Renegade (Arcade, 1986)
A while back I had an itch to play some Final Fight - the superior Sega CD version, of course - it occurred to me I should re-visit the Double Dragon series first, that defining example of the beat-em-up genre. But wait! Double Dragon wasn't the first beat-em-up! That would be Renegade. But Renegade didn't get to that point on its own - Kung-Fu Master, which I don't really consider a beat-em-up, nonetheless played an integral part in the genre's formation. But wait! Wouldn't be it better to start with other arcade and Atari games? After all, it was games Pitfall! and Defender that really started the whole side-scrolling thing... but wait! We might as well start with Pong...
I guess what I'm getting at is that, while it's important to have a good feel for the development of a genre if you want to be serious about writing about a key game, but it's not necessary - certainly not necessary to take it to such absurd lengths. Still, Renegade is an important game. The fundamental difference between it and, say, Gradius or Donkey Kong is that it's not very fun. True, I, and most people, consider it to be the first real beat-em-up. It offered 8-way directional movement - a key mechanic in the genre, in my opinion - and enemies who take multiple punches and/or kicks before being defeated. Sure, it only scrolled the length of two screens, but those screens were prototypical of the urban environments the genre would be associated with in years to come. And it continues the Kung-Fu Master tradition of plowing through gangs of thugs in order to rescue the hero's girlfriend, using only your fists (the ability to pick up weapons wouldn't become a genre staple until Double Dragon, a year later).
But like I said, it's not a very fun game to play today. It's cheap and primitive - and this is a genre that's considered by its detractors for being cheap and primitive. What really makes it stand out - and more frustrating - is the wonky way the controls are implemented. Instead of a separate button for kicking and punching, you're instead given a button for attacking left or right. If you're facing right, then pushing the right attack button will punch in that direction, while pushing the left button will kick behind you. When you face left, these actions are reversed. Though I really like the way you can attack behind - enemies will surround you - the control scheme is still bewildering and unintuitive. Maybe I'm a scrub, but I couldn't get used to it. At all. Combined with the fact that dying resets the level's progress (every level is just a series of goons before the boss jumps in), and it's a downright cheap, frustrating experience.
I don't mean to underestimate the importance of the game - it really was the first game of its kind, and even if its controls undermine the experience (oddly, they would later be used again in the arcade version of Double Dragon II), it's still a fine looking, well-animated game. Though this is fairly irrelevant to American gamers, it's also the first game to feature what would become developer Technos' mascot, the character of Kunio-kun (more famous, perhaps, for games like River City Ransom and Super Dodgeball). I say it's irrelevant because the game was vastly changed for its US release. The US release would cement the genre's "inspiration" of the film The Warriors, in which one or a few heroes brawl their way through urban environments, usually for revenge or to rescue a girl. Though they play the same, as far as I can tell, the US release featured entirely redrawn sprites and backgrounds. I don't really lament this so-called "whitewashing" because I like the classic '80s brawler set-up, but the Japanese version is certainly more interesting. Here, Kunio-kun is teaching some schoolyard bullies a lesson, with his hands and feet - an opening cut-scene shows them beating up Kunio's friend and running off. Apparently he fights his way through other students, gangs, and eventually the yakuza - though I never made it that far.
Clearly Technos couldn't predict what a hit the game would be - especially in the west, where the genre ruled the arcades until it was supplanted by Street Fighter II and its fellow fighters, because later games in the series (and genre) would have less of a Japanese flavor from the outset. The game's immediate successor, Double Dragon, was clearly developed to be more 'American,' including its original Japanese release. So aside from, you know, essentially creating an entire genre of games, Renegade is also one of the more interesting cases of localization.
(Sega Master System, 1993)
I say the arcade version is bad, and I mean it - and its Sega Master System port, sourced out to Natsume and published by Sega themselves, was even worse, with slippery controls and poor hit detection. But I was surprised to find myself enjoying the NES port. While the game retains the same control scheme (pressing both buttons to jump), I found it more manageable. Maybe it's because the sprites are smaller, the environments bigger - there's more room to maneuver, and less enemies on-screen, so it's easier to keep your enemies on one side of you without having to fuss over which direction you're facing. The game even throws in a not-terrible motorcycle level, just for the hell of it I guess. The final stage is its undoing, though - a series of rooms in a big building with trap doors that can reset your progress. That's when I threw up hands up and told myself I've played enough of it. I'm not sure I can think of a reason to recommend playing it, unless you're really interested in seeing the full evolution of the genre - especially when there are a handful of superior beat-em-ups on the NES - but that doesn't make it a bad game, if you're into wandering the city streets and punching people out.
The above two shots from NES
All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs.