Monthly Archives: January 2018

VHS Review: TEXAS TERROR (1935; 1985 Vintage Video Release)

“Say, that cover looks kinda sorta familiar!”

If you’re saying a variation of that phrase to yourself right now, it means you’ve read this article. And if that’s the case, it also means you’ve probably got too much time on your hands. That’s okay though; so do I.

Yes, Vintage Video makes a return to my stupid dumb blog, and while the subject this time around is admittedly less eye-popping than Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting Night of the Living Dead, it’s no less rare; old school Goodtimes/Congress/UAV/ etc. budget VHS releases of certain titles are (relatively speaking) a dime-a-dozen, but Vintage Video? These tapes show up far less often, though there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in value –¬† it takes someone with the same arbitrary whims as I to go after them, and fortunately for me, I appear to stand alone on that front. (I.e., no one else seems to care as much as I do.)

No joke, more than once I’ve gone out of my way to pick these videos up, regardless of title. I’m not sure if the company was always a subsidiary of Amvest Video, or merely became one later, but either way, I’ve become incredibly fond of their releases. Sure, most (all?) of them were just the public domain staples that nearly every company took a shot at releasing, but there’s a quirky aura about these Vintage Video tapes that I can’t resist. Or maybe it’s just that whole eventual Grampa thing, I don’t know. (If none of this is making sense to you, and there’s a good chance that it isn’t, go read the some 900,000 words I wrote about the subject in the article linked above.)

Anyway, I’m excited for today’s subject for three specific reasons: 1) It’s a pre-fame John Wayne B-Western, his 1935 Lone Star (aka Monogram) entry, Texas Terror, as you can plainly see above. Let it be clearly stated: I love these Lone Stars. You ask me to put together a list of my favorite Wayne flicks, guess what? Blue Steel is going right up there with Stagecoach – a statement I make without hesitation despite the probable destruction of my street cred. I’m a B-Western junkie, and a Wayne fan, so these Lone Stars are directly up my alley.

2) I grew up watching B-Westerns. I talked about this recently; in the late-1990s, our local independent station WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35¬†regularly ran syndicated content from the America One Network, and each weekday (and often on weekends, too) they’d play an afternoon “Western Theater.” You wouldn’t be seeing things like The Searchers on the program; oh no, it was the B-Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s that they presented, and at 11/12-years old, I quickly grew to love them – a love I carry with me to this day. America One often seemed to have unique prints of their films, too; not necessarily wildly different prints as far as the actual content of the movie went, but the picture and sound quality of their features could vary quite a bit from more ‘common’ versions found on other networks and/or home video. Coincidentally, and fittingly, the same often goes with these Vintage Video/Amvest releases!

3) I didn’t know this company (these companies?) ever even released any westerns. I mean, it was a safe guess that they did, but listen, I’ve spent far too much time researching these titles, and in the course of that research I’ve seen comedies (Movie Struck), dramas (The Blue Angel), silents (The Gold Rush), mysteries (The Woman in Green), sports biopics (The Joe Louis Story), even action (Fists of Fury), and of course the sci-fi and horror of the Grampa series. But until Texas Terror, never a western. I mean, I assume they put out The Outlaw and/or Angel and the Badman, because nearly every budget VHS manufacturer did, but if so, *I’ve* never seen them. So, when I discovered they not only released a western, but a B-Western, and that B-Western was a John Wayne Lone Star, I got far more excited than an ostensibly-reasonable adult should have. I mean, we’re talking unacceptably giddy here. Needless to say, it had to become mine, and as you may have surmised by now, it did.

In relation to the other Vintage Video titles, this one is a little unique: usually (but not always) for their covers, they’d go with the original poster art, merely flanked with the “Vintage Video” border you’re seeing above (they eventually dropped the border). But here, it’s an original composition; a stock (I guess) shot of Wayne, made to look appropriately old-timey. I dig the ‘western’ font of the front cover cast-credits, though I feel the graphic used for the actual film title is wildly inappropriate; to me, that’s more befitting an 80s horror movie or something. Totally belies the comparatively-quaint creaker (alliteration?) contained within the video, man. But then, that’s that quirky aura I was talking about earlier!

As for the back cover, it follows the general layout of the other Vintage Video products of the period. Sometimes, some of the pertinent information demonstrated the era from which it came; that is, hey, the internet wasn’t around yet! Texas Terror was not made in 1940; it’s absolutely from 1935. Doesn’t sound like that big a deal, I know, but there’s a world of difference between the John Wayne of 1935 and the John Wayne of 1940. (In the same vein, my VV copy of Black Dragons lists the release date as 1949, when in actuality it’s definitively a poverty row product of 1942.)

Also, some of their descriptions could be a little…off. Not bad, just…off. I made the same point in that Night of the Living Dead post. Here, there’s a mention of Wayne’s “great style,” but what exactly that style is is never specified, so it just comes off random. The synopsis would have flowed better had they dropped that part entirely. The “of course” near the end kinda stops the rest of the summary dead, too; the whole thing would run smoother had those two instances been cut. Still, they got the point across, so mission accomplished anyway I guess.

