How do you adapt a hit video game like Double Dragon that’s based around beating up bad guys with your fists, bats, whips, and assorted blunt instruments? Easy! You build the cartoon around mystic, non-violent laser blasting swords and give those to your heroes instead. Not only does it prevent any of that “nasty” hand-to-hand combat the games are famous for, but it also gives you room to build some really “nifty” toys for the game. The result, however, was one of the many failed attempts to introduce the Nintendo fighting game into the mainstream.
After a beautifully drawn, but dull, Marvel comic mini-series in 1991, Double Dragon came storming back with a one-two punch of awful beginning with the 1993 animated series and continuing with the disastrous 1994 movie starring Mark Dacascos, Scott Wolf, and Robert Patrick with a bleached flat top. In the animated universe, the story begins during a massive fire in the future where a kung fu master retreats to his dojo and leaves his young son Billy in the care of the Oldest Dragon. Based on his glowing birth mark (that resembles a dragon), the Oldest Dragon declares Billy will be a kung fu master and a great warrior. So much for choosing a trade.
Fast forward a few years and Billy is now a master kung fu fighter who lives in the dojo and is followed around by a young kung fu recruit named Michael whose job is to literally react to action with “Wow,” and “Awesome!” Meanwhile, crime runs rampant in Metro City thanks to the Shadow Master and his assorted gallery of cronies. Billy decides to start helping the local police with his magic sword and his code of honor which includes stomping thugs, but not scrambling to bring them to jail or to court… some hero he is. After he helps a new officer, Marian Martin, she recruits him as part of a new task force and Billy Lee sets out to fight crime.
Billy is supposed to be depicted as passive and peaceful but mostly he comes off as whiny. He spends most of his time bemoaning the death of his master, and looking for a direction in his life. One day Billy’s long lost brother Jimmy comes knocking at his door, begging for help and safe haven. Little do they know they’re fulfilling a prophecy to become superheroes, donning costumes that blatantly rip off Sunspot’s design from the X-Men. With Jimmy’s introduction, we also learn that he was actually raised by the villainous Shadow Master and now the brothers do battle for their allegiance.
Jimmy is good at heart, torn between his feelings for Billy and the Dojo, while Billy basically just does nothing but preach about anger and peace. Neither ever actually possess the qualities of a likable hero we can root for. Jimmy is eventually taken over to the light side as a hero once Shadow Master betrays his pupil, and the brothers become crime fighters for Metro City. Jimmy is, of course, the more loose cannon and rebellious of the pair, constantly running into trouble and jumping in to situations without forethought, which creates the perfect pairing for his brother.
For an adaptation the Double Dragon series has almost nothing to do with the fighting game and mostly just runs off the rails with goofy plot devices, pointless characters, and super villains much too silly for what the game entailed originally. Though originally a favorite of mine when I was a kid, Double Dragon has aged very poorly by today’s standards. The voice acting is clunky, the story makes no sense and the animation is subpar. Sometimes the color of the characters seem to bleed off the line work, and there’s no indication that the creators of the cartoon did anything beyond looking at pictures of the characters just inventing whatever they wanted.
With Batman: The Animated Series storming televisions during this time period, there’s just no excuse for animation this bad. Double Dragon boils down to a lot of nonsensical storylines and really badly animated fight scenes that offer little style or excitement in which the game excelled in. The animated series lasted for two seasons, twenty-six episodes, before being taken off the air. Episodes were later released on VHS, but none have yet to see a DVD edition. There was also an action figure line that was greeted with a thud and can be found on auction sites for mere pennies (seriously, pennies).
Nintendo also released a somewhat unauthorized sequel to the games with Tradewest outside of original publisher Technōs entitled Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls. It was based heavily on the animated show that dropped the much celebrated side scrolling beat em up format in favor of a (then) popular Mortal Kombat head-to-head fighter game. The game, much like the show, was not received well at all and is mostly ignored by fans of the Double Dragon game series. From what I’ve seen the series is mostly remembered by nineties kids with eye rolls and groans. Your best bet is to ignore this altogether and stick to the classic NES beat-em ups.