“So you’re on a train platform, when all of a sudden this gang surrounds you. Before they can do anything, you rush up to the first guy and – bam – punch him right in the face. He just stands there, totally stunned. But then this other bloke comes up behind you, and he’s got a baseball bat. You back kick him, and this stuns him, too.
“Then you turn around, grab the git by his jacket, and – get this – you knee him in the balls and throw him straight over your shoulder like a trash bag. Whack! He crashes into the first guy, who’s still stunned from having his nose broken, and the pair of them – wait, cos this the best bit – go flying off the edge of the train platform. They’re basically dead. Just like that. Isn’t that amazing?”
I’m paraphrasing, but this was me, boring a classmate half to death, circa 1989. I’d just discovered this killer move in Renegade, the ZX Spectrum conversion of a brawler that originally came from Japan.
The weird thing was, I’d owned Renegade for about a year, and it initially left me cold. That train platform full of thugs was only the first level, and it was viciously hard. And, well, just plain vicious. If you didn’t know what you were doing, the game could be over in seconds, your handful of kicks and punches being a poor match for the baseball bats and sheer number of assailants pressing in all around you.
Even if you did manage to off a couple of bad guys, their even bigger, tougher boss would suddenly join the fray, and he’d probably kill you anyway.
It was after reading some tips in an issue of Your Sinclair magazine that my fascination with Renegade was suddenly kindled. That move outlined above – which, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t mentioned in the instructions – sounded so exciting that I had to give it a try. Although it took a few tries to perfect, the shoulder throw brought home a hidden layer of strategy I’d previously overlooked.
I realized that there was a specific way of moving and timing attacks that gave the thugs no time to close in and strike you while you were pummelling one guy’s face to mush. It was wiser to chip away at each bad guy in turn, wearing them all down gradually rather than taking them out one at a time. If I took out the bad guys with clubs after I’d finished my initial bout of energy depleting, the unarmed guys left were quite easy to deal with. By the time the big boss joined the fight, most of his lackeys had long since suffered a terminal impact with a pair of railway sleepers.
Subsequent levels could be conquered using the same techniques, but each heightened the tension in their own ways. The second stage, set by a harbor, saw you beset by bad guys on motorcycles. Thrillingly, you could dismount them with a single well-timed jumping kick, which left their bikes trundling off the screen without a rider. Level three took place outside what appeared to be a strip club, and your enemies this time were, worryingly, a bunch of women armed with whips. Level four’s thugs were armed with what appeared to be huge knives, while the fifth stage introduced the big, bad, pistol-waving final boss.
The ZX Spectrum version of Renegade – and its other 8-bit counterparts, all programmed by Imagine Software – were quite different from the original coin-op.
Renegade began life under the title Nekketsu Koha Kunio-Kun (which roughly translates to Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio) and was programmed by Technos in 1986. The early Japanese incarnation was about rival school kids beating the crap out of each other, and you played Kunio, the toughest school kid on the block.
When publisher Taito took the game overseas, they clearly realized that Japanese school kids dressed in distinctive student garb probably wouldn’t go over too well in the west. The game was therefore given an extensive visual overhaul, with the kids replaced by gangs and graffiti – all inspired, perhaps, by Walter Hill’s classic thriller, The Warriors.
Now called Renegade, the game made appearances in American and European arcades, but it didn’t seem to be as ubiquitous as Double Dragon, the next game from Technos, which added a two-player co-op mode to the brawler mix. (Nekketsu Kunio-Kun was clearly popular in Japan, though, because its characters appeared in dozens of sequels, only some of which made it to the west. River City Ransom was perhaps the most popular in America.)
At any rate, it was the western localization, Renegade, which was ported to home computers by Imagine in 1987. And in some ways, you could argue that it’s a bit of a failure: the graphics, range of enemies, and controls are all greatly simplified – note how everyone wears the same trousers in order to save memory – so it isn’t exactly what you’d call a faithful conversion.
But Imagine’s port actually does a lot to tighten up what was once quite a scrappy game. The simplified controls are, at least for me, an improvement over the arcade, where you had one button to attack left and another to attack right (it’s perhaps telling that Technos didn’t use this weird button layout again in its later fighting games).
Even when working with the Spectrum’s limited graphics and sound, Imagine managed to give Renegade’s moves real impact. Kneeling on top of a downed assailant and punching them repeatedly in the face still feels bruisingly violent today. A back kick to the crotch results in a satisfyingly crunchy noise.
The gratifying feedback from the deceptively elegant graphic and sound design, when coupled with the steep difficulty level, makes for one of the finest brawlers of the pre-Final Fight and Street Fighter era. More so than most fighting games of its type, Renegade is invested with an almost cinematic sense of tension: make an error in timing or position to a foe, and you can lose a life within a couple of swings of a baseball bat. Later levels continue to raise the stakes: by the stage, a single bullet from the boss will kill you outright.
Renegade leaves you constantly straddling a line between vulnerability and empowermen. Time your strikes correctly, and you can clear a screen full of enemies in a few seconds. Make a mistake, and it’s game over.
Renegade’s success on home computers led to the creation of two sequels, entirely unrelated to the Kunio series which spawned it. The first was Target: Renegade, released in 1988. This time, the action took place over longer flip-screen levels rather than a confined, two-screen-wide space. Like Renegade, Target: Renegade was programmed by Mark Lamb, so it has the same look and feel as its predecessor, though interestingly, it feels more akin to something like Double Dragon than the confined, claustrophobic Renegade.
A two-player mode added to the fun, though I’d argue that some of the nail-biting tension of the original Renegade was lost. Once you picked up a weapon, you were essentially invincible. Target: Renegade was still a great game, though, and arguably better than the clunky Spectrum port of Double Dragon, which also appeared in 1988.
Renegade III: The Final Chapter emerged in 1989, and it was an odd swansong for the series. Dropping Target: Renegade’s two-player mode but instead throwing time travel into the mix, Renegade III saw its central character fighting prehistoric monsters, cavemen, Egyptian mummies, and medieval knights. At this stage, street-level toughness of the previous games had long since departed.
By 1989, things were changing rapidly in the games industry. The 16-bit era was overtaking the ageing 8-bit age. Capcom’s Final Fight emerged as one of the best scrolling brawlers of its time, while the revolutionary Street Fighter II was just around the corner. With these forces at work, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Renegade got left behind, at least in the west – over in Japan, the Kunio series is still going, and even survived the closure of Technos Japan in 1996. (Indie developer Conatus Creative is also keeping the Kunio flag flying with unofficial sequel River City Ransom Underground, which appeared on Kickstarter last year.)
Does Renegade still stand as a decent fighting game after more than a quarter of a century? Those new to it might look askance at its tiny graphics and identical trousers, but I’d argue that it still has a timeless magic. Although clearly a product of its time, the nervy sense of being outnumbered – and then the exhilaration of beating the bad guys up, unarmed and single handed – is still all there. And then of course there’s that shoulder throw, which allowed you to even the score by knocking thugs over like skittles. It seemed thrilling at the time, and even now, successfully executing this very early form of fighting game combo is still hugely, unforgettably satisfying.
“So you’re on a train platform, when all of a sudden this gang surrounds you…”