Saturday, February 21, 2015

Rediscovered Classics: Renegade (Sega Master System)

Now, I'm not going to waste too much time explaining again why I like Renegade for the NES. I consider it a fun, satisfying time-filler and otherwise desirably saturated with that early-8-bit spirit whose every rough, simple conveyance I find so absorbing. Perhaps more so, much of my fondness for Renegade is steeped in the relationship I had with it as a kid--the memorable banter friends and I used to share as we'd play through it. I wouldn't call it a top-of-the-line video game, no, but it has a lot in the way of sentimental value to me, and I continue to derive entertainment out of the property via experimentation with its alternate forms.

Really, I didn't know much about Renegade's historical significance until as recently as the early 2000s, when I started becoming more interested in the medium's humble beginnings. I never knew, for instance, that Renegade was a reconfigured port of an arcade game I somehow originally missed. I certainly hadn't heard of the Japanese-flavored Kunio-kun series, of which Renegade was representative before its publisher, Taito, reskinned it in an attempt to appeal to American kids. I didn't even realize that it had any connection to Double Dragon, whose NES version, I should have observed, had almost identical fighting mechanics. Until then, I always assumed that Renegade was nothing more than an NES special, a unique creation born from the charming aesthetics of a console that could only produce 12 colors and 64 sprites at one time.

All of this new information was shocking enough, but imagine my surprise when I learned that there were ports of Renegade for almost every other platform from the era, including a curiously attractive version for the Sega Master System. The website on which I read about it even had a few screenshots posted, and I remember them for how particularly colorful they seemed in comparison to the NES visuals to which I was so accustomed; though, I avoided looking deeper into the Master System version in the hope that one of the newly announced digital services would soon have it up for sale, at which point I could download Renegade and have my first untainted experience with it. It never happened, and any thought of playing it vanished from my mind until the past year or so, when I started this mission.

One thing that hasn't changed about me is that I've never ceased being fascinated with the idea of my favorite games existing in other distinct forms and with some type of weird origin attached, and Renegade for the Master System is one of the more interesting that regard. Not only is it a re-imagined interpretation of an already-reconfigured beat-'em-up classic--it was released, amazingly, sometime in 1993, four years after the Master System's successor, the Genesis, had already hit store shelves. Also, it never became available to North American audiences, its release limited to the two markets where the console continued to enjoy success--Europe and South America, where it was published by Sega and Tec Toy (a Brazilian company that handled production of Sega's products in the territory), respectively. If I didn't know the hows or the whys, this would all sound kinda crazy.

Now, we tend to form an attachment to the versions of games we experience first, which is why, say, the arcade original hasn't done well to displace the NES version in my mind despite its graphical superiority and much-appreciated arcade aesthetics (that it's just plain unfair is what most damages its cause). However, I plan to give the Master System a fair shake and exhibit as little bias as possible; if I think parts of it are better or worse than the NES game, that's exactly what I'm going to tell you.

So I'll tell you what: I'm gonna go spend some time with Renegade for the Sega Master System and then report back here with my thoughts as I recorded them. For you, the elapsement of time in between is simply a click of the scrollbar away.

For one, I'm experiencing a little bit of culture shock in seeing the game at this resolution and with this level of color saturation after 26 years of playing the squarish, rather-drably-rendered NES version. Immediately, I find that it has a nicely animated intro sequence with a Macho Man-lookin' biker-gang member riding along the outskirts of a city, its assemblage of buildings and pervading skyline always in focus; the framing of this scene provides nice context for Renegade's world, as if what's happening here is taking place underground--in the shadows--and out of the public's view. The characterization works to add a more Americanized flavor to the game, effectively killing off whatever was left of the Kunio-kun connection.

And this opening stage, as I'd already gleaned, reveals that the Master System version has more color depth and better shading than its NES counterpart; it's darker and softer in tone, yes, but the graphics are clean-looking where the NES game is often grainy and inconsistent. The only disappointment is that the signs posted on the background wall are uniform in a appearance and lack the personality-imbuing charm of the NES version's "beer" and "R&B" advertisements; though, everything else is generally more identifiable, like the track area that has more in the way of rails, which distinguishes it from the NES version's apparent scorching pit of death.

As for the action: I like how they've provided each enemy his or her own energy meter as it appears in the top-right corner whenever the two of you become entangled; it makes Renegade feel more in line with later beat-'em-ups like Final Fight and Streets of Rage II (well, this did have the benefit of coming out in the more-refined period in 1993, after all, but I don't believe such a thing matters to younger people who see all of the aforementioned as just "old games," 16-bit or otherwise). The best new addition so far: Any loss of stock is punctuated by the thug who defeated you dragging your prone carcass over to a side of a building and tossing it into a dumpster (even the bikers can do this!). "We don't need any cramped 'Beer' signs," the designers are telling me. "Our game has a personality all its own!"

