Beat cred

Urban brawling has never been so attractive

This one laid the blueprint for Streets Of Rage, Golden Axe and countless other scrolling beat-em-ups. Double Dragon from Technos is an elbow smash of utter brilliance. It can be completed in just twenty minutes, but there’s a lot packed into that time. This fighter is an arcade hit without equal.

Double Dragon level 1, with Pete Prodge

Here in the age of social media, it’s possible for anyone to act like a tough guy in front of a glowing screen. Back in 1987, your options were limited to this astonishing game from Technos. It’s not the first scrolling beat-em-up, but the slickness of Double Dragon ensured it was a highly compelling coin magnet. A rich colour palette and sampled speech made it streets ahead of previous efforts, like Kung-Fu Master or Renegade. Oh, and you could pick up weapons like it’s a WWE hardcore match.

In fact, this game was created by the same guy who came up with Renegade, carrying the same urban attitude but offering a bigger adventure. You started out in a gritty slum, akin to any movie depiction of 1980s New York, before moving on to some kind of industrial warehouse. It’s here where you’ll find a conveniently-placed pit to throw baddies into, or maybe you’d like to throw them onto the conveniently-placed conveyor belt that leads to a mechanised death.

Then you’d wander through a forest, of all things, before stumbling upon a guarded palace that fits every expectation of a Bond villain’s lair. That’s where you have to take out the big bad evil machine-gun-wielding boss Willy (look, I didn’t name him) and rescue your kidnapped girlfriend. Oh, did I not mention that? I think I touch upon it in the review video.

How I discovered Double Dragon

Naturally, it was the mean streets of downtown, er, Wellingborough, where I first encountered Double Dragon. Alright, it was in a fairly sedate area, although the arcade was a bit of a secret and was in fact operating illegally. It’s pretty amazing I came across it at all, at the time.

In the space where a grocer’s shop once stood, lots of children and teenagers knew, merely through word of mouth, that there was a load of arcade cabinets ready to play. The owners of the former shop, Dave and Linda, had a little side business renting out arcade games elsewhere in town.

For many years, Gordon Road’s chip shop had taken on their services, with a lone cabinet offering goes of the rather primitive Carnival, a game Sega developed way back in 1980. That was eventually refreshed, and I use that word very generously, with a 1983 Konami platformer. Roc’n Rope may have been a cutesy looking novelty, but it was devastatingly hard. There wasn’t much joy in it, it’s the kind of game you acquire if you couldn’t get hold of Bubble Bobble. Come to think of it, it’s not even at Snow Bros‘s level.

A lot of Dave and Linda’s collection was of this vintage, such as Ms Pac Man and Donkey Kong. While I was happy to play anything, this was a tad underwhelming for the average kid in 1987, as seaside amusements and bigger towns were substantially more up to date. We were hardly in a position to complain, Wellingborough is an insignificant East Midlands market town and in our eyes, Dave and Linda’s secret arcade was massively better than any youth club.

The corner of Mill Road and Gordon Road, Wellingborough
The corner of Mill Road and Gordon Road, Wellingborough

One night, I couldn’t help noticing how a small crowd had huddled around two of the rather bigger kids. The sight of Billy and Jimmy slugging it out with two monstrous skinheads on some rocky clifftop was my first glimpse of Double Dragon.

Amazingly, this game was just mere months old. Unsurprisingly, it was the most in-demand game in the short time that ‘Fight Club’ of an arcade existed. You had to feel sorry for some of the older cabinets. The recently jettisoned Roc’n Rope (the chip shop decided a fruit machine was more lucrative) gathered cobwebs in a corner.

The local council got wind of the arcade’s existence, realising it didn’t have the necessary license and issued a shutdown order. Dave was interviewed in the local paper and stated that the closure didn’t affect his overall business activities, just that it would be a kick in the teeth for the local youth.

I’m not exactly sure what Dave and Linda did in that pokey corner where Mill Road and Gordon Road meet, despite them being personal friends of my mother. They established D&L Business Services there and seemed to sell on fruit and veg to places in a van. I knew their daughter and she told me of her joy of getting to play Roc’n Rope all to herself before the place opened to hordes of boys wanting some digital entertainment.

Punching above your weight

When Double Dragon was finally converted to home systems two years later by Melbourne House, my brother and I – huge fans of the game – were keenly awaiting its arrival, so we could play it on my Spectrum +2. What would it be like? How would they get the three action buttons in?

