Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Renegade - Hangin' with Mr. K
Why a quick romp through the streets was always worth our time.

There's something about the first video games you play for a new system in how your affinity for them can sometimes defy logic and reason. Maybe they were rushed, or perhaps too experimental to amount to coherent gaming experiences, or likely just plain middling, but you know you like them, even if you can't convincingly articulate why. This, for me, is the case with Renegade, which gets a lot of flack but like Trojan is another tightly clenched staple of my NES library. 

One random day, my friend Dominick and I were with my father in a local department store--the type that sometimes sold select NES titles--when I saw the game on the shelf and found myself drawn to its box art, which depicted a typical video-game tough guy laying a beating on a bunch of street thugs on a subway platform. It immediately conjured up images of Double Dragon and Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, which were two beat-'em-ups toward which I'd always gravitate whenever visiting an arcade. Based off of only that one visual, in a belated victory for Taito's marketing department, I asked my dad to buy me Renegade, which was on sale for only $20. "Sure," he said, as usual generous to a fault. Though, I didn't feel too bad about this one; besides--it had been, what, a week since I had gotten my last game?

So we took it back to my house and spent the afternoon getting to know Renegade, which is another game that was essentially new to me, since I had never seen it in arcades (I'll assume it had something to do with Brooklyn arcade-owners' bias against certain games and not anything pertaining to that "logic" stuff discussed earlier). Maybe it's because everything was at this point new to me, but I liked what I saw; I got a kick out of the opening stage's portrayal of a vacated subway system, with its barred exit, static train, and the background's repeating beer and R&B ads. And the 1950s greaser-style music was catchy and really captured the spirit of period pieces like West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, whose main character, Jim Stark (James Dean), resembles Renegade's protagonist. The developers, I later read, were apparently enamored with 1950s American gang movies, and I appreciate how the game represents them in 8-bit form, since I've always liked the depiction of bygone eras in older games (the 1940s in Deja vu and its sequel, for instance).

Though small in scope, Renegade had a a lot of settings I found interesting, like the stage-2 coastline where the pink-gied karate guys convened, as evidenced by their motorcycles and hot rod seen parked in the background; the immediately following driving scene, which was exclusive to home versions, served as a nice transition to the boss battle with the mohawked Joel, who was waiting by his car near a railed-off rest spot overlooking a cliff, which I couldn't imagine existing anywhere but in a game. I vividly remember stage 3's back-alley scene, with the leaning "Beer" sign and entrance into an establishment named "Kado," a bar that played host to more tangling with purse- and chain-armed women as its owner looked on completely unaffected. And the oddly furnished interior of stage 4's indoor scene stuck in my mind as product of a decorator with a penchant for wall-hugging. That's the way it was: You'd spend so much time with these games, it seemed, that every pixel would be burned into your memory.

It certainly wasn't without its issues. There wasn't much variety in terms of minor enemies, with usually one type of thug appearing per stage and never a mix of enemy-types, which led to some of the most repetitive gameplay I'd ever encountered. It also employed Technos' unorthodox beat-'em-up control scheme, where the punch and back-kick buttons changed depending upon which direction you were facing, which was baffling and often left me kicking at air, wide open to a stiff jab. And the basic attacks were so ineffective (enemies absorbed standard strikes and easily got the better of me in slugfests) that I was forced to rely mainly on the otherwise potent jumpkick, which stunned foes long enough for me to engage them with grabs, knee-strikes, and throws. We necessarily established a formula for effectively dealing with minor enemies: Jumpkick, grab, two knee-strikes, and throw, finishing off uncooperative subjects with seated punches.

Even though it took us about two days to finish it--considering that its final boss, Sabu, can kill you with one shot--Renegade was rather short, clocking in at four stages that could be completed in about ten minutes. And it didn't even have a true ending; after Sabu's death, the game hastily shifted to the short credit sequence (though with a powerful, emotive closing theme) before returning us to the title screen.

So if it was abbreviated, repetitive, and mechanically sloppy, why did my friends and I enjoy it so much? Simple: It was just plain fun! I liked coaxing the subway goons--including the more-resilient stage-boss, Jack--over to the platform's edge and tossing them into what was apparently a scorching pit of death. Depositing the karate bikers into the surrounding sea was also satisfying, even if the only minor variance was the sound of their violent splashes. It was another of those games we played through again and again if not just to make fun of it. Why is the bar owner's head twice as large as anyone else's? The picture on the bar's wall--is that orally challenged muppet with a monstrous noggin his dad? Was Kim, the stage-3 boss, a "Ginetta" (I'll explain this eventually)? What the hell was going on in this game in general? Our facetious observations and somewhat-exclusive sense of humor had a way of distracting us from a game's shortcomings.

