Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Advancing Towards the Sunset

Much has been said about a cultural shift—the moment where culture froze and then melted. Most agree that the year was 1997 (I notion I wholeheartedly agree with) though some also argue 2006 or a similar time frame. But regardless of where one falls on this point, there is little argument that pop culture is the worst it has ever been.

Reboots and remakes rule the day, every movie follows the similar beats with the same tired character archetypes, and general malaise and a murky grey feel permeates every frame and line of dialogue. But it isn't just film. This same post-modern gunk has dripped over into other mediums as well.

But it didn’t happen all at once. The tipping cow of pop culture has been shoved many times before now. This is merely the first time it hasn’t gotten back up. Inept and hateful individuals have been working at dismantling good things for decades now. You can see their results by looking around and wondering why nothing is as good as it once was. It isn't just in your head.

For my example, let me use the woefully neglected video game franchise Double Dragon.

The original arcade game was released in 1987 to near universal acclaim. It practically invented the side scrolling beat em up on its own. The industry tried its hardest to flush away its achievements in the mid-90s, but we'll get to that. Double Dragon was a staple in every arcade, and it was huge on home consoles in the next few years-- especially the NES port. It became a fixture in the gaming world as one of the big new franchises. Within one year Double Dragon was huge.

And its secret is obvious to all.

It's pulp.

You see, Double Dragon is one of the most inventive, yet straightforward, video game series out there. You play as the Lee brothers, Billy and Jimmy, who have to rescue Billy’s kidnapped girlfriend from the Black Warriors led by gun-totting Willy. You traverse four levels through streets, forest, mountain, and base, to beat the bad guy and rescue the girl.

There are two buttons: punch and kick. These two buttons can be pushed in different combinations in tandem with the joystick (or d-pad) to jump, head-butt, spin kick, rear attack with an elbow, or grab enemies for extra punishment.

Its brief length and rock solid controls make it an addictive game to play even today. Even if it does have a few issues with slowdown in some places.

Double Dragon’s appeal is its simplicity. It's a straightforward story of two tough guys righting a wrong and getting the girl. There is nothing to it but that obvious idea. And that's all players wanted. It's easy to see why it connected in the era of Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Predator.

In fact, the idea was so straightforward and simple that it changed its setting in the sequel, Double Dragon II: The Revenge and no one complained or really noticed. The developers essentially duplicated the trick pulled with the transition between Mad Max and The Road Warrior by changing the aesthetic while not destroying what came before. Double Dragon was now post-apocalyptic in setting, with a darker setting and music, and more outlandish trappings and encounters. And it fit in perfectly with the feel from the original.

The sequel wasn't received that well at first. The arcade version was disappointing, being just a re-skin of the original with new moves, but it was the NES version which added stages, crazy level gimmicks, a more interesting art style, and even more classic music. This version really pushed the series over the top. There is a reason Nintendo put this game on their NES Classic console (for all five of you who were able to buy it) despite game journalists attempting their usual revisionist tactics to say its outdated crap--DDII is still rock solid today.

The move set expanded. Knee strikes, uppercuts, hurricane kicks, more weapons, and platforming made the game even better than the original. The NES version of Double Dragon II: The Revenge was the best kind of sequel.

And it was surprisingly superversive. The main influence of Double Dragon is Fist of the North Star. There's no argument over that. But Fist of the North Star is a tragic tale with Kenshiro, the walking incarnation of karma, dispensing justice over the wicked and unable to reclaim his lost love. Double Dragon is about two brothers stepping into a sticky situation and putting things back together again. They don't start any trouble, but they always finish it, and the endings to the games are surprisingly uplifting affairs, especially for that era of Japanese entertainment.

The first game ends simply enough with Billy and Jimmy rescuing Marian and stopping the big boss of the gang. Its a nice romantic ending for our hero and the town becomes a safer place. The heroes win, and the villains lose.