Also, I just realized that the entire description is only two sentences long.

Also also, they spelled “thieves” incorrectly.

Bear in mind, I’m not intending to come off negative here; this tape, and others in the same line, positively exude a budget label charm. Indeed, as the video industry progressed from the 1980s to the 1990s, you saw the major studios evolve, but the budget labels? That quirky charm never really left, and to an extent it continues today with cheapo DVDs, though to me those feel inherently less special; pressing a disc just ain’t the same, bro.

I guess what I’m getting at is collecting these public domain titles on old school budget video labels is endlessly fun. You get a peak at that early (or at least earlier) era of home video, and you often get fairly unique sleeve art, front and back, which is the case here.

(Also, if I ever find out Vintage Video/Amvest/whoever released a version of Blue Steel, I will legit flip my beans.)

So, on to the movie itself…

Lone Star Productions was, from how I understand it, a division of Monogram Pictures. Or was it merely Monogram under a secret name, not unlike Konami with their Ultra Games label? (I’m reasonably sure I’m the only person on the internet to make that reference in regards to a Monogram/Lone Star movie, and if you don’t get it, that’s because there’s not much of a comparison between the two entities at all.) Monogram was, for those not in “the know,” a poverty row purveyor of cheap theatrical entertainment, in pretty much any genre you could think of. Westerns were big business at the time, so needless to say, their output in that field was not inconsiderable.

From my first glimpse of Blue Steel so, so long ago, the thing I found immediately striking about these Lone Star pictures was their introductory sequence; a gigantic sheriff’s star, stampeding towards the viewer, the company’s name boldly emblazoned in the center of it. All of sudden, the thing stops, then transitions to the respective title and credits of the feature, all still contained within the star. And of course, this was always accompanied by a heroic, appropriately-western score.

If you’re wondering just why I find/found these intros so fascinating, it’s because, quite frankly, you didn’t always get such hype at the start of these poverty row westerns. For films that were, more often than not, pretty chintzy (in a good way), the opening fanfare exhibited by the Lone Stars was really pretty unique in the field.

While on the subject, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-John Wayne Lone Star western. Maybe that’s because these are so widely available today due to the star power involved. At any rate, did Monogram give Lone Star flicks to other actors? Yes? No? I dunno.

Actually, it’s the John Wayne factor that makes these Lone Stars so (relatively) well-known nowadays. Just like our tape today, budget releases on VHS were myriad, and that continues with DVD releases from every manufacturer under the western skies. (See what I did there?) I mean, when you’ve got American film icon John Wayne in a bunch of public domain movies, that’s the sort of thing a company looking to get cheap-but-eye-catching product on store shelves has to take advantage of.

Indeed, some of my favorite budget movie releases, on both VHS and DVD, are those of these John Wayne B-Westerns; not necessarily all of them, but rather the ones that use later-era shots of Wayne and/or appropriately ‘epic’ or ‘majestic’ backdrops for their cover art. The intent with these is clear: to make the unsuspecting consumer think these are “real” Wayne movies, and not the creakers they actually are. Oh don’t get me wrong, I love these Lone Stars, and I’m such a B-Western junkie that truth be told I’d head for them over some of Wayne’s later, big time stuff. Still, aside from the fact they feature the same star and are technically moving pictures, there’s just no real comparison between the two. Therefore, the more misleading the cover art for a release of one of these cheapies is (or was), the more appealing it is to yours truly. Go figure!

So anyway, Texas Terror. Through various compilations, I undoubtedly own it approximately 97,000 times over – give or take a couple thousand. Still, until I picked up this neato Vintage Video release, I wasn’t all that familiar with the movie. Blue Steel I know backwards and forwards, and I’ve at least seen a chunk of the others, but Texas Terror? For all intents and purposes, this was a new one on me.

Going in, don’t expect an early prototype of Stagecoach, okay? This is John Wayne, but also sort of, uh, isn’t. Frankly, it’s kinda fun seeing him outside of Hollywood and, I don’t know, ‘raw’ I guess would be the best term for it. The actor is the same, but the acting isn’t. Does that make any sense?

Soooo, all that said, ignoring the young John Wayne factor, and my love of B-Westerns and Lone Stars in general, I gotta admit, after watching it, Texas Terror really isn’t all that good of a movie. I mean, as a B-Western, I guess it’s alright, but as far as these Lone Stars go, there were much, much better flicks. If you’re looking at B-Westerns in general, Texas Terror ranks somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. “Mediocre” seems to sum it up pretty succinctly.

The plot centers around John Higgins (Wayne), the local sheriff, who mistakenly believes he’s killed his best friend Dan Matthews. During a shootout between Higgins and some robbers, Dan is killed by one of the hoodlums; upon discovery, Higgins thinks he plugged him (right screenshot), and subsequently resigns as sheriff and goes to live in the wilderness.

