Double Dragon Gaiden avoids the worst retro revival sin

While some game series are lost to the annals of the industry’s history, others meet a fate that’s a bit worse in some ways. I’m talking about franchises like Star Fox or Double Dragon that just keep going but almost solely focus on recapturing their former glory. Yes, Double Dragon continued after its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it’s also a series that feels stuck in the designs and iconography of that era. Games like Double Dragon Advance, Double Dragon Neon, and Double Dragon IV called back to the original but lost the ability to craft their own identity in the process.

Thankfully, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons doesn’t have that problem.

Releasing later this month, Secret Base and Modus Games’ Double Dragon Gaiden looks like it will be the freshest feeling game in this series since 1994’s Double Dragon V (which was a fighting game, for some reason). It does this not only with its new visual style and four distinct playable characters but with a roguelite setup that feels wholly unique within the beat ’em up genre, even within just 90 minutes of playtime.

More than a retread

Double Dragon Gaiden follows Billy and Jimmy, the original two protagonists of Double Dragon — as well as damsel-in-distress-turned-cop Marian and their Uncle Matin — as they fight the four gangs that have to most power in a post-apocalyptic world. These games have never had the deepest stories, but they don’t need to. That simple setup provides a solid enough backdrop for enjoyable beat ’em-up gameplay and roguelite runs.

At the start of a run, players choose two of the four characters to use (either as a tag team or in co-op) and can tailor various aspects for the run’s difficulty — like the cost of respawning or the difficulty of bosses — to their liking. After that, the run begins, and players can tackle Double Dragon Gaiden’s four main stages in whatever order they want. These levels play out in typical beat ’em up fashion, as you bring the hurt to the waves of enemies you come across with various combo and special attacks.

Like the best Double Dragon games, Gaiden’s combat is simple but satisfying, rewarding smart special ability usage by giving players healing items if they kill three or more enemies simultaneously. All four characters feel distinct from each other; my favorite ended up being Marian, as her long-distance gun and rocket launcher attacks allowed me to deal tons of damage from a distance to preserve health, which is vital in a roguelite.

Jimmy and Billy fight enemies in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
Modus Gmaes

While most of that is to be expected in a beat ’em up, Double Dragon Gaiden starts to differentiate itself in how it’s structured as a roguelike. Beat ’em up games are typically concise and encourage multiple replays, so it’s a genre that seems like it would mesh well with roguelike elements. My time with Double Dragon Gaiden so far indicates this is the case.

Every time you beat a boss, the remaining stages get harder by adding more sub-levels within the stage. The boss fight differs if you fight them after three sub-levels instead of one. I could see how this makes the experience feel fresh on repeated runs, as I’ll see new parts of certain levels depending on the order I choose to tackle them. This, along with the in-run power boosts players can choose between after each sub-level and stage completion, gives Double Dragon Gaiden welcome variety, which is something roguelites sometimes miss.

That’s not to say the game entirely abandons its roots. Some enemies and locales might be familiar to longtime Double Dragon fans, and it’s a reasonably easy-to-pick-up beat ’em-up. Still, it takes those elements and recontextualizes how players look at them. Because of that, it doesn’t feel like yet another retro retread but an interesting new interpretation of a storied formula. That’s ultimately what we need to see more when it comes to franchises that seem stuck in their ways.

Billy and Jimmy fight enemies on a train in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
Modus Games

When it might seem like a good idea to tap into fans’ nostalgia and play the series’ greatest hits over and over again, game series are at their best when they are constantly reinventing themselves; look at the reception to games like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, which went above and beyond as a sequel to an already fantastic game. Even after 90 minutes of playing, I already appreciate Secret Base’s efforts to make something that feels like Double Dragon but still pushes the series forward.

Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons launches for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch on July 27.

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