One of our quasi-regular readers asked me what I was working on next for the site. I told them that I had been playing Renegade, the earliest of the real Final Fight/Double Dragon kind of brawlers. The conversation then went like this:
Them: “Oh? How is it?”
Me: “It’s kinda fun, but not really.”
And I could end the review right there, but that’s not what you’re here for. Renegade’s major contribution is that it took the idea of tromping between screens and fending off enemies (likely inspired by the arcade’s Kung Fu Master), 80’s-ified it with some street punks cribbed from The Warriors, and defined a beat-em-up genre that other games grabbed and ran with for impressive successes. Renegade’s major flaw is that this initial effort is kind of rubbish. Even if I had no foreknowledge of the similar games to come, I’d still be saying that Renegade showed potential, but isn’t a great realization of the concept.
This was an original Japanese arcade release, ported over to the States because they thought we might like games about hitting people. The original (first in a very long line of Kunio-kun games) involved Japanese school gangs in a precursor to River City Ransom. Unfortunately, a crackerjack localization team seems to have believed that audiences in the States would vomit heartily at any reference to the Japanese or their culture. The result is a thoroughly, almost painfully, Westernized version of the game.
Your character seems to be Elvis, or perhaps James Dean, going by the hair and the outfit. Bikes suddenly feature prominently where they never did in the arcade; enough so to include an entire level of hog racing down a stretch of freeway that is present only in this version. You’ll be doing all this fighting to close approximations of 50’s diner beats like “Johnny-B-Goode.” If white Americans could EVER be the victims of racism, this would be a shining example. It’s almost like selling the Irish a game about drinking and brawling, with four-leaf clovers as powerups and “Oh Danny Boy” as the background music.
If you’ve played these kinds of fighters before, you’ll recognize the early simplicity in this one. You’re stuck to one screen that scrolls a little on each edge, so no Double Dragon style romps down long streets or up fire escapes. Enemies all look alike based on the current level. They’ll run in from off-frame and automatically sort themselves around you. Only two will attack at the same time; one from the front, and one who will circle around behind you. You’ll fight, and fight some more, with the defeated enemies being replaced by new reinforcements as they fall. Once you clear out a predetermined number of guys, you’ll head to a new screen. You will generally have two screens and a boss fight on the third. The boss has a life bar like yours and a couple of unique moves. Repeat on the next level.
The primary issues I had were with the two things that really make this genre worthwhile – variety and feedback. Renegade features little of either. There are no breakable objects, no interesting goon entries (like through windows or behind billboards), and no visually rich fighting zones. Every unarmed goon you encounter has the same basic skillset; they can punch, and they can grab you. Period. You will also have one weapon-carrying enemy on the screen at all times, but you will never get his weapon or find any on your own. The bosses bring a few new moves to the table, but reuse these power moves among themselves. So, they will still grab you and drain a third of your life, but each will do it with a unique animation.
By feedback, I’m specifically talking about the registering of a hit on your opponent. Later games make the painful results of beefy fists doubling over some schmuck visually apparent, but here, you’ll have trouble making sure that you’re actually connecting your attacks. It’s not just an issue of the “hit” animation being unsatisfying, it’s often hard to tell if you’ve landed a successful blow. Enemies just sort of twitch a little if they move at all; more likely you and your foe will be playing the identical punching animation over and over like watching someone else play “Rock-em Sock-em Robots.”
Many enemies, especially the ones carrying weapons, will also just get tired of you hitting them. You’ll think you’re in the middle of wrecking their shit with some kind of crippling combo, when they suddenly just spring into action and whap you onto your ass. I literally started questioning if I was actually doing any damage at all, or if the game felt that I was instead just shadow boxing in front of the enemy. Unfortunately, you really won’t know, as their “health” is measured only in the number of times they fall to the ground – i.e. three times and they’re out.
I now know that Double Dragon 2 wasn’t quite as creative as I thought, as its control system is ripped straight from this one. You don’t actually control a punch and a kick; instead, B attacks to the left and A attacks to the right. This translates into a punch at the enemy you’re facing, and a back kick to the one sneaking up behind you. As with DD2, the kick is your actual weapon of choice since it drops an enemy in two hits, instead of the mystery number of punches. Most of your game thus becomes trying to lure enemies behind you so you can quickly dispatch them with kicks, or finding ways to knock them off subway platforms or piers. It’s not just an issue of the fighting being so dull that you want to get it over as quickly as possible – the game forces this upon you with a strict two minute time limit per screen.
Your power attacks are a jump kick with A+B, and a charge with a double-tap of the direction pad. Charging enemies with fist outstretched sometimes works, though bosses usually find a way to counter this. The jump kick is useful for weapon enemies, since it has a range as long as their bat/pole/stick/whatever, and stuns them for the follow-up. However, enemies here frequently are smart enough to duck the attack and cudgel you anyway. You can grab enemies and hit them without protest, or toss them over your shoulder, but managing to pull this off is tricky at best. I believe they have to be stunned (such as with a jump kick) before you are cleared to walk up next to them for the grab. I got a ton of unexpected grabs, but when I wanted to pull off intentional ones, I was usually denied.
While not quite a graphical disaster, the game is no showcase for what we know the NES can do. Levels mostly rely on single colors with small signs for decoration. Enemies are mostly made up of.. well.. single colors also, with a generic “street tough” look. Many, especially the bosses, have strange Tyrannosaurus arms that seem to hang limply from their chests, and all look closer to the work of a first-grader instead of someone who should have been paid for these results.
The monotony is broken up by the third level, which oddly consists entirely of ladies. They will bonk you on the head with chains and purses while you punch and kick them with reckless abandon. There’s all sorts of punchlines you could come with for this scene, as well as the giant, overweight, boss lady/madame/whatever you fight at the end of this stage. No matter what, it’s a little strange to watch your guy punch them with the same force as Ivan Drago punching Rocky.
I already talked about the diner background music and have no desire to do so again. The rest of the soundtrack is made up of scritchy-scrachy noises standing in for everything from punches to footsteps. I can’t really complain about it, as it offers the feedback you don’t get visually. A scratch, for example, denotes a successful punch. However, it works both ways. When you and your foe-of-the-moment get into a scrap, it will be hard to tell who is really coming out on top. You’ll just know that somebody is getting punched. A lot.
I like the genre and will readily admit so, but Renegade is not my favorite. I know I’m coming at this from the top-down, but I’m still not sure lil’ J Man would be pounding away at this title when it was first released. It’s a good, fun idea for a game, but it really took later cracks at this theme to prove that.
Ushered in the scrolling brawler. Many of the staples in later titles clearly come from this game.
Not the best representation of its own idea, but good enough to sell it to future designers.