It might seem hard to believe, but the Double Dragon series, including 1990’s Double Dragon II: The Revenge, are based on a true story. Growing up in Tokyo, Yoshihisa Kishimoto would get into fights in high school almost daily. He had a teenage rage bolstered by a number of things.
“There were family reasons as well, but there was a girl and she dumped me, which pulled the trigger,” he told Polygon in 2012.
Teenage heartbreak is a powerful motivator, but even Kishimoto couldn’t have predicted that fighting a lot in high school and watching Bruce Lee movies would lead to a global phenomenon.
During the late ‘80s, the Double Dragon series was a staple of arcades worldwide, devouring quarters and earning a fortune for its parent company, Technōs Japan. The good times wouldn’t last, but Double Dragon II perfectly captures an era where scrolling beat-’em-ups dominated.
If you’re a paid Nintendo Switch Online subscriber, you can play Double Dragon II: The Revenge right now by downloading the Nintendo Entertainment System app.
Like teenagers hyped up on puberty, Kishimoto’s games rely on adrenaline to power the player through. The thrill of winning a childhood fight is addictive — the world is a big place, and suddenly a fight makes things very small, just you and the person you want to beat up. The only thing that can equal the rush of victory is the next fight, which is where things can often go from bad to worse for teenagers. But in Kishimoto’s beat-’em-ups, which started in 1986 with a game called Renegade, a friendly arrow appears when you’re done with one batch of enemies, eager to show you where to find the next one.
One thing that really makes Double Dragon II stand out over the original is multiplayer.
The games are about a pair of brothers, after all, hence the “double.” Billy and Jimmy Lee are out for — get ready to be shocked here — revenge! The Double Dragon series came out at a time where story mattered for some games, but certainly not all of them. The original Double Dragon had two plots, one for arcade and for the NES system, based on how many players could control in the game. The initial NES game had one of the brothers appear as the game’s ultimate villain at the end.
This is discarded in the sequel, with the brothers fighting to revenge the murder of one of their girlfriends, Marian, as seen in the game’s opening cutscene. They’re attacking their perennial enemies, the Black Shadow Warriors, who seem to consist of a lot of street punks and big guys. Their quest for revenge leads them through some gorgeous 8-bit backgrounds, including one lovingly described as a “neon sky,” going through cities, island bases, and mysterious lairs.
A first-time player might want to consult the game’s manual, which warns that the controls in Double Dragon II “are a bit different from other Nintendo games you may have played.” Instead of specific moves, the A button always attacks right, while the B button always attacks left, and jumping happens by pressing A and B at the same time. It can take a second to get used to, rapidly punching several times in a row and suddenly switching buttons. But once adjusted to the mechanic, it has a certain fluidity to it.
Double Dragon II is a straightforward game, lacking the exploratory open-world elements that made another Technōs game, River City Ransom, so revolutionary. It’s clearly a game that was built for the arcades first and the NES second, after every death you can practically feel a quarter being pulled out of your pocket. For what it offers, it’s a fun beat-’em-up that helped to define a dominant genre at the time.
Technōs knew it had a hit on its hand and was not the first or the last cultural company to make a crucial mistake: oversaturating the market. After Double Dragon II became a hit, a third game further changed the plot (by adding a third brother) and changed art styles. There was also a movie, about which the less said, the better (although it featured Alyssa Milano as Marian).
Technōs wanted to continue the Double Dragon franchise because it “made money, and as a result, I wasn't able to create many other original projects while working there," Kishimoto says in his Polygon interview. Content to let their cash cows continue into perpetuity, the company began spending big, investing in real estate and racing teams. Tired of the big spending, Kishimoto left to focus on original projects.
It turned out to be the right call, as Technōs went bankrupt in 1996. But the button-mashing magic is still very much alive in Double Dragon II.