The Co-Op Chronicles: The Double Dragons

The exact circumstances are lost either to time or to the vacillating lucidity of my memory – thanks, high school – but one thing is for certain: the still as-yet unbroken gaming partnership between Dan and myself began with Technos’ 1987 arcade beat-em-up par excellence, Double Dragon.

I had heard much about the game well before I ever got to play it. Dan, by virtue of living in the well-furnished city of Sydney, had access to a more fruitful variety of arcade games than I could dream of growing up in the sparse and… Canberresque city of Canberra. We had Pole Position. We were glad for it. Luckily, Dan was all too happy to fill me in on what I was missing.

Legend told of two brothers named Billy and Jimmy Lee who took on a whole city and won. Stories were passed down about a game in which not only could you punch a guy recurrently in the face until he was doubled over in agony, but then for good measure grab him in a headlock, knee him twice to the chest and uppercut him so hard that he died. That you could also perform this particular coup de grâce on a woman possibly should have raised some concern, though the plight of these erstwhile femmes was unquestionably not helped by being represented solely as screeching, whip wielding, S & M clad harlots (Incidentally if my wife ever reads this, make sure to look out for a sweet video game collection on eBay). As if that weren’t enough, or if flesh-on-flesh wasn’t your thing, a convenient supply of baseball bats, crates, barrels, knives and honest-to-God dynamite were also available to aid you in your mission to avenge…

I don’t know. Whatever.

To my young Transformers and ALF-flavoured brain these details were dizzy stuff. What manner of witchcraft was this? Could man truly create such a delicate potpourri of creativity and eye-popping sadism and then by alchemy distill it into pure video game form?

Of course, Dan’s stories proved accurate and having bided our time well into 1988 we finally got our chance at a full co-op round. From that first simple drop of a 20c coin – the cost of a credit in those days, sonny – a fractalacious romance was ignited. Between us and the game, not each other you creeps. From then on, we became Double Dragon connoisseurs. No, let me just come out and say it: we had massive nerd-ons for the DD.

If there was a version of the game or its derivative, but still excellent, sequel out there we had to try it, dissect it and weigh it against its brothers: the 486 PC version had better graphics than the Commodore and Atari, but not as good as the Amiga or NES. Double Dragon 2 on the NES was superior to all other forms, while Double Dragon 3 in any guise was the plague wrapped in vomit. When boredom eventually set in, we staged whole games where the object was to use nothing but the head-butt maneuver to advance.

We even endured the idiosyncratic incompetence of the Commodore 64 version (1988, Binary Design) several times over simply because it was the only copy of the game at my house. If you are unfamiliar with this edition of Technos’ brawler, allow me to save you a few eye-rolls: The only conceivable way to beat the game in two-player mode, without self-reflexively eating your own head out of frustration, was to make full use of a couple of quirky cheats the programmers had either helpfully or absent-mindedly left in the final code. One of these made it possible to backtrack several screens any time you came across an enemy you didn’t like the look of (avoids obvious joke about c64 graphics) (actually, screw it: which, at 64k, WAS ALL OF THEM!). This would cause the enemy to instantaneously die off screen, presumably of loneliness, and leave a golden path to your next encounter or, better yet, the end of the level.

Another brow-scrunchingly odd programming decision was the one that saw all environmental hazards removed from the game. The menacing conveyer belt that terrorised the Brothers Lee at the end of Stage 1 had apparently been thoughtfully switched off by the last worker to leave the dock and now stood as a convenient place to rest your feet and catch your breath while you waited for the Stage 2 elevator (also removed). Likewise, the ever-efficient Council of Double Dragon City have seen to it and repaired that nasty broken bridge on Stage 2 and it will cause you no more trouble. Honestly, the early morning joggers had their routines cut in half by those vandalous Black Warrior hooligans. I mean, how on earth were the good folk from the east side of town supposed to get their weekly supply of English Tear?

Oh no!
Much more civilised.

