates from the progenitor in a positive way. With the entire DD trilogy on the NES, Technos had generally corrected the mistakes of the arcade counterparts (where they existed) and added additional features to entice console gamers. Except for the lack of a two-player mode in the first game, Technos had gone up to bat and hit a home run three times in a row on Nintendo's first console. Not only does Double Dragon III: the Sacred Stones prove to be the best version of the game on any console, it also proves to be the only one that is actually enjoyable. DD III corrects the mistakes of its arcade counterpart and carries the torch for the series one more time, though at a quality slightly below Double Dragon II: the Revenge.