The Revenge is where it gets interesting. In the sequel, Marian is straight up murdered by the Shadow Warriors as revenge for what the brothers did in the first game. The title is in reference to the bigger threat that sets off the game. By the end, nothing is as it seems as the Black Warriors from the first game were only the small part of a bigger organization. The real deal are called the Shadow Warriors. These groups were actually led by a mysterious demon warrior who uses the shadows themselves to do his bidding and spread his influence.

And this ties in to who the Lee brothers are.

There is a legend that two warriors using Sōsetsuken (the martial art the Lee Bros. use) are the ones who will put a stop to this evil forever. At the end of the game, they beat the big bad and fulfill the legend which allows a miracle to descend from the sky for all their efforts. Marian is brought back to life in replacement for the evil life that was extinguished. Billy and Marian come together and the game ends.

The developers got a lot out of a simple situation. DDII was so successful it even became a million seller not long after its release.

It was off the back of the first two games that Double Dragon grew popular. It was one of those medium defining franchises with Mega Man, Contra, Mario, and Castlevania, that was always brought up and beloved. It was the premiere fighting franchise until Street Fighter II and Final Fight kicked down the doors years later, but it still retained an appeal and style all its own.

So how did it get adapted when it finally got a TV show and movie?

This is where the troubles start. This is what the 1990s did to a 1980s franchise:



Well, the TV show speaks to itself. They took a series about two tough guys fighting evil demonic gangs with nothing but their wits, legendary teachings, and skills, and gave them Power Ranger powers all while making their impressive and imposing roster of villains neutered idiots. It was a standard cartoon for the era. Early '90s action cartoons were not much to talk about. It was an awful show best forgotten.

The show wasn't the problem: it was the movie. It was the movie that proved to be the death of the franchise.

Now, it wasn't solely due to the film. Technos had badly mismanaged Double Dragon by 1994 so badly that the third arcade game was farmed out to a Z-tier developer and the licensing rights were given to parties that never should have had it in the first place. Everything that happened was a symptom of this.

However, it is the movie that perfectly encapsulates everything that went wrong with the franchise and the era it was made in.

To see this failure firsthand, here is what the director said about the movie in question:

"Our characters are like normal kids - three kids on an adventure, so we didn't want to make something that kids would almost be too afraid to see. ... I'd like to make it in a funnier, light-hearted vein."

Does this sound like anything written above? Keep in mind the original games were made for action adventure gamers who were already kids at the time. They're the ones who made it popular. So why do they need to be pandered to when they had no problem with the atmosphere of the original games?

But the 1990s were filled with this sort of mentality. Talk down to the kids and make sure they aren't scared or run the risk of engaging in something they might enjoy on a higher non-safe level. Now you might understand why so little entertainment from that decade holds up.

Keep in mind that Double Dragon isn't Hellraiser. This is a series about two guys who go on a quest to rescue a girl from an evil gang. It doesn't get more base pulp than that.

Double Dragon is the easiest video game to adapt into a movie. Two men train in martial arts in their town, a gang comes and harasses them because these two have been trouble to certain important parties. When they aren't looking, Billy's girlfriend is kidnapped, and the two brothers go on an adventure to rescue her. That's all you need.

At the very, very least this movie could have been a C-tier Cannon Film: a competent action movie with no budget but a lot of heart. It wouldn't have taken much. After all, Double Dragon is a very '80s concept at heart.

But the movie was made in the '90s.

What ended up being made was a film that not only disrespected Double Dragon the franchise, but the entire 1980s influences it wore on its sleeve. Every '90s cliche invaded the movie in an attempt to rip out its pulp roots.

The main characters? Inept. The main villain? Not intimidating at all. Billy's girlfriend? Completely changed into a '90s tough girl cliche. The bad guys? They turned Abobo from an 8 foot tall body builder into a fat mutant idiot spouting bad jokes. The brothers are taught and raised by some woman who looks about six years older than they are for some reason instead of them already being masters with a mysterious past. The mysticism integral to the background is relegated to a cheesy MacGuffin that, once again, looks as if it was ripped straight from Power Rangers and his little relation to the main characters. Once again: this is 1990s entertainment at its core.

