You walk forward, and you punch things. The scrolling brawler may have been relegated to an indie favourite in recent years, but in the pre-polygon era they were everywhere. Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, Streets of Rage, the Shinobi games, Final Fight, Golden Axe… the list goes on. Everyone has their favourite, but during my introduction to home gaming, the options on C64 were limited. Renegade was unplayable for the longest time because there were no instructions on the inlay of our copy and we never knew that the second controller performed attacks until years later. Target Renegade was an improvement, but it was pretty difficult and a little buggy. Another scrolling fighter I remember owning was Double Dragon on C64, but it’s as far removed from the arcade and NES titles as you can imagine.
Double Dragon on C64 – split personality
To begin with, Double Dragon on C64 was something that received two releases; an Ocean release in the early 90s and a Melbourne House release in the late 80s. I only ever played the Melbourne House game so maybe I was spending time with the wrong game without knowing, but it’s something that probably needs clearing up before we move on. When it comes to Double Dragon, most people are familiar with the setup – Billy and Jimmy fight waves of enemies in a bid to rescue the love interest Marian. In the arcade original and several other conversions, it’s a fun and memorable experience, but the Melbourne House C64 release suffered in comparison. On the surface, the game looks fine – the graphics are a bit more simplistic but graphical elements are recognisable. However, things soon turn ugly.
Double Dragon on C64 – health bars and hitboxes
In a scrolling fighter, enemies typically have an invisible amount of “health” that drains as you successfully land attacks on them. In the arcade release of Shinobi, one or two close range attacks could dispatch any standard foe. When playing the Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja coin-op, most regular enemies fall after one hit. Admittedly, difficulty settings can change health levels in some games, but most of the time the fodder enemies don’t hang around. When playing Double Dragon on C64, the first enemies you come across can take upwards of 20 hits before defeat. After about six kicks to the face they fall over and get back up, and you need to repeat this several times… and then do it again to the next enemy. And the next. It’s mind-numbingly repetitive and turns the game into an incredibly slow experience. With a mid-boss or end of level guardian you expect a large health bar, but imagine facing pairs of enemies that each take 20 hits as your regular stage encounters.
To make things worse, combat is both frustrating and simplistic. Sometimes when playing Double Dragon on C64 it feels like enemies can stunlock you and drain your health as you try to escape, and at other times you can simply kite your foes around, perform an attack that stays out for a while… and it’s likely that one of your opponents will walk into the hitbox. Gameplay can be samey, it can be annoying, but it’s rarely fun. In comparison, you can play the arcade game and knock down an opponent with about three attacks – after about three knockdowns, they’re gone. The NES game was similarly efficient, with around six hits being enough for each enemy. Maybe the enemies are just as cheap or braindead as they are on C64, but they don’t stick around long enough for you to find out. It might seem like I’m making a big deal of a handful of elements, but the pace and enjoyment of a scrolling brawler is defined by the exciting encounters and fun player abilities. With Double Dragon on C64, encounters just wear you down with repetition.
Double Dragon on C64 – it gets worse
The bad news keeps coming – as if the gameplay wasn’t enough to put you off, the quality of the presentation surrounding the game is mixed at best. Sure, the backgrounds are reminiscent of the arcade game and the enemies and weapons are there, but on the Melbourne House release your entire soundtrack consists of a few melodies from the stage one theme (parts of the tune play in the title screen and at the end of a stage, but the stages themselves are mostly silent aside from sound effects of attacks.) Now, those stage one melodies are really good and capture the spirit of the original, but their application within the game is so limited that it feels like a waste. I even scanned through the SID music data to see if there were more tracks later on that I had forgotten about, but I could only find those melodies for stage completion and the title screen.
If you were somehow able to stumble through the damage-sponge enemies and complete the first stage of Double Dragon on C64, the game reveals its party piece. The cassette release was a multiload game, meaning that each stage had to be loaded individually, and if you ran out of lives you would have to load the game again. I believe the game shows a little mercy by replenishing your energy at the start of each new stage, but the repetition will eventually get to you and you’ll begin to make mistakes. And after that kind of first impression, who’d want to wait through another load for a new attempt? I eventually saw the rest of the game, but only after a POKE or listing of some sort. Even then, the rest of the game is just more encounters with samey enemies that take just as long to eliminate and are just as much fun to fight. I love scrawling brawlers, but I feel like some people got a better introduction to the genre than others. Today Streets of Rage is on the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection released for Xbox 360 and PS3, whilst Final Fight is available on the Capcom Collections for PS2, PSP and Xbox. Having experienced these games today, I can’t help but think that I should have waited for the genre to grow up a little.