Atari 7800 Double Dragon: A Comparative Look

Matt Barton's picture
Author: Mark Wiesner Jr.
Editing: Bill Loguidice, Buck Feris and Matthew D. Barton
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: All screenshots were provided with permission from the following sources – Atari Age and The Video Game Museum

Title screen of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.

When discussing console versions of the popular 1987 arcade game, Double Dragon (Taito), one likely thinks of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) port or the version for the Sega Master System (SMS). Most gamers are not even aware an Atari 7800 ProSystem version exists, which is sad because it is an excellent translation of the game.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.This article will try to show the strengths and weaknesses of each port, with special attention paid to the little-known, but very worthy, 7800 version. The Atari version’s obscurity may be a result of the fact that the 7800 system itself is not as well known among the gaming community as the NES and SMS.

The 7800 console was designed to succeed where the Atari 5200 SuperSystem had failed. By 1983, the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) was showing its age, and the aforementioned 5200 had not lived up to expectations. Atari surveyed the market and decided to make the 7800 system backward compatible with 2600 games. This feature was not included with the 5200, and was considered among its many flaws. Unfortunately, in 1984, the infamous videogame crash hit, consoles were thought to be dead, and the 7800 was taken off store shelves. Many insiders felt the console - and the videogame industry in general - was extinct. The Tramiel family, who had taken over Atari following the crash, discovered this belief was wrong when the NES began to revive the market in late 1985. In 1986, the Tramiel's re-released the 7800 to compete with Nintendo's system. Unfortunately, the 7800 was released without any new games—only those made back in 1984. Not only did the NES have a head start, but many of the 7800's games were arcade ports that had long since appeared on other systems. While these games might have done well in 1984, 1986 and beyond was a whole different market, with new games such as Nintendo's own Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda making their marks. The 7800’s titles looked antiquated in comparison, though this wasn’t specifically the fault of the system's hardware (see Issue 1's Atari article for more information). The 7800 eventually had some of the best arcade ports available on any console of its era, and Double Dragon was no exception. Double Dragon for the 7800 remains an obscure title, mostly because the system didn’t sell particularly well, and the fact that the title appeared late in the 7800’s marketplace life.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.First, we'll examine the actual 7800 version, programmed by Activision. Overall, Activision did a nice job converting the game for a system initially intended for playing relatively simple arcade games like Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and Namco’s Joust. The graphics are solid by 7800 standards, with good sprites and bright colors. Sound has always been a weakness with the 7800; its sound chip is the same as its predecessor, the 2600 (an add-on chip could be utilized in-cartridge, but was rarely used due to Atari cost-cutting measures). Despite the weak sound capabilities, the Double Dragon theme and music on each level sounds great and is clearly discernible. Play control is good and the collision detection functions well. The only bad thing about the control is that it takes lots of practice. Players using the traditional 7800 joystick may find it tricky to pull off some of the moves. It’s best to invest time practicing the moves on the joystick to get the hang of them. If possible, players should get their hands on a European-style controller (the one that looks similar to the NES gamepad) because it makes performing the moves easier. The 7800 version is also very challenging; the enemies are plentiful and come at the player very aggressively, wielding three of the weapons found in the arcade version: the knife, the bat, and the whip. In the end, the game stands up well with its arcade forebearer.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the NES. Reprinted with permission from The Video Game Museum.As stated earlier, the NES version is probably the home version with which most players are generally familiar. While it’s a fairly good game on its own, it’s somewhat weak against its arcade counterpart. The two imperfections that hurt the game most are its lack of a two-player mode and the system of earning moves. In the arcade, 7800, and SMS versions, two friends can play simultaneously. On the NES, friends can only play on alternating turns; the second player will have to wait until the first player dies to get his chance to fight. The other weakness is that the player has a limited repertoire of moves at the start, being only able to punch, head-butt, kick, and jump. Players earn moves by beating enemies for experience points. As more points are racked up, more moves can be earned, such as the jump kick. When compared to the 7800 version, the NES game easily beats it from a technical standpoint. The NES graphics are far superior, with more detail and colors in the characters and backgrounds. The 7800 characters look blocky in comparison and the backgrounds are not as detailed. Hands down, the NES music and sound effects beat the 7800 game. However, when it comes to gameplay, the 7800 version beats the NES, giving diehard gamers and Double Dragon fans the simultaneous two-player option and arsenal of moves that the NES version lacks. Both versions also have a different final boss. The 7800 version keeps the machine-gun-toting "Shadow Boss" from the arcade, whereas the NES version pits players against Billy Lee’s own brother, Jimmy Lee.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the SMS. Reprinted with permission from The Video Game Museum.The SMS version looks the best when compared to the arcade. The system's overall technical superiority to the other 8-bit consoles is apparent as the graphics are better rendered and the backgrounds surpass both the Atari and NES versions in detail. The SMS version even adds in the wanted posters from the arcade game that the other two ports lack. The sound is nearly equal to that of the arcade and dwarfs that of the comparitively weak sound in the 7800. The gameplay is superb too, having the simultaneous two-player version that the arcade and 7800 versions have. The control is similar to the 7800 version in that much practice is needed to master the moves. The collision detection needs work too, because unlike the 7800 or arcade games, enemies don’t get stunned by your attacks. This version is equal in challenge to the 7800 version, since enemies are very aggressive and can overwhelm a single player.

Atari 7800 ProSystem Double Dragon (Activision, 1989)Advantages: Faithful to the arcade game, providing a full arsenal of moves and two player simultaneous play.Disadvantages: Blocky and not very detailed graphics, weak sound.Stars: Excellent (4 out of 5 stars)

Sega Master System (SMS) Double Dragon (Sega, 1988)Advantages: Excellent graphics, superior sound, plays like the arcade game.Disadvantages: Collision detection needs improvement.Stars: Good (3½ out of 5 stars)

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Double Dragon (Tradewest, 1988)Advantages: Good graphics, great sound, decent playability.Disadvantages: Weaker graphics compared to SMS, full arsenal of moves not available at start, two player alternating play as opposed to simultaneous.Stars: Good (3 out of 5 stars)

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.The Final Verdict
All three of the versions cannot compare technically to the arcade because no 8-bit console has ever matched the arcade machine’s capabilities. When compared to each other, however, no clear-cut winner can be established. Each version of the game has its own strengths and weaknesses as outlined above. Just how good is the 7800 version? It’s very good. While the NES and SMS versions have the 7800 beat in graphics and sound, the 7800's translation stands up well in playability. The 7800 version also has better collision detection than the SMS port and has factors that the NES game sorely lacks, such as the two player simlutaneous mode.

If you own an Atari 7800, this game is one to look out for. Alternately, if you are a Double Dragon fan or collector, you will surely not want to miss the 7800's version of the game.

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