Double Dragon is inarguably one of the greatest games of all time. It's the game that launched a thousand beat-'em-ups, the reason that walking to the right and punching mindless thugs became a genre unto itself. It wasn't the first game of its kind, but it's the one that made them famous. Without Double Dragon, there would be no Streets of Rage, no Final Fight, no Bad Dudes, none of it. But as is sometimes the case with seminal games, the nostalgia for such titles belies the flaws inherent to them. Double Dragon is a 20-minute-long game with slightly awkward fighting mechanics, a lot of cheap enemies and pitfalls, and very little replay value once you've beaten it a few times. The newly released Xbox Live Arcade version of Double Dragon does at least toss in a few bells and whistles, like updated graphics, online co-op play, and some tough-to-earn achievements. But most importantly, this is Double Dragon. Those with happy memories of the game ought to find this $5 download worthwhile, though anyone coming to it for the first time is likely to wonder what all the fuss was about.
In Double Dragon, you play as either Billy or Jimmy Lee, two martial artist brothers who go out on a gang-beating rampage through their crime-dominated city when Billy's special lady, Marian, is punched in the gut by some lowlife thugs and taken prisoner. Along the way to the final battle against gang leader Machine Gun Willy, you'll fight a myriad of generic thugs, tramps, and a whole bunch of Abobos. Don't know what an Abobo is? Then maybe this isn't the game for you.
That's because it's going to take someone with a real fondness for the arcade original to enjoy Double Dragon on XBLA. It's not that the game is suddenly terrible or anything, but it hasn't aged all that gracefully, and many of the beat-'em-ups that came after it pretty much did what this game did, but did it a lot better. The one thing Double Dragon has over a lot of those games is its move set. You get a nice roster of moves to play with, from punch-and-kick combos to grapple attacks, multiple jumping kicks, head-butts, and elbow strikes, not to mention multiple weapons. However, there are a couple of things that negate the appeal of the combat system--mainly, the fact that you can use the elbow strike endlessly and get through a good chunk of the game relatively unscathed. There are some tough fights where you can't avoid getting knocked around a bit, but even then you can just line up the elbow strike over and over again and get by. Twenty minutes' worth of endless elbow strikes and occasional weapon hits for good measure isn't necessarily a lot of fun in this day and age.
Of course, these details probably won't matter much to someone who really loved Double Dragon back in the day, and if all you care about is being able to play the original arcade game and maybe earn some achievements along the way, this download offers precisely that experience, right down to the ugly slowdown that pops up when too many characters are fighting onscreen at once. Yes, this slowdown was very much inherent to the original game, though at times it almost seems worse here. You might hope that with the game running on a system like the Xbox 360, that slowdown might be fixed. Not the case, unfortunately. On the more positive side of things, the standard graphics and audio are all intact (and the soundtrack in particular is still awesome). Additionally, the new, revamped graphics mode looks really sharp. The developers basically redrew all the sprites and backgrounds into something that almost looks like a flash game, but doesn't lose the aesthetic appeal of the game. It's a nice look all around.
Nostalgia can be a harsh mistress, and with Double Dragon, odds are that in playing it now, it isn't going to live up to every fond memory you have of plunking down quarters on it in '80s-era arcades. Still, it's not bereft of amusement. Playing the game single-console or online with friends can be entertaining (just beware of periodic connection issues with the online play), and the new graphics do give the game a nice, new sheen. This is the sort of game you'll pay the $5 for, play a few times, get all the achievements, be over and done with, but still come out basically satisfied in the end.