Friends, if you think back to nearly three years ago (as of this writing), hopefully you’ll recall my big ol’ pandemic time passin’ post. You know, we’re actually in the tenth anniversary (!) month of this blog, and in all that time, that pandemic post has proven to be one of my personal favorites here. Sure, it was highly personal and more for fun than anything (plus it killed time while we were in lockdown), but the diggin’ and searchin’ and eventual writin’ wound up being sincerely enjoyable for yours truly.
It also provided the catalyst for today’s topic. In that old article, at one point I waxed nostalgic for the long, long line of licensed handheld LCD video games put out by Tiger Electronics in the late-80s and up throughout the 1990s. You may have had to grow up with them to truly appreciate them nowadays (more on that in a bit), but for those of us a certain age, these things were beyond ubiquitous – which was good, because if you were a popular arcade game, console game, movie, TV show, cartoon, or pop culture figure that would appeal to kids, there was a very, very good chance you’d see a Tiger adaptation at some point.
I’ve been wanting to give one of these a specific spotlight for a while now, and when I recently picked up a cheap Tiger Heavy Barrel handheld, I first figured that was going to finally be it. But, for as neat as Heavy Barrel is, when I really thought about it, I decided if I was going to go through the process of writing a whole article on one of these, I might as well do it right. And if you remember this oldie, you’d know there was only one proper choice, one logical choice.
Yes indeed, legendary arcade (and console) beat-’em-up Double Dragon saw a Tiger iteration! I mean, Heavy Barrel was a popular game, but it never had the clout the Double Dragon series had in the late-80’s and early-90s. So if Heavy Barrel got the LCD treatment back in the day, you best believe Double Dragon would as well!
The original Double Dragon trilogy plus Super Double Dragon all saw Tiger ports, but from a sheer status-standpoint, the first is, in my opinion, the chaser. Plus, it’s the easiest to obtain. Well, the first three are actually all pretty easy to obtain, though Super seems to be notably tougher to be had. But for pure late-80s fightin’ action (not to mention that iconic artwork), I still say you go for the original.
It’s also the most emblematic of what I’m talking about with these Tigers: an uber-popular, big name game in both arcade and console circles. Not that the company didn’t put out ‘regular’ kinda games (think generic baseball, pinball, etc.), they did, and they had games based on licensed properties prior, but when I (and I’d guess most people) talk about these Tiger handhelds, generally that’s referring to the ones I mentioned in my intro. No joshin’, it seemed pretty much every hot, remotely-kid-friendly property of the late-80s to late-90s got transformed into a Tiger. Not every one did, of course, but many, many were. A good portion of these are still easily acquired nowadays (though not always as cheaply as you might think/hope), though others are surprisingly rare; not that I’m constantly on the lookout for it, but I’ve only seen the game based on the first Wayne’s World movie for sale once, for example. And the asking price wasn’t low.
(My guess is that, in some cases, the game only had enough units made to last the duration of a property’s peak popularity. When the promotional hype for whatever died down, the title would be phased out. That’s merely and completely guesswork on my part, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? That would account for the relative rarity of some of these, anyway. Sorta like licensed cereals; they’d be around for a bit, but who’s gonna keep buying Batman Returns for breakfast when Batman Forever is in theaters?)
It still works! There it is, all turned on. We’ll take closer looks at the actual gameplay momentarily.
Double Dragon, like pretty much all of these Tigers, is a simple LCD game, limited in graphics, animation and sound, only loosely resembling the real property it’s mimicking. When it came to the ports anyway, the old commercials promised something akin to the original arcade (or console) game in your pocket; I still fondly recall the ad in which kids went to great lengths, including hauling a full size coin-op down the hall, to play their favorite games at school, until Tiger simplified the issue for them with these handhelds.
