The carpet expelled puffs of pappadam crumbs, and smelt of sweaty socks and bare feet. It was rough to the touch; soothing on itchy palms or soles, and placed upon the carpet was an old, plastic monstrosity projecting flickering, black silhouettes on the cream-painted, rubbery walls. The walls glowed and pulsated pink and blue: just as arresting as the projector itself. Whilst a synthesised, uncomfortable, clicking and buzzing nibbled upon the pricked earlobes.
Just as enthralling, but not nearly so powerful in its aural and visual design, was Double Dragon. Two children could fit on the one keyboard; tiny fingers and hands never even colliding as the mechanical keys were prodded and crushed: the metallic vibrating underneath the fading plastic was absorbed by the soft carpet upon which it was placed. Down here on the floor, little lower than upright orientation, an intense martial arts fair was acted out in unreality.
Kicks, punches and throws were performed instantly; frantically, at the punch or chop of a key, and the martial artists slipped easily, sinuously across the ground; dodging whip-cracks and baseball bats. Ladders were climbed, and adversaries kicked back down to the ground to rot. Double Dragon was a fast, frantic, and manic affair. If one wanted to progress awfully far, then some of the more skilful, strategic delights that lay beneath the surface had to be discovered.
But if one simply wanted to punch people in the face at an unprecedented rate, then one merely needed to bash at the keys as frantically as one could. Such simple delights in Double Dragon: Neon are scarcely present, to the point where it bears little resemblance to its forebear. Neon is a plodding, methodical and sluggish affair, with the skilful nous that was required of players in the original replaced with an RPG-like upgrade and player stat system.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. As one stimulates masochistic dominatrices to the point of fatal climax, or pokes hulking bodybuilders until they pop, one picks up cassette tapes. Whack these tapes into the old Boombox, and voila: stats are boosted, and special moves unlocked. Each tape can be boosted in its power by discovering or buying another of the same type—up to a certain point. But even then, one can buy the ability to break the tape’s upgrade limit.
This adds an engaging, modern sense of continuity to the old mode of repetition which forces one to unlock difficulty levels only upon completion of the campaign. Which is no big thing: Neon lasts scarcely three hours. Over these brief three hours, the cadence builds and falls; sometimes with little rhyme or reason. Boss battles against adversaries who fight like men rarely rise above being more than battles of attrition; dodge and slap long enough, and they’re bound to die eventually—if only from exhaustion or boredom. A point exaggerated by the more imaginative bosses who, though gimmicky, complement the huff and puff of normal battle.
Some gimmick boss battles combine Neon’s rudimentary platforming with combat, whilst others rely on a well composed support cast of valuable peons, but throw in a few out of the box attack patterns to avoid at the same time for good measure. This well composed cast of valuable peons are put to excellent use elsewhere as well, with the flow and feel of battle altering drastically depending on whom it is one faces. One must approach different combinations of valuable peons with a different strategic mindset, and new valuable peons are discovered through a constant, tasty drip feed so that strategies must alter often.
Although—in a broad sense—strategy must change, the basics need not: leave the tape selection to the cerebellum, and the dodging-to-attack combos to the fingers. Dodging results in one gleaming: a fancy word for an attack boost. In this red, glowy state one does extra damage to enemies and, combined with a special move or two, it’s also the fastest way out of a tight spot, or the best way to sadistically mock an army of valuable peons one is about to render worthless.
But one cannot simply spam dodge. A ducking-dodge might be required to enter a state of gleam instead of being kicked in the gut—or dodging might not even be an option, and a well timed jump out of the way of an ankle-breaking somersault the only solution. All these moves are performed by the valuable peons at a slow, lethargic pace. This makes their moves easy to read, and it also gives the gameplay a decidedly un-Double Dragony—yet simultaneously old school—melody.
Syncing with the rhythm in the combat is no less satisfying because of its slow pace, and nor does it require less skill: the margin of error is still small enough to provide satisfaction, and the floaty weight of waiting for an incoming attack to begin adds an uncomfortable, engaging sense of tension to the combat; especially when one is confronted with an encroaching battalion of tough as nail bastards, and the barely-valuable peon refuses to attack, even though the resultant gleam is so desperately needed. It’s almost terrifying at times.
As the enemies mince in nonchalance, they may be rhythmically despatched with a combination of kicks, punches and a backwards throw which can only be performed when an enemy is stunned, thus depriving them of the few extra points of damage that a continued beating would accrue. However, this throw is a great way to break up that previously mentioned encroaching battalion; even a battalion can be kicked while it’s down for extra damage.
Accompanying the rhythmic, lethargic action is a suitably cheesy collection of ‘80s cock rock, and cocky ‘80s dialogue extreme in its maximum levels of rad, dude. It fits well with the titular Neon-sheen that gives Neon an aesthetic closer to the ‘80s resurgence of Vaseline lenses, rather than Double Dragon’s plastic, prime-coloured urban decay. And the cassette tapes themselves all have power-relevant, genre diverse comedy pop theme songs that can unfortunately only be heard when selecting the powers, and not when actually using them.
But Double Dragon: Neon is not entirely discordant with its namesake. Local co-op returns, bringing with it the same frantic chaos that made the original so special. With two people playing, then the rhythm increases drastically. No longer is timing and patience quite so important when enemies are so easy to juggle with an extra set of feet and fists (it’s more like playing catch than juggling, really), and death can be easily avoided through the power of resurrection. Or, resurrection might be achieved at the cost of the other player! What the fuck, bro?!
And now there’s even online co-op! Unfortunately this doesn’t presently work (unless being stuck off screen and punched in the face by invisible Williams constitutes “working”), but we’re promised that it will. One day. Until then, does it really matter? Grab any soon-to-be-bro off the street and set them up with your save file and super powers, and start tearing it up on the never ending quest to rescue Marianne who, presumably, loves a good spit roasting.