While not the first beat em up with depth (moving to the background and the foreground) Double Dragon is believed firmly to be the first co-operative playing beat-em-up. This is quite the break from tradition, previous games being of the 1 vs. 1, mano e mano, method of playing where two pointless characters stop everything to kick seven shades of shit out of each other. Or the brawling games known for having one character on a lone quest to stomp out several hundred other characters in the name of stomping for the sake of stomping.
Double Dragon, the great grand daddy of the brawling games. Featuring large sprites, scrolling levels and backgrounds, huge bosses (sometimes) and even a little cut scene at the start showing the motivation anyone needs for punching, kicking, whipping, baseball-batting, knifing, massive number of colour swap dudes to death (and a few dudettes); a woman gets punched and carried off. Can't think of a better reason myself to start a huge brawl against one of the possibly the largest gangs in the world with more members than McDonalds has workers.
The game's premise isn't exactly ground breaking and not something that hadn't been done before in games or films. One (or two, for the first time ever) man, conveniently colour coded in blue and red, sets out to avenge a woman by breaking skulls, legs, and generally beating to death every single thing in his way. Your method of executing this is the now oft recognised means of walking, punching, kicking, jumping, grabbing weapons and using these skills and abilities in a myriad of ways to overcome all obstacles in the protagonist’s way.
Unlike other incarnations of the same game, on different systems, you start out with full access to all your moves and abilities. You have the 8 directional movement, you have your punch button, kick button and jump button. A simple system yet the game allows for more involvement than just this. While you're walking up to enemies and punching and kicking them, repeated hits allow for bonus moves such as roundhouses and uppercuts. Jumping while attacking can give flying kicks, or reverse jump kicks if you're not moving. Double tapping a direction gives the well-known, head butt and use of both attacks at the same time performs the elbow smash which in itself, is a huge game-breaker if used to maximum exploitative means.
Enemies usually come at you in waves of 1 to 3 opponents at a time, bosses are either some HUGE guy(s) (called Abobo... go check the flash game out based on just him) or a very tough clone of the main characters. Or it's the final boss being a cheap bastard with a machinegun that can still be butchered with the same exploit moves. Having said that though, some of the boss set ups can be rather straining on the machine, particularly on the second level where there's a significant slow down as a result of the multiple enemies on the display.
Each level starts with the characters on the far left and progression is made by walking to the right, navigating occasionally ladders and pits which rather unfairly remove a whole life if you're dumb enough to walk into them or unfortunate enough to be throw/knocked into them. Once having walked right enough to run out of the appropriate level, the boss appears and attempts to kill you rather quickly. Interestingly for the game, once a level is beaten you actually are seen to move to the next section in an almost seamless progression before starting over on the right-walking once again.
Just to avoid too much monotony, certain enemies drop weapons or some levels feature extra items that can be used such as cardboard boxes (ow?...no I don't think so), barrels (that's more like it), or gifts like dynamite (who seriously brings dynamite to fight?) knives, baseball bats, whips and such. Each level providing more and more deadly traps from pitfalls at construction yards, broken bridges, walkways and being stabbed by statues or slammed by shifting bricks... yeah that last one is rather Indiana Jones and very much a break in the style of the game, serving as nothing more than a means to drain your coins and credits with heavily punishing damage from what seems to be dodgy collision detection and arbitrary "you're fucked" moves.
The difficulty ramps up exponentially through the game by the use of more awkward locations, the previously mentioned "fuck you" damages from level 5 and that every enemy increases in health for each level you progress. The supposed difficulty however is not from the challenge the enemy provides as each enemy fights the same way no matter what level they're on, it's a grind fest of damaging a health bar you can't see. Unlike games like Final Fight or Violent storm, there's no way of knowing how much damage you've caused to an individual in seeing if you've done 1 bar or 5 bars of injury, or if they're on 50 bars before you fight. As such, you've no way of seeing which moves are the most effective in killing your opponents. But if you're winning and surviving, that can be seen as a progression of sorts.
The co-operative aspect of the game, all depends upon how well your partner can play. While it's an idea to see someone getting beaten up and wanting to jump in and save them with a flurry of wild attacks, the game will register the attacks on the other person, meaning you'll hurt them, maybe even kill them. The potential for knocking someone down and killing them in pits, or hurling huge weapons that bulldoze everyone including your partner, there's a lot of dick moves to enjoy and before long you'll be punching the person playing with you, and the fight continues outside of the game into the arcade and the friendship is over. Maybe, thankfully.
However, despite the dickary potential, it's a solidly good co-operative game that excels in the aim of being enjoyable for 2 people to play. Except at the very end, where if both players have defeated the last boss, the guy with the machinegun, then the real final boss becomes, the other player in an all-out battle on one life (or more if you REALLY want to spend coins) for the right to rescue the punched-out woman from the start of the game. It's an odd situation for a game to encourage a solid co-operative attempt throughout, only to then reward the players with turning them against each other by force and play as opponents. An original game concept in its execution and one that's rarely been repeated in games since then. (Streets of Rage perhaps depending upon choices).
Musically, I think nearly everyone that knows of this game, at the mention of Double Dragon could hum a few bars of the theme tune and likely the first level as well. It's choppy and upbeat for the most part and definitely reeks of an 80s composition vibe heard in multiple tracks released that decade, particularly the earlier years of the decade. It's not something you'd bump your head to, but you'll find yourself humming it along with the game as it worms its way into your ear.
The game though, does suffer from the repetition of repeat plays, being an arcade game you know every time which enemies will appear, holding what and so on but I'm beating at a limitation of coding rather than the game's actual faults. It still holds well on the nostalgia factor and will bring people back for the occasional play just to remember what the game was like and to remind ourselves of how far we've come from such roots. Despite the aged looks and appearance, the game is still just as playable which is more than could be said for a lot of other games and the rather unique aspect the game does have (beyond being the first co-op brawler) was that it had more moves and attacks than say games like Final Fight which relied upon attacking, jumping and special/desperation moves.
I have to say, were I to actually own an arcade, I'd have this one out on the floor. Not at the forefront perhaps, but down the back or the sides, a little darker in presenting than the others but it'd be there, for those willing to explore a little further, willing to see a little more and see the older days as a show of honour. Not without flaws but given it started something, it did it well enough that many games failed to match it. Now THAT deserves recognition in the least.