© IREM (1989)
GENRE: BEAT EM UP
Originally developed for the arcade and published by Irem in 1988, Vigilante was an indirect sequel to the company’s earlier hit Spartan X / Kung-Fu Master. The following year a PC Engine conversion was released and was Irem’s first in-house game for system after previously having Hudson port over R-Type in ’88.
The paper-thin plotline is straight out of the beat-em-up 101 handbook, following the kidnapping of the Vigilantes sweetheart by a rival gang of so-called “skinheads” the martial arts expert must take the law into his own hands and get her back. Using the same convayor belt of bad guys formula established by Kung-Fu Master you must kick and punch your way through five stages of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods fighting off a relentless posse of never-ending “skinheads”. Vigilante is basically a remake of Kung-Fu Master but with beefed up 16-bit graphics and a distinctively eighties theme, sharing much of the same gameplay elements with its predecessor. Although predominantly using your fists and feet to take out the hoards of oncoming bad guys there is the occasional nunchaku to be found which gives a bit more attacking range. A new jump kick attack has also been added introducing an extra element of strategy to the gameplay and unlike other games of its type Vigilante lets you continue from the exact spot you died instead of starting the level over. Visually the game is very different from Irem’s other work of the time, the muted colour palette and use of bold black to outline the sprites give the game a uniquely memorable asthetic which lends itself well to its urban slum setting.
Spanning only five stages, the Vigilante begins his quest to save Madonna (yes.. Madonna) in the crime ridden streets of downtown New York. The first stage is fairly well done, setting the scene with its drab backdrop of derelict stores and rental rooms. After cleaning up the streets our hero moves onto the local junkyard, always a favorite hangout of any self-respecting eighties street punk. This stage is perhaps the highlight of the game visually with piles of tyres in the foreground adding a layer of depth to the area and a detailed background showing the sun setting over Manhattan. Once through the junkyard the Vigilante must cross the Brooklyn Bridge which is arguably the most fun stage in the game featuring motorbike riding “skinheads” hell-bent on stalling his progress. Over the bridge another mundane street stage awaits and aside from the enemies dropping down from above there is nothing exciting or note worthy to mention. According to the snippets of story sandwiched between the gameplay the finale actually takes place on home turf and is the last chance to save Madonna. The stage is an uninspired steel girder sitting high above the city with hoards of bad guys climbing the structure. Once the head-honcho of the “skinheads” is taken out the Vigilante is finally reunited with his lover and can return a hero knowing the streets are safe once more!
This is where Vigilante gets slightly muddled, the “skinheads” as labelled in the opening sequence and throughout the rest of the game are not really skinheads at all. For starters the vast majority of the gang don’t actually have a skinhead (the exception being the stage four boss) I can perhaps let a mohawk slide but most have a fully fledged mane of luscious locks. These guys are also surprisingly very culturally and racially diverse, it seems they don’t even have an ethos. I can only imagine this slight oversight is the result of a Japanese developer trying to make an American style game, presuming all gang-bangers are skinheads and every yank loves Madonna. The gang consists of your typical cookie-cutter grunt men, though despatched easily with a single blow they are quite relentless in trying to stop you and should get an A for effort. The more uncommon members of the group have some nice variation in both looks and weapon choice. From chain and bat weilding thugs to knife-toting punks wearing fetish gear, some of the dirty bastards even bring a pistol to the fight! These guys are much harder to beat than the common grunts and require multiple hits before they go down.
Moving up the heirarchy of the “skinheads” there are five main bosses who run the neighborhoods, each one ready to throw-down at the end of their respective patch. All bosses have a health bar which constantly regenerates, this can get annoying in some of the tougher fights but isn’t too much of a handicap. The first stage boss is a large brute with more bark than bite, he doesn’t put up much of fight and if your wielding the nunchaku he goes down pretty quickly. The second boss is probably the most frustrating and hardest of the five, it’s a two on one brawl as you square up to Irem’s version of the Bad Dudes. The pair are very acrobatic and utilise this by throwing a barrage of flying kicks as they surround you, often making it difficult to get them within attack range. The third boss is a non-descript heavy who carries a ball and chain type weapon giving him a long range attack, however it is easily destroyed once you put the beat-down on him. The fourth boss is the only legitimate skinhead in the whole game, standing on a raised platform he rains down sticks of dynamite from above. His accuracy is terrible and his throws are slow which makes dodging them pretty easy, a few jump attacks will bring him down to your level where he can be beaten with no real effort. The fifth and final boss is a towering figure dressed in what look like motorbike leathers, with a superior reach he can easily grab you by the collar if your not careful and give you a nasty knuckle sandwich. Again the only real challenge is getting the guy within attack range and once you do he’s just another pushover.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Vigilante is by all accounts an average game, nothing really shines. The gameplay is clunky and awkward at times with very little challenge due to the weak enemies and a forgiving continue system. You can simply fluke your way through the game with no real mastery required and clocking a total playtime of around 15 minutes the game is an extremely short romp. If you look past these issues there is still something quite endearing about Vigilante, maybe its the cheesy storyline and ludicrous subject matter but the game is actually fun to play. Given enough time you soon become proficient in the take-down tactics required for each enemy and there is a level of enjoyment that comes from executing your game plan to perfection. Nice graphics coupled with a good soundtrack also add to the overall experience and conversion wise the game is considered a faithful port retaining pretty much all aspects of the original arcade game save for a few minor graphical tweaks. There is no denying Vigilante could have been so much better but it is a game which embodies a certain amount of character born out of a specific moment in time and I personally wouldn’t change a single thing about it.