A year later, Dan’s daughter is heading into town to take over her late father’s ranch, when she is, naturally, beset by outlaws (it must run in the family). Higgins, now quite a bit scragglier, rescues her. Despite his heroism, she thinks he was one of the outlaws. Eventually, Higgins cleans himself up and comes back to town, his goal being to take down the gang once and for all. In the course of doing so, there’s a blossoming romance, a huge misunderstanding, and perhaps improbably, a square dance that devolves into a cow-milking-contest.

Oh, and George Hayes is also in this, minus the whole “Gabby” persona. Can’t forget to mention that!

Texas Terror, as previously stated, it isn’t all that good, but there are some interesting aspects to it that help set it apart. First of all, Wayne’s Higgins (I can’t type that without thinking of Magnum, P.I.) grows a beard during his exile period, and this is the only film I can think of where Wayne’s character features full facial fiber (alliteration). Sure, he had a mustache (and quasi-soul patch) in The Shootist, but this is the only instance I can think of where he had a legit beard. (I’m not saying it is the only instance, I don’t claim to have seen every single John Wayne movie ever, but this is certainly the only instance that comes to mind).

Random Thought: is it just me, or does Wayne kinda look like Kevin Love in this screencap?

Also, I appreciate the usage of Native Americans as heroic characters. Here, they’re friends with Higgins, and come to his aid in grand fashion during the film’s climax. Sure, their ‘accents’ may not be politically correct now, but Texas Terror bucks the frequent western trend of treating Native Americans as antagonists. I like that.

These Lone Star westerns often featured cool, though slightly generic, titles, and Texas Terror is no exception. Is the title an indication of Wayne’s character, the outlaws, or the plot in general? Blue Steel was the same way; no in-film reference ever related to the title, but it sure sounded neat.

As for the print and tape quality of Vintage Video’s presentation, this copy is in SP, which is always welcome, though it’s kind of a wash since the source material is so battered. I’m not saying this is the worst Texas Terror has ever looked, but this particular print certainly saw better days prior to VHS release. Besides the not-inconsiderable amount of dust, dirt and scratches, accumulated via untold trips through the projector and who knows how many generations removed, the bigger issue is that this version is pretty blasted. No joke, some of the images are far, far too bright. Look at the screenshots to the right here; the upper-image features a positively ghostly John Wayne, whose face seems to be a part of the wall behind him. And the lower-image? You’d be forgiven for not immediately realizing our heroine is even in the scene!

Still, like the sleeves these sorts of tapes were housed in, seeing the varying picture quality of these budget releases was/is part of the fun with collecting them. No, a major studio probably wouldn’t have put a print in this condition out (unless, say, there was only one known extant copy existing; definitely not the case with Texas Terror), but that’s why there were budget VHS tapes back then. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” could and often did come into play here, but I prefer to think of it more like, hey, the company got their hands on the only print they could, so let the chips fall where they may. Or something like that. Look, it was a different time in home video, and better sources might not have been available, or at least easily accessible. Especially if the manufacturer was a relatively minor player in the game.

So, there you have it: Texas Terror, as presented by Vintage Video, the (eventual?) alter-ego of Amvest Video, from 1985. I still haven’t seen another western put out by either company, and while I can’t really recommend the movie for B-Western and/or John Wayne fans (seriously, Blue Steel is pretty good; go with that one instead), it’s certainly an interesting, and for now, unique, addition to my collection. I’ve got more than a few cheapo John Wayne tapes littering my “archives” (ha!), but this one has automatically become one of the more-notable entries. I don’t say that lightly, either.

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Atari 7800 Review: DOUBLE DRAGON (Activision, 1989)

Double Dragon on the Atari 7800? Time to rock!

Look, we need to get one thing straight right up front: I’m a Double Dragon fanatic. If there’s a console with an installment of the series found on it, I want it. I don’t claim to own every release for every system and/or handheld, but Double Dragon and its sequels do take up a relatively significant amount of space in my not-inconsiderable video game collection.

The series should be immediately familiar to anyone that was into video games in the late-1980s and early-1990s; the original 1987 arcade game basically launched the beat-’em-up genre. You know, side-scrolling fighting games in which you fought numerous enemies, typically but not always on a 3-D plane (that is, a foreground and background you can walk between). It was a smash, and naturally sequels followed. The original entries were eventually ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, though they were only ports in a technical sense; they used the same street fighting motif and general plotlines, but basically did their own thing. Nevertheless, Double Dragon and its sequels, particularly those NES conversions, were seemingly ever-present on the video game scene of the early-1990s, which was when *I* was coming into my own as a young gamer.

Despite popularizing the beat-’em-up genre (though it wasn’t the first such game), looking back, it’s a little surprising how quickly Double Dragon‘s style of walking around and beating up bad guys was superseded by following games in the genre, and not just graphically, either. Only four levels (called “Missions”) and a relatively low number of enemies quickly appeared quaint when compared to longer, all-out fighting extravaganzas like Capcom’s Final Fight some two years later – a template beat-’em-ups largely followed in the early-1990s before the whole idea of a “fightin’ game” was steadily replaced by Street Fighter II and the like.

Actually, despite being wildly unfaithful to the arcade source material, the NES Double Dragon games probably hold up better than other versions nowadays simply because they lengthened and/or added original elements to the ports – additions that help them stand up against the subsequent, more-advanced games in the same genre.