We'd wonder who built the Lifepier building and why the rooms were so large. Who puts a TV in the corner of 50'-by-50' room that has no chairs or couches? Do all the gangsters just huddle around the room's right side to watch the toob? What kind of maniac drives around on a motorcycle at 100MPH indoors? And what jackass on the development team thought it was funny to have those stage-4 doors send you back not only to the stage's start but also to the beginning of the game? How does that even work? These are whacky things that can only occur in a video-game world and are the reason I so fondly remember them. 

Renegade's was another case of a game's simple-but-charming aesthetics spurring my imagination, since I always liked thinking about who could occupy these spaces and how they'd operate within them.

One of my best Renegade memories, and sources of embarrassment, was recorded the first time I encountered the purse-swinging women on stage 3. Dominick reacted to their appearance with the curious comment "Haha--hookers!" I didn't catch his drift (my silent reaction more of a quizzical "Hmmmm"), since I'd never heard the term and couldn't make any inference. Later on in the day, as Dominick and I stood alongside our mothers as they chatted, I suddenly interjected with what had to seem like a complete non sequitur: "Mom--what's a 'hooker'?" Her instant physical reaction, namely the way she painfully tilted her head back and squinted her eyes uncomfortably as if she'd just seen a trailer for a Michael Bay Ninja Turtles film, told the whole story before words could ever be formed. I don't remember what her explanation was, but I'm pretty sure I endured the longest-ever slink-away-slowly moment in following. Thanks again, Dom!

As was the case with Trojan, my more recent encounters with Renegade have been with the arcade original, which like Haunted Castle, Rygar and the aforementioned was emblematic of a time when Japanese companies were still learning how to make enticing action-based coin-op games. They seemingly subscribed to the notion that a game had to be unbearably difficult to be attractive, which usually entailed your futile attempts to mount any type of offense against a flood of enemies whose every attack had priority over yours. That's Renegade in a nutshell. Being constantly sandwiched between two groups of aggressive enemies, who have no intent on letting you execute more than one punch of a combo or even a simple jump, is my lasting memory of the game and the reason I avoid it.

Its stage setup is different in that all of the action takes place in one area, with no detours into train interiors or bars, and the near-invincible bosses become directly involved in the brawl after only a few low-level hooligans have been dispatched; there are no immediate extra lives (which, laughably, you have to somehow earn), and a strict time-limit exists, I guess, to make sure you get punched in the face as many times as possible in the shortest span allowable. You know--just to make the point quickly. To advance, I had to rely on the cheap tactic of throwing enemies into gaps or water and abuse the rebounding jumpkick, which would at least drain the bosses' health meter by one unit even if they always successfully countered it. That it's unplayable is a shame, since it should easily be the superior version. 

Granted, the NES version's two higher difficulties come dangerously close to that level of irritation, due to a now-infuriating motorcycle sequence and the unfair multi-boss gauntlets in stage 4, but you at least have the option to steer clear of them.

The NES port wins by default, merely for the fact that I can remain standing for more than five seconds no matter the difficulty-level. I haven't played any of the other console or computer ports (though I have my eye on the Master System version), but I'd imagine they exercise the same prudence. 

Renegade remains in my memory for the same reason a lot of these older NES games resonate with me: They were short, sweet, and provided a lot of laughs and fun moments for both me and the friends with whom I played them. I can understand why a more-critical person would think it's junk, but I maintain that it has its charm and is worth a play for anyone who enjoys immersing his or herself in games that represent wholly different eras. It's still my favorite entry in the Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio series (the North American versions severed this link, as they were altered graphically for marketing purposes), and I revisit it every now and then if only to reminisce.

If Charlie Brown could pick up a gamepad and give Renegade a go, I'm sure he'd say, "It's not such a bad little game."

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like similar reasons why I quite enjoy the first Double Dragon on NES. The game is buggy as hell and is punishingly difficulty, but the actual fighting mechanics are fun enough that I keep returning to it. I think the Double Dragon scenes from "The Wizard," which I frequently watched as a kid, add to the nostalgia.