As we near then end of 1988 we’re greeted by one of the biggest games to grace Sega’s console. Arcades during the late 1980s had many memorable releases, but one of the biggest has to be Double Dragon, Techons’ beat-em-up that was a smash hit upon its debut in 1987, mainly thanks to its famed two-player simultaneous action that let a pair of buddies team up for some street brawling. With the game being so successful it’s no surprise that home ports appeared on just about every gaming platform, in fact Double Dragon is one of the very few games to be converted onto all three 8-bit consoles. The NES version came out first courtesy of Tradewest, which was good but made quite a few tweaks to the game and lacked any two-player ability. Activision would eventually publish a somewhat disappointing version for the Atari 7800 (as well as an ill-advised version on the Atari 2600). And the Master System got its own version of DD from Sega, certainly one of the few huge hits to appear on their console. Unlike the NES adaptation, Sega’s cartridge ventured to be completely faithful to the arcade version, including two-player simultaneous capability which Sega would proudly boast about in every print ad and TV commercial. But what could have been a prime chance for Sega to get one over on its competitor unfortunately goes horribly wrong thanks to some ill-advised ideas.
The game centers around twin brothers Billy Lee and Jimmy Lee, a pair of skilled martial artists who just witnessed their lady friend Marion being abducted by the Shadow Warriors, the tough gang that supposedly rules the city streets. Not too surprisingly the brothers decide to the best way to save their friend is by going into the Warriors’ turf and inflicting some vigilante justice through four stages, or ‘missions’. As noted above this version lets two players join forces as Billy (Player 1) and Jimmy (Player 2) make their way to the end of each stage while taking out any punk that comes your way, and the whole arcade cast is present from from lesser foes like Williams, Roper and Linda to the iconic brute Abobo. Naturally the Dragons have a selection of martial arts attacks to bust up the bad guys but unlike the NES cart there’s no need to earn your moves here, your full arsenal is at your disposal right from the start. Along the way several types of weapons can also be picked up and used including bats, whips, knives, barrels and rocks, though they only last when the attacking group is on the screen, after which they vanish. At the end of each stage you must defeat one of the three sub-bosses to proceed to the next level, and waiting for you at the end of the game is the Shadow Boss himself, Willy, who’s ready to greet you with his machine gun. Interestingly enough the coin-op’s two-player finale is intact here; after you defeat Willy the Lee Brothers then end up fighting each other to see which of them gets Marion’s hand.
On the surface this SMS version seems like a mostly decent conversion job by Sega that does mostly follow the arcade original, despite a few shortcomings with the audio and visuals. The stages aren’t the greatest with some rather plain backgrounds and layouts but they do somewhat resemble the coin-op, though you’ll notice a number of alterations and omissions compared to the coin-op. The characters are also mostly recognizable while sporting some okay details and animation but are a little on the small side and quite a bit of flicker pops up when too many guys bunch together. The background music certainly does a solid job mimicking the coin-op’s familiar tunes and they are fun to listen to, even though they sound a little beepy in spots. The sound effects are rather nondescript but when you or your foe perishes he lets out this weird squealing sound that gets slightly annoying.
As far as the gameplay goes, it plays as you’d expect but is plagued by major issues with the action. For starters the hit detection is iffy, meaning it looks like your hitting your foe but the game doesn’t seem to register it while your opponent seemingly has no trouble getting in his shots. It also doesn’t help that all the enemies require way too many hits to take out and they quickly recover from being knocked down, including the lesser foes, so be prepared to constantly lose lives trying to finish them off. In essence your only real chance is to hit a jump kick then retreat for another jump kick, which sucks all the fun out of the action. The game is generous with continues through the first three stages which restart you right where you perished at, but this also proves to be a double-edge sword; it seems like your only way to make any progress with all the cheap fighting you’ll endure, yet it essentially gives you unlimited lives which lets you plow through this game in no time at all. It’s like the programmers tried too hard to mimic the original’s quarter-munching mentality which doesn’t necessarily fly on a home console. Granted when you reach the last stage the game suddenly cuts off your credits, meaning you lose your remaining lives and the game ends (unless you execute a hidden cheat maneuver to re-enable them which allows you to reach the end with little trouble).
So ultimately Sega’s Double Dragon will go down as another missed opportunity for their 8-bit console, certainly a waste of one of the biggest licenses for their console. The graphics and sounds could have been overlooked and this cart could have been a solid DD port had the gameplay been polished up. Instead the cheap fights and frustration combined with the unbalanced continue system ruin any enjoyment this game could have provided, plus once you see the ending there’s nothing else to keep you playing. You’d figure Sega could have easily addressed these issues before unleashing this port on the public, but they were either that lazy or that desperate to meet the Christmas season. The NES adaptation may have taken a few liberties but does prove to be the better, more console-friendly game, and even added a cool one-on-one fighting mode for extra fun. So I’d have to recommend that version over Sega’s release, or better yet, pop Double Dragon II into your Nintendo system for a real satisfactory 8-bit DD experience. Any way to slice it, there’s no denying that Sega seriously dropped the ball.