Not surprisingly, this version has more in the way of animation: Characters stalk about using more frames. They shake their heads to clear the cobwebs as they recover. Mr. K turns away from the camera as he enter doors. And there's even a scrolling background animation in the train sequence, which creates a sense of actual movement (in the NES version, it seemed as though the train was static and you were merely using its innards as portal to reach the other side of the subway platform). However, a few of the character animations are a bit janky, like Mr. K's throwing move that resembles a limply executed one-armed hip toss. Most inexplicable is that Mr. K moves about the stage as though he's constantly trying to hold up his pants.

The stage themes are heavily based on the NES compositions, with the only minor difference being the Master System's flavor of MIDI instrumentation, which isn't too dissimilar in the case of Renegade. Though, these tunes have a bit more of an edge to them, matching what is tonally a more hardline action game (the NES version feels not so much "lighthearted" but "feel-good-actiony"); you can sense that the composer agrees with the graphics designer that this version of Renegade is a darker, more serious game. Though, I don't know what to make of the sound effects--the samples for jumping and striking sounding more like something out of a 2600 game.

The combat so far seems a lot smoother: I'm finding that I can land multiple punches and kicks in succession and score clean knockdowns, where in the NES version my combo attempts were routinely cut off by enemies whose offense had much greater priority. Though, the mechanic for stringing together a jumpkick into a grab isn't as reliable, my grab-attempts sometimes not registering at all (I originally thought it was because weapon-carrying enemies couldn't be grabbed, but it turns out that the hitboxes only register if you approach them a certain way). What's no doubt going to continue to be an issue is that Mr. K doesn't seem interested in facing the direction I'd like, his sights always glued to what the game considers the biggest threat (the nearest enemy, I assumed, until it became obvious that Mr. K simply faces whichever direction he feels like, regardless). I have to consistently run about and reposition myself to get a better vantage point, which I didn't have to do before.

It's worth mentioning that the "P" power-up is actually useful here. It has a longer duration and allows me to finish off enemies with one big hit, where I can only send enemies flying back when under the same influence in the NES version.

As I enter into the final area of Mission 1, I can confirm that the level design very much mimics the NES version's: You fight on the subway platform, move onto the train car, and then exit to find Jack waiting for you on an opposite platform. This taller variant of Jack takes on a martial-arts posture and adds high kicks and uppercuts to his arsenal. Still, he's about on-par in terms of difficulty even though, disappointingly, he won't allow me to finish him off with seated punches no matter how low his health gets.

One thing I've learned is that I won't be able to rely on my usual cheap tactic of jumpkicking my way through the entire game, even on this, the easiest difficulty. One part of it is that the grabbing mechanic is unreliable, and the other is that the enemies, like those here in Mission 2, are more aggressive and like to stay on top of you. Interestingly, there's more going on in this version of the stage: The port we're in has a more industrial feel to it, with crates piled up beside the gang members' vehicles and an open entranceway into a "AI" warehouse; visible in the background, also, are the other ports and their drainage systems, where the NES' port was surrounded by the open sea and had a distant city in its backdrop (which provided better atmosphere, I feel). I can't say that I'm a fan of the generic tights-wearing mohawk enemies, who lack the personality of the pink-gied karate guys.

Up to this point, I'd call it a more challenging game, but that might be because I'm not yet fully comfortable with the controls.

The motorcycle sequence is somewhat rougher here: You can't just ride up on top of enemies and flail away until they drop; you instead have to finesse your way around them and find the sweet spot, lest they'll slowly drain your health with their return kicks. After taking out six of them, I advance to a strikingly rendered final area, which is much prettier than the NES version's: The forest seen stretching out below the parking area is more flush with foliage, and the added mountain view, with its dusk-colored skyline, helps to provide a more desirably remote atmosphere. Also, this Joel has a stylish sports car, which looks better than the uncomfortable-looking compact vehicle he had before. As was Jack, this version of Joel is more aggressive, thwarting my straight-up approach with uppercuts, sweeping kicks, and that familiar grab-and-punch maneuver; defeating him required a reliance on running punches and that cheap, priority-canceling beat-'em-up tactic of moving horizontally adjacent to bosses and striking them as they move into your plane. 

Now onto the area with the hook-- I mean the, er, "alternatively dressed ladies." This alleyway now has a more greenish tint to it and is surrounded solely by brown-bricked commercial establishments. The "Kado" bar is now just a normal bar, and there's a previously unseen burger joint on the stage's right side. Defeating the ladies reveals the expected split route; I'll first check out the door on the right and leave the bar for a successive play-through. Aaaaaaand, surprisingly, there's a rather lean-looking Kim waiting here for me in this dojo and not the uncompromised mass of flesh (or "Ginetta") that I was hoping to see. This dojo offers a more "chill" vibe with its soft green and blue tones in contrast to the NES version's bright-hot, eye-melting hue. I find that Kim, and the game's bosses in general, are good at punishing jumpkicks and mistimed running punches, which lends a slightly more calculated feel to these fights.

