By Dojo Master
Double Dragon on Nintendo's Game Boy represents the first handheld version of the popular beatemup series, which by the time of this game's release had already spawned numerous ports and an entire trilogy in the arcade. Arriving two years after the NES port and one year after the Game Boy's debut, this version of Double Dragon would surprisingly prove to be the most playable of any of the handheld versions, including the Game Boy sequels arriving soon after. Contradicting both the more powerful hardware and three extra years of development time, the Game Boy game outshined Double Dragon titles on Sega's Game Gear and Atari's Lynx because of Technos' involvement in the title, which was obviously lacking on the other two systems.
Considering the Game Boy's successful launch a year earlier and the widespread support for the system (as well as the NES's continued market dominance in 1990), Double Dragon was well received by waiting fans, despite being a watered-down version of the superior NES port.
The Game Boy version of Double Dragon is mostly based upon the design of the NES game, though it doesn't follow the parent title strictly. Because of the Game Boy's limited hardware capabilities - namely the lack of color - the graphics are simplified and mundane even when compared to the 8-bit NES. Backgrounds are less detailed, enemy design is simpler, animation is slower and the levels are smaller. However, the overall design of parent game has been well translated and the NES game's distinct style is instantly noticeable, down to Abobo himself. A few sections, such as the platform area before the Shadow Boss's hideout, have been removed. The level design has also been altered in some areas and there are more "flat" sections where you don't have any depth to work with. The lack of color also makes this game less impressive in areas such as the cave level, which no longer features the flashing neon background and flowing waterfalls that served as eye candy on the NES. And once again due to the Game Boy's limited hardware, obstacles such as the falling spikes in the cave level have been simplified. The spikes no longer fall at random and in large quantities, but instead fall in the same predictable pairs that serve only to slow down the already slow progress in the game rather than serve as well-placed obstacles. Other new obstacles have been incorporated that unfortunately shift the level design toward the more difficult (and frustrating) side, surpassing even the NES game in sheer insurmountability. The prime examples are the skulls doors in Mission 4, which open periodically to suck you into a spikey death (like an iron maiden of sorts). These factors, combined with the slower gameplay and controls, make for a less enjoyable experience than the NES game. But in terms of the Game Boy's hardware, the graphics are fairly decent and represent a noticeable achievement in 1990.
The entire NES soundtrack has been ported to the Game Boy version, but title screen's theme no longer plays during the Shadow Boss's hideout, which is a true let-down. The soundtrack also varies in quality with each level. While the title screen and Mission 2's themes are excellently translated, Mission 1's City Slum theme is rather annoying and poorly translated for the most part. The forest theme for Mission 3 is decent at best. Linda and Abobo's themes (the music that plays during the character's respective one-on-one modes from the NES) are decent as well. Once again, the fact that one of the game's best-translated themes plays only during the title screen really lowers the overall quality of the soundtrack. There was definitely room for improvement here. The sound effects are unimpressive and of the usual Game Boy quality.
Every enemy from the NES version has been incorporated except for the most important one: Jimmy Lee. Why he was left out of the game (except for the two-player mode which is not cooperative) is unknown, but it is extremely disappointing for the game to suddenly end after a rather unimpressive fight with Machine Gun Willy, who has been toned down a bit in this version. The basic enemies appear in their respective forms, and both Chin and Abobo have been given new moves. Every enemy except for Abobo is well balanced in terms of difficulty. The problem with the iconic muscle-bound DD baddie is multi-faceted: he can't be knocked down with a jump kick, he easily dodges the jump spinning kick, no weapons are available to use against him, and his new Burnov-style grab-and-pummel move makes mandatory close-quarter fighting nearly impossible in the flat sections. Technos simply overpowered our favorite green-skinned (correction: gray-skinned) enemy here. If you can conquer Abobo in the later areas, congratulations, because not much else is likely to stop you.
Every weapon from the NES game has been included, but each one appears less often. While the majority of the weapons are highly effective against the Black Warriors, the knife has lost its effectiveness altogether. It no longer kills or even seriously injures enemies. In fact, it actually bounces off of them, requiring multiple hits to inflict any noticeable damage. This is unfortunate because the knife could always be depended upon in the NES version to take out tougher enemies such as Chin.
Controls and Moves: B-
Technos included every move from the NES version except one: the straddling face punch. The heart system has also been dropped, so players have access to Billy's full arsenal from the beginning. The problem in this area is that Billy moves too slow compared to the NES game and some of his attacks are ineffective against the bosses. For instance, the jump spinning kick is extremely slow, so Chin and Abobo usually duck beneath it, leaving Billy wide open to a counter attack. The jump kick is also problematic since it now floats more than it jumps and Billy doesn't land until after an enemy has stood back up. The jump kick is detrimental in platform areas, and it doesn't knock Abobo down either. The game play should have been sped up and jump kicks should have been able to knock down Abobo.
This is area is truly unacceptable. The Game Boy version was released a full two years after the original NES version and the same year as the NES sequel (which finally featured cooperative play), yet there is no cooperative two-player mode here.
The continue system also deviates from the NES title. Whereas the NES version re-spawned your character exactly where he died, this version causes you to restart the entire mission from the beginning. And though your character can earn an extra life, it doesn't mean much when you come close to finishing the mission just to be forced to restart from the beginning.
Like the NES version, there is a two-player mode, but it's the lackluster one-on-one fighting game, and it's in a watered-down format. If you select the two-player mode, you'll go straight into the pseudo tournament fighting mode from the NES game using only Billy and Jimmy. There isn't even a character select screen, so you can't even enjoy the novelty of having Abobo fight Abobo. Also, as soon as one player loses, the game resets back to the menu screen. Talk about lackluster.
The lack of a cooperative mode and the inclusion of the watered-down tournament-fighter mode lessen the desirability of this title. The Game Boy was easily capable of handling cooperative play, and Technos would include it just a year later in Double Dragon II on the system. Why is it not included here when Jimmy isn't even the final boss of this game?
Double Dragon on the Game Boy is a mediocre, if not decent port of the highly enjoyable NES game. However, the Game Boy title should have theoretically improved upon the flaws of its predecessor to increase the desirability of a technologically limited port. While specific bugs and the unnecessary heart system were removed, the two-player cooperative mode was not included. The game offered the first handheld experience for the series, which alone caught the attention of Game Boy owners, but it could have and should have done more than that. The game should have offered us the NES Double Dragon, version 2.0. Instead, what we have here is version .50. Unfortunately, this is the best handheld experience the series had to offer prior to Double Dragon Advance. It's unique in some ways when compared to the NES title, but it's just not better than or even equal to it.