What do you think of the idea of playing a role-playing game in a first-person perspective? It will contain the elements of other RPG's, except you'll see all the action through the eyes of the main character. The good news for all those who are excited by this idea is that such an RPG exists. It's called Shining in the Darkness and it's a very in-demand game for the Sega Genesis. The bad news is that Shining in the Darkness has been out of print for the last decade (at the very least) and Sega hasn't yet found the sense to install it into one of their nostalgia packages. The other bad news is that there's an NEC-published game for the TurboGrafx-16 floating around out there called Double Dungeons which is also referred to as an RPG. I'm not sure whether it was NEC that looked at Shining in the Darkness and said "Hey, that's a neat idea! Let's make a budget version!" or if it was Sega that saw Double Dungeons and said "The concept of a first-person RPG is an innovative one, but I know we can create a better game than this." If you're a casual gamer, all you need to know is that Shining in the Darkness was the first game - and still considered the best game by many - in what Sega fans affectionately call the Shining series, a series of strategy games which has spanned the last two or three console generations. (My first review as an official staff reviewer for Netjak was on Shining Force II, a game in this series.) Double Dungeons, for casual gamers, doesn't exist.
Shining in the Darkness is barely known to casual gamers because it had little fanfare and advertising and also because it's difficult to find today. Double Dungeons is barely known to many hardcore gamers because it was on the TurboGrafx-16, one of the least-known consoles to appear in the United States. I honestly believe the unpopularity of the Turbo is the only thing standing between Double Dungeons and a spot on the list of legendary video game bombs alongside ET, Deadly Towers, Time Killers, and other notorious examples of how video games should never, ever be made. Double Dungeons may not be well-known, but it makes a very solid case for being the worst game ever.
Calling Double Dungeons an RPG is a gross overstatement. There are two elements in Double Dungeons common to the genre: experience points and weapon upgrades. Otherwise, there's very little in Double Dungeons to make even casual role-players believe it to be anything more than a slightly gussied-up first-person shooter. The game places you into a narrow, landmark-free dungeon and forces you to look for treasure, weapons, and eventually the boss of the dungeon. Since the dungeons have no discerning marks whatsoever to help you find your way through them, you'll often end up walking around in circles or at least thinking you're walking around in circles. The only real way to find your way around without getting hopelessly lost is by mapping out the game using graph paper. There might be a way to blunder through Double Dungeons without mapping, but having attempted the blunder method more times than I can count, I can safely say that it will lead to a long, frustrating and ultimately pointless campaign.
Since there are no landmarks in Double Dungeons, you'll have to use the enemies as your landmarks. This is a very accurate statement with no exaggeration because the random encounters in the game aren't random. In Shining in the Darkness, groups of enemies literally pop in from nowhere to challenge you and so you're always on your toes. But in Double Dungeons, enemies appear at certain points in the dungeons that never, ever change. Every enemy you encounter will always be in a certain location at least half of the time you show up. What's more, you can't walk into the area behind an enemy until the enemy has fallen to your blade. Therefore, it's impossible to avoid combat with a powerful enemy who's guarding a corridor you have to get into. You can run away and return all you like, but like death and taxes, there's no getting around him or making him disappear. If you absolutely need to get around him, the only way to do that is to waltz right up to him and put up your dukes. It doesn't help that you can see the enemies pop up from two or three screens away. Though the previews of enemies may unnerve certain RPG nuts, they can help you save hit points because they let you see what's coming and perhaps heal up if you need to.
Once you're ready to face off against the bad guys, you can easily engage them by running right up to them. One of the few good aspects of Double Dungeons is actually the ease with which you can get into and away from combat. Since your movement isn't hindered by a battle screen, you can run away any time you like, even against bosses. Anyway, combat in Double Dungeons is an epic battle of button-mashing. If the game had a statistic for luck, I'd say winning battles was a matter of luck alone. Actually, I'm going to say it anyway: Winning battles in Double Dungeons is strictly a matter of luck. While you can use items during combat, the whole battle system still revolves around pressing button 1 really fast. In a fight, little messages scroll through the bottom of the screen telling you just what's going on. The screen flashes to indicate when you're hitting the bad guy, and the text flashes to indicate when he's hitting you. You might think setting the rapid-fire switches on the Turbo controllers to their highest level would give you an edge in combat, but all that does is make the text messages scroll by at a faster rate. It's as basic as can possibly be. The simplicity is punctuated by the fact there is no magic and special attack weapons are very few and far between.
