The September 1987 issue of Your Sinclair magazine was memorable for three reasons… First, the Jack the Nipper II wobbler that you could stick on a shelf, for example, and wobble him about. I used to have the little sticky bit jammed between two books so I could keep the sticky bit intact (but why?), then I think it went for safekeeping into one of those books, and who knows what book that was now, so I can’t really give you too much more on this little freebie or its longevity over the course of the last 35 years… Unless I do come across it, because I know an extensive search of boxes in the garage is now inevitable the second I stop typing here!

Second, there was a giant Game Over poster. Now, any boys of a certain age might remember this game in the same way they remember games like Barbarian and its sequel or Vixen, in that it featured Queen Gremla’s visible nipple on the adverts and inlay. This illustration by pervy fantasy supremo Luis Royo originally appeared in pervy fantasy magazine Heavy Metal three years previously, and while it obviously wasn’t quite like having a proper Page Three girl attached to it like the other games we mentioned just now, you took what you could get, at least until it got covered up with logos by the prude brigade! I can’t remember if this poster was the uncensored version or not – the cover certainly censored the preview of it with a FREE! banner across the offending slightly browner hues. Anyway, there was a Barbarian advert and that sexy Athena one later in that issue to make up for it a bit. Who needed to go hunting around the bushes for a second-hand copy of Razzle? And why did they always end up in the bushes? And why was it only ever Razzle and Escort in the bushes? Like a vegan WHSmith way ahead of its time. Great days!

Now I’m struggling to remember the third thing after all that sauce! Oh yeah, third, “Gunship compo – loop the loop in a Trojan warplane.” I’m not going to go into massive detail about the competition here because I’ll do that when I eventually get to talking about MicroProse’s Gunship, but I was one of the ten lucky winners of said compo, which got me an all-expenses paid trip to the PCW show in London the following month (which was actual September rather than magazine September), where I had a go in a proper AH-64 Apache helicopter simulator, won a load of MicroProse goodies, and copies of Gunship and Pirates! for the Spectrum. Which was nice.

I did go into this from a slightly different angle when I went into Soft & Cuddly, but in short, apart from shooting stuff up in a hydraulic weapon of mass destruction, I had a tenner to spend on games because the hardware, peripheral, magazine and games people were all there with all their new stuff. Soft & Cuddly was bought with what was left after I picked up after my prime target, Renegade, direct from Ocean no less! I don’t know if Renegade was actually available in shops at that point, having been advertised and previewed to death in the magazines over the summer before being glowingly reviewed everywhere that month, but if it was out it had literally just dropped, and how cool was it handing over money for something straight from source like this!

I’ll probably go into what was at the rest of the show a bit more when I get to Gunship, but the rest of that Ocean stand was fantastic too, full of playable demos of Renegade, which I simply used to confirm it was one of the greatest games I’d ever laid eyes on before I paid up! Then there was Combat School, which I had a good old play of and would later buy on the back of being sold on it there; same for Gryzor, Freddy Hardest and Match Day II too. Pyscho Soldier, the sequel to Athena if I remember right, didn’t do a lot for me (unlike the original with its sexy Amazon advert!), and the same for the Ikari Warriors sequel, Victory Road. I think Where Time Stood Still was there too, but it might still have been called Tibet at that point; looked awesome, but I hadn’t really got on with The Great Escape so just watched from a distance.

The train journey home was one of those classic occasions we can all remember when we’d just bought a game then absolutely pored over the inlay, over and over, until we knew it inside out because that was the next best thing to actually playing it until we could! For me, other memorable times that had happened were with Ghosts ‘n Goblins in the car on the way home from a holiday where I’d picked it up at a service station, and Agent X, walking back from town to my Grandma’s house, and I’m now wondering if Renegade might have been the last time that ever happened? How sad if it was! Anyway, the only sad thing that day was Soft & Cuddly having absolutely no chance of getting a look in when I got back that evening, by which time I’d read the very generous instruction sheet so many times I was already an expert at the game! Actually, the generosity of that sheet is probably why I remember reading it so distinctly, but we’ll come back to that…

