Double Dragon IV

A game by Arc System Works for PC, PS4, and Switch, originally released in 2017.
Occasionally, a new entry in a series requires a bit of explanation in terms of its numbering sequence. These days, creators seem content to create new projects and give them the exact same title as the originals, often demarking a reintroduction or reimagining of the series, with examples including Tomb Raider, DOOM, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Occasionally, a new entry into a series introduces problems of numbering, such as Super Contra IV being renamed to Contra III: The Alien Wars, officially excising Contra Force from the series canon. And sometimes no number is used, even when a project is part of an existing series, because creators don’t want consumers to feel as though they need to have experienced the original(s) in order to enjoy the new entry. For example the movie The Thing is a prequel to the original movie also called The Thing, and Superman Returns is a direct sequel to Superman II, ignoring any continuity arising from the third and fourth installments.

Double Dragon IV is the sequel to the NES series of Double Dragon games, which consists of Double Dragon, Double Dragon II: The Revenge, and Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones, and the new game ignores the unnumbered SNES sequel Super Double Dragon and its unrelated (and awful) follow-up, Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls. This also separates it from the original arcade series on which the NES games were based (sometimes only loosely), and the game narratively follows the events of Double Dragon II, after Billy and Jimmy defeat the Shadow Warriors.

Nuclear war has ravaged the Earth, and survivors fight for the remaining resources, but Billy and Jimmy have risen up to stop it by setting up dojos across the United States to help bring peace. Marian is kidnapped yet again, with the series’ trademark sucker punch to the gut as the bad guy slings her over his shoulder and walks away. Rather than using a modernized take on the series to upend the damsel in distress trope, the developers opted to revive the scene that is literally the poster child for the mistreatment of women in video games... So there’s that. Otherwise, the throwaway story is that the bad guys killed Willy and kidnapped Marian, and you have to fight your way through waves of thugs to get her back, all of which is told in between-level cutscenes.

Following the NES series means that the game uses the graphical style and similar movesets to the previous NES games. The arcade titles are generally straightforward beat ‘em ups, whereas the NES titles feature a stronger focus on climbing and platforming. However, Billy and Jimmy aren’t terribly gifted in the platforming department, leading to a lot of slow clunky jumps with no midair direction control and the possibility of instant death when missing a platform landing. The game also features a fair number of conveyor belts, drop-offs, and spinning gears that can instantly eliminate one of the player’s precious lives.

In most modern games, instant death is little more than an inconvenience, as infinite lives and frequent spawn points allow the player to hop quickly back into the action with little penalty. In Double Dragon IV, however, the player has a limited stock of five continues, with three lives each, which need to last him through 12 missions (although there is a minor cheat that lets players skip to the last mission they completed). Each life lost is one less chance of the player reaching the game’s ending; on the other hand, the player does respawn on the spot, even when continuing, so stages do not need to be repeated from the start, and the player’s health is restored between levels.

Players can team up with a friend to take the game on in 2P co-op, with friendly fire on or off. There’s also a 2P versus mode available from the main menu, which allows players to fight against each other, and new fighters are unlocked in this mode as the player completes missions in the main game.

Completing the game unlocks the Tower survival mode, which sees the player fighting against small groups of enemies in single-screen environments as he moves up each successive floor of the tower. Here, the player faces off against enemies from the main game, as well as a small number of new enemies, and new characters are unlocked as the player makes progress. Characters unlocked in the tower can be used in any mode, allowing players to return to the main game as the indomitable Abobo, one of the game’s bosses, or any of the basic enemy characters, each with differing movesets.

While the game mimics the graphical quality of the NES, many of that system’s technical issues have been eliminated. This means that the game is free from flicker and slowdown, players do not automatically drop weapons between enemy waves, and it is now possible to face multiple enemy types simultaneously (previously, only two enemy types could appear on the screen at a time). In addition, players may choose between a retro-style or newly remixed soundtrack.

There are still some problematic enemy behaviors, however, such as having baddies standing at the top of ladders to deliver cheap hits as soon as you reach the top. Additionally, enemies don’t seem to know how to behave on conveyor belts, often sliding to the very end and then alternating rapidly between a standing and falling animation instead of actually falling down.

There’s also a repeatable bug in one of the conveyor belt areas where an enemy falling off a conveyor belt may not be killed and will instead remain at the bottom of the pit performing jumps in an attempt to get back to the player. With no way for the player to reach the enemy, and the screen locked until all enemies are defeated, the issue can only be resolved with a hard reset.

Pacing is a bit odd, as the player will often face off against a group of four or five enemies on the first screen, and then walk all the way to the far side of the area without facing anyone, only to have a few enemies trickle in behind him. Environments aren’t terribly large to begin with, but there are still a fair number of empty stretches.

Billy (and Jimmy in 2P) carry over many of their moves from the previous NES games, with a button for punching, a button for kicking, and (finally) a separate button for jumping. Gameplay alternates between multi-plane areas and single-plane areas, with all platforming taking place on a single plane. Stunned enemies can be grappled and then punched or thrown, but this doesn’t work against bosses. Different button combinations allow for a spinning back kick, a rear elbow attack, and a headbutt.

Players can perform a jump kick or a spinning jump kick when pressing the KICK button at the apex of the jump, and there are numerous strong techniques that can be used when landing from a jump or getting up from being knocked down. These stronger techniques can push enemies back (although some can be blocked) and give the player some space to recover and deal with other approaching threats.

The player can also pick up a number of weapons and items in the environment, including melee weapons that can be swung or thrown, tires that roll across the screen knocking baddies down, as well as boulders, barrels, and boxes that can be tossed for heavy short range damage. In addition, there are several vastly oversized objects, including boulders and crates, that you can pick up and hold over your head, but they slow your movement speed. Tossing these at enemies causes a ton of damage, and crates will break open to reveal weapons, exploding grenades, or occasionally more enemies.

Enemies come in a few varieties, with basic thugs at the start, and escalating to enemies that can move quickly and block some attacks. A few large enemies are worked into the mix, supposedly as bosses, but they are given little fanfare. You simply face one or more oversized guys at the end of each level, and defeating them leads to a “mission clear” screen. Often, boss characters show up as regular enemies in later levels. Even Abobo, the series’ most recognizable enemy, just appears alongside regular foes without any special attention paid to him.

The game does introduce a few new enemy types, including ninjas and sumo wrestlers, representing the fast-and-agile class and strong-but-slow class, respectively. This offers gameplay typical of the series that makes it easier to prioritize your attacks. Weaker enemies will die after being knocked down once or twice, while large foes need to be knocked down several times before blinking into oblivion. It’s important that you avoid becoming surrounded or let strong enemies move in behind you, as these foes can take away a third of your health in a single attack.

Double Dragon IV was developed by Arc System Works, a company best known for the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series of fighting games, as well as River City: Tokyo Rumble. Several of the series’ original creators worked on the new release, including planner Yoshihisa Kishimoto, designer Koji Ogata, and composer Kazunaka Yamane. Yoshihisa Kishimoto also worked on another modern day sequel to one of his popular franchises: River City Ransom: Underground.

The Double Dragon series originated with Technōs Japan, which also created the Kunio-kun series (River City Ransom, Super Dodge Ball, etc.). Technōs Japan declared bankruptcy in 1996, but their intellectual properties lived on, with Million releasing their back catalogue on modern download services and producing enhanced ports of some of their more popular titles, with releases including River City Ransom EX, Super Dodge Ball Advance, and Double Dragon Advance. Arc System Works acquired the licensing rights for Technōs Japan’s catalogue in 2015.