It’s strange to think that the Double Dragon series is over a quarter of a century old. It’s seen rivals fall by the wayside, and thanks in no small part to a dedicated fan base the franchise continues to reinvent and reboot itself with varying levels of success. The most recent was Double Dragon Neon, a fun throwback to the days when sideways scrolling beat ‘em ups were de rigeur in every musty arcade. Half a year on, and a new journey along the well-trodden path of brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee is available from the XBLA marketplace. Double Dragon 2: Wander of the Dragons is a remake of Double Dragon 2: The Revenge, the successful 1988 coin-op. Korean developers Gravity reportedly spent three years developing the game so you would expect the end result to be a lovingly crafted entry with updated graphics, engaging gameplay, and full of fun nods to the original.
You will rightly be dismayed to learn, then, that the end result is not just the worst game in Double Dragon’s history, but one of the worst games of its generation. Before it was removed from the Marketplace (for obvious reasons) the marketing blurb for the game speaks volumes about what you’re shortly going to endure.
“This is a remake 'Double Dragon II' a 80's game. The story line takes same as original game story. However, the graphic, character, action, system etc. are change. Also we are including new stage and enemy in the game. The player will be addicted to new version of Double Dragon II. Also, characters are undressed from 80's style, and recreated with modern sexy and beautiful style that amaze you and feel never been experienced world before.” (sic)
Kicking off the campaign, you’re presented with a backstory covered by both voiceover and subtitles. It should be assumed that the reason for this double-whammy is two-fold. Firstly, the voiceover attempts some kind of Asian inflection but ends up coming across as slurred, like he was trying to channel Beggar So. Secondly, the subtitles don’t match what the voiceover is saying. At all. It’s as if they were created in two completely separate departments and then flung together just before release. This is not difficult to believe.
As with the original, Billy and Jimmy are out to avenge the death of their shared love interest Marian (which itself is a frankly bizarre situation, never really explained). However, in this version you actually get to play as Marian in a horrible tutorial level before she is gunned down. At least, one of you does. If you’re playing in co-op - and to be honest, you’ll need the moral support to get through the game - then only player one will have the chance to practice the moves. The other player just gets to watch, which is probably a blessing.
Not that the moves are tricky to learn. You have a punch combo of X, X, X, X and a kick combo of B, B, B, B. You can hold down RT whilst performing this combo to make it more powerful, although it doesn’t appear to do anything different other than slow it down. There is a block/counter command, but if you can get it to work consistently then you’ve achieved more than we did. You can press a bumper button to elbow an enemy behind you, and at certain stages you’ll come across breakable glowing idols which imbue you with a single special power (spinning kick, fireball, super combo) that you can hit LT + A to unleash. That’s it - you've just read the entire attacking repertoire of Wander of the Dragons. Suffice to say, you’ll be bored rigid within ten minutes and you’ll still have another three hours to sit through.
The game is split over a number of different stages, including a Wild West town, a farm, a nightclub and a temple. Each environment is basically inert and you will rarely interact with anything other than the cloned enemies that assault you at every ten steps you progress. Sticking firmly to scrolling standards, you’ll be forced to clear an area before you can progress and that area may require up to four waves of identical bad guys to be permanently offed. These guys literally appear out of nowhere, as if they’ve beamed in from the U.S.S. Awfulness. Some will carry throwable weapons that you can pick up and use, such as bricks, knives and syringes. Others will have melee weapons like planks of wood and shovels. Thanks to an unfortunate decision to change the fighting from two-directional to eight-directional, you’ll find that missile weapons sail past targets more often than not. Furthermore, the woeful collision detection which makes landing simple attacks far more difficult than it should is also the undoing of any large weapons you carry. This is assuming you’re even able to pick up a weapon at all, since if you’re not in exactly the right spot your character will grab at empty air, leaving the relentless attackers free to pummel you to the ground.
This leaves basic punches and kicks, which you will be performing a lot of. So much so, it’s likely that you’ll develop RSI before the game ends. Another crazy decision to assign the attack buttons opposite each other will mean you spend most of the game using one or the other but rarely both. It depends on which mundane animation you want to see more of really; whilst the original game offered a selection of knees to the face, throws and other interesting moves, the “modern sexy and beautiful style” on offer here is anything but. The graphics are abysmal and would be put to shame by a Dreamcast. Cutscenes between stages have a whiff of arty potential with their watercolours and smash cuts, but they’re nonsensical - every vehicle you’re on when you finish a stage ends up crashing and burning for unexplained reasons. Storytelling isn’t a strength of the genre, but you’d hope for a little more clarity about why you leave a farm at the end of one stage and begin the next by clinging to the side of a mountain.
When enemies aren’t sinking into the ground or hovering out of attacking reach off-screen (an especially nice touch, forcing you to move back to the centre of the screen to entice them in), they’re frustrating you in other ways. If you’re unfortunate enough to get caught between two who are out of synch in their attacks, you’ll end up on the floor and unable to get back up as they each take turns to pummel you. This will continue until you die. Inexplicably for a game of this kind, you have a stamina bar which is drained when you use basic attacks. That’s right; if you punch and kick too much you’ll be unable to do anything until stamina is recovered. This might be acceptable for a special power bar, but implementing it on normal commands is simply unforgivable.
Things don’t improve as the game progresses, with the final third offering an increasingly wretched series of encounters that will have you considering serious violence against your console. There’s a level with a bulldozer that forces you to restart if just one of you dies. This is followed by a temple level complete with horrific slowdown if there are more than five sprites on screen and continues with a “trap level” that offers you zero chance of escaping unscathed. Of course, what fun-filled experience would be complete without a series of quick time events scattered throughout? Some may hate QTEs, but from our point of view nothing screams “excitement” like pressing A repeatedly to make a lift work, or pressing B repeatedly to climb onto a ledge. Topping off the experience is a sadistic soundtrack consisting of five and ten second loops, each one more awful than the last.
If for some reason the campaign isn’t enough to finish you off, you can indulge in either a 1 v 1 mode where you’re pitted against each other, or Survival mode where you can fend off yet more hordes of enemies. However, don’t expect any sort of online play, as there isn’t any. Co-op is strictly local; perhaps Gravity assumed that it would be pointless since most players would rage-quit before getting to the end of the first stage.
Wander of the Dragons is a disgrace; an unfinished, untested, unenjoyably wretched excuse for a gaming experience. There is literally nothing to recommend here. If anything, it will make you wistful for titles like Final Fight and the 16-bit pinnacle of the genre: Streets of Rage 2. Try out the demo if you’re feeling masochistic, but don’t say you weren’t warned - we’ve played this game so you don’t have to.
Double Dragon 2: Wander of the Dragons is available on XBLA Marketplace now, for 800 MS Points.