I remember clearly playing Double Dragon in the arcade- great times. I also remember how excited I was the first time I saw the advertisement for the NES version “You’ll Never Have to Stand in Line to Play Double Dragon Again.” I’ve played just about every game in the series, so I was thrilled when Arc System Works informed me they were releasing Double Dragon IV for the PS4. What better way to honor the legend of Billy and Jimmy Lee than to return all these years later for a new adventure? Unfortunately, Double Dragon IV fails on multiple levels to match my admittedly high expectations, making it a rare misstep for Arc System Works and a very disappointing experience.
I’ll admit I was hoping for a return to arcade graphics rather than the 8-bit NES aesthetic. Granted, seeing Billy, Jimmy, Abobo, and the rest of the gang in their cart-based glory did tug at the ol’ heartstrings for a few minutes. It was cool to see the old moves make their way back onto my screen as well including the kneelifts, super uppercut, and flying knee attack. Unfortunately, some of the villains’ signature moves didn’t seem to make the trip, most notably Abobo’s double-underhook suplex-type thing. I appreciate the team bringing the adventure to new locations, including a desert, some nice looking cityscapes, and a ninja fortress, but some of the backgrounds featured dated (even considering the 8-bit nature of the visuals) sprites that looked out of place, and dare I say chintzy (the weird pink x’s in the cave for instance). Meanwhile, some background elements were simply onscreen without any solid placement, meaning giant crates could simply be walked through, completely obscuring the characters and providing no strategic element. It’s as if the artists merely slapped down extra sprites and hoped no one would notice. It was distracting and made the game look rushed rather than serving as a love letter to the fans. All of this would be disappointing on its own, but the game also suffers from slowdown/lag that simply should not exist on a current generation console working with 26-year-old character sprites. I wish there had been more enemy variety, as a 26-year gap would have been a great way to introduce new opponents while still paying tribute to the originals. I like that there were some new bosses, but I feel like they should have been better fleshed out, or given a wider variety of attacks to make them more intimidating. Sound effects were similarly uninspired. Punches and kicks make a weird grating noise rather than anything approximating a swing which quickly becomes distracting. Iconic sounds like the binging that accompanies the thumb pointing you to your next objective are missing as are many sounds of contact when attacks land, although to be fair it’s still as satisfying as ever when you mangle foes with the spinning kick and knee strike- that explosion sound effect is one for the ages, and I’m glad it made it’s return here. Hearing the remastered main theme was a nice touch, but I was curious why the team waited several stages to introduce it rather than make it a highlight the way the much more stylish Double Dragon Neon does. The rest of the music is decent, if generic. I’m not really going to talk about the story other than to say it seemed fine for a Double Dragon game. There are those who will balk at a recycled plotline, and I agree something more original would have been nice, but I’m not hung up on story when it comes to these titles.
Double Dragon IV feels. . . sluggish? While it’s cool that you can remap the keys (and jump with a dedicated button rather than pressing both attack buttons), it still feels like Billy/Jimmy is unresponsive at times. Mapping special moves to alternate buttons is a nice touch and allows you to execute them much more cleanly, but most attacks other than the aforementioned spin kick and flying knee are basically useless due to the large number of enemies who constantly swarm you yet manage to immediately dodge a surprising number of your strikes. Spamming the elbow smash, a staple of the arcade and original NES title barely works here, which would be commendable as a way to force new strategies if other attacks were the least bit effective. Picking up weapons, another hallmark of the original games, is actually a hindrance here since they a) don’t do much damage, and b) invite enemies to almost immediately jump kick them out of your hands. Changing directions is a struggle, especially when trying to launch multiple attacks (especially the flying knee), causing you to either miss or take far more damage than you should. It’s a shame the combat is so unsatisfying, and it’s insane that you can basically take a break anytime you want by walking to the very top or bottom of the screen, as enemies simply can’t follow you although they CAN swarm your position and attack you en masse when you decide to return to the fray. Ill-advised platforming sections round out the action, and they are as unwelcome as they’ve ever been due to poor controls and the requirement of pinpoint timing that’s hard to pull off. Many times you’ll get through a section to simply say “I’m glad I never have to do that again.” which is never a good sign. One boss fight in an elevator was a pleasant surprise, however.
Overall, Double Dragon IV needs a LOT of work before it can be considered anything approaching good. It’s truly a shame, as the other games in the series seem to have aged well. Even at it’s very low price point, it’s hard to recommend.