The original Double Dragon arcade machine from 1987. The face that launched a thousand beat-’em-ups!

Still, taken on its own, the original Double Dragon (and at least the first sequel, Double Dragon II: The Revenge) remains a lot of fun today. Aside from some ugly slowdown when too many sprites are onscreen, it’s a fantastic beat-’em-up, though those accustomed to Streets of Rage and such may have a tough time getting into it. Nevertheless, for its time Double Dragon was quite the trendsetter. I mean, simultaneous two-player street fighting action, all in an effort to rescue a kidnapped girlfriend? A bevy of combat moves you could pull off? Colorful, detailed stages to traverse? A variety of enemies to pummel? Of course people would continuously throw quarters at it!

(Even if the period of revolutionary success was relatively short-lived, Double Dragon continued to be a name draw well into the 1990s, eventually spawning, besides the sequels proper, a Battletoads spin-off, a couple one-on-one fighters, an inexplicable board game, those ever-present Tiger handhelds, an animated TV series, and a terrible live-action movie that I, thankfully, only have limited experience with. The brand’s “oomph” sort of tapered off as the second half of the 1990s dawned, but there’s no denying how recognizable the franchise was in the years immediately preceding. A good deal of this popularity can probably be attributed to the series as it appeared on the NES, such was the visibility of both them and it at the time.)

It was also in this late-1980s setting that the 8-bit console wars came about. Perhaps calling it a “war” is a bit of a misnomer since, in the U.S. anyway, it was all about the NES. Seemingly every kid had Nintendo, and growing up, I initially wasn’t aware there even were other 8-bit consoles beyond it. I mean, sure, there were the home computers, but to me, it was basically those and the NES. In actuality, there were three viable 8-bit consoles at the time: besides the NES, there was the Sega Master System, and then there was the Atari 7800. Neither did much comparatively in the States, though the SMS was a force to be reckoned with in much of the rest of the world. (No kidding, the European and Brazilian SMS scene was, and is, fascinating!)

The 7800 was an interesting case; initially intended to right the wrongs that the Atari 5200 had ostensibly committed, the 7800 was meant to come out in 1984, restore Atari’s good name and blow the competition (namely the ColecoVision) out of the water. It was a pretty powerful system for the time, with terrific graphics, a sleek design, and the ability to play Atari 2600 games right out of the box and without an adapter.

It didn’t quite work out as planned though. There was a brief test market in ’84, but the combined effects of the infamous early-1980s video game crash and the sale of Atari Inc. from Time Warner to Jack Tramiel put a halt on an immediate wide release. In the aftermath, Atari Inc. became Atari Corp., and the 7800 was placed on the back burner until 1986. The 7800 was still a capable console with an enormous amount of potential, but with a library of older titles and a somewhat-damaged reputation to the name “Atari,” not to mention constant cost-cutting measures regarding new titles and peripherals, well, it was an uphill battle against the Super Mario juggernaut that the NES became as the 1980s wore on. The added competition of the Sega Master System didn’t help matters, either.

Even though the NES, SMS and 7800 were all originally developed around the same 1983/1984 time frame, and all eventually wide released in the U.S. in 1986, due to the specific circumstances surrounding the 7800’s debut and subsequent library, it feels like a console caught between two eras of gaming. To me, it’s like a system from both the early/mid-80s and late-80s, if that makes any sense. ‘Course, that’s one of the reasons I love it so much; no joke, the Atari 7800 is absolutely in my personal top five favorite consoles.

Anyway, fast forward to 1989. Gaming consoles are again big business, revolutionary titles are coming out left and right, and Double Dragon has already swept not only the arcades but also the NES and SMS. It was in this climate that the Atari 7800 port of Double Dragon, released by Activision, arrived.

The fantastic but ill-fated Atari 7800, complete with Double Dragon loaded!

This was amazing for a few reasons. 1) Nintendo’s licensing agreements with software developers meant that it was hard, often impossible, for the same games to come out on more than just the NES. Thanks to legal loopholes however, there were exceptions, and several titles well-known as members of the NES stable also appeared on competing consoles. 2) The 7800 was great at playing classic arcade ports such Asteroids, Centipede, Joust and Ms. Pac-Man, and had it been released in 1984 as intended, the matter would have been less egregious. But by the late-1980s, new names were needed, and the 7800 was woefully lacking in that area. Rampage, Ikari Warriors, Commando and Xenophobe were welcome exceptions, but that’s just what they were, exceptions.

(The issue of original games was another sticking point with the 7800, something Atari only seemed to truly realize within the last few years of the console’s life. By then it was far too late to save it, but we did get the Super Mario Bros.-ish platformer Scrapyard Dog, the intensely-quirky Ninja Golf, and what just may be the best game on the entire system, The Legend of Zelda-esque Midnight Mutants, starring Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis himself!)

The current homebrew scene has expanded the 7800’s library considerably, but where the original run is concerned, there were only some 60+ titles released, and while many of them were/are pretty good, there were few that would have truly raised eyebrows in that late-80s/early-90s video gaming climate.