Of course, in reality these things were approximations at best. Considering real consoles and computers often had a hard time bringing the latest arcade games home, there was just no way a cheap LCD handheld was going to be an accurate representation of whatever. In the handheld realm, even a real Game Boy couldn’t do that. Didn’t stop us from daydreaming about the possibilities, though; I grew up with these, and to this day I recall imagining all the fun I’d have once I had Tiger’s Batman wristwatch on my, uh, wrist. I eventually got that watch, and while I’m guessing the real product deflated some of those fantasies once I started playing it, I was also young enough to not really care. (I still have that watch, and actually just dug it out the other day. ‘Course, since I can’t recall ever changing the battery in it, the possibility of it still functioning correctly is quite low, methinks)
Simple as they may have been, if you were a certain age, these Tigers still managed to feel special though. Maybe it was that whole single-game-in-your-pocket, complete with marquee (thus recalling actual arcade machines) thing that did it. Or maybe it was just because they were cheap and everywhere. At any rate, and despite natively being a Nintendo kid, in the days before I had a Sega Genesis to call my own, I was as excited for Tiger’s Sonic 2 as I would have been for any ‘real’ video game. (I played that thing like crazy, too.)
But then, this all might be hard for newer gamers to appreciate; in this day and age, we have portables with real licensed arcade/console titles. For someone who didn’t grow up with them, looking at these Tiger games with their monochrome graphics, limited animation, simple gameplay and beeps and boops constituting music, that might all elicit a severe “so what?” at best, “this is garbage!” at worst. But frankly, those might be the reactions from some people who did grow up with these, too; nostalgia’s a powerful thing, but when a revival of these popped up a few years back, it was both exciting and confusing. It was cool they were back, but would modern gamers care? Would the people who had them back in the day still care? Had the time of these handhelds passed beyond any revival? That’s all up to your personal viewpoints on these, I s’pose.
In my pandemic post, I said something along the lines of these Tigers really not being very good. In some cases that was true, but in hindsight, that wasn’t a totally fair assessment. Granted, generally these lack the simple-yet-addictive twitch gameplay of Nintendo’s best Game & Watch offerings, but I’ve picked up a few old Tigers recently, and I’ve actually been a bit impressed with how they attempted to cram the ‘genuine’ experience into them. I’ve had more fun playing these than I haven’t. (Hey, no jive, while writing this article, Tiger’s Star Trek: The Next Generation handheld arrived in the mail, providing me with a little game break before getting back to writing about, erm, game breaks.)
Getting back to this Double Dragon, you may be wondering just how a full-size, big time beat-’em-up translates into LCD form. Believe it or not, a decent facsimile of a beat-’em-up was possible on an LCD handheld; Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 was terrific. (Or at least I remember it being terrific.) I’m not sure Double Dragon reaches those lofty heights, but it fares better than it doesn’t.
Double Dragon in the arcades was a side-scrolling brawler in which one Billy Lee (and his brother Jimmy Lee in two player mode) traverse diverse areas and fight an assortment of enemies in a quest to rescue Billy’s kidnapped girlfriend Marian and wipe out city-terrorizin’ gang The Black Warriors. With a bunch of moves and weapons, simultaneous two player action and a truly awesome soundtrack, it was a smash hit; console and computer ports followed, with varying degrees of success.
For this Tiger, while it takes some cues from the coin-op source material, it seems to take as much inspiration from the mega-popular Nintendo Entertainment System port as anything; new moves are gained as you progress, and since it’s single player only, instead of a fighting partner, Jimmy Lee is instead the final boss here (as per the original ad for the game and just like the NES version). The basics of walking the street and pummelin’ baddies remains, however.
In this case, the number of enemies (as in, variety) has been shortened dramatically; there’s a dynamite thrower who appears at the top of the screen occasionally, but for the most part your main adversary is some generic thug. (That’s who you’re seeing above; sorry about that yellow scratch on the screen, by the way – I didn’t feel confident in attempting to clean it off.) Whether the original instructions gave him an official name, I do not know, but he looks more like a biker or something than anyone seen in the arcade original or NES port. I guess he’s kinda Abobo-esque, though I’m not sure if that’s who he’s supposed to officially be.
