What would a magical skeleton want with an ordinary woman? The answer isn't important (and is most likely pretty gross), but the rescue mission that follows this kidnapping sure is fun. Double Dragon Neon is a smart update to the arcade classic from decades ago. By melding the iconic characters and traditional beat-'em-up structure from the original Double Dragon with an overhauled combat system that rewards precise defensive counters and clever skill manipulation, Neon is much more than a merry trip down nostalgia lane. Billy and Jimmy Lee do occasionally stumble on their way to vanquishing Skullmageddon, but Double Dragon Neon overcomes that clumsiness with style.
The opening scene sends shivers down your spine. The sultry Marian walks alone down a dark alley, only to be greeted by a gang of lowly street toughs. With one punch to the stomach, she passes out in pain, and the trio of miscreants march away with their prize slung over one shoulder. A garage door opens, and out walk Billy and Jimmy Lee, searching for vengeance. For anyone who has played the original Double Dragon, this situation should be familiar, and the remixed music ties into the 1980s hit. By the time you square off against whip-wielding Linda and the abnormally large Abobo a few minutes into your adventure, you might think that you have a good idea of how this game is going to play out.
But you'd be wrong. Although Neon makes many references to the original game, it doesn't take long for it to forge its own path. It's a side-scrolling beat-'em-up, so the basic left-to-right kickathon is kept intact, but the combat has layers of depth that make it exciting for anyone itching for a challenge. Your basic moves are punches and kicks, and you dole out flashy combos by alternating between these standard techniques. Once you pound enemies in the head a few times, they become stunned, and their vulnerability is your gain. Toss them into a group of enemies or into a bottomless pit if you wish, or you can deliver a crushing uppercut that suspends them in midair long enough for you to juggle them like a hacky sack.
Making smart use of these core mechanics leads to satisfying encounters. A half dozen or more enemies often flood the screen, and you need to attack with precision if you're going to keep the crowd at bay. Mashing buttons delivers jaw-breaking attacks, but you won't get far if you ignore your defensive maneuvers. The Lee brothers have a handy duck technique that becomes the foundation for your success as the difficulty ramps up. By hitting the ground right as an enemy attacks, you avoid damage and you gain a gleam bonus. This makes you twice as strong for a few seconds. Mastering the gleam makes even the toughest bosses pushovers, but it takes practice to get the timing down. Sadly, finicky collision detection sometimes means you get hit even if you moved well in advance. Also, you earn the gleam bonus only by ducking. If you roll or jump out of the way, you still avoid pain, but there's less incentive without the temporary strength boost.
The avoid-and-attack rhythm of combat is strengthened by perks you unlock as you play. Called songs, these add passive and special abilities to your repertoire. If you're dying too quickly, you may want to imbue your character with more health, or you could add damage bonuses when you land successive attacks. Super attacks are just as specialized. A screen-clearing, flaming dragon deals out a ton of damage but drains your magic bar, whereas the one-inch punch doesn't deplete as much health, but you can pull it off more often.
As rewarding as it is to mix and match the perfect abilities for your style, the leveling-up aspect drags the adventure down. Extra songs can be purchased at stores or collected from defeated enemies, and the more you have, the more potent the ability. But unlocking the full potential of these buffs demands tedious grinding. You need to kill bosses to earn the precious currency needed to raise the limit of how many songs you can carry, so you have to repeatedly play through levels to make your character strong enough to survive. This isn't a huge problem in the default difficulty because ducking at the right time and then laying the smack down is enough to defeat anyone, but things become significantly more challenging on the harder difficulty settings. When only one or two hits can take you down, you need your abilities maxed out, and that takes hours of tedious busywork.
If you want to conquer Neon, you need to spend a lot of time punching fools, but just having fun doesn't take any investment. The over-the-top atmosphere not only taps into your happy memories, but introduces a layer of ridiculousness that wasn't present in the original game. Billy and Jimmy Lee are unabashedly bro, and they wear that distinction with style. They dole out manly high fives, shout outdated catchphrases like they mean them ("Tubular!"), and wear skin-tight T-shirts that accentuate their PED-defined abs. When Jimmy smacks a goon with a baseball bat, he shouts "Touchdown!" without the slightest hint of irony. Neon is consistently funny and doesn't shy away from crazy situations. From a helicopter that hovers upside down, to the weaker enemies referred to as "cartwheeling cannon fodder," Neon is happy to make fun of itself.
Double Dragon Neon is a good update to the arcade classic precisely because it's not handcuffed to what the original started. By shifting the tone from serious to crazy and making the combat system rewarding for the most dedicated players, this is a beat-'em-up that fits alongside modern games. The downsides are noticeable. Grinding turns even the brightest games dull, and local-only co-op means you have to invite your friends to your house rather than partake in online shenanigans. But for the few hours it takes to reach the end, Neon is a satisfying brawler that's as deep as it is humorous. Double Dragon Neon doesn't quite live up to its prestigious heritage, but it's a well-made game nonetheless.