Enter 1989’s Double Dragon. Simply put, this was the exact type of game the 7800 needed. A modern arcade port, and a hot one at that. The 1988 home version on the NES was a massive hit, and 1989 was also the year a (very loose) port of the sequel arrived for the ol’ toaster. Furthermore, the SMS version of Double Dragon was also an extremely popular title, one which some would say was even better than the NES’.

So yes, in a library that initially only consisted of 60+ games, Double Dragon stood (stands) out big time. They came close, but Commando, Rampage, Ikari Warriors and Xenophobe, while more current than most of the 7800’s offerings, and with some late-80s coin-op clout to boot, just didn’t share quite the same name recognition that Double Dragon had. Could any of them touch Double Dragon as far as popularity went? Thanks mainly to the wildly successful NES port, I’d say “no.” Indeed, this release marked the only time that 7800 owners could truly partake in the same then-modern gaming experience as NES owners could. Some of the same games showed up on both systems, but Double Dragon was one of the gaming properties of the late-1980s, in both the arcades and at home. For once, 7800 owners could bask in the same glow as NES (and SMS) owners!

(A cool example of this “phenomenon”: I have a comic book buried in my collection from either 1989 or 1990, I can’t remember which for sure, and when it comes to the advertisements found throughout the issue, not only is this 7800 game pitched, but so is the NES original and sequel! I’m going to guess that didn’t happen very often!)

A cart with perhaps more fisticuffs than any other 7800 game!

Double Dragon was a Technos Japan innovation, with the NES port released by Tradewest (in the U.S.) and the SMS’ by Sega themselves. Activision, they of River Raid and Pitfall! fame, were still riding the Atari bandwagon in the late-1980s, one of the few third parties to continue do so, and it was they that put out our game on both the Atari 7800 and still-breathing 2600. That’s right, there’s an Atari 2600 port of Double Dragon, too! Given the mega-primitive hardware and one-button limitation of the joystick, it’s actually a pretty impressive piece of programming, featuring some terrific graphics and sound given the console it’s on. It’s not the most playable version of Double Dragon ever released, the difficulty is too high and there are too many moves mapped to the single fire button, but it is recognizable as Double Dragon, and that in and of itself is amazing.

The cart you’re seeing here is, obviously, the 7800 version. The 2600 version looks very similar, with the same plain layout except the colors are reversed (white-on-black instead of black-on-white), and naturally with “for the…” altered accordingly. Considering the 7800 library is littered with dull, black & white cartridge artwork, it’s too bad a more-striking label didn’t show up, but beggars can’t be choosers – I mean, at least the 7800 got Double Dragon!

(Remember, this is an article from a North American perspective; label art and the like varied in other countries.)

The iconic Double Dragon title screen, reproduced on the 7800!

Upon powering up the cartridge, you’re presented with the pleasant surprise that the 7800 received the most arcade-faithful port of all three 8-bit consoles. Indeed, at points it almost looks like someone took the arcade game and “7800-ized” it.

Something is evident on the title screen that’s very, very important. Look down at the bottom of the screen and see what it says: 1 or 2 players.

“Yeah, okay, so what North Video guy? Everyone knows Double Dragon is a two-player game!”

Well sure it is…in the arcade and on most of the home editions. There was one home edition, however, that inexplicably made it two-players alternating. Which one was that? The NES! Yes, in what was perhaps the most visible version of the game out there, the biggest feature of the original coin-op, the meaning of the very title itself, was stripped out! The NES port, for all the tampering with the levels and moves it featured (more on both of those in a bit), was magnificently playable. But, there’s no doubt that removing the ability to simultaneously beat down thugs with a buddy absolutely destroyed some of the magic that made the game so popular in the first place.

Well, that simultaneous two-player action is indeed present here on the Atari 7800!

Mission One’s “city slum.” That’s a whip in Billy’s hand, and a bat on the ground. Dig the “Scoop Moto” billboard – just like the arcade!

The arcade-accuracy continues into the game proper. Even the (in)famous intro, in which your girlfriend is slugged in the stomach and carried away is here – a shocking and wildly uncomfortable bit of violence that I can’t believe flew even back then.

That short sequence upon the start of a new game is about all the exposition you’re going to get, because there’s really no in-game plot to speak of. Not that you necessarily need one; saving a damsel-in-distress wasn’t exactly a new innovation in video game plots by the late-1980s, but it provides sufficient motivation for fisticuffs, methinks.

The plot was expanded upon in supplementary materials, sometimes exponentially so; Japanese releases place the setting at some point in the then-near future, after a nuclear war has devastated the population and caused gang warfare to rise. I don’t like this explanation at all; it adds an added layer of science fiction to the proceedings that, in my opinion, the game just doesn’t need. U.S. story lines were more straightforward in their telling, with a much simpler tale of a rampant street gang, the two brothers that oppose them, and the kidnapping of a girlfriend by said street gang. That’s all you need; background is nice, but it’s not something generally required in a game of this nature.

