By pauljeremiah 1 Comments
With video games, timing is everything. Whether it's a rhythm game, a fighting game, or even a visual novel, pressing the right button at the wrong time will mess things up. This fact applies to making and releasing games, too: Video game history is littered with almost-sure-fire hits that had solid ideas or mechanics at heart but failed to find the audience another later product managed to grab. Pit Fighter tried to harness the power of digitised sprites in 1990; Nintendo tried to offer stereoscopic 3D graphics in 1995, and the Sega Dreamcast tried to provide online console gaming in 1999. All came up short.
To this list, we must add Double Dragon 3, the 1990 follow-up to two massively popular video games from the 1980s. When it debuted in arcades thirty years ago this month, Double Dragon 3 found itself unmoored from time, existing as a throwback experience that wasn't up to speed with its peers, despite featuring a brand-new gameplay function that was legitimately predictive of video gaming’s future.
Let's take one step back to remember that when Double Dragon and Double Dragon II were new, they were more than just hit arcade games. Double Dragon came to define the "beat-em-up" genre by offering players a chance to team up with a friend and brutalise their way through screen after screen of urban thugs. There was a narrative reason why street gangs had targeted Billy and Jimmy Lee, the titular "double dragons," but to a kid who just put a quarter in the machine, that didn’t matter. What mattered was two-player simultaneous street justice.
Double Dragon and its 1988 sequel were ported to every platform conceivable, from home computers to consoles to LCD handheld systems. Double Dragon, as a concept, was omnipresent for a good two or three years. Double Dragon 3 arrived at the tail end of the phenomenon: A time when the beat-em-up remained popular, but the genre had evolved. By 1990, beat-em-ups had expanded to include up to four players on screen, each with a variety of character options. The most famous of these, Final Fight, included three distinct fighter archetypes. Double Dragon 3 does support up to three players at the same time, thanks to the debut of Sonny—a third Lee brother?—but the only distinction between the three is their garment hues.
However, Double Dragon 3 isn’t limited to the activities of the ever-expanding Lee family, nor is it a simple rehash of the first two games' structure of "walk right, ascend, descend, enter the temple, kill machine-gun toting gang leader." No, Double Dragon 3 takes the form of a globe-hopping adventure wherein the Lee triplets are recruited by a mysterious elderly fortune teller named Hiruko to recover "three rosetta stones" and bring them to Egypt to face "the world's strongest enemy.”
Although the first stage, set in America, resembles the earlier Double Dragon titles, each subsequent stage takes place in a different country and features increasingly fantastic opponents. Stage 2 takes the brothers Lee to China, where the boss appears to be a very tall Bruce Lee; Stage 3 hops the border to Japan, where the trio faces a giant ninja; and Stage 4 consists of a brawl through Italy, where foes are eight feet tall and look like they stepped right off the set of Spartacus.
As players travel the world, a storefront in each stage allows them to purchase upgrades, ranging from life refills and weapons to the all-important "extra guys" who step in if Billy/Jimmy/Sonny is defeated. These extra guys come in three flavours: Shirtless bodybuilders in America, kung fu warriors in China, and karate masters in Japan. The major catch to these shops is that they only accept real-world money. Whether you're looking to learn a new move or pick up a pair of nunchucks, everything costs one credit each.
Is it fair to claim Double Dragon 3 effectively invented micro-transactions in 1990? The arcade business model is built on coaxing customers to jam more coins into the machine, and plenty of games before and since 1990 have allowed players to "INSERT COIN TO CONTINUE." What made Double Dragon 3 unique at the time was giving players a virtual storefront with purchasing options based on pocket change rather than simply relying on the need to continue to prompt a buy-in. When I was a kid, I wasn't taken aback by the system; I was more bothered by the fact that not all purchases were equal in value, yet their pricing was universal. Paying 25 cents for another life makes sense; paying 25 cents for a temporary power boost does not.
Even though we now live in a world where every video game—be it a free app on a smartphone or a $60 AAA-open world experience on a home console—straight-up offers players a means to pay actual money for virtual items, this credit-based item shop in Double Dragon 3 remains the game's most controversial feature. It was so poorly received that the feature was removed entirely when the game was released in Japan. Instead of buying extra men, Japanese players can select their fighter at the start of the game or when they pay to continue. Weapons are again scattered on the ground in-game, as seen in Double Dragon or Double Dragon II, and extra moves formerly sold in shops were changed to unlocked by default.
Yet if we as a society must choose to bury Double Dragon 3, it should not be for its forward-thinking financial options. Rather, excoriate it for janky, choppy animation that was a letdown at the time, never mind 30 years later. The characters move in such a disjointed fashion that it looks to modern eyes like a YouTube video failing to buffer properly or a Twitch stream struggling to keep up with a fast-moving game. But no, Double Dragon 3 looks that way, and it always did.
Double Dragon 3 arrived in arcades almost two years after Double Dragon II was released, yet it feels rushed and disjointed at every turn. The fantasy and international elements are not unwelcome changes, but there's no connective tissue to tie it all together, making it seem random... and that's before you make your way to a hidden underground Egyptian forest populated by walking treefolk who guards a living mummy that transforms into Cleopatra's ghost.
Even the titular "Rosetta Stones" in Double Dragon 3 are a disappointment because at no point does the player use them or even get to see them. MacGuffins in video games are nothing new, but these are invisible items that move the plot forward for no reason. Instead, after each boss falls, Hiruko walks on the screen to proclaim victory and announce the next destination. No one picks anything up or hands anything over. Could it have been so hard to include a small glowing pebble on the screen to indicate a stone was found? In November 1990, I was but a child and a terrible writer, but even I could have come up with a better in-game reason for three Double Dragons to journey around the planet.
I fear I'm coming down too hard on Double Dragon 3 in this column because, in reality, 14-year-old me loved this game. I didn't care about animation frames or that the story didn’t make sense; I cared that it was full of weird characters that I could run and tackle and jump upon until they collapsed and died. Pumping in a dollar or two and beating the game over my lunch break was a regular habit in high school before fighting games took over my world.
If I sound bitter about Double Dragon 3 today, it's with the knowledge that this third game was farmed out to a subcontractor and was effectively the end of the series. Giant Bomb can give you a complete list of subsequent Double Dragon games, including entries released 25 years apart as Double Dragon V and Double Dragon IV (yes, in that order). But, after 3, that was it. Even with the recent resurgence of indie-fueled beat-em-ups and "spiritual successors," no one is clamouring for more Double Dragon.