Dusty Discs: Vigilante 8

In the olden days, when pixels were in black and white and you had to save your pocket money for a whole year to get a new game, consoles had Demo Discs. You’d pull that shiny plastic platter off the front of a magazine, press it down onto the knob, slam down the Playstation’s lid, and hear that bad boy start to spin. 

A horrendously designed menu would appear. Which demo did you want to play? There was Rugrats, V2000, Hercules, or even... Busby 3D.

Then there was a picture of a car exploding, while another stands triumphant. There are guns. Guns on the mother freaking cars. Pew pew! Vroom vroom! Ring ring. Who’s that on the phone. Oh, hi there. It’s Vigilante 8.

In the year 1998, Luxoflux set up shop in Santa Monica and decided to make video games. The human race had spent decades getting good at putting pixels together in two dimensions, but recent developments in secret laboratories deep beneath the Swiss mountains had resulted in the discovery of polygons, beautiful mathematical structures that let your computer simulate 3D objects on a 2D display. Like magic.

Game developers had a new universe to work with, and they needed to figure out how to make it look and play good. They'd accomplished this years earlier in 2D with titles such as A Link to the Past and Super Mario World, but with added dimensions comes added challenge. While Luxoflux’s Vigilante 8 is definitely not a visually beautiful game, it does show a wonderful exploration of the gameplay opportunities offered by this new fronteir.

The core gameplay of Vigilante 8 had players driving around a map in a vehicle of their choice and collecting weapon power-ups that would attach themselves to said vehicle. Players would then shoot at one another until somebody won, or until one of them had a cry and had to go home because somebody's Mum heard me them say a naughty word. The weapons, which included rockets, mortars, machine guns, and character-specific special weapons, were all ranged (besides the obligatory landmine). This focus on shooty combat in a 3D space resulted in environments that were far more dynamic and had far more verticality than those seen in the racing and demolition derby games of the time. I’d even argue that the environments are more exciting and invite deeper interaction than many of those in vehicular games today.

One of my favorite stages, the Oil Fields, was featured on a demo disc a little while before the official release of the game. And the stage was chosen for good reason - it was the perfect introduction to the game’s design. While it was relatively small compared to some of the other levels, the amount of environmental interaction was huge. Players could destroy the majority of the objects in the level, from oil derricks to storage tanks to sections of pipeline. They could do this with their vehicles' weapons or by smashing into the objects with the bodies of their cars. The relative physical weakness of these destroyable objects, as well as the fact that players were incredibly likely to accidentally crash into things in the heat of battle (regardless of how careful their driving was) resulted in players quickly discovering the then-novel physicality of the game world. The sense of novelty and the inherent satisfaction that comes from seeing something explode in a burst of smoke and flame invited players to experiment.

Their exploration of the world resulted in players stumbling across mini-challenges and alternate gameplay opportunities that meshed seamlessly with the core experience. The Oil Fields had leaking pipelines that spewed flaming gas, preventing the players from accessing some areas. When the leaky pipe opening was shot at it would explode, and the continuous stream of flame would become an intermittent burst, turning the environmental hazard into a timing puzzle. If players successfully navigated this puzzle they’d be rewarded with the contents of the area beyond - often a couple of power-ups and a repair bonus. If they failed, they'd catch fire, suffering some serious damage over time.

While the majority of destroyable structures were very small - barely larger than the vehicles themselves - a handful of larger parts of infrastructure could be blown up as well, resulting in players deciding on their own objectives within the game world. The large storage tanks in the Oil Field stage were a great example of this. These stout yet wide structures were only accessible to players who could carefully drive up the tank’s narrow, spiraling, and exposed walkway. On top there was a special weapon box, which would grant players access to their character’s most powerful personal weapon. Extra challenge and excitement was added by the volatile nature of the tank - if it took enough damage it would explode, dealing damage and denying players the use of the items on top. If one or both players knew this secret, the tension of the situation would ramp up significantly, with one player trying to hurry to the top before the other managed to stop them.

Ghost Town was another memorable stage, featuring one of the biggest and most interesting set pieces of the game - a train that traveled on a loop through the level. Shooting at the train’s cargo caused it to drop valuable special weapon crates, which resulted in the train becoming a moving focus for action. The train bridge that spanned a deep canyon seemed to have the highest hit points of any structure in the game. It was most vulnerable at its base where its wooden supports met the ground. Rockets and machine guns fired at these pillars, or mortars fired from below the structure in such a way that they hit the bridge from beneath, could bring it down in a minute or two, leaving the train with nowhere to go but down into the canyon below. In this way players could completely deny their enemies any access to this travelling resource, altering the state of the battlefield completely.

Vigilante 8 was a gem of its time, but it hasn't aged particularly well. The car handling varies depending on which vehicle you choose, but at best it feels like you're playing APB:Reloaded with 400 ping. The graphics are chunky and the hit boxes feel slightly too small for the models they’re assigned to, resulting in too many unexpected falls from cliffs. 19 years on, however, and it still has some of that original charm. The massive variety of levels, the large number of unexpected environmental interactions, and the glorious traps you can set for other players by luring them into avalanches or electrified waterways give this game a permanent place in the old nostalgia center. If you can pick it up at a garage sale or still have a copy sitting around someplace, load it up get exploding.