(Editor’s note: From Final Fight to Maximum Carnage, everyone’s got at least one videogame tune stuck in their heads. Enter Liner Notes: a Pixelitis feature in which our writers discuss their favorite videogame soundtracks.)
After celebrating the revival of Double Dragon two weeks ago with a look back at the fantastic soundtrack to Double Dragon II, my eyes, hands, and ears proceeded to be graced by the delight that is the recently-released XBLA/PSN title Double Dragon Neon and its stupendous music.
Back-to-back Double Dragon Liner Notes? You better believe it. WayForward Technologies’ first foray into the Double Dragon universe brought with it a fantastic score that has easily become one of the best game soundtracks of the year.
So don your power glove and get that pencil ready to rewind some audio cassettes: we’re about to relive the glowing ’80s.
Double Dragon Neon composer Jake “virt” Kaufman is no stranger to remixing and reviving classic game music, having contributed to Overclocked Remix and worked on the likes of Contra 4, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, Mighty Switch Force! and Retro City Rampage. Kaufman’s appreciation for retro game music and 80s musical sensibilities made him and this beat-em-up a perfect fit.
All of the game’s music features live guitar and bass recordings alongside sample libraries, virtual orchestras, and synthesizer plug-ins. Composer Vince DiCola (of Rocky IV fame) proved to be a large inspiration for Kaufman, and it readily shows with the heavy use of synthesized drums and keyboards. Upon first listen, the average listener could easily mistake some of these tracks for actual 80s power ballads.
It all begins with a remix of the classic Double Dragon title music, injected with distorted guitars, keys of the ‘cheese’ variety and orchestral hits. More on the orchestral hits later. The added guitar solo is a nice touch. “Mission Bumper” is a remix of the brief, albeit catchy track from the NES original that plays before the start of each level. It’s a joy to hear this with updated instrumentation.
“City Streets 1 (Double Dragon 1 – Mission 1)”
There’s really no other way to introduce the team of Billy and Jimmy Lee than with a rocking rendition of Double Dragon’s first level music. The original melody is fully intact, but given a boost with a synth and guitar that harmonize exquisitely amidst fill-heavy drums. The song benefits from the addition of an over-the-top keyboard solo and an outro that references the title screen music.
“City Streets 2 (Mango Tango – Neon Jungle)”
Once I moved onto the second stage, I was caught off-guard by a vocal track that feels like an 80s time warp. “Neon Jungle” is sung by Jessie Seely, whose voice was also featured in the ending credits music in another WayForward game: BloodRayne Betrayal. The lyrics, penned by Kaufman, are full of metaphors which liken two lovers in a dance club to animals in a jungle.
Cheesy? You bet, but the upbeat backing music complete with attractive female vocal work made me replay this level over and over just to hear it. That chorus still gives me chills.
In a chat with fans via Noise Channel on the day of Neon’s release, Kaufman revealed that the game’s director Sean Velasco was skeptical about having a vocal track play so soon before the first boss. With enough persuasion however, it came to be. And I thank them for it.
With “Boss – Skullmageddon,” we’re treated to a fast-paced track that features a reference to the final boss music of the original Double Dragon combined with a huge flourish of over-the-top Konami-styled orchestral hits. The track feels like it belongs more in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time than Double Dragon, but it rocks enough to overlook that. You’ll find these orchestral hits used in many other songs in the game.
“Space Dojo 1 (Double Dragon 1 – Mission 2)”
The classic NES remixes continue with a redo of Double Dragon’s “Industrial Area” track, complete with funky bass and a trumpet section that compliments the oodles of synth layers.
“Space Dojo 2 (Billy and the Breakers – Firebird)”
Nearly every stage that leads to a boss fight features an original tune accompanied by vocals. “Firebird” continues the trend, bringing forth a rocking 80s cartoon-esque tune with singing reminiscent of Paul Engemann’s “Push it to the Limit.” This is an excellently-made “pump-up” song that’s hard not to headbang to after the keyboard solo.
For the next boss track, “Boss – Mecha Biker,” Kaufman noted that the chords in this track are identical to the Double Dragon theme, albeit with a changed melody. “Countryside 1″ is another original track that manages to keep the sort of melodies and leads you would come to expect with a Double Dragon tune.
“Countryside 2 (Lee Brothers – Glad I Am)”
Jeff Luke, the vocalist featured in the previous vocal track makes a return here, accompanied by backup vocals performed by none other than Kaufman himself. “Glad I Am” is a very fun song, continuing the upbeat and empowering nature of “Firebird.” The syncopated upbeats in the vocals during the chorus give it a humorous twist.
It’s no surprise that Kaufman called it his favorite track in the game.
With “Lab 1 (Double Dragon 2 – Mission 1),” we’re treated to a remix hilariously done in a Devo style, complete with triplet hi-hat hits, prominent bass, and whacked-out synths. According to Kaufman, “the first time I played this for Sean [the director] he laughed for like ten minutes straight. I thought he was going to make me change it because it was ‘too Devo,’ but I should know by now that Sean and I are of one mind creatively; there’s no chance he wouldn’t ship this.”
The following song, “Lab 2 (Pick Yourself Up and Dance)” was originally going to feature the vocals of a Michael Jackson sound-alike, but the crew was unable to find a good vocalist for an affordable price. Following time constraints, the idea had to be abandoned. At least we were left with an enjoyable Jackson-esque dance number that is also reminiscent of music from Sonic the Hedgehog.
“Tube Ride (Double Dragon 1 – Palace)” is yet another funny remix of a popular Double Dragon track, redone in the vein of surf rock. As it so happens, Kaufman said he always wanted to do a surf rock version of the final level of Double Dragon after covering it onstage with The Minibosses in 2002.
Speaking of humor, the game has more of it in the brief “Mixtape” tracks that play when selecting skills for your character. Each track is essentially a parody of an 80s/90s-era artist, including the likes of Depeche Mode, Beastie Boys, and even Rick Astley. Ever been virt-rolled? Now you have.
“End Credits (Dared to Dream)”
The final track of the game also happens to be the most comical. Played immediately after delivering the final blow to the final boss, the song features vocals led by Skullmageddon (voiced by the game’s director) amidst harmonies handled by Jeff Luke and Jake Kaufman. It’s essentially the main villain lamenting at his failure to keep Marian for himself and being foiled by Billy and Jimmy.
The song on its own may be silly to most, but accompanied by the game’s credits and sing-along-styled subtitles, it’s easily one of the funniest credits sequences to grace a videogame that’s not named Portal.
Skullmageddon ends the song saying “I’ll be back! Nya-ha-ha-ha! I’ll return one day to antagonize YOU, Billy and Jimmy!”
Oh, please do return. I’m already dying for more Double Dragon.
The music to Double Dragon Neon is not only a masterly-crafted ode to Kazunaka Yamane’s work of the first two NES entries, it’s also a celebration of the 80s (and early 90s) and the wacky new electronic majesty it brought with it.
Publisher Majesco was very supportive of Kaufman’s music, allowing him to release it for free on his Bandcamp page (with optional donations going toward purchasing equipment for his studio). So what the heck are you waiting for? Go download and listen to it!