A Quest For Magic Stones (For Some Reason)

Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone

The saga of the Double Dragon games is certainly a confusing one. Depending on which version of a game you're looking at you'll likely never get the same version twice. The original Double Dragon saw a remix port on the NES (that became more popular than the Arcade edition), while the sequel Double Dragon II: The Revenge ended up not only with a remixed NES port but also a Game Boy game that was completely unrelated (a port of a different Kunio-kunStarting as a fighting game befoe spinning out in sports titles (and other adventures) of all shapes and sizes, the Kunio-kun series is one of the most diverse, and hilarious, to ever grace both sides of the Pacific. game entirely). And now we have the third game, which continues this very stupid streak.

Let's be clear, whether you're playing the Arcade game (or its similar ports) or the NES game (which is its own thing), either version is pretty bad. This is easily the least inspired, and most tedious, of any of the Double Dragon games (with game play that rates only slightly better than Renegade). The game is more interesting because of its weird development, and all the mistakes Technos made, than the actually game play itself.

Unlike with the previous two games in the series, where the Arcade version came out first before getting ported to all the various systems (including the very popular NES), this third entry had parallel development between its Arcade and NES games. While both share similar story elements, and a very loose structure of missions (indicating that the two development teams were working off the same "story bible"), the two versions -- "The Rosetta Stone" for the Arcade edition and "The Sacred Stones" for the NES edition -- look and play quite differently. Neither are good, but they are different.

Of the two versions the Arcade edition is certainly more reviled. In construction this game is little more than a series of arenas, each with a wave or two of enemies to kill before you move on to the next section. The enemies are generally quite beefy, and they can easily swamp, corner, and combo you over and over again, leading to a lot of unnecessary damage and frustrating times. In general, the game play is uninspired and repetitive, with a challenge that is scaled up much higher than it really needed to be.

Bear in mind, for the developers, the high challenge of the game was a feature, not a bug. See, not only was the goal to get people to pump quarters in regularly to get more lives, as in most Arcade games, but with the Arcade edition of Double Dragon 3 (here with an Arabic numeral) the game also included shops in most stages of the game. Running low on health, or in need of extra guys, extra fire power, or more moves to perform? Head into the shop and drop in a few extra quarters. You could literally pay to win in an even more gratuitous way than most Arcade games.

At the time this "pay to win" mechanic was viewed by fans as disgusting (not that it hurt the games initial sales as the title raked in plenty of quarters). Played on an emulator it feels less galling, mind you, because the quarters are free and you can pump as many of them into the game as you like. On real hardware, back in the day, its hard to deny this felt a tad scummy. People played it because it was Double Dragon 3, but between the need to constantly shove in quarters to make any progress, plus the ridiculous difficult and uninspired design, the game quickly fell off with fans.

Thing is there were some ideas in the game that actually weren't bad. This was the first game in the series to allow three-player simultaneous play (adding in previous unknown third brother "Sunny" into the mix). Having three players taking on all the bad guys could help with some of the sticky situations in the game, plus that sense of camaraderie certainly could get even better with three bodies at the game. On top of that this was the first game to let you play as anyone other than the Lee brothers. As you beat bosses they would join you and you could purchase and play as them at the various shops. I like these inclusions but, naturally, the execution of the overall game made it so it was hard to enjoy anything about this title.

For most home console players this version of the game was the one ported out. The Spectrum, Commodore, Amiga, and the like all got pretty inferior ports that weren't really worth playing. The Genesis version fared better as it was at least a faithful port that preserved everything about the Arcade game (good and bad) while giving players some free tokens to use at the shops to aid them in their awful quest. The Game Boy version, meanwhile, was the worst as it was a slow, chunky, plodding version of the game with awful controls, wonky hit boxes, and no shops to even give you a boost. Seriously, don't play this version at all.

Meanwhile, over on the NES, we had Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones (this time with a Roman numeral in the title). This was the parallel edition and while the story followed the same basic beats of the Arcade game in play it as a very different title. The game resembled, and handled, like the previous two games on the NES, so quality wise it at least resembled a proper Double Dragon game. If you'd played either of the previous two you'd at leas know how to get the most out of your Lee brothers (and their unlockable companions as that feature came over here as well).

Execution wise, though, this version of the game is a mixed bag. On the one hand it does handle well, and all of the various characters in the game feel solid and fun. Each character has their own stats, their own abilities, and very different fighting styles. Use them with their special weapons or their basic attacks and you could get a lot of variety and enjoyment from the characters on display. That was certainly a solid part of the game and at least made this feel like a slightly better version of Double Dragon III.

Where the game really falters, though, is in the uninspired levels. Like the Arcade game this title is just a series of rooms, linked together, with waves of guys. Where the first two games (the second especially) featured not only fighting arenas but plenty of platforming challenges, too (not all of which were great, sure, but they helped to break up the action and add variety), none of that is here. You move from one room o the next, one mission to the next, simply fighting waves of similar enemies over and over again until the game ends. Honestly, by the mid point I was struggling to finish the game out because I was just so bored.

I guess it can be considered a bonus that the shops system wasn't forced into this game somehow. At the same time, though, I wouldn't have minded some way to customize and upgrade my guys as I was playing. Something, anything that could have broken up the game play while also making it feel like killing all these endless dudes had some kind of purpose would have helped a lot. Having multiple fighters to work with was nice but something, some spark was still missing from this game. What I wouldn't have given for even the half-baked RPG elements of the first NES game.

Looking at both versions of the game its easy to see why Double Dragon 3 (or III, either way) isn't spoken about in the same way as the first two games (if it's even really mentioned at all). In both forms this feels like a lazy game, a cash grab (in the case of the Arcade game, quite literally) to bank off the Double Dragon name. If the second title was the high point of the series this third adventure could be considered a real low point. Not the lowest, no, as we're not even close to the true rock bottom we could reach for the Lee Brothers...