The gist of the plot, in both Japan and the U.S., is this: The Black Warriors (the bad guys) have taken over the city, and are opposed by relatively few, save for the twin brothers of Billy Lee and Jimmy Lee (the good guys), who are quite proficient in the martial arts. In order to lure them on to their turf and take them out once and for all, The Black Warriors kidnap Billy Lee’s girlfriend Marian. This is unacceptable, and so Billy (and his brother Jimmy as the second-player) set out to beat down some thugs and rescue her.

To get to Marian, the titular characters must traverse four environments: the city slum, the industrial area, the woods, and finally, the enemy base.

These level layouts in 7800 Double Dragon are far closer to the arcade than either the SMS or especially the NES. The SMS mostly followed the stages found in the coin-op (and included simultaneous two-player action as well), though it diverged in a few spots. The NES port was all over the place, with levels that typically started out somewhat faithful to the coin-op and then just went nuts. Platform elements, a trip up a construction site, into some caves, and so on and so forth. It was fun, and it actually did work, but it wasn’t exactly arcade-accurate. Though as I said earlier, the additions served to lengthen the game and make it more suitable for an at-home experience, which means it has held up better in the long run (the same thing applies to the versions of Double Dragon II and Double Dragon III on the console, as well).

In the 7800’s case however, what you saw in the arcade was ported directly over to the Atari, and there’s something to be said for faithfulness to the source material. Unfortunately, Double Dragon wasn’t an especially long game as a coin-op, and that carried over here, too.

Mission Two’s “industrial area.” You certainly CAN climb up that fence!

By the way, if you’re totally bored, you may be asking yourself “hey, where’d y’all get these swell in-game screenshots, North Video Guy?” The answer to that is: I took them myself, with an actual 7800 console, cart and CRT TV. Y’see, I don’t emulate, so if these screenshots lack somewhat in the sharpness department, and I know that they do, that’s thanks to the good ol’ RF signal; no, the 7800 I used hasn’t been modded for AV output. Honestly, I actually think this gives a more accurate picture of how the game is meant to be displayed, closer to how kids playing it upon release first saw it. The harsh sharpness of emulation actually makes the game look uglier than it really is.

And while on that subject, let’s talk about the graphics proper. 7800 Double Dragon isn’t a bad looking game as a whole, but it is a mixed bag.

The arcade-faithful backgrounds generally look pretty nice. The first two stages have sort of a drab color-scheme, but the detail is excellent and the layout is just like the coin-op. The third and fourth levels are terrific, with a richly-detailed forest in the third and foreboding enemy fortress (complete with deadly spike pit) in the fourth.  Modern day homebrew games aside, the graphical-detail in the latter stages of Double Dragon are some of the best graphics seen on the 7800.

As for the sprites in the game, well, they’re another story. Simply put, for the most part they look like something the Atari 5200, a full console generation before, could have pulled off. They’re awfully blocky, and with a minimal amount of detail. Except for Abobo (the big, hulking enemy that has become one of the most popular faces of Double Dragon), the characters don’t really look very good. It’s quite a contrast with the backgrounds!

They may not all look great, but did everyone from the arcade original at least make it over to the 7800? Yes and no. Billy and Jimmy are here, using the same, palette-swapped sprite. The same goes for common thugs Williams and Roper, and 2nd level boss Jeff; they all use the same sprite as Billy and Jimmy, just with different colors. Female thug Linda is here too, but shares the same image as the kidnapped Marian. Head bad guy Big Boss Willy obviously gets his own design, as naturally does Abobo. (Technically, there was Abobo and Bolo in the arcade, both nearly identical save for a few differences, but c’mon, it’s always just been Abobo to the layman).

So yeah, everyone’s here technically, but not without some caveats.

As mentioned, the NES version is one-player only, and can display two enemies at a time, albeit with some graphical break-up. The SMS has two-players simultaneously and up to three enemies, but there’s a lot of flicker throughout. With the 7800 however, one of the strengths built into the system from the get-go was the ability to move a lot of sprites at the same time, without flicker or slowdown.

The richly-detailed forest of Mission Three. Note the number of sprites onscreen, without flicker or graphical break-up! Neato!

This ability is readily apparent in Double Dragon. The game can have up to four bad guys onscreen, plus your one or two players. No graphical break-up, no flicker, and no slowdown either, except for some choppy scrolling when moving to a new screen. This version plays a bit more sluggish as a whole, but it’s not a deal breaker, and the relatively slower, more-deliberate pace of the game actually serves it well.

While on the subject of sprites, one thing about the original coin-op that wore real thin, real fast was its tendency to slow down when the screen became crowded. Yep, the more sprites there were at a given moment, the more the action crawled. Honestly, if you’re able to get beyond the relatively-archaic nature of the game (early beat-’em-up and all), that’s really the only downside to what is otherwise still a terrific game.

The slowdown in the original coin-op often made the use of weapons more of a chore than a pleasure, which is a shame, because the ability to grab a new beat-down implement was another one of the revolutionary aspects of the game. You never saw Thomas appropriate one of those knives from a mindless grunt in Kung-Fu Master, after all!