The same Occupational Health and Safety team that cleaned up Stages 1 and 2 clearly also served notice to the final stage. Whereas previously the Brothers final trek to Big Boss Willy was via a death run through poorly stacked sandstone pillars and past sadistic demon-gargoyles whose only architectural purpose was to indiscriminately skewer passers-by at cheekily random intervals, Willy’s hall now resembles a rather pleasant, if somewhat austere, museum. Even Willy himself is far more welcoming in the c64 version, ever since the fun police took away all of the bullets to his treasured machine gun rendering it next to laughably ridiculous. Not one to part with a vestigial artefact so easily – it really tied the room together – Willy still clutches his pride and joy with a stern determinedness. Only, the problem is that on the c64 Willy’s machine gun looks less ‘instrument of voracious mutilation’ and more ‘sleepy cat’. Having a well-dressed, serious-looking man prod you rhythmically with the back-end of a rather unaffected tabby is not the dramatic you-or-me-mate final brawl one expects from a beat ‘em up, and thus a baffling experience comes to a flaccid end.

Can you spot the difference?

Finally, and this one was always our favourite, someone at Binary Design saw fit to imbue the enemy AI with an uncontrollably amorous streak. In 2 Player mode the number of enemies on screen rarely exceeded 1, making a gang-up scenario highly likely. Luckily, the program team sought to spice things up a bit. Upon appearing onscreen the enemy character would immediately fall madly in love with one of the player characters (selected randomly, as Cupid’s aim is wont to be) and, to the exclusion of all else, make a beeline toward the object of his affection with reckless abandon. His feet would know no stopping, save for the ancient love-craft of “Locking Into Position,” which is performed when his most desired walks to the top of the screen and jumps up once. This hurtful act of rejection so crushes the heart of the enemy that he becomes inconsolable, unable to move or face the harsh, careless beauty of the sunset. This of course meant that the other player character could then beat the candy-coloured crap out of the frozen enemy with complete impunity and a little smirk. It worked just about 100% of the time.

Listen, I don’t want to harp on the poor souls whose names are now inextricably linked to such an obvious and everlasting monument to failure any longer than is necessary, but when the Atari 2600 version a game is a more faithful, fully functioning piece of software than yours, rest assured that the wheels have well and truly come off and it may be time to reassess.

The one thing about the entire fiasco for which Binary Designs can lift their heads up high is that they have given unto Dan and I an enduring and easily adaptable catch-cry – or, yes, in-joke – for use in all our co-op endeavours; one that continues even today. A nasty Scarab blocking you path to the Prophet of Truth? “Lock him into position!” An Eritrean tank blocking your Ghosts? “Lock him into position!” Got your ass handed to you by that creepy Predator-thing in Gears 2? “Sorry Dan, I couldn’t lock him into position,” and so on. See? Chin up, guys. It wasn’t all bad.

Things came poetically full circle with the release of Double Dragon on XBox Live Arcade last year. Instead of us chasing down another version of the game, this time it was delivered straight to our co-op console of choice. After a brief standoff period where Dan refused to “pay for that friggin’ game again,” the Dragons were back on board, merrily head-butting their way to Willy’s once-again menacing hallway. From these recent sessions, we made a new discovery: the game is the perfect Co-Op palate cleanser. It can be beaten in 15 minutes flat and elbowing a dynamite-toting muscle-man down an endless drop never, never gets old. After that, it’s on to whatever multi-clan-shoot-em-thon is currently causing your 360 to Red Ring, with an appropriate sense of history and an appreciation for how far gaming has come as a medium. If you don’t believe me just ask Dan.

P.S – Never saw the 1994 movie, the one that starred the guy from Party of Five. No, not that guy, the other one. I have to say I am curious, but with a whopping score of 3.2/10 on IMDB and reviews like: “between watching this film again and being given a spinach enema, I would choose the spinach,” thanks chief, but I think I’ll pass.

Many thanks to the Double Dragon Dojo for the images and info.


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