The semiotics of Double Dragon

Finally, someone has written an in-depth article about the cultural ethos of classic 1980s beat-em-up Double Dragon. Dan Whitehead:

Like its closest peers—namely Renegade and Streets Of Rage—Double Dragon represents the vigilante myth at its most naked and vicious. In brief: The hero is a square-jawed white guy, clad in a blue-collar uniform of wifebeater and sleeveless denim jacket. ... It’s the Reagan-era fantasy in a nutshell—the “one good man” of frontier myth updated for a world of crack dens and moral sleaze, taking down feral street punks with a bone-crunching kick to the face rather than a six-shooter.

A great article. However, I'm going to be that guy and suggest that he's not quite nailed the time period. Double Dragon was more a delayed echo of gritty 70s crime flicks such as Death Wish and The Warriors than Reagan-era neon paranoia (in arcades: Narc). Likewise, Double Dragon's elements of mysticism were more akin to Roger Moore Bond movies and kung-fu exploitation flicks than the contemporaneous Big Trouble in Little China. The lurid late-eighties glow--as resurrected in a 2012 reboot that owes as much to Ninja Turtles cartoons as the original game--only became the focus with the movie and later franchising. And that stuff about corn-fed Skynyrd types fighting Grandmaster Flash? Nah.

How it saddens me that Charles Bronson was not recalled from advanced retirement to play the the bad guy in a modern, Tarantino-esque Double Dragon film.


  1. Cool “70s-80s delay echo” data points

    • In Japanese marketing (marquees etc), the heroes wore leather and had feathered hair; in U.S. marketing (and later home editions) it was more often denim, and they had mullety goings on up there. (Exception: Nintendo and family-friendly Hollywood producers, who saw ghi cotton in the pixel art)

    • Jake Kaufman’s excellent rendition of the title theme (created for the remake) really highlights the 1980s-ness of it. But if you listen to the arcade original, it’s clearly trying to emulate 70’s instrumentation (such as organs, funky guitars and proggy drum kits). It’s hard to tell now, it’s so synthetic, but the DD arcade music was a very fastidious effort at evoking that stuff.

    1. Didn’t the Japanese version originally include a whole lot of backstory about a futuristic post-apocalyptic setting that was excised from the American version?  I recall reading something along those lines when Double Dragon Advance (the second-most recent rendition) was released.

  2. Yeah I think NARC is more Reagan. Grotesque paramilitary intervention in a bid to exterminate pretty much everybody. An unlikely ‘mr big’ kingpin is provided as a flimsy reason to carry out a genocide in the ghetto.

  3. You’re on target with the 70s impact. Even the author of the article recognized that in his citation of Travis Bickle, calling up Taxi Driver, a mid-70s film very representative of the time.

    Feels like he just wanted to mention Reagan and crack in a video game/sociological form. The 80s surely had some influence on the game but it’s primary influence is the 70s.

    1. If Narc is a crack and PCP lab exploding in gunfire and overdriven TB-303 licks, Double Dragon is a bag of heroin observed nervously by imported ninjas, to the accompaniment of a sinister flute.

  4. I call bullshit on this article. Streets of Rage is about a group of under cover police officers that fight against a corrupt government as well as street gangs and while it’s main hero Axel is a wife beater wearing jean machine, the other characters are Adam Hunter (African American boxer), private investigaotr Blaze Fielding, a backup group of cops that can be summoned to assist the group and later joined by several equally diverse characters.

    Do your damn research before you go badmouthing the awesomeness that is Bare Knuckle!

    1. Still. Letting your backup cut loose with a f’ing bazooka/rocket launcher would be pretty much in keeping with regan’s policy.

      By the way streets of rage remake v5. Download it. Ply it. Enjoy the nostalgia buddy. Rage at Sega not asking Bomber Games to do versions for Xbox Live, PSN, and Wii Channle (or whatever the new nintendo concole’s download arcade thing is called.)

  5. What about Final Fight? There’s your vigilante reaction with a curious foreshadowing of Jesse Ventura’s political career thrown in.

    Or Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja. President Ronnie’s even in that one.

    1. My first thought is that Final Fight is a closer fit to what Dan describes than Double Dragon is, but maybe only superficially so (with the neon colors and 80s fashions). The scenario is more or less exactly the same as DD, just sillier.

      The game we’re looking for here is “Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja”

  6. I just pumped about 5 bucks worth of tokens into that classic stand-up game last weekend!  It was AWESOME playing it with my son, who loved it too.  He’s got every gaming system known to man and still loved playing this 12-bit game, chunky style graphics, jerky movements, but controllers different than he’s used to using.  Bigger joystick and buttons and his little hands were way more adept at it than me, and I used to play that game a ton when I was a teen.  It was a great bonding experience, beating up bad guys with my son.

    1. I second that.  I’m so glad i read this after Mark’s questionable vid posts from this morning.  THIS is what I read boingboing for. Cheers!

      Also – River City Ransom anyone?

  7. NARC is Reagan’s disastrous gutting of social programs meeting the crack epidemic in videogame form: not just the ’70s malaise of vigilante justice, psychotic killers, and crumbling cities, but a full on free-fire warzone where everything is always already a target for incarceration or police murder. Cf. the SWAT team invasion of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, which puts the military-grade police state onscreen (and in our hearts!) for the first time. Cf. too the inimitable Avital Ronell in Crack Wars, her famous formulation of the nascent Security State: “narcopolemics as total war.”

    Yay, nerds.

  8. I’m in full agreement re: Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, and am thrilled beyond words to see it taking over this comment thread.  Oh, and nice pull with Rolling Thunder. Always saw that game as Turtlenecked-spy-vs outer-space-Klansmen. “Mlehhh!”

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