Now this is interesting: The action in the final stage appears to take place on the outside of a mansion as guarded by military grunts, with no Lifepier building in sight; so it looks like we're taking the fight directly to Sabu's more-residential base of operations. After taking out the grunts, I head into the right entrance and find an undecorated foyer, which I hope isn't the start of a trend (I need to see some weird furnishings, like a misplaced refrigerator with a plant next to it, or a TV stuffed in a corner and resting beneath a painting of a seagull). And, well, no luck--it's disappointingly just one unfurnished room after another, each filled with two or three representatives of the game's respective enemy sets; at the least, these recycled foes have been recolored. Whatever the case, it seems I've taken the wrong path, since the rooms here loop around endlessly. I'll have to repeat the initial battle sequence in order to gain entrance to the building on the left.

The more-threatening boss gauntlets indicate that this is the correct route. I'm just noticing now that bosses don't run after you in this version, which is an oddly selective omission. Also, they're susceptible to two discovered exploits: You can move to their opposite side as they recover and hit them before they have a chance to turn around, and you can back them against walls, where they sometimes get stuck. I take advantage of them where I can, but I have to say that these types of glitches are kind of sloppy for a game made in '93.

The maze set-up is a bit different here. The NES route seems to work for the first three doors (two rights and then a left in place of a middle door that no longer exists), but a final right proves to be the incorrect choice; so I repeat the sequence and take a left in the fourth room, where I locate the big boss--a more-suave-looking, blonde-haired Sabu, who's quick to open fire. Thankfully, this version of Sabu stalls a bit before pulling the trigger, taking out the surprise element and giving you a chance to avoid fire. On the wall in the back is a map of the world, which I guess he's going to attempt to conquer after taking me out.

Oh, all right--it seems that this Renegade's main villain is instead name "Lucas," which was bluntly revealed to me after I was shot in the face and deposited into a dumpster. Though, uh, he oddly punctuates his feat by "boasting" that "You beat me!" (with a little bit of foul language thrown in), which is either a poor translation or a sign that Lucas has taken one too many jumpkicks to the ol' noggin'. It was a tricky fight all the same, requiring a second play-through before I could successfully finish him off. To its credit, this version actually has an ending sequence: Mr. K walks off triumphantly into the night, pausing momentarily to look back at the mansion as it... b-blows up? Or did some third party come along and try to shoot the place to pieces with a machine gun? I'm not sure. But, really, who cares? It's not like we're interpreting high art here.

The only unique element I saw in the second run was the bar in Mission 3, which plays host to the expected scene. However, our usual emotionless, giant-meloned bartender is replaced by a more expressive chap who gesticulates as if he were actually concerned about the potentially destructive big brawl going on right in front of him. Though, he sadly doesn't have a picture of his dad handing from the wall, which might suggest some lingering parental issues. Or unimpressive craniums. An investigation is pending.

A quick run through the successive difficulty-levels, which I had been dreading, reveals that this version isn't more challenging in a technical sense; it's just that the enemies have more in the way of health; sure--this is alarming when you consider that there's a strict 2-minute time-limit per area and at least six enemies appearing per set in a standard fight, but smoother combat and more favorable priority partially offset the added challenge. Though, more enemies added to the motorcycle sequence still makes for a potentially infuriating experience; I got through it in my first try only because I got lucky and grabbed hold of an "S" symbol, which in this version renders you invulnerable for a longer period but doesn't function as an insta-kill (here you have to make an actual effort to take out enemies). Also, the final Mission is now indeed bewilderingly labyrinthine, and I haven't yet figured out the correct path. Regardless, I've become acclimated enough to the controls to where I can say that even this version's highest difficulty is nowhere near as tough as what I faced in the NES game (which is quite opposite to how I felt early on).

It was a small detail, but the NES version changed up the background palette on Mission 2, switching it from day to night, and added new rooms to the final Mission. There are no such changes here, which is a pity, since I was looking forward to fighting Joel beneath the reaches of a moonlit mountain backdrop. 

Truthfully, I had a bad feeling about this port even years before I finally decided to give it a go, but I wound up having a good time with Renegade for the Master System. Yeah--it lacks some polish and is missing what I feel are some important aesthetic touches, but my final impression is that it's a quality reimagining of an NES game that has been a part of my life for a long, long time. Of course, this Renegade experience could never quite hope to replicate any of those I had when I was kid--at a time when childhood banter was a necessary ingredient for maximum enjoyment of 8-bit games--but who's to say that it wouldn't have had the same power had Sega entered my life first?

Renegade for the Master System earns my thumbs up. It's a version of the game towards which I could definitely see myself throwing a few bucks if Natsume were to ever make it available for download (however unlikely due to its publishing status); it would find itself a nice home beside my NES version, I feel, and I could see myself establishing a routine of playing them back to back, regarding them not as companion pieces but as close equals.

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