I’d been hyped-up about Renegade long before I got on that train from St Pancras to Bedford though, and very similar to another of my top ten favourite games ever, Gauntlet, just a few months beforehand, I’m not entirely sure why, so we’re going to think it through together! In the case of Gauntlet, I think it was my brother and me seeing the arcade game on our travels somewhere and egging each other on towards the release date, and I remember every second of that trip into town on the Saturday morning when we finally got to buy it. Brotherly peer pressure wasn’t the case with Renegade though, and the arcade game certainly wasn’t invoked, which we’ll no doubt come back to shortly! I’m guessing it started with something obviously groundbreaking in those screenshots… I was massive into martial arts at this point, just like most fifteen year old boys in the mid-eighties, and I also had serious form with both Kung-Fu Master and Shao-Lin’s Road. Wow, 30% of my top ten now mentioned here already! There were two massive (but also the same) differences here though… First, this was 3D, which made it a game that looked like a martial arts movie. Second, this was 3D, which meant you could get surrounded from all directions, which made it a game that also played like a proper martial arts movie! And then as I think about all the previews, I’m starting to unravel why I was so excited about this, because, of course, together with the promise of beating people up rather than one-hit kills, all of this also combined with something we’d never seen before back in 1987, and definitely not when it launched in Japanese arcades the previous year – the beat ’em up! And yes, being pedantic, maybe Kung-Fu Master was one too, but it’s not the same!

The tale of Renegade is a fascinating one, and what we got in the West is certainly not what was originally intended by its creator Yoshihisa Kishimoto, who had last been seen directing Laserdisc Cobra Command and Road Blaster over at Data East. Their competitor Tecnos liked what he did there, and lured him over for Renegade, but he’d go on to be best known for its effective two-player sequel Double Dragon, then its own sequels, though in my eyes, you’ve got to shout-out his WWF Superstars and WWF Wrestlefest for giving us the best-looking Macho Man Randy Savage we’d ever been able to be in 1989! Anyway, back to Renegade, it was released in Japan in 1986 as Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun, which translates to something more like “Nekketsu [School] Hot Blood Tough Guy Kunio” than plain old Renegade, but with good reason!

The original Japanese version was inspired by the personal experiences of Kishimoto at high school, where he was always getting into fights, and mostly over girls by the sounds of it. He also took inspiration (and who didn’t) from Bruce Lee’s finest hour, Enter the Dragon, too, drawing on the protracted fight scenes to develop this idea of wearing enemies down before going in for the kill. This all translated to your hot-blooded tough guy, Kunio-kun, having to take down a procession of rival gangs from other schools that were bullying his best friend Hiroshi. Poor old Hiroshi – he got a kicking in front of his school at the start of every stage! It all ends well though, because if you beat the final boss you’ll get one last cut scene where Hiroshi comes and shakes your hand! Clearly this wasn’t edgy enough for Western release though, and amazingly the whole thing was almost completely re-drawn to give it a feel of the cult 1979 New York street-gang movie The Warriors, with new characters and new backgrounds, and this time you’re taking on gangs to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend.

We’ll come back to the plot in a bit, but it’s worth a quick tangent on our Japanese friend, Kunio-kun. What those of us in the West might not appreciate is that he’d go on to become Tecnos’ mascot, even appearing in their logo at times, but would also appear in over twenty Japan-only NES, SNES and Game Boy releases, as well as being licensed to various Japan-only ports on Mega Drive / Genesis, PC-Engine and the Sharp X68000 ancient PC. And as much as Tecnos had been clear they didn’t want to go through that Renegade Westernisation process again with its successor Double Dragon, Kunio-kun did spread his wings outside of Japan again on the NES, with very Westernised versions of River City Ransom, Super Dodgeball, Nintendo World Cup and the bizarre no-rules Olympics, Crash ‘n the Boys: Street Challenge, mixing more traditional events like 400m hurdles or swimming with roof jumping and “Fighting Scene”! He’s not done yet either, with the upcoming (at the time of writing) River City Girls 2 extending his lifetime so far to the best part of forty years!

Back to Renegade again, and it was launched into the arcade stratosphere in its various forms by Taito in 1986, but for the time being we’re ignoring that version (which, as we’ll find out, isn’t such a bad idea full-stop) and heading straight to the what some crazy fools might even argue is the definitive version of the game, over on the ZX Spectrum! The ports arrived en masse a year later, although what and where was a further complication. Briefly, Ocean, under what was now their Imagine label, developed and published the European ports for Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Atari ST. Meanwhile, Taito published North American ports on the Amiga and IBM PC made by Sofware Creations. Apart from CPC, which used a bizarre combination of joystick and cursor keys, the crucial thing that these things did different to the arcade and NES (and later Master System) versions was put everything on the joystick with a single fire button. And the problem, as we’ll discover later, is that once you’ve experienced that, it’s very hard to go back!

