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Double Dragon:
Three 8-bit Systems, Three Different Versions

By Larry Petit

There aren't many games that get ported like Double Dragon did.  It was on just about every console and computer of the time, and even appeared in the next generation as well.  When you think of Double Dragon's late '80s heyday, there were three viable systems (not including computers) that could handle a competent version of the arcade hit (this excludes the Atari 2600's admirable, but hardly authoritative port): The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the Sega Master System (SMS) and the Atari 7800.  The NES and SMS ports of DD came out in 1988, and the 7800 got its version a year later, in 1989.

People are inclined to compete with each other, and when you have a game that's as huge of a success as DD was, on three different systems, everyone wants theirs to be best.  The NES was absolutely huge in the U.S. at this time, so it went without saying that DD would head to that system.  Usually when a game was on the NES, it wouldn't be ported to other systems, due to Nintendo's licensing contract, so it's pretty surprising that the SMS received its own conversion.  This is especially a good thing, since the SMS was much more popular than the NES in the UK, and it would be a crime if the most popular system there didn't have its own version of DD.  Sega licensed its version directly from Technos, so I guess it bypassed Nintendo's contract altogether.  As for the 7800, it's a wonder that it got a version at all.  Hardly the most popular system, the 7800 had some choice versions of classic arcade games, but few modern hits or original games.  The console was a victim of awful management and little advertising.  Add to that the fact that it was comparable to the NES and SMS, but hardly ever taken advantage of graphically, and it's really surprising DD showed up on it.  Activision put this version out, and I'm guessing it licensed directly from Technos too (if Activision or even Sega for that matter, found a different way to get DD on their systems, I'm sorry).

So, you have three very different consoles, with three different versions of the same game.  Which one is the best?  DD was infamous for shoddy, rushed ports on home computers, but the console versions are largely pretty good.  Indeed, the NES and SMS games are both nice adaptations.  The 7800's is somewhat weaker, but passable considering you don't have many beatemup choices on the system.  Let's take this point by point, and we'll see if we can come up with a clear, definitive winner in the 8-bit race.


Accuracy to the arcade is something we'll get to later, so let's focus on how good the games look right now.  Both the NES and SMS versions look very nice.  Despite the SMS's considerable edge in power, the NES port looks cleaner and brighter overall.  The SMS port however, has some shading and detail put into the characters, but they could have used a bit more polish, and they flicker badly when there's a lot on screen.  There's some graphic break-up in the NES version, but not to the extent of the SMS version.  Both are bright and colorful, but the NES just looks a little better.  As for the 7800, graphically, it's a disappointment.  Sprites are small and blockier than they should be.  There's little detail put into them.  The backgrounds look okay, but they should be more colorful than they are (though they do get better the further you progress)

1st - NES
2nd - SMS
3rd - 7800


This category is pretty simple: The NES stomps all over both of the other versions. The NES's music is just plain awesome, featuring a full translation from the arcade, as well as few new tracks, and it all sounds great.  You'll be humming this stuff all day.  The SMS doesn't quite live up to the NES when it comes to sound, and this is apparent in the competing DD versions.  The music is just okay.  It's recognizable, with all tracks from the arcade, but it just doesn't sound as good.  The 7800 had the weakest sound hardware of the three systems and was actually a step back from the Atari 5200, which was released back in 1982. The 7800 had sound identical to the 2600, so it stands to reason that the 2600 and 7800 versions of DD sound the same, which is to say, not very good.  The music is shrill and the sound effects are weak.  I really, really wish Activision had used a POKEY sound chip with this one.

1st- NES
2nd- SMS
3rd- 7800


The SMS features everyone from the arcade.  The NES omits Jeff and replaces him with a fighter named Chin Taimei, but you get to fight Jimmy Lee at the very end, and the 7800 has everyone except Williams and Roper, who are both replaced by a generic thug.  None of this is a big deal; it's the difficulty that sets the rankings here.  Neither the NES nor the SMS allows enemies to become stunned, so while you're attacking them, they can also be attacking you.  It's a bit worse in the SMS version, but that's because the enemies in general are more difficult there.  The 7800's stable of characters are a little too tough, even more so than the SMS version.  They're beatable, but you just can't jump into the game and start winning.

1st- NES & SMS (Tie)
2nd- 7800


Both the NES and SMS have bats, knives and whips, as well as objects you can pick up and throw, such as dynamite, boxes, barrels and boulders.  Weapons seem a bit weaker (except for the dynamite) in the SMS version, but they still help keep the enemies at bay.  The 7800 only has the bat, knife and whip.  The conclusion here is cut and dry.

1st- NES & SMS (Tie)
2nd- 7800

Controls and Moves:

This category is a bit hard to rank, because the NES screwed up in places the SMS didn't, and the SMS screwed up in places the NES didn't.  The NES features superior, tighter controls, and you have a variety of moves.  The problem is that you have to earn them as you go along.  Every time you earn a certain amount of points, you gain a new move.  While by Mission 4 you should have every move (considering you stick to punching, which earns you the most points), it's still a pain to have to earn them.  You do get an awesome variety though.  Yes, there's the punch-kick-jump-kick, but then there's the head-butt, knee to the face, elbow smash, flying-kick, throw over the shoulder, and my personal favorite: the ability to sit on an enemy and punch them in the face until they're finished!  Right outta Renegade!  The SMS port features most of the moves from the NES version, including head-butt, knee to the face, elbow smash, flying-kick and throw over the shoulder.  No sitting on the enemy, sadly.  Best thing is, they're all there from the get-go.  So, shouldn't the SMS rank higher?  Not necessarily.  The controls just aren't as tight as they should be.  They're not bad, but when you have difficult enemies like these, controls are the last thing you need to wrestle with.  The poor 7800 just can't get a break, controls are even worse than the SMS.  Again, not bad, but it's like the controls and enemies of the SMS times two.  And the 7800's pro-line controllers are just awful, though that's not really the game's fault.

1st- NES & SMS (Tie)
2nd- 7800


The NES version is hurt the most here.  One of the biggest, if not THE biggest draw of the arcade game was the two-player cooperative action (though I'd argue that the whole package was awesome).  The NES version doesn't have it.  You can play with two players, but you have to take turns.  This is stupid, plain and simple.  Now, you do have a two-player one-on-one fighter (sort of a precursor to the tournament fighters that would appear few years later), but it's no substitute for simultaneous street fighting action.  The SMS and the 7800 (and while we're at it, even the 2600) have two-players at once, and therefore, win this category.  Enough said.

1st- SMS & 7800 (Tie)
2nd- NES


The whole point of an arcade port is to be as close as possible to the real thing.  With the fading of the arcade scene (except in Japan, apparently), the outrageously powerful hardware of modern home systems, and the fact that people nowadays want more than a few minutes of game play, arcade accuracy is pretty much a non-factor in this day and age.  However, back in the late '80s it was pretty important.  The 7800 port has fallen behind the other systems, save for modes so far, but this is the game's standout feature: Not only does it have simultaneous two-player action, but every detail from the coin-op is here, albeit in 8-bit form.  The levels are not really shortened or changed in any way, save for the graphics of course.  The SMS is close, but has certain features cut, such as the conveyor belt in Mission 2.  It mostly follows the arcade, but it does deviate.  The NES version's stages are more inspired by the arcade than ported from it.  Many features are added that were nowhere to be seen in the original game, such as a construction site in Mission 2, the cave in Mission 3, and numerous platform elements throughout the game.  None of this bad mind you, but if you were looking for arcade perfection, you'd be disappointed.  Very, very disappointed.
1st- 7800
2nd- SMS
3rd- NES


Yes, I noticed that the rankings were somewhat redundant, and yes, I also noticed that the 7800 often got short shrift in favor of writing about the other two versions.  What can I say?  The NES and SMS ports are the two biggies of the 8-bit conversions.  The 7800 version, sadly, falls behind in almost every aspect, despite being a closer translation.  It's not an awful game (though my opinion has changed on it often in the past), just a weaker port when all is said and done.  The SMS version is very good, and if the controls would have been tightened and the enemies toned down, then it would be unbeatable.  The NES version, for all its tampering, is still ridiculously fun, even without a simultaneous two-player mode.  In fact, it's the only one that comes close to recapturing the spirit of the coin-op.  And, the NES was the only console the series continued on, though no port was arcade perfect.  It's almost like Technos started an alternate series for the console (sort of like DC Comics and their alternate universes).  So, the final rankings are:

1st- NES
2nd- SMS
3rd- 7800

I tell ya, I came very close to making the NES and SMS versions a tie, but looking back at both of them, the SMS version just doesn't have the same sense of atmosphere that the NES version has, at least not to me.  But, what's really cool about these conversions is that no matter what system you owned, you were covered with your own version of Double Dragon.  Sure, there were different waiting times for each one, but the fact is, if you had one of these late '80s consoles, your butt-kicking needs would be satisfied.  It's really proof of how popular the original coin-op was, and that's why each one of these versions is worth owning.  Each one has its good and bad points, and each one is a reminder of a time gone by, and that's one of the very best things about Double Dragon.  That and the fact the punching-in skulls never gets old if it's done right.