You might think a save-anywhere feature would be some kind of redeeming value for Double Dungeons. Too bad the save system is password-based. It's about the worst password system I've ever seen. It gives you a lot of lines of both capital letters and small letters and it very constantly forgets the passwords it assigns to you. There are 22 dungeons in the game and while you can play through the first 21 any time you please, you need a secret password to get into dungeon 22. You get letters for this password by beating the first 21 dungeons. While I never was able to crack dungeon 22, I once found a password for dungeon 22 in a cheat paper and tried it. It didn't work. The dungeon-selection may seem like a blessing on paper (lord knows its been a godsend in helping me with this review) but it actually throws you off because it means that once you beat a dungeon, you're thrown right back into the dungeon selection screen. Did you forget what dungeon you just beat, what letter you just worked so hard to attain? Tough luck. The only way to really get through this game is to play a series of marathons, playing one dungeon at a time all the way through.
Perhaps you've noticed that I haven't spent any time talking about the story. It's simply foolish of me to go so long without mentioning the story, which is the backbone of any RPG, right? Well, there's a good reason for that. There is no story in Double Dungeons. Don't adjust your computer or go rushing to the eye doctor. You read that right. Double Dungeons gives you useless prologues and epilogues at the beginning and end of each dungeon, but they serve no purpose other than to provide some ludicrous explanation as to why you've been tossed into this narrow dungeon. Other than those, Double Dungeons lacks even a rudimentary foundation of a story. There are no characters in the game besides shopkeepers and innkeepers. Frankly, I wonder why there are shops and inns in dungeons anyway.
Something Double Dungeons does offer is a two-player simultaneous mode. It doesn't do anything to enhance the gameplay, but it's amusing to meet up with your friend in the dungeons knowing he may or may not attack you. When the characters meet, they can attack each other or team up. I highly recommend teaming up, since killing each other is counterproductive and makes the game even longer and more difficult than it needs to be.
The graphics in Double Dungeons manage to pull off a realistic 3D effect, and the scrolling is done better than it is in Shining in the Darkness. That's really the best that can be said about them. Usually when a game is seriously lacking somewhere, I try to concentrate on what's there. But Double Dungeons makes that sadly impossible. The enemies look very blurry when they first appear onscreen and they don't move during combat. Shining in the Darkness wasn't exactly flashing movements around the screen either, but that game made up for it with terrific character designs. Double Dungeons gives you the least inspired designs possible. It's as if they merely asked the janitors to do a little bit of drawing. If you run into the other player in the two-player mode and he walks away, he flashes in and out. But the biggest crime with the graphics is you only get a fourth of the screen displaying the action. The sounds are even more incomplete than the graphics. There are only a handful of sounds to indicate when you're fighting an enemy or using an item. The repetitive music is mind-numbing and annoying, playing endlessly in a loop with only the occasional break for music in inns or shops or - when you beat a dungeon - the title screen. In all fairness, however, the title screen music is really good.
Slowdown aside, Double Dungeons has very responsive controls. If you have to run away from a fight, there's no delay. You just run. Using items is a two-button process - you use button II to go to the item selection and button I to use from there. Button I also scrolls the text along in fights and does the attacking.
One thing Double Dungeons can boast is one of the greatest pieces of cover art to ever grace a game package. In the foreground is a warrior with a big sword, deciding whether he wants to go into a passage with a bear or a passage with a giant snake while a skeleton presides over the scene. Other than that, there's no reason to ever purchase this game for any price. It's available as a download for the Nintendo Wii now for less than ten dollars, and so interest in Double Dungeons as a cult game has suddenly surged. But god only knows why Double Dungeons is available for download instead of more worthy games.