In Defense of Double Dragon

By Mikey Shake


Iím thinking Double Dragon is the E.T. of Atari 2600 action/fighting games.

Now, itís easy to champion some long-lost something or other and hold it up as some great, lost treasure worthy of historical revisionism.  Double Dragon is none of those things.  But, like E.T., it may have been unfairly maligned over the years.

Both games were ambitious in concept.  Theyíre both graphically advanced games on the system, even for their respective times Ė a very long 6 years between E.T. in 1983 and Double Dragon in 1989.  Both are very difficult thanks to design shortcomings of one kind or another.  Neither is a truly great game because of problems with gameplay.  In E.T.ís case, the infamously rushed six-week production schedule was to blame Ė even E.T. designer Howard Scott Warshaw admitted there were some big problems with it (recent hacks of that game have apparently improved a lot of the issues significantly).  Among popular complaints is that collision detection with those damn pits was pixel-perfect, and too sensitive for most players.  Double Dragon suffers from trying to cram a 1987 game into a 1977 piece of machinery.  The problems most people have with it seem to be the high level of difficulty and the way the controls are strange and a little unwieldy at first.

Granted, there are plenty of differences between the two games, as well.  E.T. was cutting-edge in concept (with its quest / items / multiscreen / multi-enemy world) at the height of the systemís power, just before the industry crash in 1983.  It was a "manual reader", so to speak, whose difficulty came from the seemingly-obtuse gameplay.  It required the player to understand a lot about the game right off the bat.

Double Dragon was a quickie cash-in on an antiquated system ("Letís do a whatever we can for a 2600 version and squeeze a few more bucks outta the licensing deal!") in a pre-"retro-gaming" era where it seemed kinda futile to even bother with outdated consoles.  Though, I think that despite the "quickie cash-in" origins, programmer Dan Kitchen really did a pretty good job of squeezing as much Double Dragon into an Atari cartridge as anyone could expect, even at the time.

The idea of having three or four non-flickering sprites on a variety of multi-colored backgrounds and environments seemed absurd, but there they are in Double Dragon.  And with several different musical themes!  Frankly, not even the Nintendo version did all of that without flicker, and this is basically a Pong machine.  Of course, people donít usually complain about the graphics of the Atari port.  Itís the fighting they donít like.  To attack, you have to push the fire button while you throw the (infamously stiff) joystick in a particular direction.  Fire+up is jump kick, fire+diagonally down is kick.  Itís a little tricky on those old controllers to roll one move into the next, especially with the flurry of activity the high-speed enemies can throw at you.

And those enemies never seem to get stunned by your punches and kicks, either.  Unless you learn the rhythm, you usually donít have enough time to follow up your first strike.  Itís hard to use the joystick to move out of the way, and then immediately slam into a counter-intuitive "button+direction" combo to attack.  Itís clumsy, but on a controller with one button, I canít really think of many better ways to do it.  Graphical shortcomings and a strange "enemies canít cross the equator of the play field" quirk are weird workarounds to bring the game to the 2600, but what can you expect?  The arcade cabinetís version of Double Dragon was dedicated hardware equivalent to roughly, whatÖ the 16-bit Genesis/SNES era of fifteen years later?  The 2600 cartridge was, whatÖ a $20-$30 quickie on decade-old, fully-outdated hardware?

"Letís pose, bro.  Marianís probably fine."

"Is it a great game?"  Probably not.  Technical marvel doesnít mean much without gameplay.  And while I donít think this is as bad as everybody says, itís not one of those instantly-perfect combinations of player interface and onscreen action, like Tetris or Pac-Man.  Itís much better than its reputation would have you believe, though. Just like E.T.

"Should it have been attempted?"  I think thatís kind of a strange question, but everyone seems to ask it about this conversion.  Why should anything be attempted? But it was, and itís got about as much Double Dragon as one could reasonably fit into an Atari 2600 cart.  Two player multiplayer, weapons you could pick up and use, different kinds of enemies, colorful backgrounds and worldsÖ and even Abobo.

Iím a relative prodigal returning to the wide world of Atari games Ė I havenít been playing consistently since back in the day like many people hardcore aficionados.  But I love me some beat Ďem ups.  And the Double Dragon series has probably been my favorite since the halcyon days of '87.  Strike that.  The first two games in the series, mostly.  Over and over.  With a few of the later games thrown in along the way.

So when I got into the VCS/2600, finding out a Double Dragon port even existed was a spit-take kind of a moment.  Even though it was said to be bad, I had to have it.  I wanted to see.  I NEEDED to see.  So I bought a copy online from a helpful forum member over at AtariAge.  Iíve had the cart for a little while now, and Iím already getting my butt kicked by that muscle-bound Abobo bruiser.  Which doesnít sound impressive if you havenít played this conversion of the game.  But it means Iím making it through the first screen of henchmen, the second screen with the beefy guys (one holding a stick!), the back alley full of ladies (I use the term looselyÖ theyíre mean!), and another screen or two of baddies before a pair of Abobii kill my ass dead.

"Abobos"? "A murder of Abobb"?

And hereís the thing: I STINK.  Iím a casual gamer, at best.  I love the games, but comparing myself to the lists in online "high score clubs" makes me embarrassed.  I canít even play Asteroids (itís my secret shame).  Sometimes *gasp*, I even play games in the child-friendly "Teddy Bear" easy mode for a while when I get a new game.  Iíve never beat the Nintendo port of Double Dragon, either.  But if a gorilla like me can make this supposedly unplayable Atari game work with a worn-out joystick, it means it canít be as impossible as everybody says.  And I havenít even figured out the "reverse elbow" trick yet.

I say itís the the audacity of even porting such a "complex" game to such limited technology and the relatively high profile of the Double Dragon name thatís led to the game being the pariah of Atari fighting games, much like the infamous landfill has made E.T. the perfect target for scorn of other kinds Ė some of which it probably doesnít deserve  (though I still havenít figured out how to get very far myself).  But seriously, whatís the competition among 2600 beat 'em ups?  Some people say good things about Kung-Fu Master, but Iím hard pressed to come up with many other side-"scrolling" beat 'em ups for the 2600 at all, much less ones that are any easier to navigate than Double Dragon.  And I canít get ANYWHERE in Chuck Norris Superkicks (sadly the one joystick button is not just "roundhouse kick".  That might help).

Ranting and raving about how Double Dragon stinks also opens up the "There was a Double Dragon on the 2600?" conversation (and letís face it, there are some people who love to bring things like that up just so they can show off).  People wouldnít care about some random, hard-to-play really difficult game called "Street Punch" on the 2600.  People care that this gameís "bad" because itís a Double Dragon game thatís supposedly so bad.  Which, ironically, makes it an easy punching bag.

But yeah, itís still "stupid tough".  And flawed.  I donít blame people for not liking it one bit.  Iím just saying I donít think it deserves the hate it gets.

Feel free to comment.  Share your love, share your hate.  Youíre not gonna sway me.  Itís flawed, but I like it.  Iíll probably never make that short list of people that have finished the game, but even though I went into it as a Double Dragon fan wanting to find a reason to like the game, itís proven to be much more enjoyable than expected.

The high score... so far...

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