Top 100 NES Review: #60 – Double Dragon II: The Revenge (1989)

LIFE ISN’T FAIR

And other life lessons learned from Billy and Jimmy Lee in this erudite, side-scrolling, beat-em-up adventure.

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Billy Lee pondering his place within the technicolor dreamcoat of his existence.

Sydlexia’s Rating: #60/100
Developer: Technos Japan
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

The beat-em-up genre defined an entire generation. Its repetitive-button smashing released personalized-serotonin hits allowing us to feel good while eschewing any actual personal development. I don’t know of any other category of video game that so easily mixes repeated motions with such a sense of accomplishment – complete entertainment with little effort.

Except when the Double Dragons are involved. 

What we have here is a compact set of nine levels, beautifully architected for the pithy purpose of teaching us that life’s lottery doesn’t always come up triple 7s. A perfect compliment to my summer of mismanaged love and unfortunate living arrangements, Double Dragons II helped me cope with the idea that this isn’t all my fault.

On the surface, this game seems like your typical arcade fanfare: you dent in the faces of nameless antagonists until they crumple to the ground and flicker away to begin their journey to the afterlife. Quickly you realize something is awry. While most games have the standard set up of one button for jump and one button for attack, this game decides to have one button dedicated to right attacks and one for left attacks regardless of the direction you are facing. This counter-intuitive set up initiates an immediate learning curve within a genre whose ostensible purpose is to require as little thinking as possible.

LIFE ISN’T FAIR. 

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Stage 3: A convincing helicopter level due to the reduced screen size.

Making matters worse, the game does not just require the basic beat-em-up skills of attack and dodge. The game expects quite a lot of platform jumping, not unlike the Mario series. What is unlike Mario, and even more of an unexpected expectation, is that the two, black-belt level protagonist did not master the art of jumping. Sure, they can momentarily leave the ground, but it isn’t coordinated or reliable. While you gleefully celebrate a copious health bar, you realize death comes swift and easy due to falls from high places.

LIFE ISN’T FAIR.

The next twisted layer is that many times the level’s front end is not sealed: while there is no indication this is possible, you will fall off the front edge of the game in an automatic death. One moment you are snaking up and down a corridor completing your God-given right to have other people stop your fist with their face, the next you are falling off an imaginary boundary in a two-dimensional world, making you question the morphology of Billy Lee’s life.

LIFE ISN’T FAIR. 

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The Final Battle: A fight against oneself

Avoiding these pitfalls and learning the controls were inconveniences I was prepared to bear. Using the personality attribute of grit, I made my way to the final battle. In true B- grade movie form, the final boss was a reflection of myself. I wondered if the game was making a statement, that they knew that I was my own worst enemy and that a catharsis could be had in defeating my reflection in battle to be born a new. Upon succeeding at this task, I thought it was time to celebrate my new life, but then this appeared:

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The real battle only happens on a harder level!

LIFE ISN’T FAIR.

Now knowing I had to replay the entire game on a harder level, I read Double Dragon II’s Wikipedia. I learned that there were password codes, and knowing I beat the game with no lives remaining, this harder level would require a little bit of assistance. If you start a two-player game and beat the other player to death, you would gain one life for each of theirs lost — a weird version of soul sucking. As I pummeled my best-but-not-real-friend Jimmy, I realized he had drawn the short stick in life, but then I realized I didn’t have a best-but-real-friend to even play as Jimmy.

LIFE ISN’T FAIR.

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Beating up your supposed player two to get lives for player one when there is no player two — twisted.

With a total of eight lives, I began my journey again. Through the first eight levels, I revisited the hardships of previous trials but with even more difficult enemies. These experiences hardened me, and I learned to manage my emotions.

As I reached the final level, I knew it was time for me to take it on home. The final villain killed my in-game girlfriend, and while I have been hunting him down through underwater bases, helicopters, dungeons and forests, there was finally no place for him to run. With my stockpile of lives, I had the confidence and swagger. Finally — fate was on my side.

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The long awaited victory.

With his defeat, he told me of a prophecy that would bring back my beloved Marian. As I waited for the events to unfold, I felt a sense of peace. All that was left to do was to was celebrate my victory and enjoy what life had given me — in their world and ours.

LIFE IS FAIR.

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