While a great many games still cling to the white hat/black hat model of heroes and villains, there are still times when the prevailing cultural mood has led players down some murky moral back alleys without realizing. Double Dragon debuted in arcades in 1987, and while its core appeal remains undimmed by age—most recently revived in the downloadable Double Dragon Neon—the things you’re asked to do in the name of victory say a lot about the conservatism of the era and the iconography of the Big Bad City in pop culture.
Like its closest peers—namely Renegade and Streets Of Rage—Double Dragon represents the vigilante myth at its most naked and vicious. In brief: The hero is a square-jawed white guy, clad in a blue-collar uniform of wifebeater and sleeveless denim jacket. His girlfriend has been kidnapped and dragged into the depths of some urban hellhole by cackling thugs. His quest is to cross the city and beat the ever-loving shit out of everyone who gets in his way.
It’s the Reagan-era fantasy in a nutshell—the “one good man” of frontier myth updated for a world of crack dens and moral sleaze, taking down feral street punks with a bone-crunching kick to the face rather than a six-shooter. Scratch away the veneer of heroism, however, and you reveal the pent-up, frustrated foreplay of Travis Bickle’s mirror monologue rendered as pixel entertainment. The man who would not take it any more.
These were reactionary games for bloodthirsty times. As the idealistic 1960s collapsed into the nihilistic disillusionment of the 1970s, which then curdled into the selfish paranoia of the 1980s, for much of the suburban and rural population, the city was seen as the terrifying black heart of all that was wrong with the world, Sodom and Gomorrah writ large in sleazy neon. Crime was rampant, morality was in decline and the streets of the great metropolises were the territory of those who would tear down America’s post-war wholesomeness.
Bernie Goetz was making headlines for gunning down muggers on the New York subway, while civilians in red berets patrolled the streets as part of the Guardian Angels volunteer force. On the big screen, Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey continued to blow melon-sized holes in jive-talking perps just as The Punisher was bringing gunpoint justice to the previously innocent, colorful costumed world of Marvel Comics. Even in the realm of comedies, the narrative was reinforced. Everything from Scorsese’s After Hours to Adventures In Babysitting portrayed the urban landscape as a gauntlet of outlandish threats, constant danger and prurient temptation.
This was the backdrop against which arcade cabinets like Renegade, and later Double Dragon and Streets Of Rage, set out their stall, and it’s easy to see why they resonated. The very real problems of America’s cities had been transformed into garish fantasy by the media, then fed back into the culture, distorted even further by Japanese arcade companies. To the majority outside the troubled (but far from apocalyptic) reality of city life, the sense of powerlessness at the tsunami of vice rushing through Times Square was mollified by the thrill of watching Eastwood and Bronson exact righteous revenge. Now, they could play along.
Double Dragon may not have been the first, but it is the most indicative of how arcade games seasoned this cultural stew, and WayForward’s tongue-in-cheek updating only serves to highlight and unpack the details that were previously lost in the chunky sprite art. Consider the heroes: Billy and Jimmy Lee, the twin brothers who pummel their way through the urban mire to save their (apparently shared) girlfriend. Originally named Hammer and Spike, they received a more homely makeover as the game spread through American arcades. In the 2012 version of the game, that transformation is complete. Clad in denim, mullets proudly displayed and indulging in enthusiastic air guitar at the end of each stage, they’re Bo and Luke Duke as reflected through a Walter Hill prism.
Ranged against them are a gallery of cartoonish grotesques—the faceless “’em” in the beat-’em-up. Black guys with giant afros. Weirdly effeminate men in tight vests, who attack using gymnastics and wear scarves tied around their ankles. And the dominatrix whore, of course, that whip wielding hussy who appears in every example of the urban beat-’em-up, goading you to punish or be punished. This is a genre where the enemy is quite literally the “other”—the weirdos, freaks and queers—and where women are neatly divided between the pure-hearted damsel in distress and leering harlots who must be punished.
Against the background of such subversive upheaval, the decision to cast Billy and Jimmy in the uniform of good old classic rock is almost too perfect. In its original form, Double Dragon is, if nothing else, a game in which Lynyrd Skynyrd fights to rescue America from The Ramones, The Village People, and Grandmaster Flash.
WayForward’s remake is merely updating what was already in place, but it’s revealing that in doing so, it has to make fun of these dated tropes. The first two levels play it reasonably straight, but after that, the story treats the over-the-top urban gloom as the joke it is and instead blasts off into space, where you discover the bad guy isn’t some backstreet Mr. Big but rather a Saturday morning cartoon villain called Skullmageddon. Part Skeletor, part Krang from the Ninja Turtles, he’s played for laughs and utterly undercuts the now-ridiculous alleyway brawls the series was built on.
And that’s because the city simply isn’t scary any more, or at least it’s not the outlandish boogeyman it once was. Teen movies no longer portray the big bad city as a rite of passage to be endured, a gateway to the adult world. Instead, the city has been infantilized to meet us halfway. Cheaper travel and the wider social circles made possible by the internet have pulled back the curtain and revealed that, actually, the odds of being raped and murdered by giggling maniacs the moment you step off the bus at the Port Authority terminal are fairly slim. The prospect of saving the day by high-kicking your way through day-glo punks has lost its power. That cartoon view of the city is now treated, quite rightly, as a cartoon.
The only recent attempt to try and bring back the classic urban beat-’em-up mentality in any serious way came from the risible Watchmen games, released digitally in 2009 to coincide with Zack Snyder’s movie. The game’s terrible design certainly doesn’t help, but it’s also impossible to take it seriously as crime-fighting partners Nite Owl and Rorschach bludgeon their way through wave after wave of disco pimps and streetwalking sluts. Rather than ironic kitsch, the game’s ostensibly realistic tone means that the sight of Rorschach savagely punching a woman in the face while snarling about “filthy whores” reveals all that is creepy and nasty about the genre’s subtext.
Once upon a time, the fantasy sold by arcade games was that you were the two-fisted defender of all that is good and decent, holding back the scum with flurries of punches and kicks. Today, there’s a good chance that if there’s an amoral green-mohican anarchist causing chaos on the streets, you’re more likely to be controlling them in a game like Saints Row The Third rather than ending their rampage with a well-timed roundhouse. The city has been so successfully tamed that the fun now comes from recreating the chaos we once sought to stop.