Ever since they were invented, neon lights (or their more modern equivalents) have been associated with big cities. As such, an abundance of them is often used to characterise a place or help set a mood.
Bright, colourful lights and signs may serve to establish the city as one of the following (often with a good deal of overlap):
- Crowded, chaotic, and bewildering: Neon cities are generally full of people and noise, and a visiting Country Mouse may find them confusing, overwhelming, and possibly even dangerous. A street full of signs in every language under the sun may indicate that the city is a crossroads of the world, or a melting pot of cultures.
- Hyper-capitalist: A riot of competing signs can be used to establish that commercialism and consumerism are dominant forces in society. No matter where you look, you can't escape ads trying to sell you something, and the skyline is crowded with giant Mega-Corp logos. Despite the plentiful colour, this kind of neon city is often meant to feel cold and isolating, being designed for rich corporations rather than people.
- Hedonistic, glitzy, and/or sleazy: Neon signs are particularly associated with bars, casinos, motels, and other entertainment or tourist venues. As such, extravagant, flashing signage can be used to characterise a city as a place people go to have fun of the Viva Las Vegas! variety. Depending on the tone of the story, this might be good or bad — perhaps the city is an Absurdly Cool City full of genuine excitement and good times, or perhaps it's a superficial sham just trying to part you from your money. If the venues being touted are cheap and tawdry, like strip clubs and dive bars, it can establish a place as a Wretched Hive or a Vice City.
- Advanced: Filling a city with brightly coloured lights — or better yet, video screens and holograms — is sometimes used to make it look high-tech or intensively developed. Your average Cyberpunk city is often drenched in neon-esque lights (which stand out all the more if you've got typical cyberpunk weather and it always seems to be night-time). This use of neon may overlap with Tron Lines.
- Dated: In direct contrast to the previous, certain styles of neon are sometimes used to set a work in the past. For example, neon is sometimes associated with the vibrant colours of the The '80s and the New Wave era. If all the neon is golden-orange (the colour made by real, original neon), it can help set the work in the era before other colours became commonplace.
The neon city sometimes overlaps with City Noir, although those may be too grey to admit very much neon (and what there is will probably be showing Signs of Disrepair). See also Shining City (whose radiance is usually more metaphorical). Some neon cities will consciously echo real-world cities known for their abundant bright signage, like Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas.
(Note that, for the purposes of this trope, "neon" is defined broadly. Most "neon" lights don't actually use neon anymore, mostly being replaced by LED lights, but any bright city lights can be put to the same purpose.)
- One episode of Pokémon ("The Song of Jigglypuff") introduces the Vegas-like Neon Town, where the lights are always on and nobody seems to sleep. The Officer Jenny there has a notably short temper from being overworked.
- Yu Gi Oh ARCV: As the series takes place throughout four different dimensions, each of them has a different aesthetic to tell them apart, and create the proper atmosphere. The Synchro Dimension's "City" is a Crapsaccharine World, where 99% of the total wealth is controlled by only 1% of the population. The City has extremely high skyscrapers lit up so brightly that the night turns into day. It is even lampshaded.
Yugo: Beautiful, isn't it? How much wealth is in this skyline?
- Rock-A-Doodle has The Villain send his Comic Relief nephew Hunch to thwart the heroes from contacting Chanticleer. Hunch is truculent, mentioning that the bright lights of the city will make him blind. The Villain casually issues Hunch a pair of sunglasses. Truly, the big city is much brighter and busier than the rustic farmlands where the story originates. In fact, the heroes only found Chanticleer by noticing a huge neon likeness of him as an Elvis expy adorning Pinkie's nightclub.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse uses this trope to good effect in the nighttime scenes.
- Blade Runner is often credited with establishing plentiful neon (preferably in the dark and the rain) as a central part of the Cyberpunk aesthetic.
- In Hiroshima Mon Amour, the bright lights of the new and rebuilt Hiroshima are used in a Contrast Montage with the female lead's hometown in France, which is full of old stone buildings.
- Only God Forgives was noted for going to town with neon. (One critic described it as an incoherent "neon-dunked nightmare", which was apparently meant as praise). The city in this case is Bangkok, which (at least for the main characters) is depicted as depraved and brutal.
- Taxi Driver uses the bright neon of Manhattan (including the famous Times Square) as a backdrop. It helps make Travis Bickle, who is almost completely disconnected from the world around him, seem even more of a sad loner.
- Osaka in Black Rain is full of neon lights; even the trucks driving around the city are covered in them. This makes Osaka look menacing and alien to the two NYPD detectives while they are in the city.
- Last Clear Chance, (a Scare 'Em Straight driving safety film from 1959) warns about how distracting the neon signs of a big city can be to drivers. This includes a few shots demonstrating how easy it is to miss traffic lights or railroad crossing lights against a background of equally bright signage.