A friend managed to get hold of it before we did, bringing it round to play. Our jealousy quickly evaporated when we how the ZX Spectrum conversion was clearly a total turkey. It wasn’t just the offputting visuals, the awful collision detection and compromised gameplay made it a huge disaster. I’m glad we got to play it because that saved me a tenner.

We stuck with Target; Renegade, a two-player scrolling beat-em-up that we’d been playing since the previous year. That’s our surrogate Double Dragon.

Over the years, while on holiday, we’d specifically hunt out the game in arcades. On a day trip to France, we saw a rather battered cabinet in a cafe. Eagerly popping a couple of francs in, we got to relive the Gordon Road arcade days, although it was soured by the jump button not working. Not only did this reduce the number of fighting moves, it meant nobody could get past the broken bridge in Mission 3. Still better than the ZX Spectrum experience, anyway.

Double Dragon on the Sega Mega Drive
Double Dragon on the Sega Mega Drive

Come to think of it, it was a preferable experience to the rather lamentable Double Dragon 2, which never had the same impact as its predecessor.

By the late 1990s, my brother and I both had Windows PCs, which was the passport to satisfactory emulation. The Sega Mega Drive, a console I had wanted but couldn’t justify having while already owning an Amiga, could now be played using the Kega emulator, with virtually no problems.

It was here we noticed the version of Double Dragon was pretty damned close to the arcade original. It’s an opinion that’s not widely held, but sod it, it’s the next best thing and I don’t care if some of the colours were inaccurate.

A few months later, upon discovering the Double Dragon arcade ROMs online could be run using MAME (a prolific emulator that lets computer users play arcade games), we never looked back. It still gets a bash, if you pardon the pun, today.

Off the beaten track

These days when you mention fighting games, it’s all about Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken. Yes, those are fighting games and they have popularity that baffles me. It’s simply a one-on-one round, followed by another one-on-one round and so on. Scrolling combat games give you a sense of exploration, whereas the one-on-one repetition is like facing an end-of-level boss again and again and again.

Having refined the scrolling beat-em-up genre to a level far beyond the ‘stuck on rails’ concept of Kung Fu Master, there were loads of games jumping on that bandwagon. Dragonninja was a notably poor effort, whereas the tremendous Final Fight made your jaw drop.

Arcade games using familiar pop culture icons like The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also built on the ‘roam about and deck anyone who moves’ concept. These were a bit simplistic and you faced armies of cloned baddies. Sure, Double Dragon would repeat the same old bad guys a bit, but nowhere to the extent of Konami’s engine.

Double Dragon Neon on PlayStation 3
Double Dragon Neon on PlayStation 3

The market saw a lot of scrolling combat games, none of them really matched the brilliance of Double Dragon in my opinion, but here are a few that are definitely worth a look:

  • Knights Of The Round
  • Cadillacs And Dinosaurs
  • Night Slashers

Of course, the best contender of all comes really close to taking the crown. Sega’s Golden Axe is incredibly good and in the review video, I complement its contrast to Double Dragon‘s urban mayhem.

Also, without Double Dragon, you wouldn’t have the astonishingly good Streets Of Rage series, which must have shifted a fair few Sega Mega Drives (and Genesises) around the world. Sure, it’s trying to ape Final Fight, but there’s a lot in there for fans of Billy and Jimmy.

In the review video, I touch upon a few versions that are trying to be ‘improvements’ on the original Double Dragon. Some go a bit sideways, some are just a huge turn-off, but there is one astonishing effort that really rivals the arcade version.

A few years back, an attempt was made at producing a much better ZX Spectrum version. Dean Swain of Retro Asylum was involved with veteran Ocean coder Jim Bagley and Speccy ambassador Matthew Westcott, managing to produce a tech demo where the Jimmy sprite could walk around a largely empty level 1 area.

Playing Double Dragon on a Sega Mega Drive, using an Everdrive cartridge
Playing Double Dragon on a Sega Mega Drive, Reheated Pixels retrogaming night at Olde England, Wellingborough

You can download the tech demo from Spectrum Computing, and although it’s far from an actual game, the fact it can play a decent AY rendition of the arcade tune and that it looks massively better shows you what could have been.

