I recently played what was personally the worst game of the generation. Forget Duke Nukem Forever, turn a blind eye to the many faults of Aliens: Colonial Marines and go a little easier on The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. Mediocrity wears a new face, and it’s a face you’ll want to punch repeatedly.
I’m a scrolling beat-em-up fan to the point I think it’s hard-wired into my DNA, so naturally when I saw that a remake of the impeccable 1989 NES classic Double Dragon II: The Revenge had hit Xbox Live Arcade, I simply had to check it out.
So there I was, playing Wander of the Dragons genuinely confused as to what was going on. At first I thought some bumbling intern at developer GRAVITY – yes, all in capitals because, well, I don’t quite know – had uploaded a Net Yaroze demo or a pre-production build by accident.
I slogged on and realised that unfortunately, this was actually happening. It was as if the game was an April Fools prank that didn’t get past Microsoft’s labyrinthine certification process in time for the gag to work. It’s what happens when nostalgia becomes a selling point on a marketing slide, rather than the warm feeling you get when reliving your glory years.
Why is it so bad? I could give you many reasons, but I’d be here all day. I think the main problems are the stock music, broken gameplay mechanics – including a “Perfect Guard” parry that literally does nothing – a woefully dull command list, heinous animation, glitched AI, and mechanics that aren’t explained to the player at all.
Watch this, the honest-to-god trailer for the game:
The stage seen at 03:15 brought my piss to a medium boil. The music is just an irritating eight-second sample looped continually as you fight the same three enemy types for about ten minutes. Not only is this a kick in the face to the original game’s legacy, it’s an insult to both fans and customers.
Coding a solid remake of what is a fairly simple but enjoyable classic should have been a cake-walk for GRAVITY, but they dropped the ball, only for it to bounce back and hit them in the plums.
Apparently this game took 3 years to make, so it suggests that it entered some kind of development hell. Fair enough, but I’ve seen 24-hour game jam titles that look better than this. Hell, even Jenova Chen’s flash version of flOw was made as his final university project, and it was superb.
Wander of the Dragons should never have passed certification in this state, and it got me thinking about why it exists in the first place. It’s because nostalgia sells.
To name a few recent examples of classic gaming re-imagined we’ve seen Capcom’s DuckTale’s Remastered revealed, inXile raised several million dollars for its Torment: Tides of Numenera project and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a game wrapped around the entire concept of ’80s action flicks. They all look great too.
For many of us, hearing that an old game we held dear back in the day is getting re-released or remade sparks excitement. It’s a very natural and reasonable response to something to which we have a lot of fond memories attached. But if anything, that should give developers more obligation to handle the IP with extreme care.
But the majority of these games are either an utter mess, or average at best. Back in 2010 I interviewed Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford about why the studio had salvaged the Duke Nukem Forever project. I kept on hearing things like “Why wouldn’t we? It’s Duke!” as if the game would sell on name alone. The game came out, got mauled by the press and now that name is in the gutter. Cheers guys.
You can’t simply say, “Hey guys, remember this really awesome thing you loved from your childhood? Well here it is again but different or better,” only to pump out some turgid husk of a game that soils your memories. On the other hand nostalgia can make some people feel entitled and start demanding a little too much, and at that point a game could be the best thing ever and it still wouldn’t be good enough.
But I understand that as well, because nostalgia is a personal feeling. We all have our own unique reasons for loving an old game, TV show or film. Developers simply can’t fulfil the demands of every gamer out there, but when they fail to at least give it a good try then it reflects very badly indeed.
Games like Double Dragon 2: Wander of the Dragons is why we can’t have nice things. Coding a solid remake of what is a fairly simple but enjoyable classic should have been a cake-walk for GRAVITY, but they dropped the ball, only for it to bounce back and hit them in the plums.
It gives a bad message about cash cow mentality, and the crass nature by which nostalgia is packaged as a product, rather than a sentiment.
Yet it has become something of a weird phenomenon already. It’s like the filmography of director Uwe Boll. We know his movies are absolutely cack, but the scathing, almost urban legendary degree of scorn gets people interested, and so they pay the man for the displeasure of watching his films.
I’ve seen people on Twitter saying they’ve bought Double Dragon 2 out of interest, only to be let down by the experience, and I can’t help but feel they’ve been conned blind. It gives a bad message about cash cow mentality, and the crass nature by which nostalgia is packaged as a product, rather than a sentiment.
The real disappointment is that the game could – nay – should have been great, and if anything it completely undermines Double Dragon: Neon by WayForward Techologies. I haven’t played it yet; I’ve heard it wasn’t amazing, but decent at least. The point is that at least the developer tried to give something old a new spin.
I once heard from a good friend of mine – he’s the owner of the biggest Streets of Rage fan site in the world – that Sega emailed him saying the reason Streets of Rage 4 hasn’t happened yet is because the top brass don’t know what to do with the IP.
As the Streets of Rage series is my all-time favourite, this response got me annoyed, but after playing Wander of the Dragons I absolutely get it now. Streets of Rage 4 has been attempted and canned several times now, and each piece of unearthed footage looked average compared to the originals. Here’s an example from Scotland’s own Ruffian Games:
Why did the project get bolt-gunned? Sega simply don’t want to release something that will sully the memory of the classics, much like the dreadful Golden Axe: Beast Rider. It shows a commendable level of restraint when every other developer under the sun is leaping on the nostalgia bandwagon.
That’s not to say Sega isn’t guilty of poor remakes of course, but in recent years it’s done a magnificent job of doing old games justice with straight re-releases like Guardian Heroes and Jet Set Radio, as well as superb displays of fan service in games like Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
I understand that nostalgia is a vampiric license for developers to print money, but they’re toying with people’s fond memories, and that’s when things can start to get personal.
While GRAVITY takes its dollar-sign sacks to the bank, there are a lot of people out there who probably view the studio with contempt, distrust and disappointment. The damage simply isn’t worth it no matter how you slice it, yet I get the feeling this old dance will keep on going for years. The question is, which classic IP is going to get soiled next?
Dave is UK News Editor at VG247 and pens an award-winning column in national newspaper The Scotsman every Saturday. His favourite game of all time is Streets of Rage 2 and he still wants to see Sega do a fourth game, even though there’s a risk it might be crap. He’s the trusting type, clearly.