Quick word on the North American NES port. This was a further twist on the arcade game by Tecnos themselves, where the first three (mostly recognisable) stages are just three enemies to beat across two screens then a boss fight. Then there’s a side-scrolling Road Rash-style violent motorbike chase before another boss fight. Then we’re back to normal, but you’ve got a choice of different paths to the stage boss. Finally, the last stage is part maze and part boss-rush before a final boss, and also includes some filthy trap doors that send you back to a previous stage! Until that – not to mention the one hit kills when you finally reach the final boss – the rest looks the part from what I can tell. This version was the basis of the 1993 Master System port, which only came out in Europe, Brazil and Australia, with a slightly jarring graphical overhaul and some terrible cut scenes, but some really cool music and a new ending. Oh yeah, in both versions you’re also now known as Mr K!

Before we dive into the plot and the Spectrum version a bit more, I’ve got to give you the entire back of the Spectrum cassette box because it’s one of the greats! “Renegade. Rebel without a cause? In the knife-edge world of the vigilante there is no place to rest, no time to think – but look sharp – there is always time to die! From the city subways to the gangland ghettos you will always encounter the disciples of evil who’s mission it is to exterminate the only man on earth who dares to throw down the gauntlet in their place – the Renegade. PLAY RENEGADE… PLAY MEAN!” Apart from who’s not whose, it’s genius, and loads better than that hokum about gangs from rival schools! Nice to see a couple of decent Spectrum screenshots on there too, and not some lazy shot from an inferior version – take your pick from the usual suspects! On the flip side, I’m also a fan of big-boobed Tina Turner on the front of the box, about to strike you with a medieval mace in her thigh-high boots, fishnets, denim Daisy Dukes and skin-tight wet t-shirt – stick that on a poster, Sinclair User!

Moving inside the box, I’ve got to say, the instruction sheet that comes with it is massive! The box itself is one of those double cassette sized boxes, and it turns out I was keeping an October 1986 Crash Magazine sampler cassette in there with Renegade! Anyway, if you imagine that size box, folded out horizontally to make it twice as wide, then folded out vertically to make it three times the height, then that’s what’s needed to explain this thing that you’re expected to simply put 10p in and play in an arcade! And if you’re feeling ambitious, it’s in French on the back too!

All that said, like the back of the box, there’s absolutely no wasted words inside either! “The Streets aren’t safe! …Night falls swiftly as you make your way through the most sinister part of town to collect your girl.” Right, firstly, what’s your girl doing in the most sinister part of town? So far so good though, until your train pulls into the subway station and you “alight” (the only time you’ll ever hear this word outside of an underground station, where they also still like to use words like “saloon” and no doubt write things on dockets) to find that you’re not alone. You realise that the station and the streets above it are full of thugs and villains, and you don’t have time for this if you’re not going to leave your girl waiting in the most sinister part of town. “Quick thinking and your martial arts skills are the only abilities you have to depend on and you disembark knowing that this is going to be the most dangerous walk of your life!”

Now we get a brief rundown of each of the five stages, but I reckon we can skip the summary and get straight into the detail, because if we’re now following the flow of the enormous instruction sheet, we’re going to be given chapter and verse on each again later anyway! For now though, it’s worth keeping in mind the final instruction in this section… “Prove that love can overcome all by conquering these villains in time for your date!”

The five thoughtfully named stages are Subway, Pier, Sleezy Street, End Street Scene and Interior. Each is set across three screens, which flip rather than scroll here to give the original one point in its favour, though it’s not like you’re in and out that much in any given fight, so you barely notice it either way. Each also has its own distinct gang, with their own weapons and their own unique boss. To move on to the next level, you need to beat the boss by reducing their energy bar to nothing. And in reality sometimes a bit more! And to do this, you want to be getting them on the ground as much as possible, primarily for the big energy loss that will take out of them, but also for the chance to give them a few free punches to the face while they’re down!

