Back in the late 80’s, life for me revolved around Double Dragon. My brother and I would go to all the places we knew of that had a machine — the creepy arcade at the mall, the Chuck E. Cheese knock-off place where we always went for our birthdays, and even the “surprisingly dirty for being in such a nice neighborhood” convenience store. They wouldn’t even give us change at that store, so we’d have to go to a different store, get quarters, pretend to be interested in their Gauntlet machine, and then leave to go play Double Dragon. I even wanted a Sega Master System, just so I could play a decent version of the game at home. Double Dragon was just that awesome.
These days, however, there are a lot of newer gamers who aren’t familiar with this fantastic game. I think this is too bad, because Double Dragon was not only a great game, but also a true reflection of life in the late 1980s. Therefore, in an effort to preserve this important piece of gaming (and cultural) history, I thought I’d write this little article to inform those of you who missed out on the whole Double Dragon experience.
Nobody really knows what Double Dragon‘s story is exactly. When you begin the game, it shows a woman standing in the street being approached by a gang. Their leader has a machine gun and looks kind of like old WWF wrestler Razor Ramon in a yellow biker outfit. One of them punches her in the stomach, throws her over his shoulder and they calmly walk away. The game never explains why they kidnap her, but apparently this happened a lot during the 80s, because both the woman and the gang members seem pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. After they leave, a garage in the background opens its door, revealing a really kickass Trans Am. Seriously, this thing is sweet… Anyway, standing next to the car are the two protagonists, Billy and Jimmy Lee. Actually, according to the artwork on the arcade cabinet the blue one is named “Hammer” and the red one is “Spike”. I’m not sure how people figured out their real names, but I do know that they both look so much like the singers from Tears for Fears that it’s a little bit scary.
Interestingly, the gang is already out of sight by the time Billy and Jimmy hit the street. So they didn’t actually see anything happen. For all they know, the girl was never even there. It’s not like Razor Ramon left them a note or anything. Somehow, they just know to chase after them and rescue their mutual girlfriend. Rather than go after them in their awesome car, which would be a lot faster and involve far less fighting with people who want to kill them, they decide to walk after the kidnappers. This turns out to be a pretty terrible plan, as they manage to go all of about 5 feet before they are attacked. That’s the problem with looking just like a singer from Tears for Fears — not only does everyone want to rule the world, but everyone wants to fight you, too. I’m not sure if everyone you meet is in the same gang, or if you just live in a city where everyone likes to fight. About 5 minutes into the game, you are simultaneously attacked by a guy with a baseball bat, a woman with a whip, and a huge bald man with a handlebar mustache who wants to pummel you so badly that he smashes through a brick wall just to get at you. Shortly after that, you have to fight Mr. T while someone else throws knives and oil drums at you. That’s the first level.
Now you may have read that last paragraph and thought to yourself “A woman with a whip? That’s kind of sexy”. I can assure you that its not. Not even a little. Double Dragon was the first beat-’em-up to have a whip-woman, an idea that later showed up in many games, such as Streets of Rage, Battle Arena Toshinden, and Soul Calibur (Ivy). But if you’re expecting some kind of long haired beauty in a revealing leather outfit (or in Ivy’s case, a 1700’s era naval commander uniform), guess again — the Double Dragon whip-woman has big 80’s hair and wears what looks like an aerobics outfit. Maybe tastes really were so different 17 years ago, but I can’t imagine that kind of look was ever considered pretty hot. All I can say is that if you’re expecting Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, guess again.
The second level of Double Dragon takes place behind a warehouse or factory of some sort, where you fight on top of stacks of steel I-beams. When you finally get to the building, the door opens up and three whip-women come out. Yes, that’s right, these women all take their whips with them even when they go to work at the factory. You can fight them, but it’s quicker just to throw them onto the nearby conveyor belt, which will carry them back into the building. For some reason that kills them. At first, I thought maybe it just carried them into the building and they had to go back to their jobs, but when I tried to ride it myself, I lost a life. I guess there’s a bunch of saws or a wood chipper or something at the end of it. I had always thought that conveyor belts outside of warehouses were there to make unloading delivery trucks faster, but now I know that they’re actually elaborate deathtraps. I can’t see how that’s more profitable for the company, but that’s probably why I’m not a CEO.
The next few levels take you through a forest and eventually you enter the gang’s secret base. Like all street gang hideouts, it is inside of a mountain, with gold walls and elaborate sculptures. There are also spike pits, which may be their way of enforcing a “No Pets” policy. Inside, you find your girlfriend suspended from a peg in wall by a rope around her waist. Well there’s one mystery solved — they obviously kidnapped her to decorate the wall!
You then fight “The Machine Gun Guy” (according to the makers of the game, his name is Jeff; but he will always be known as The Machine Gun Guy to arcade-goers everywhere), who apparently only brought 5 bullets, because he’s much more interested in hitting you over the head with his gun than shooting you. Upon defeating him, if you are playing with 2 players, Spike and Hammer…err…Billy and Jimmy decide that they’re done sharing a girlfriend and fight each other. After this, the woman magically frees herself from the wall and hugs the winner. After all, no rope can restrain the love women feel for a guy who looks like he’s the singer from Tears for Fears.
What always impressed me about Double Dragon was it’s deep fighting system. You only have a few moves at your disposal, and the only one that is really effective is the “elbow punch”. That move only hits people behind you, so the whole game becomes a weird routine of walking up to an enemy, turning your back to him, and then trying to elbow him before he caves in the back of your head with a bat. Your next most effective move is a headbutt, which actually hits people in front of you, but is performed by double tapping forward, which is tricky to time correctly. If the game doesn’t recognize the double-tap, you end up just walking toward your opponent spastically while he pummels your face.
There are a lot of traps in the game that can kill you instantly, but can also be used to kill enemies. It can be fun to elbow one of the huge handlebar mustache guys off a cliff and kill him, and it makes the game more challenging when you have to look out for holes and rivers. Of course, things become a bit anti-climatic when a level boss appears, and you kill him right away by mightily tossing him onto a conveyor belt. And for whatever reason, the boss music would sound more appropriate if you were fighting a ghost.
Anyways, if you’ve never played Double Dragon before, it’s definitely worth a look. It may not have a coherent story, or fancy moves, or consistent names for the characters, but it has one thing that is fairly unique — main characters that look like they are from an 80’s rock band. No other game has that, unless you count when the Bad Dudes do a fire punch and kind of look like the singer from Great White.