Vindicators is a top-down shoot 'em up featuring a futuristic tank that must navigate around obstacles and traps while shooting down enemies. The game was originally released for the arcade before receiving a number of home computer conversions and a NES adaptation.
Like many games published by Tengen, Vindicators for the Nintendo Entertainment System was unlicensed by Nintendo. As such, the cartridge was Tengen's proprietary black cartridge, containing a special chip designed to work despite the NES's lockout system which prevented unlicensed games from operating properly.
Vindicators takes place in the year 2525, outside Galaxy TR-15. The mission is to intercept and destroy the invading forces from the evil Tangent Empire by proceeding through multi-level stations, and securing each station by demolishing its control centre, using the SR-88 Strategic Battle Tank.
As "team commanders" of these SR-88 Strategic Battle Tanks, players must traverse the Tangent Empire's 14 space stations equipped with turrets and highly mobile armored tanks that constantly patrol the Tangent's fortifications.
Players control a tank, navigating through multiple levels and shooting enemies (enemy tanks, turrets and flying saucers) and obstacles while their tank's fuel levels gradually decrease. The tanks have shields, which deplete when hit by enemy shots. As fuel decreases, the tank's speed slows. Once all fuel is lost, the tank explodes and players are charged a life. Throughout the levels, players can collect additional fuel, stars (the game's currency), shields, and power-ups such as homing missiles and bombs.
Players navigate their tanks towards the end of the level, as the screen scrolls bottom-up, much like a traditional shooter's level design. Each level contains a key that is required to open a door at the end of a level.
Some levels contain boss fights. These bosses are practically impervious to a tank's regular fire -- power-ups are essential to defeating the game's bosses.
Before a new level begins, players are able to use their "stars" to purchase power-ups, shields and upgrades, including increased speed and more powerful default weaponry.
The arcade version of Vindicators was housed in a tank-shaped cabinet which also had a unique double-joystick, one for each hand. Both joysticks had thumb buttons on top, and moved only up and down. Holding both joysticks in the same direction would move the tank up and down the screen, while moving the joysticks in opposite directions allow the tank to turn. The 1P/2P buttons allowed players to cycle through their weapons. The arcade version was also more challenging, with more powerful enemies, weaker tanks, and a greater rate of fuel depletion. The home platform version, on the other hand, had difficulty settings.
Atari's original arcade version of Vindicators included a t-shirt contest. The game contained three "contest" bonus levels, which contained a "contest star" to be collected upon completion. If a player collected all three contest stars and nine stars from the game's regular levels, they could compete in a special time-limited contest level. Completing this level would earn the player an official Atari/Vindicators t-shirt, provided the establishment that owned the game cabinet had said t-shirts on site.