For an instruction booklet full of so many words, including a detailed five-point guide on how to load the game (with useful tips like place the cassette in your recorder and make sure it’s fully rewound), the bit about actually playing the game is a bit thin on the ground! There’s a comprehensive list of keyboard controls, and actually this is surprisingly not terrible on keys, but the joystick instructions are some arrows and the words up, down, left and right, and the completely untrue statement that the fire button is not used. If only that was true on the arcade version, but here, why would it say that when its use of the fire button is its absolute finest hour??? Seriously though, the controls here are genius, getting so much, and so intuitively, out of an eight-way joystick and a single fire button. You’ve got regular punch in front of you on regular fire, but push behind you and fire and you’ll back kick. Up is jump while diagonal up and fire is flying kick. Get in a flurry of punches, or get in close to a stunned enemy, and you’ll be able to grab them by the collars and knee them (repeatedly), or do that back kick move while you’re grabbing them and you’ll throw them over your shoulder instead. You can also get grabbed, and I’ve never quite worked out exactly what triggers escaping, but waggling and pressing fire works, and if there’s an opponent in front as well as behind, you can get a stomach kick in on them too. Finally, diagonal down then fire over a fallen opponent and you’ll get that battering them in the mush while they out of it on the floor move. And you’ll have the lot on tap within seconds. Mastering them, and the distance and the timing for different enemies and bosses is a bit more involved though!

Let’s go back to our levels, starting out in the subway, where you’ve got a mix of armed and unarmed enemies. Generally, these guys need to be knocked down twice, and doing so will take either a flurry of punches or knees, a flying kick or a throw, though one of the absolutely high points of the game is getting close to the edge of the tracks here, or a pier, for example, later on, and sending them over the edge; the only problem is that if you’re close enough to the edge to push them over, then you’re close enough to take a single hit and go over yourself, losing one of your lives, which are indicated by the number of your heads at the bottom of the screen, and where you’ll also get a tally of defeated boss’ heads when you’ve beaten them. In general, you’ll want to take out the guys with weapons first, because everyone’s fair game while the boss is standing watching from afar, but once you’ve taken out three or four of their minions, they’ll join the fray and you’ll quickly have your energy stolen away with both weapons and bosses at play.

The second level, the Pier, looks absolutely gorgeous, with the fiery gradients of a sunset silhouetting the city skyline across the water, while the foreground is littered with the gang’s motorbikes and a very un-gang-like family car, which I assume was already parked there when the scrap started! The backgrounds on every level are absolutely exquisite, with wonderful detail lavished on everything, whether the lights reflecting on the subway train windows and those naughty little swastikas daubed on its doors, or the decaying walls on Sleezy Street, with their gaudy signs and topless bar posters. There’s all kinds of subtler detail to catch on top of this too, from random grubbiness on steps inside doors or careless chunks taken out of pillars, and even things like the subway train having a readable ID number at one end of it or the price list for whatever Suzy’s services are!

A similar attention to detail has gone into the character sprites too. You will see a lot of the enemy designs repeating within a single stage, although the ones with the whips in what I assume are leather bikinis can come at me in whatever numbers they like… Reminds me of a restaurant I went to in Tokyo called Alcatraz. Like a sexy version of the prison, with your food thrown between the bars into your cell. In dog bowls! Anyway, the use of delicate pixel shading on top of the individuality of balaclavas, batons, sunglesses, bondage gear and so on really brings everything to live, but not half as much as the animation, the highest praise for which I can give is that I’ve still never seen grabbing someone and kneeing them in the privates done so convincingly in a game – you can almost feel it! The only price for this fluid combat motion is a bit of colour clash, with all those fancy sunsets, strip clubs and that rainbow subway station (or its perfectly yellow floor, at least) bleeding into the understandably monochrome sprites. On the whole it’s pretty well managed though, and it’s only really if you end up “high” on the screen where the background sings its loudest that you’ll notice it at all.

The Pier might not lead into Road Rash territory like that bonus NES level, but it does have motorbikes coming at you fast from all directions. Fortunately, unlike the regular enemies, they do comply with the martial arts movie trope of one at a time, so it’s just about timing a flying kick enough times to encourage the rest of the gang – Hell’s Angels, according the the blurb – down into the fight. You can have real fun in this level kicking the whole lot off the end of the pier, and like I said, it really is a stunner – without doubt one of the best-looking things you’ll see in any Spectrum game!

Level three and we’re in those sleazy downtown streets, where a gang of female marauders (with clubs as well as whips) has taken up residence between a strip club, a sauna and whatever Suzy is up to for $20 a time! The instructions give a special hint for this level, saying it’s recommended to avoid Big Bad Bertha, the big bad boss who I’m sure I saw competing in the Tokyo Olympics female weightlifting the other week, until you have disposed of all her “ladies” although that’s easier said than done. Once any of the bosses are in play, any other enemies that are left tend to run to their defence, and Big Bad Bertha is probably the hardest of all the bosses to negotiate even without any of her hired help. Which I guess is why they provided that hint! Method to their madness, so onto stage four, and a load of razor-wielding thugs, but only if you’ve got a Spectrum 128, because all those fancy graphics are coming at a price now if you are a 48K owner, and, incidentally, you’re going to be multi-loading the levels you do get too. As usual, you’re also missing out on a very fine rendition of the arcade version’s music, but I think this was the case for all the other versions too. Quick note on sound effects – they’re fine, especially the sound of a repeated knee in the balls, but it’s regular Spectrum fare.

