As a kid growing up in rural Somerset, I didn’t see much in the way of gang violence (although I’d argue that a group of shifty-looking cows can be just as intimidating as a gang of ruffians with flick-knives), and my only experience of that culture came through films and music videos. Loading up Double Dragon or Target Renegade on the C64 was my chance to live out that Los Locos scene in Short Circuit 2 or pretend I’m one of those cool and mean-looking dancers in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video.
Upon closer inspection, Vigilante for the Master System seems to have taken its cues from more adult-targeted media like 1979 film The Warriors, what with the antagonist gang being called the Rogues and all. No sign of David Patrick Kelly though. In fact, all the bosses of Vigilante’s Rogues are the “large and in charge” types, rather than diminutive, trouble-making rat-bastards.
To me, Vigilante was the herald of the next generation of side-scrolling fighting games. After sampling the likes of Renegade and Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja on the C64 and Amstrad CPC, Vigilante was my first taste of streets-based violence on a console, and mighty impressed I was too. Bright colours, neat backgrounds and cool animations greeted my eager, innocent eyes, but what would my contemporary opinion be of this near-forgotten 8-bit beat-’em-up?
Well, it ain’t no Streets of Rage, that’s for sure. Released on the Master System in 1989, Vigilante is a port of a 1988 arcade game by Irem, and is apparently a spiritual successor to the 1984 arcade game Kung-Fu Master. An unnamed city has been overrun by crooks, thugs and ne’er-do-wells, and Maria, the protagonist’s girlfriend, has been unceremoniously chucked into the back of a van. It’s time for the titular vigilante to clean up the streets. The levels consist of a single, linear run towards a boss waiting at the end of the road. Contrary to what you might expect from the genre and the screenshots, there is no vertical movement, with our vigilante friend limited to a single, horizontal plane. Enemies will attack from either side, and you have punches, kicks and jumps at your disposal to fend them off.
As such, Vigilante plays less like a traditional scrolling beat-’em-up and more like some kind of violent rhythm game. This is because much of the game comes down to the timing of your button presses, especially when it comes to one particularly annoying thug-type whose modus operandi is to repeatedly rush in and attempt to grapple you. Seriously, these guys are the worst. Every other enemy will approach from either side of the screen, hold off for a bit as they get close, and then attempt to catch you out with an attack. The aforementioned grapplers, identified by their white vests and green trousers, will rush in at full speed, single-mindedly intent on locking you in an energy-sapping hold. Your only defence is to batter them before they get to you, but they come in so quickly that the timing is extremely precise. It’s difficult enough when just these green-trousered hooligans are rushing you from either side, but pair them up with other crooks and things can get immensely frustrating.
If you can survive this glut of grapple-happy nutters you’ll reach the boss at the end of the level. These guys are intimidating, but will soon fall once you figure out which of your attacks they’re particularly vulnerable to. Be careful not to let the boss push you too far back through the level though, as once you’ve defeated the stage’s head honcho you still have to walk to the end, and if you’ve gone too far back you can expect to be set upon by thugs and green-trousered grapple guys again.
I played the Master System version of Double Dragon so that I could compare the two, and there’s so much more to that than there is to Vigilante. The stages are larger, with vertical movement, pits and multiple height levels to traverse, you have more moves at your disposal, and Double Dragon has that all-important two-player mode. Vigilante looks nicer though, its alleyways, scrapyards and city skylines artfully delivering that retro urban vibe. Vigilante’s nameless city is a pretty cool place to be, it’s just a shame that I have to spend my entire time there desperately fending off infuriating bastards in fetching aquamarine slacks.
Played on Master System/Emulator