Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Game Boy Advance Look: Double Dragon Advance

It seems kind of sad that the final(?) game in the Double Dragon series was relegated to a near-launch Game Boy Advance release. Many beatemup fans cite the original Double Dragon as one of their first games in the genre. The series peaked during the NES days with the classic Double Dragon II but was unfortunately overshadowed by the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage during the 16-bit years before fading into obscurity(it also didn't help that Technos, the developers behind this and other beatemup games was shut down in 1995). Yet seemingly out of nowhere we got a new Double Dragon from Million and Atlus.

Actually calling this a new Double Dragon is stretching the truth a bit. Advance is actually a remake of sorts that compiles the first two games into one adventure including aspects like weapons, thugs, bosses, and stages. While fans of parts 3 & 4 are more or less left out in the cold there's plenty to like about this title.

Over the years Technos also did several other beatemups like the Kunio Kun series(though we only saw a tiny % of that series in the form of River City Ransom) and a few one-off titles like The Combatribes and Shadow Force. So for this "ultimate" edition of Double Dragon there was a lot of material to pull from. Though Technos is long-gone the developers behind this game did a good job of carrying along every facet of the originals(they've also done a River City Ransom remake for the GBA as well as two Super Dodgeball games for the GBA as well as the DS).

The story and intro are classic to Double Dragon fans. In a future sort of inspired by Mad Max(but with far less Desert), Billy and Jimmy Lee must rescue Billy's girlfriend Marion from the clutches of the Shadow Warriors. Rescuing the girl leads the heroes through eight stages of varying locales from alleyways and construction yards to ancient temples and even on top of a semi-trailer. These games seem to be based on the arcade versions and thus feature much less platforming than their NES counterparts as well as mechanics and gameplay similar to arcade. A lot of the music is also from the first two games though a couple choice tracks didn't make the cut(for example the second stage theme from DD2, which sounds almost exactly like the song "Easy Lover" by Philip Bailey & Phil Collins).

Both brothers play identical to each other and they have a ton of moves at their disposal. Seriously this is by far the most moves either brother has had access to in the entire series. To put into perspective let's go over the options. A thug approaches what do you do? Well you could start by doing a one-two punch or a single kick. This puts him into stun animation. From there you could press punch again for an uppercut that sends him into the air, a roundhouse to send him flying, or you can grab his hair and do a number of other moves(like knee him in the face and/or toss him over your shoulder to take out guys moving in from behind). But let's say this guy is jumping in. Well that's what the block is for. In fact with proper timing not only will you deflect the attack but you'll also throw the thug. It doesn't end there however. You've got your special moves. By pressing both the punch and kick buttons together you crouch down(which is also handy for dodging some attacks) depending on what button you press you either get a devastating uppercut or a flying knee. Toss in a bunch of moves that'll cover your rear(like a handy elbow), a handful of attacks for opponents on the ground, running attacks, different flavors of jump-kicks(spin-kicks, back-kicks, diving-kicks), and you're certainly a force to be reckoned with. If that isn't enough you can even do some basic juggling combos. Uppercut a dude and you can give him a nice head-butt when he falls to really put him out in a bad way.

In regular beatemup fashion the thugs also tend to be carrying weapons. Trademarks like knives and bats can be used to your advantage as well as stuff like dynamite, boulders, whips, maces, and so on. While sometimes it's more advantageous to stick to your fists it may be helpful to keep these tools in mind(or at least out of the enemies hands as they can be quite a threat with them). 

The levels play out as you would expect. You arrive at an area, beat everyone up, and move on. Some of the later stages mix it up by throwing in traps and more than enough pits that'll kill you instantly. Couple these with some absolutely brutal thugs(not to mention the numbers, it's not rare to see six foes on-screen at once) and you have more than enough reason to to work out that massive arsenal of moves you have. 

The biggest thing to look out for in this game is that your moves have next to no priority. What this means is even if you do something crazy like a jumping spin-kick you're still going to get knocked out of the air by a single punch. Even if you throw a punch at the same time a bad guy throws one his(or hers) will always connect. This isn't a flaw as it's actually a reason to play more defensively. Despite the advantage in priority the enemy still has a habit of making themselves open to attack and learning when to pursue these moments will help the player survive.

Surviving however is still quite difficult as this game can be quite brutal. Aside from the aforementioned pits being quite a nuisance(especially since you can fall into quite a few just by moving down a bit too far) the thugs themselves have quite a few moves that can drain your life almost completely. Their AI is a bit more advanced than average and they'll always seek out a way to surround you. Couple all of this with no healing items(though health is restored between stages) and you're going to go through quite a few lives before you get a handle on things. For the true masters a Survival mode is available. Getting to the top requires the defeat of over 100 foes and it has to be done with one measly life-bar. 

Aside from the standard two-player mode(when you want to beat up people with a friend, or just beat up each other), you can play a special one-player mode where you control both Billy & Jimmy. How this is accomplished is by pressing the select button to switch between characters. Obviously this is a very difficult mode and it would have been better if there was a mode where Jimmy was controlled by the computer. But eh for whatever reason it's there.

The gameplay itself is extremely good. Mechanics are quite solid and little touches like the enemies hitting each other with thrown knives and getting killed by their own traps really lends a sense of balance to the game. Despite all of the moves and basic combos this is still very much an old-school beatemup so if you miss you're left wide open to attack and since a rather large number of attacks can lead to instant-death it can be frustrating to some. But like quite a few other games this is one of those where it gets better as you spend more time with it. There's a number of factors that work against it like the relative ease that most thugs can be dispatched with but this is balanced out by them rarely working alone and gleefully surrounding you at every possible chance. From there it can be very difficult to get out of situations where you're surrounded and/or knocked down with foes leering over you. This is handled by learning the move-set and taking advantage of little things like the ability to charge a special when you get up(which is again very useful since you duck beforehand, leaving most high-attacks going clear over your head). Also at times you simply have to know when to hold back and not get yourself into problematic situations. While escape is possible it's not like a number of beatemups where you can just press a button or two and do an invincible attack at a small cost of life. Every move you make or don't make has very real consequences and leaving yourself open will lead to your ruin. While there's not much depth to the scoring system beating this game on the harder settings and getting the best possible ranking in Survival mode will give you more than enough time to master the very deep and satisfying fighting system.

As far as beatemups go this is by far the best one that I've played on the Game Boy Advance. Now I'm well aware that this isn't saying much cause you could probably count that handheld's entire beatemup library on one hand but even as far as the entire genre goes I think it's definitely up there next to the likes of Sega's Bare Knuckle 3, Capcom's later works, and Konami's Vendetta. If you want the best experience possible though I'd recommend a Super GBA player and a good controller cause playing this game on the DS has done quite a number to my thumbs. Still considering you can likely find this for only a few bucks and it's such a good game I say it's worth the abuse.

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