Arcade / 1987 / Developer: Technos Japan / Publisher: Taito
As a youngster in my early years of gradeschool, I was known to frequently haunt the video arcades of my hometown. Whether it be a dedicated game pit in the mall, the mini-arcade at the local movie theater, or the massive underground Tilt complex in the galleria downtown, I loved the experience of wandering the dark, cavernous spaces lined with dozens of flashing game machines. Playing here was a unique, public experience; you could suddenly be performing for spectators at any moment, or if you came across a multi-player game, you could jump in and instantly be fighting alongside a handful of other guys, working together towards each successive goal.
Though I loved playing many, many different arcade games from this era, Double Dragon remains the one that's stuck with me over the years. The game kicks off with an extremely lean setup, followed by simple, straight-forward action. When the first quarter drops, we are presented with a young woman in a red dress standing in front of a grungy brick building. A gang of men walks up, and their leader, with no warning, slugs her in the stomach and carries her away, slung over his shoulder. As they retreat, the garage door of the building in the background opens to reveal the player character (along with a flashy red Camaro.) The player begins to pursue the kidnappers but is confronted by thugs, and without hesitation ruthlessly lays down the law with his fists, knees and flying kicks. It's all right there in the first 20 seconds. It grabs you and doesn't let go.
Double Dragon stood out from its contemporaries by settings its story in our world, as a bare knuckle conflict between individuals on familiar streets. There was nothing fantastical about it-- no aliens, no lasers, no space ships or goblins or magic spells. Double Dragon was about men, in a city, fighting it out for the sake of the woman imperiled. It was something more visceral than the abstractions of Defender, Pac-Man or Galaga; it was something to identify with, and live vicariously through. As a kid who didn't get along with his classmates much, I'm sure for me it had a strong quality of playing out physical aggressions in a way I never could in real life-- my resentment or anger towards bullies in school could be easily superimposed over the power fantasy of being Billy Lee, grinding thug after thug into the pavement. I have to recognize this part of the intrinsic value the game held for me at the time, even though it's not the noblest reason to enjoy a game.
Regardless of its connection to a certain stage in my life, a time when I would beg my parents to drive me to the arcade just so I could play through Double Dragon again on a fresh five-dollar bill, I legitimately enjoy the game itself to this day, and feel that it's held up as the pinnacle of the pure 2D brawler genre. It's not muddled by extraneous features or a fantastical setting. It's still fun and quick to play through, as I do every so often on MAME, or most recently on the arcade-perfect HD port released over Xbox Live Arcade.
The rawness and immediacy of its setting and action haven't dulled in the least over the years; Double Dragon defined the high watermark for these qualities in games early on. The only true, modern successor has been Rockstar's The Warriors, an homage simultaneously to the cult classic film and the old-school arcade brawler. This is clear enough from the action of the game proper, but it's spelled out explicitly once you complete the main campaign and unlock "Armies of the Night," an arcade machine that appears in the Warriors' hideout. The minigame is a loving remake of the original Double Dragon, as evidenced by its opening moments, and the sidescrolling street fights that follow. Rockstar Toronto's affection for their source material really showed through in every aspect of the final product.
It's nice to see such talented people carrying the torch for one of my all-time favorite games.