Exploring the weird billboard ads and shops of Irem’s Vigilante


Released in 1988, Irem’s Vigilante coin-op – and later conversions – featured lots of side-scrolling action, and plenty of strange billboard adverts and shops…


Old games are like time capsules: they provide not only a glimpse of once popular genres and design conventions, but also a snapshot of pop culture at the time they were made. I was reminded of this as I began battering my way through the PC Engine and arcade versions of Vigilante, a scrolling brawler originally released by Japanese developer Irem in 1988.

The action itself is repetitive even by the standards of the time: as a martial arts expert on the trail of your kidnapped girlfriend (called Madonna), you walk from left to right, kicking and punching the villains that plod onto the screen. Occasionally, you can pick up a pair of nunchucks to flail in your opponents’ faces. What keeps me engrossed in Vigilante, though, is how steeped in late-eighties culture it is.

 The game was released towards the end of an era that saw the release of such films as Death Wish 3, where American cities were depicted as crime-ridden battlegrounds where good citizens are forced to take the law into their own hands. But because Vigilante is a Japanese game, it takes a distinctly quaint, outsider’s perspective: the game’s head-smashing action begins, of all places, outside a lobster restaurant (which, in arcades, is called ‘Good! Friends’).


Where better to start an action game than outside a lobster restaurant? (PC Engine version shown.)

As our hero progresses, he passes some kind of clothes store called Maria, which inexplicably has a pistol-wielding cowboy on the sign, and a shop named Musical, which appears to sell nothing but tubas. 


Who knows what’s sold in Maria? It’s closed today. (PC Engine version shown.)

In the arcade version, meanwhile, the Maria outlet is joined by an ice cream parlour with a curiously suggestive signage up top. In the world of Vigilante, even the shop signs carry a vague sense of threat…


“I’m a BIG.” (Arcade version shown.)

The action really heats up outside a seedy-looking night club, where the rank-and-file hoodlums you’ve been punching are joined by a muscle-bound guy wielding a revolver. The drama of the encounter’s undercut somewhat when you notice the night club’s named Pipi Room.


Anyone fancy a pint in the Pipi Room? (PC Engine version shown.)

It’s also noteworthy that, although Vigilante takes place in broad daylight, all the shops are shuttered and the streets are empty, leading me to think that the entire game unfolds on an otherwise humdrum Sunday morning. Maybe the villains kidnapped Madonna out of sheer boredom.


Oddly, nobody in Vigilante thought of stealing one of these tubas and using it as a weapon. (PC Engine version shown.)

Later stages take place in a scrap yard and what appears to be the Brooklyn Bridge. But again, Vigilante's take on late-eighties New York is a quaintly askew one: it’s a place where hoardings advertise music events at jazz clubs, and also Manzai comedy nights – a type of quintessentially Japanese double-act routine that was almost entirely unknown to westerners at the time.

(The 2016 documentary, What’s Manzai, which eventually showed up on Netflix, helped to spread word of the comedy form in the west at least a little.)

Vigilante’s set in the US, but there are huge adverts for Japanese double-act comedy dotted around for some reason. (Arcade version shown.)

And while the bad guys look like the typical mohawked punks and bulked-up heavies of 1980s action movies, the titular Vigilante, with his Bruce Lee slip-on shoes, dungarees, bright red belt and matching wrist bands, looks both perfectly of his time and curiously out of place.

R-Type’s Dobkeratops boss (another Irem game) also shows up in the PC Engine version of Vigilante.

But then again, the naivety is part of Vigilante's charm: the game ends with the upbeat message, “Way to go dude!!! You saved Madonna. Law and order failed, but the vigilante prevailed. The vigilante rules the city!!!”

In the world of Vigilante, the only way to protect the proprietors of lobster restaurants and tuba shops is by kicking crime square in the face.

A version of this article originally appeared in issue 46 of Wireframe magazine.

Read more: The bygone joy of bespoke arcade cabinets

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More like this