Renegade and the birth of the brawler

It’s always interesting to return to the very earliest examples of a particular genre, just to see how things got off the ground in the first place. And Renegade is where the fine art of punching things in the face really got started so far as video games are concerned. But how well does that original brawler hold up today?

Renegade, also known as 熱血硬派くにおくん (Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-Kun, or “Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio”) in Japan, was developed by Technos Japan and published by Taito. It first appeared in arcades in 1986, with the Technos-developed NES port following a year later in 1987. It’s this latter version we’ll be primarily looking at today, as that’s probably the most readily accessible version — it’s available as part of the Technos Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade, and also as part of the Double Dragon and Kunio-kun bundle for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.

Renegade (NES)

And yes, the “Kunio-kun” in the Japanese title does indeed refer to longstanding Technos mascot Kunio, star of an impressive number of games over the years. Renegade was an early example of heavy localisation for a Western release, with the “high school kids fighting on the streets” setup of the original (and indeed the rest of the Kunio-kun series) being replaced with something more conventionally “American gangland”, obviously inspired by classic 1979 movie The Warriors.

Renegade (as we shall refer to it hereafter for simplicity’s sake) provided a number of innovations over previous games featuring fighting, such as Irem’s Kung Fu Master from 1984 and Data East’s Karate Champ from the same year. Most notably, it established the beat ’em up convention that standard, non-boss enemies need more than one hit to knock down.

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Along with this came the requirement for the player to get some sort of feedback when they were dealing damage — and thus the modern convention of “hitstun” was born. If you’re not familiar with this term, it refers to a core mechanic around which the whole beat ’em up genre is based: when you attack an enemy, they are stunned for a brief moment, providing a clear visual signal that your attack connected successfully and allowing you to follow up with another attack or continue a combo.

Renegade (NES)

In Renegade, this is particularly useful to make use of when attempting to land moves that enemies are fond of dodging, such as the powerful flying kick — sock ’em one in the kisser first and they’ll find it much harder to get out of the way!

One thing you’ll need to adjust to if you’re more familiar with later beat ’em ups is that Renegade isn’t a “belt scroller” — instead, the game unfolds as a series of encounters in set arenas where you confront a horde of enemies three at a time until you’ve dealt with them all. Only then do you move on to the next arena. It would be spiritual successor Double Dragon that truly established the belt-scrolling formula — though Technos would return to Renegade’s arena-based format for their 1990 title The Combatribes.

Renegade features a control scheme that might feel a little strange to those more accustomed to later beat ’em ups. Rather than a single attack button, you have two: one to attack to the left, the other to attack to the right. The exact move you do determines which direction your character is facing when you press the button: match your attack to your direction to do a small jab, or press the opposite direction to do a sharp kick behind you.

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Renegade (NES)

It’s important to make use of these moves effectively because Renegade also codifies another core principle of the whole beat ’em up genre: the fact that the main thing you should be focusing on is controlling space. Since you can move “in” and “out” of the screen as well as left and right in Renegade, it’s important to situate yourself in a position where you minimise your vulnerability to enemy attack, bearing in mind the fact that both you and the enemy can only attack horizontally.

Most attacks in Renegade only connect with a single enemy at once, even if they’re standing right next to each other. There’s an important exception though: double-tapping a direction will start your character running, and hitting the attack button that corresponds to the direction they’re running will unleash a running punch that will knock down anyone in its path, dealing significant damage in the process. You need a decent amount of space to pull this off — hence controlling space becomes even more important — but mastery of this move in particular is essential to getting through some of the tougher encounters.

Oddly enough, the “double tap to run” command seen in Renegade wouldn’t see regular use in the beat ’em up genre until much later — Technos’ later games such as Double Dragon didn’t make use of it, and other established classics of the genre such as Capcom’s Final Fight and Sega’s Streets of Rage didn’t incorporate it either. Instead, this particular move can arguably be most readily associated with Konami’s licensed brawlers such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and Asterix; it’s interesting that it just happens to have its roots in a game from the very dawn of the genre.

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Renegade (NES)

The NES version of Renegade makes a few changes from the arcade original, most significant of which is that the stages are a bit wider — most of them scroll instead of being a single, static screen — and the sprites are a bit smaller. This gives you a bit more room to play with, but you’re still confined to a specific arena, and the enemies will approach you relentlessly.

The NES version also adds a motorcycle chase sequence to its second level, and both the third and fourth stages feature sections where you choose a route to follow rather than proceeding through a linear succession of stages. In the latter case, there are trap doors that can lead you back to a previous level — and yes, that is absolutely as frustrating as it sounds, particularly given Renegade’s difficulty means it would have been a real slog to get to that final stage in the first place!

Yes, Renegade is tough even on its easiest difficulty level; expect plenty of frustration during your initial time with the game and, given that Technos’ subsequent games both in the arcades and on the NES are both more accessible and mechanically solid, I wouldn’t fault anyone for bouncing off this one.

Renegade (NES)

Stick with it and you’ll have a rewarding experience, but even if you find it too much of a challenge to truly enjoy, hopefully you can at least respect Renegade for its influence on gaming. The beat ’em up genre is, for many, one of the defining aspects of gaming’s “golden age” — and without Renegade, things might have looked quite different!

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