Right, with the 48K owners looking away now, let’s get back to this exclusive stage and the street leading to our romantic meeting place, and it’s here that the difficulty suddenly ramps up, because without warning (unless you’ve got that far in the instructions, which probably wasn’t the case for most) these are now one-hit kills! No boss this time though, so beat them and we’re on the home straight – Interior. More one hit-kills, but it’s not just knives this time because the final boss has a gun as well, and he’s on the loose from the outset! Fortunately, once you’ve got your head around the one-hit kills, taking these guys down isn’t that challenging; as anyone that’s ever played any beat ’em up since will know, it’s all about managing space! And with the boss himself, managing that space means getting up close so he can’t pull out his gun, and without that he’s got no defence, so I reckon once you’re one-on-one with him you’re in good shape to meet that girl of yours in time. The end result isn’t the most convincing video game embrace I’ve ever seen, but it’s enough that you get the message before a 10,000 point bonus and an extra life, and then you’re starting the loop all over again!

I never saw the arcade game in the wild, which was usually the case with me and arcade games in 1986-7, but when the Arcade Archives release appeared on PlayStation 4 in 2015, there was no hesitation. The Spectrum version was already established as one of my favourite games of all time, and now, after three decades, we were finally getting our hands on the original; that year might have also given us Bloodborne, The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V, but this was genuinely the most exciting gaming event of 2015 for me! As with all of Hamster’s wonderful Arcade Archives releases, before you jump into the title screen you get a one-time look at the instructions, and this is where things started to feel not quite right – Jump, Left Attack, Right Attack… What’s this left and right attack thing all about then? And what about my fire button? Oh dear!

Now, it’s feasible that if I’d never played the Spectrum version, or even played the CPC version (but why would I have done that?), I’d have been okay with these controls. But I had, and I couldn’t unsee it. Here’s what happens… No matter which direction your walking in, if you want to attack an enemy on the left, you press left attack, and vice versa. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? Try playing it! The whole time, you’re focussed on left and right, and when you’re not, suddenly you’re taking a beating because you’re instinctively pressing “fire” to attack the guy in front of you. Like you do in every other beat ’em up ever. But not this one. I know the Spectrum version isn’t the hardest game in the world, but I can pick that up and loop around it now like I could in 1987. I’m decent at it! This one though, even after I’ve played it for far longer than it deserves, I can get to level three at a push, and every time I die it’s because I’m just attacking instead of attacking left or attacking right. It stinks! Oh yeah, no lives here either. Just the one you’ve got. Energy bar gone means game over.

Stick with the definitive Spectrum version is my advice, but as I say, if you haven’t played this version quite as much as I have then maybe you won’t be quite so offended by the arcade original. Unlike most of the rest of this planet in 2021 though, I’m not offended by very much, so let me have just this one and I’ll go back to my Steptoe & Son and On The Buses boxsets, which the fun police will never be able to take away from me! Apart from trying out the NES port and a few goes on C64, I’ve not really seen a lot of the other versions. The C64 one is exactly how you imagine it’s going to look – blocky but colourful, and while it scrolls, the animation is a bit jerky. I’ve played a lot more of the absolutely terrible Renegade III on there though – I’ve got a thing about how the Ancient Egyptian level looks! Amazingly, to this day I’ve still never played any version of the one before that, everyone else’s favourite, it seems, Target Renegade. It’s a bit like me being a total horror movie nerd without ever seeing The Shining! In both cases, I think I just heard too many people going on about it before I got involved, but I reckon it’s about time I did something about at least one of those scenarios, and I can tell you now that it won’t involve Jack Nicholson!

Despite Renegade on the ZX Spectrum (128K, full-fat, just to be clear) being my official number five favourite game of all time, I’ve always avoided writing about it until now because I didn’t think I’d have much to say. Should have known better! It’s also interesting that its greatest strength came from its limitations – like the fog that defined the mighty Silent Hill – because had there been more buttons on the joystick it would probably have stunk up the place like the arcade version and I’d have simply binned it off day one, just like poor old Soft & Cuddly. But what I wouldn’t give for a go on the arcade version with a Quickshot II shoved up its Kempston Interface!