I managed to catch up with Jim last year in Blackpool when I was filming my Play Expo video as he showcased his new games on the Spectrum Next stand. I asked him if he’d be returning to that Double Dragon update, and his response can be seen in my review video.

Making the video

I started filming bits for this video as soon as I finished recording the Out Run review video. The daft skit with two Double Dragon characters was put together one Sunday afternoon in January 2019, involving a lot of green face paint, an embarrassing pink unitard (which needed keying in post-production to get the colour right) and an explanation for the lack of a muscly body.

It’s taken absolutely eons to get this video finished because last year I was snowed under with nicely-paid freelance work (which also delayed the Out Run video). I can’t really turn that down as the income helps pay for my retrogaming obsession. Oh, that work continued in 2020, which also threw up You Know What.

In the parallel universe where COVID-19 wasn’t a thing, this review video would have been out by April, but, having interests in other areas, I spent much of Spring helping raise over £2,000 for NHS Birmingham Children’s Hospital via my love of Tiswas. That was something that called upon my technical and gaming knowledge to get going. In a year where mankind faced an unexpected challenge, I also did other things for charity, like a solo marathon.

Green Abobo from Double Dragon?
Wayne Stanmore claims to have played the Green Abobo

After covering 17 versions of Out Run and ending up with a video almost an hour long, I thought things would be easier with Double Dragon.

How wrong I was. I soon learnt there were 22 versions available for me to play. Actually, probably more than that. I didn’t include the Neo-Geo version as that was based on the poorly-received 1994 Double Dragon movie and it uses the Street Fighter set-up of just being a load of one-on-one rounds.

That’s not to say I’ve kept completely within the strict boundaries of canon. The Game Gear, NES, Game Boy and SNES efforts are wildly off-piste. PlayStation 3’s Double Dragon Neon had to be included for its silly camp take on the original. My only concern was whether it was retro enough, it just about edges in.

Spending that weekend at Play Expo Blackpool 2019 really paid off, because I ended up with footage of an actual Double Dragon arcade cabinet, with people playing it in 2-player mode (thanks James O’Grady and Mr PSB!)

I had spent a lot of last year trying to track one down, having been given the impression there’d be one at a pop-up event in a High Wycombe shopping centre, which turned out to be baloney. Even the impressive Arcade Club in Bury had their machine out of action, leaving me with just Double Dragon 2 to film and frankly, that’s a ‘nope’ from me.

Aside from the usual green screen presentation, I did venture just a few miles away to be filmed in front of a gritty wall heavily covered in graffiti. The idea being that I was in the very world of Double Dragon. The irony is, it’s on a very sedate upper-middle-class part of my town.

Back when I was doing the Out Run video, I had to acquire a real Sega Saturn to capture footage of that version, it simply was not able to be emulated.

When I started Reheated Pixels, I knew I’d have to rely heavily on emulation, as I barely own any retro hardware. In a way, that made sense. I don’t have the space to start collecting old kit and emulation is far easier to record.

However, my want for a Sega Mega Drive had to be addressed, and so I ended up getting an unmodified one off eBay and an EverDrive cartridge to play virtually any game file from a microSD card. (See, the freelance work pays for this kind of stuff!)

Double Dragon, Atari 2600
Double Dragon, Atari 2600 - just say 'no'!

The idea was to at least have one game running off original hardware, to please the purists. Alas, I did run into problems with capturing the output because of the bizarre signals being thrown out by it.

I got round it by bringing my camera to one of the Reheated Pixels retrogaming events held in a local pub, pointing the thing at my CRT telly and Mega Drive. My friends Richard Lockwood and Ruth Horner were keen (after a few jars) to speak about their first-ever go on Double Dragon, which I’ve included in the review video.

It looks like I may have got round the Sega Mega Drive problem by having bought a DVD recorder off eBay, which usually filter through RGB signals into digital video capture devices with very little hassle. I’ve not actually tested it yet, so who knows?

One thing I did directly capture off real hardware, was my PlayStation 3 – running Double Dragon Neon. The HDMI capture device for this was a bit expensive and by some annoying glitch, had to have two separate computers capturing it simultaneously (a MacBook for video, a Linux laptop for sound). I’ve now bought a much cheaper HDMI capture device that’s reputed to be a lot better. Again, I’ve yet to actually test it.

Lastly, having played about with Twitch this year, I decided to premier this review video on that platform, several days before I plonked it on YouTube. I came up with a little trailer for it.

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