But that's not all. The film is covered in bad jokes because no one, least of all the script writer, respects Double Dragon at its core. What should have been a simple action adventure film became a glorified toy commercial for a franchise that could have been replaced with anything else. They ruined a franchise that wasn't even a decade old because they couldn't let it be what it was made to be.

Much is said about the terrible Super Mario Bros. movie, but this one is far worse. That movie didn't harm the franchise--this one helped kill Double Dragon's credibility and took the cool edge, mysticism, and surprisingly touching moments out of it. It became what the '90s are known for: a cynical ploy to sell stupid things to stupid kids without anything to impart on them except to buy more stupid stuff. At least the '80s toy shows had writers who tried to impart something on the viewer. The '90s could not do Double Dragon justice for the same reason it couldn't do action movies after Demolition Man right anymore. The '90s had a hard time with heroism because it completely forgot what it was.

So, yes, 1997 is when rock bottom hit. But it was not out of the blue. While the 1980s were a reaction the rampant nihilism of the '70s (itself a logical endpoint of the hedonistic '60s), the 1990s were sabotaged and co-opted by cynical types who warped and stretched '80s archetypes like silly putty until they were so ridiculous we had to abandon them and "get serious" again. This is why the '00s are so utterly embarrassing to look back on. It all started with the '90s.

Look at The Matrix. It's a good movie, yes, but where is the passion? Where is the fun? It's a completely hollow and stiff film that has no real continuity with the action movies that came before. And that's what all action movies have been since, if they're not "ironic" and "self-aware" about it, that is.

That was two decades ago. Entertainment has not gotten any better.

And it will get even worse.

If this looks like a downer of a post that's because it is. For a long time I wondered why so much had changed so needlessly. It wasn't that I was growing up and didn't understand the younger generation or whatever dodge with shill-types that is popular this week. It was because what I liked was deliberately dismantled and destroyed.

That's what happened to Double Dragon. The game press didn't help with their campaign against beat em ups in the late '90s by declaring them shallow trash not worth the money. This is the same group that rallied behind God of War, by the way. Don't expect them to stand by you when the industry loses its way even further than it already has.

But because they've destroyed constantly for decades, these people have forgotten how to create. And all that's left is to remake the old properties with the same modern cliches that have killed every other modern product out there. Over and over again.

This is why I write. This is why I read other newer authors trying to reclaim what was lost. This is why I read the old authors. Heck, this is why I do Cannon Cruisers. This is all I can do to connect with what was lost in a world that is perfectly satisfied in destroying everything from the past while building nothing new. And it's not going to get any better.

Sunset is here. Prepare for the night.

Enough with revisionism and undeserved ego. It's time to start fighting back. Sooner or later there will be nothing left for them to destroy. Then the rebuilding begins.

It will be a long time to sunrise, but it sure will be something when it finally dawns.

I'm also embarking on own journey to create enjoyable entertainment. You can see it yourself below!


  1. I still remember first seeing Double Dragon in an arcade (in West Oaks Mall in Houston, right across the hallway from the movie theater). It immediately seared itself into my brain, mostly because compared to every game before it, it was *immensely* violent. That move where you grab the guy's hair and repeatedly smash his (or her) face with your knee is still one of the classic moves of any fighting game, and all done with wonderfully crunchy sound effects.

    So, yeah, I was absolutely horrified when the filmmakers got ahold of it and cheesed the hell out of it. Paul Dini wrote the movie and as much as I've enjoyed his Batman stories, you can tell by the way he's spoken of Double Dragon that he had absolutely no respect for the source. If I want to watch a real DD movie, I just put in The Warriors.

    1. Double Dragon really set the groundwork for a whole genre. I still think it's the best beat 'em up series even years later.

      You would have thought someone like Paul Dini would have understood the appeal, but he completely whiffed it in every aspect. The franchise was too '80s with competent tough main characters, a frightening villain, and unflinching action. It was either subvert it or turn it cornball. Being that it was the '90s the end result was inevitable.

      It's just such a shame. A movie that combined The Warriors with Fist of the North Star could have been so good. The franchise just got the short end of the stick.