Don’t go in expecting a myriad of moves at your disposal; you’ll gain the ability to jump and then later jump kick as you go on, but for the most part you’re limited to rapidly punching and kicking your opponent. This is actually more fun than you might expect it to be, especially when you’re dodging the dynamite thrower and it’s getting near the end of the stage and your health is running low. The kick looks incredibly goofy, though I appreciate that Tiger replicated the left punch/right punch animation of the arcade/NES.
Later on, you start using weapons, though I wasn’t sure at first if the game was just giving them to me or if I was accidentally picking them up and not realizing it; I think it’s an automatic thing on the game’s part. I’m not sure there’s an appreciable difference in the number of hits it takes to dispatch a thug, but it’s a nice touch nevertheless.
Originally, Double Dragon was three-dimensional-esque in that you could move between the foreground and background of a stage, as in most beat-’em-ups. On an LCD handheld with severely limited frames of animation, this wasn’t exactly feasible, though they did approximate it. What you’re seeing above is Billy Lee “moving backward,” kind of into the background. You do this as a dodging maneuver, particularly when a dynamite thrower shows up. (That’s what you’re seeing above, as well.) I say this is better than keeping the game strictly single-plane the whole way through.
In most of these Tiger handhelds, there’d be a pre-printed background in which the LCD sprites would be laid overtop throughout. Double Dragon foregoes this somewhat; there’s a plane in the background and there’s some light coloring, as you can see, but there’s no real permanent background graphic like usual. Instead, there are actual specific sprites used per stage to mimic the locations of the source material. I like this a whole bunch. It feels so much cooler, and truer to the game it’s trying to be. In the first stage, you’ve got a loose city skyline in the background, for example. Above is the third stage’s forest, and stage four is a cave, complete with falling stalactites – something unmistakably taken from the NES version. (There’s actually little to see in the second stage, I think some groundwork kinda sorta representing the industrial area it’s supposed to be, but visually it’s the least impressive level in the game.)
There’s not much sound-wise, mainly a series of beeps; this was par for the course with these Tigers though. Don’t go in expecting anything even remotely resembling the classic original soundtrack, okay?
You know, when all is said and done, I really like Tiger’s LCD adaptation of Double Dragon. Is it the greatest, most addictive LCD handheld ever? Well, no. BUT, it kept me occupied, and it looked about as much like Double Dragon as you could reasonably expect from a late-80s product. While I didn’t play it for hours on end, I did like seeing how far I could make it, and it was reasonably fun throwing down against gang members. I’m not sure you can ask for a whole lot more than that. At a time when the Double Dragon series was at its height of popularity and was burning up the arcade, console and computer fronts, Tiger gave kids a credible handheld to take to school, on car trips, etc. It did the job it was intended to do, it’s fairly fun, and as a late-80s gaming artifact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s irresistible.
All that said, it’s now over 30 (!!) years old, and while this example works fine, I still oughta keep it nice an’ collectible. But what if I still wanna get my cheesy LCD fightin’ fix, something just to goof around with when I’m bored? I used my bean there, too…
Yep, I picked up the sequel as well! Honestly, it’s not terribly different from the first installment, though they did include the back kick. Dig the pre-printed background; a scrolling ground gives the impression of progression. Unlike the first game, it’s pretty much single-plane and straightforward, though there’s a platform-y broken bridge you have to jump over gaps in late in the game. I prefer the first game, though from a gameplay-standpoint it’s pretty much a draw. More importantly, this is my ‘playing’ one, the one I’ll take with me when I’m trying to look hip in public. Complete with jean jacket and sunglasses, I’ll be totally rad to the max! (Just ignore the fact it’s no longer 1990 and I’ll be 37 years old in less than a month as of this writing.)