Saturday 1 July 2017

Double Dragon for the Nintendo Entertainment System

I love me some Double Dragon. Whether back in the day or more recently, it's always good for a quick whirl. While not the first scrolling beat 'em up, it took the arcades by storm in 1987 and bequeathed home conversions for every format going. Even the Atari 2600. Its three dimensional play field, the ability to pull off multiple moves, pick up and use weapons and simultaneous two player action saw it become a massive, massive hit even though (whisper it) the game wasn't amazing once the novelty wore off. One for when you had your mates around.

In all, Double Dragon was a depthless experience. It didn't take long for the most novice of players to master it and breeze through the game in 20 minutes or so. I can remember being forced to play it using keys on my beloved Spectrum and it was still a breeze. Unfortunately, as the eight moved into the 16-bit era and game styles evolved, in all fundamentals Double Dragon did not. While developer Technos released a couple of sequels to the arcade, by 1989 and the appearance of Capcom's Final Fight it looked very tired and dated indeed. Nevertheless its position in the video game pantheon was secured and is one of the better remembered titles of the era.

The NES version, however, is a game apart from the arcade and other versions. It has the Double Dragon title on the cart, sprite design follows the original, and level themes just about match up to the parent machine. And it involves you beating up lots of thuggish folk. And there the similarities end. Whereas the original is a simple left-to-right fighty affair, the developers rejigged the NES conversion and gave it a bit of extra oomph by extending the levels and introducing some simple platforming (as folks who were around at the time know, platforms were the game type for Nintendo's system). It certainly added to the challenge and gave the cart some longevity. Indeed, in terms of difficulty the game is on another planet compared to other home versions. This was a regular practice for arcade conversions on the NES, particularly where they were shallow experiences - a value-for-money approach their Sega rivals never quite cottoned on to.

Adding to the difficulty were some quite unnecessary innovations missing from other versions. These included a forced one player experience - no co-op here. An experience system (of sorts) where passing score thresholds unlock extra fighting moves and, annoyingly, the readiness with which the game discards weaponry you've picked up. Using the baseball bat was always a favourite on other versions, so its removal ramps up the tough gameplay. Yet for all that, it remains entertaining if a touch unbalanced in the CPU's favour. However, provided you can master the elbow punch most enemies won't give much trouble.

As the first modern brawler Double Dragon set out the terms not just for its sequels but a genre too, until the scrolling fighter petered out with the coming of three dimensional gaming anyway. It was an edgy game, and the NES surprisingly retained that quality. Here was bare knuckle fighting and, if you chose, you could hurt your enemies with bats, knives and bombs. There were even women you had to fight, which was also something of a first. Considering the wholesome reputation Nintendo in America had assiduously cultivated its surprising Double Dragon made the trip from Japan with all the violence intact, despite the redesign. For 1987 and 1988, this was a watershed moment. Ironic then that a cutting edge title was a deeply conservative game that drew from the cultural well of the time.

As a Japanese title, the setting and art direction drew heavily from 1980s Hollywood action/martial arts films, wrapped around the tired damsel-in-distress trope. Indeed, the intro infamously starts off with your girlfriend getting punched in the guts. Classy. But you know what to expect - the action begins in a crime ridden depressed inner city area and you proceed from there, ending up in some fancy semi-mystical oriental (and orientalist) fortress at the end. Very Big Trouble in Little China, etc. And the baddies are unambiguously bad: they're criminals. When it comes to video games, there's a whole load of politics around who gets to be the baddie. For example, rumblings of disquiet were recently audible when UbiSoft announced that the antagonists in the latest of their Far Cry series were Mid-Western USA white supremacists. Back in Double Dragon, and like many games of the time, the politics of bad guys was straight forward. Who can object to beating up street thugs? Ditto aliens, Nazis, robots, faceless soldiers, etc. This digital war against crime dovetailed with increasing media panics about urban lawlessness and the authoritarian clamour to "do something" about it. This was a seam RoboCop famously mined and satirised, and here Technos picked up on it, repackaged it, and sold it back to Western markets. Coincident with this was a return to the city in North Amercan and European economic policy. The late 1980s were a moment where sundry governments and local authorities were rebuilding, "regenerating" city centres and gentrifying urban neighbourhoods. Sometimes, ironically, in locations made credible and glam by cinema's tours of the seamy underbelly of criminalised - but iconic - cityscapes. As regen agencies were driving out the demon poor and flushing away the lumpen crims, Double Dragon did its bit by breaking ideological ground for public indifference to the complaints and injustices urban regeneration was turning up.

The second issue here, again something copied by later beat 'em ups, is the treatment of women. Yes, there is the girlfriend who not only gets battered, but is actually a prize you fight for. At the end of Double Dragon you go up against your twin brother (in other versions, if you're in two player co-op you get to scrap with your buddy for her hand). What does interest me however are the female opponents. From the first level you're occasionally assailed by big haired beefy women ... wearing dominatrix outfits. Some approach you carrying a whip you can half-inch and temporarily turn against their owners. Just consider the optics of this. To codify the male villains as baddies you have permutations of a thuggish countenance. Well, as much as the NES could manage it (the depiction is clearer in the arcade version). However, for a woman to be denoted as 'bad' they sexualise her. You find exactly the same in Streets of Rage 2, the Final Fight series, and so on. This draws on age-old characterisation of women with independent sexual agency as evil, scheming, and self-serving. Moving beyond the vamp and the seductress into something else entirely, Double Dragon annexes the obvious association between fetish wear and BDSM and positions our Miss Whiplash characters (or 'Linda' according to the manual, as in Lovelace?) as violent enemies you are invited to smack around, whip, and in later levels pin down and punch. If it's only a bit of fun, then why are bad women depicted this way in game after game, in this franchise and beyond?

There's your Double Dragon for you. An easy game on other systems, and an entertaining, if tricky NES romp. The real difficulty lies, however, with its feeding into the complex of ideological alibis for the punitive clearance of the awkward classes from our city centres. And that's before we mention the reinforcement all the hypocritical, conservative nostrums about women and sex. If only those attitudes could be rendered digitally and taken out for a fun kicking instead.

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