The arcade featured bats, whips, knives, boulders, barrels, boxes and dynamite, all of which your character could pick up and use in his quest for kidnapped-girlfriend-vengeance. (And of course, they could always be taken from you, as well!) Only the bats, whips and knives made it to the 7800 port. In contrast to the later Streets of Rage, in which a knife could be used repeatedly or thrown at once, in Double Dragon it was always a one-throw deal. The bat and whips can be used repeatedly, though unlike the arcade, they eventually disappear when moving from one section of a level to another (common for home console conversions of the period).

Ah, but it was the attacks, the various combos you could pull off, that really sets Double Dragon apart from other side-scrolling fighters. Not set, sets. Later beat-’em-ups simplified the amount of attacks, sometimes with only a jump and punch button, maybe a special move. Double Dragon was considerably more involved, with a style of game play that more-closely resembled actual martial arts street fighting (I assume; so rarely do I get out to street fight). From the three buttons and joystick, you could pull off punches, kicks, jump kicks, reverse jump kicks, headbutts, elbow smashes, over-the-shoulder throws, the ability to repeatedly knee an enemy in the face, and with a buddy, one player could even grapple a baddie while the other slugged him (which worked the other way around, too). Amazingly, with all of these options at your disposal and relatively few buttons, it worked really, really well.

With only two attack buttons generally available, obviously all these moves didn’t always make it to the home versions intact. The NES port fared better than most; even though you had to continuously “level-up” to earn more of them, in some odd form of RPG-ness, you could amass an impressive range of attacks, including the ability to sit on an enemy and punch them relentlessly in the face. This wasn’t found in the coin-op, but rather in Technos’ prior beat-’em-up Renegade, which was Double Dragon‘s spiritual predecessor in more ways than one.

The SMS version retained a good number of the attacks, though for me, only the punches, kicks, jump kicks and headbutts were consistently easy to pull off. (You can elbow smash and knee-in-the-face, but I could only ever trigger those attacks by mistake!)

Mission Three is lengthy and culminates in a mountainside fight at the entrance of the enemy base…against not one but TWO green Abobos!

The 7800 actually fared pretty well in the translation. The knee-in-the-face and over-the-shoulder-throw options were, disappointingly, excised. (So is the grapple technique, though no home version got that, as far as I know.) But, along with the obvious abilities to punch, kick and jump kick, the reverse jump kick, headbutt, and elbow smash all made it in. Some of the button combos to make these moves happen are a little strange (down + punch to headbutt? What was wrong with double-tapping left or right like the arcade, NES and SMS?), but mostly this all works okay.

However, we now come to the biggest problem with the Atari 7800 version of Double Dragon, and it’s something that’s not the game’s fault: the painful stock U.S. 7800 controller. Here in the States, we got the “ProLine Joystick,” and from start to finish, it was pretty much a holdover from the early-1980s era of controller-design. Basically an elongated grip with a joystick at the top and a fire button on each side (think ColecoVision or Atari 5200), it was a controller not suited to long sessions of any game, never mind one that requires constant movement and button-pressing like Double Dragon.

Overseas, Europeans got the “ProLine Joypad,” and it’s a far, far superior controller. Basically Atari’s answer to the NES control pad, it’s a continual mystery why it never replaced the joystick here in the U.S. It’s not perfect, but considering the alternative, it’s definitely preferable, and it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to Double Dragon.

Y’see, this game has gotten a reputation for being overly difficult, and in many eyes, not very good. Hey, I’ve been on that side of the fence a time or two in the past, too. When I first got the 7800 port many years ago, I was by no means a novice at Double Dragon. And yet, I could barely make any headway before exhausting all my lives (you get three to start, an extra at 50,000 points, and no continues). I was probably convinced it was either the hardest or most poorly-programmed port 8-bit console port there was.

Fast forward several years, when I decided to get myself some of the European Joypads. After all, I loved the 7800, so why not, you know, fully enjoy it? 2600, or even Sega Genesis, controllers were fine for single-button games, but some of the best 7800 titles, like Commando or our subject today, require two. And what a revelation! A whole new appreciation for the 7800 port of Double Dragon was gained, all because I could finally properly play it! Go figure!

I think 7800 Double Dragon gets a bad rap as far as difficulty is concerned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s on the challenging side; the enemies can hound you and get some cheap shots in. But, it’s really not any more difficult than any other 8-bit conversion, and in fact is probably easier as a whole than the NES port, where you can save all of your lives only to blaze through them in a hurry on the last level.

The controller, I think, is one of the issues with that difficulty perception. Seriously, get the European Joypads. Do what you gotta do to play Double Dragon comfortably, because it ain’t gonna happen using the regular ProLine Joystick. I can beat the game using it, but it’s not exactly an ergonomic experience.

The controller used isn’t the game’s fault, but another key to enjoying the beat-down frenzy is: the punch. There’s a very simple method to avoiding frustration with this game, and it’s this: just don’t punch. I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. When animating the attacks, the punch is given a “wind up.” It isn’t instant contact. As such, there’s a moment of hesitation, and this leaves you open to hits. In other words, you end up taking taking cheap shots and trading blows back and forth.

