When a certain video game franchise hits that sweet third entry, the developers try to go in guns blazing, commemorating the trilogy in a big way. This third entry of the Double Dragon series may end up being an experience that fully realises all of the ambitions that were dreamt of when the series was first conceived, or it may end up being such a drastic departure that it ends up alienating itself from the series. Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones falls into the latter category, but while the gaming world wasn’t kind to it during its time, 20/20 hindsight in, well, 2020, is a little kinder to it.
Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones was the proverbial button on the trilogy cake, landing on NES in 1990 just as the system entered its swansong, with the SNES taking over the reigns from 1991 and the years beyond. The Xbox One archive release by Arc System Works is like the other Double Dragon games in being based on the NES version. It’s generally just the base game with little by the way of museum features to give it historical context. But then again, that’s where we come in, right?
As an anticipated entry in what was one of the biggest gaming franchises, Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones flopped hard and was universally panned by critics. It was perhaps one of the biggest commercial failures on the NES, especially given the reputation the series had built up in such as short time as the trailblazer of modern beat ‘em ups. What happened? Well, there were many things and even more reasons, but the short answer is that it just wasn’t the Double Dragon experience fans had come to expect.
An ambition to innovate is something that should be admired in the gaming industry, even if it alienates a certain vocal fan base. Change is a funny thing in gaming – you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Double Dragon wasn’t the only series that tried to change only to receive a muddling reception. Games like Castlevania and even The Legend of Zelda had oft-forgotten experimental sequels on NES, but the experimental ambitions of Double Dragon III perhaps received the most scathing reception.
Let’s talk about what it did do right: the graphics of Double Dragon III were certainly the cutting edge of NES gaming at the time, with a stronger sprite and colour density than its predecessors, this time sporting far more detailed and smoother sprite animation. The music wasn’t as iconic as what was featured in Double Dragon and Double Dragon II, but still catchy enough with some cool chiptune moments.
The game design is a double-edged sword: on one hand the ideas are commendable and actually easier to appreciate now in hindsight, yet on the other it’s also easy to understand why they were received so poorly by the fan base. In 2020, and from playing the game on Xbox One, the fair assessment is that the design innovations of Double Dragon III are an acquired taste, if not a little ahead of their time.
Double Dragon III tried to go for a narrative-driven adventure epic instead of the usual stage by stage brawling. Not that there isn’t any brawling action, but this time there is a more methodical adventure game approach to it all. There’s an inventory menu screen – a feature which didn’t really catch on with the genre. This inventory screen allows you to swap weapons and cycle through the multiple characters that you are able to recruit on your journey. The story mixed with adventure game style menu shenanigans made Double Dragon III a little comparable to River City Ransom, although the latter did a much better job and is also one of the seven games recently released from the Double Dragon & Kunio Kun franchise currently available on Xbox One.
These design decisions don’t necessarily mesh well, hurting the pacing of the brawling action, and this was understandably a little jarring for fans at the time. Still, being able to equip weapons from a menu screen was a neat little system. The aspect that the game often gets knocked about for is its difficulty. While most games back then were famously ‘NES hard’, Double Dragon III takes it to frustratingly imposed territory. Challenge in gaming needs to be designed and paced carefully to give players a sense of growth, but sometimes difficulty spikes are all over the place. To put it in simple terms, where Double Dragon and Double Dragon II were tough and fun brawling adventures, Double Dragon III just becomes a frustrating mess of well-intentioned design choices.
The core combat mechanics don’t do any favours for Double Dragon III either: while the attacks are animated rather well, the execution of these just feels off and sloppy. It becomes needlessly cumbersome, especially when you’re surrounded by multiple enemies (suddenly the forward/back attack of Double Dragon II is appreciated).
Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones on Xbox One isn’t a beacon of beat em’ up games in 2020, but hindsight is a little kinder to its well-intentioned ideas that were unfortunately rather flimsy in execution. This game was part of the swansong for NES, and decades later it’s now a case of a historical curiosity which may be enjoyable to those genre enthusiasts with an acquired taste.