- Enter the Void takes place almost entirely at night in Tokyo, the ever-present neon lighting adding to the film's disorienting and hallucinogenic themes.
- The Canadian film noir Disappearance At Clifton Hill shows Niagara Falls, ON - especially the casino and the Clifton Hill neighbourhood, which is where a lot of the tourist traps are - to be this, definitely leaning more into the sleazy and dated aspects of this trope. Niagara Falls comes across as a tacky, seedy place.
- Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" uses neon imagery, although exactly what it means is probably subject to debate.
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
- A common aesthetic in the retrowave genres Vaporwave and Synthwave where cities at night with neon lights are used as part of the art-style as they were in The '80s and The Nineties.
- Kraftwerk: "Neon Lights" from the album The Man-Machine is mostly instrumental, with the few lyrics being a tribute to the city's neon lights:
Shimmering neon lights
And at the edge of night
This city's made of light
- The Eagles: "In the City" has the depressing sort:
Somewhere out on that horizon
Out beyond the neon lights
I know there must be somethin' better
but there's nowhere else in sight
- Inkopolis from Video Game/Splatoon is one, making the game's bright, colorful world even brighter and more colorful.
- L.A. Noire makes a certain amount of use of neon to help establish its time period — of particular note being its logo, which resembles a big, rooftop neon sign in traditional golden-orange.
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City goes for neon, including in its logo, as part of its 1980s Miami aesthetic.
- Satellite Reign goes heavily for the traditional Cyberpunk aesthetic, which means that it's a challenge to find parts of the city that aren't soaked in neon.
- Ruiner is set in the decidedly unpleasant city of Rengkok, where glaring red neon lights seem to be one of the main sources of illumination.
- Certain areas of Mass Effect have a more than a touch of neon to them, in keeping with the inspiration the series takes from 1980s-ish science fiction (which presumably includes a bit of cyberpunk, although the game as a whole doesn't fit that genre). On the Citadel, all the signage helps establish the place as a galactic crossroads; on Omega, it helps establish the place as a den of vice.
- One track in Mario Kart 7, Neo Bowser City, has a futuristic theme which involves a lot of neon lights and bright displays (many of which serve to glorify Bowser).
- In Speed Kills, the final races are set on a capital planet which is full of bright, colourful signs, signalling that you've graduated from the various hell-holes you started on and are now in the big league.
- Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped: The "future" levels take place in a futuristic city full of neon signs of Neo Cortex and his associates.
- Azure Striker Gunvolt: One level, Sinner's Row, is a Red Light District filled with tall buildings and neon signs.
- Fallout: New Vegas: Deliberately invoked by the titular city, New Vegas — a post-apocalyptic remnant of Las Vegas, Nevada. In the story, Vegas was left relatively untouched by nuclear bombardment during The Great War thanks to measures taken by billionaire Robert House. House has slept in cryogenic suspension for two centuries since then, until scouts from a new government called the New California Republic are spotted by House's robots. House awakens, immediately sends the robots out onto the Vegas strip to tame and force the roving savage tribes into helping rebuild the city in the spitting image of Vegas at its peak. By the time the NCR soldiers reach Vegas, they are entranced by the shimmering lights of a functioning city within the Mojave Wasteland and soon the city becomes a tourist attraction for NCR citizens, bringing House wealth and influence as part of his plans to rebuild civilization.
- Cyberpunk 2077: Night City is littered with neon and holographic advertisements, as seen in the opening shots of the E3 2019 trailer.
- Araenu from Cosmic Star Heroine is a planet with aesthetics inspired by Cyber Punk, including city alleys full of neon lights.
- The dank streets of Anachronox' eponymous planet are lit up by numerous neon lights, frequently advertisements.
- You'll be hard pressed to find a Sonic the Hedgehog game that doesn't have have a Neon City-like level. And even the rare few that don't tend to hold a neon light motif in at least one of their levels.
- The Bonus Dungeon of Miitopia, New Lumos, is a neon-lit, perpetually rainy cyberpunk city populated by deadly monsters. Its name in the Japanese version is literally "Neon City".
- Battlezone 2016 takes place across various futuristic cityscapes with glowing neon light sources.
- The Simpsons: In "I Won't Be Home For Christmas", Homer gets kicked out of the house, but Marge and the kids then go looking for him. There's a montage which appears to show the neon signs of all the places they search: a bar; an all-night diner; a strip club; the big-and-tall morgue. Then Marge reveals where they really are: "Well, he's not in the neon sign store."
- The titular Moonbeam City is a retrofuturistic Wretched Hive, all bathed in shades of purple and pink, where everyone dresses like it's The '80s but advanced enough to have rotating hotels, people with Artificial Limbs, and an ED-209 Expy. They also mine lasers, which somehow gush from the ground like oil.