Some players like to spam the elbow smash (just like the arcade!) and jump kicks here, but in my experience, you don’t necessarily need to do that. When using a normal, ground-based attack, just stick with regular kicking. There’s no animation between the button press and the result, so it’s ‘instant,’ and as such, you can hammer away at baddies without taking too many unnecessary hits back.

Mission Four, with some of the best graphics in the entire game!

On top of that, the enemy A.I. is painfully stupid. Yes, they can be tough, but once you learn their patterns, you can counter them without too much trouble. Same goes for most beat-’em-ups, I know, but especially here. Much like the NES version, if you get in ‘close’ to an enemy, especially when coming in from underneath, you should be able to knock them down and eventually out while saving most of your life bar. As such, even the Abobos and Big Boss Willy, traditionally the toughest enemies, can be defeated without too much trouble.

So no, 7800 Double Dragon isn’t too hard. If anything, it might be a little too easy. You just gotta learn the tricks!

Lastly, we come to the music of 7800 Double Dragon. One of the most celebrated aspects of the game, in both its original incarnation and in most of the ports, was the soundtrack. Double Dragon featured an absolute classic score, one that not only fit the scenes you were traversing but also absolutely got you in the mood to beat down some street punks. On the 7800, we got…some of that.

Y’see, the system was originally intended to include a POKEY sound chip, which would have given it the sound quality of the Atari 8-bit computers and 5200, which was pretty good. When it was eventually released however, the POKEY was omitted as a cost-saving measure. The chip could be added to individual carts, though sadly, this was only utilized twice, for Commando and Ballblazer. Both have terrific music, but aside from those exceptions, the 7800 generally features sound identical to what the 2600 could pull off.

Now, it’s beyond old news to rag on the 7800’s sound quality. Compared to the NES and SMS, it sounds particularly bad, we know. It is what it is. It’s funny, I don’t even mind the sound of the 2600, but when it’s paired with the superior visuals of the 7800, well, it just kinda throws you for a loop.

That said, Double Dragon really should have utilized a POKEY sound chip. The soundtrack was so phenomenal that it absolutely, without a doubt deserved the honor. But, it didn’t. As such, we’re left with an incomplete, slightly-shrill score. Two of the mission tunes were omitted completely, meaning there’s some repetition involved. What is included is the famous title-screen track, Mission One’s theme, Mission Three’s theme (in the arcade, anyway), and the boss encounter music, plus the level-ending jingle. You’ll hear the first and third level themes repeated throughout, and not always where they should be.

Incomplete though it may be, at the very least, the music is recognizably Double Dragon.


Does this image practically scream “late-1980s” to you, or is it just me?

So when it comes right down to it, how does the Atari 7800 port of Double Dragon hold up? Better than it doesn’t. The music is a disappointment, and if you’re in the U.S., odds are you’ll have to contend with finding a better controller. Get over those obstacles however, and you’re treated with what I feel is one of the best games in the 7800’s library.

True, it lacks the length and extra features of the famous Nintendo Entertainment Version, but it makes up for that with the arcade-accuracy and simultaneous two-player action. And, while the graphics and sound are markedly inferior, I actually prefer this port over that of the Sega Master System, based solely on the gameplay. The SMS version, don’t get me wrong, I like it, but the control has always seemed too loose for my tastes; you’re basically out there swinging fists wildly – there’s no finesse, in my opinion. The 7800 version runs a bit slower, but you can really get into a groove while playing thanks to that.

Perhaps more importantly than how it stacks up against the rival 8-bit ports is what this Double Dragon represents. Think of it; you’re a kid in the late-1980s, you have an Atari 7800, while most everyone else has an NES. Maybe a few of your friends even have an SMS. Now sure, there’s plenty of great classic arcade ports at your disposal, and the 2600 library, but that stuff isn’t what’s burning up the video game world at the moment. Games have evolved, become more complex, bigger worlds, better graphics.

All of sudden, here comes Double Dragon, the arcade smash, the game that’s tearing up both the NES and SMS. And now it’s available for the 7800! The series would continue to expand via sequels, spin-offs, and so on and so forth, but for this one occasion, 7800 owners could boast the same game as NES and SMS owners could. Not that Double Dragon was the only shared title across the three; Rampage hit all of them as well. But, Double Dragon was a trendsetting name brand that, as I’ve said, was incredibly recognizable in the late-1980s and early-1990s. It showing up on the 7800 seems special to me in a way that, frankly, Rampage doesn’t. That’s just my perception, though.

Furthermore, the beat-’em-up was a genre sorely lacking on the 7800. Kung-Fu Master was fun, but simplistic and old hat by the time it came out on the system in ’89. Ninja Golf and Basketbrawl were quirky Atari originals that combined sports with fighting. And Karateka? We don’t talk about Karateka. None of them could attain quite the same level that Double Dragon achieved – and achieves.

Double Dragon was something special in the Atari 7800 library, and even if it wasn’t a perfect game, that’s still to be celebrated. Even today!