I can only speak for myself here, but I’ve never really been interested in the Wild West. Maybe it’s because I live in Carson City, where saloon shootouts and Indian raids are still an everyday part of life, but the whole “western” theme has never really held much appeal for me. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the occasional cowboy flick, but as a general setting for fiction, it fails to pique my interest. I think this is fairly typical of people my age, who view the land of rolling tumbleweeds and festering spittoons as the fantasy realm of their father’s generation.
So it’s all too easy for video games utilizing this theme, few in number though they are, to be ignored by the average gamer. Recent examples of this are Gun and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. Despite very positive reviews (and in the case of Stranger’s Wrath, several prestigious awards), neither of these games sold well. But those examples aren’t the focus of this feature, since I, as a dedicated hypocrite, haven’t played them either. Rather, this is a list of the Top Five Wild West Games that were created slightly closer to the era upon which they are based. Because I prefer older games. And top tens are too taxing on me.
#5 – Stampede (Atari 2600)
When the average person hears the word “cowboy,” the images that spring to mind usually involve gunslingers and outlaws; shootouts, jailbreaks, stagecoach robberies and the like. But in all truth, cowboys – actual cowboys – while still heavily romanticized, were a comparatively sedate bunch. A cowboys’ hobbies were generally limited to things like glaring at scenery, spitting, and dying of lung cancer from smoking too many Marlboro Reds. But, while I assure you that the rest of the games on this list involve thousands upon thousands of gunshot wounds, I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one proper cowboy game.
It’s easy to dismiss Stampede. Even by Atari 2600 standards, it’s about as flashy and imposing as an armpit. That’s not to say that it’s crude; it moves smoothly and features the bright, “warm” graphics which were the trademark of Activision during the era. And even though the gameplay appears to be simple, it’s actually brimming with depth and strategy. You play as a cowboy who’s stolen Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, with which you rope up cattle, making them disappear. This seems like an odd thing to do, seeing as how a cowboy’s livelihood depends on his herd being… not disappeared, but you just have to take for granted that your character knows what he’s doing.
Cows come at you in thick and endless waves, and it’s impossible to lasso all of them due to your horse’s inadequate speed (speaking of which, you should really have a vet check out those legs, which all appear to have multiple fractures). To buy yourself the necessary time, you simply have to ride the errant cows’ asses, spooking them into moving back to the right side of the screen. The really hard part is in dealing with the varying fitness levels of the different breeds of cattle. You can be eying a big bunch of Herefords, ready to start roping them in, when all of a sudden a couple stray Guernseys drag ass onscreen. Suddenly you have to shift your priorities, else risk losing a couple heads (you can lose three before tha game ends). The real threats however, are the obstinate Black Anguses, which are just sitting in the way. But with time and experience, you’ll learn to anticipate where these balking bovines will appear, and with the element of randomness diminished, the game really breaks into a gallop.
#4 – Gun.Smoke (NES)
As far as I’m concerned, Gun.Smoke is two separate, but both excellent, games. People are usually more familiar with the great NES port of the arcade original, but that original is a classic in it’s own right. The two games really don’t feel all that similar; they look, sound and control quite distinctly, and the NES version made some additions to the formula which really changed the gameplay substantially. To be honest, I tend to prefer the arcade version, which is a pain since my PS2 suddenly refuses to read my Capcom Classics Collection disc. So for all intents and purposes, I’ll be talking about the NES version here, which wasn’t my intention.
From a distance, Gun.Smoke appears to be a top-down run-n-gun similar to Commando or Ikari Warriors. But, while the game does consist entirely of running (walking, actually) and gunning, it’s actually more of a shoot-em-up. If these genre-descriptors sound needlessly esoteric to you, I’ll put it in layman’s terms; it’s like Ikaruga.
As far as shmups go, it’s got some pretty original concepts and mechanics behind it. The most immediately striking deviation from genre norms is in the control layout. The original gunsmoke used three buttons; one to shoot straight, and one each to shoot at left and right angles. The NES version does it’s best to emulate this set-up by making you simultaneously press A and B to shoot forward. It sounds awful in concept, but it works well in practice, and within a few minutes it becomes amazingly intuitive. In fact, this set-up works so well that I’m shocked no shmup has copied it since, since the genre typically isn’t shy about stealing good ideas from each other.
The other big difference from standard shooters (and the arcade version, for that matter) is the fact that levels loop endlessly. You won’t face the end boss until you buy (or find) his wanted poster, which is really pretty silly since each level starts out with an image that very wanted poster, complete with a mugshot of the boss. I guess your character must have an amazingly short memory, but regardless of the reason, there are two ways to get these posters. You can buy them from stores or you can find them in secret locations in the levels. Personally I think it’s a huge pain trying to locate these hidden posters in later levels, since you have your hands full enough with the endless barrage of enemies.
Which brings us to the so-called “stores,” which can easily be identified by the fact that they’re the only people not trying to kill you. Despite the fact that they insist “WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE,” one can’t help but be suspicious of individuals who dauntlessly stand out in the open during frantic gunfights with outlaws and Apache warriors. Of course, they don’t take such risks for cheap; taking inflation into account, even the cheapest item they sell would make them ridiculously rich by the standards of the time.
This factors heavily into the game’s one big flaw; later levels can become huge grind-fests as you endlessly loop through the levels trying to save up enough money to buy the wanted poster from these master price-gougers. Why you can’t just kill them and take it from their cold, money grubbing hands is beyond me. I might not be a moralist, but if I had just killed a thousand people over the course of five minutes, I don’t think I’d have a huge problem with shooting some greedy extortionist who’s asking the modern day equivalent of a million dollars for a lousy piece of paper. But despite this relatively minor qualm, Gun.Smoke is still a great game – a true classic.
#3 – Lone Ranger (NES)
Despite the fact that he rides a white horse (Silver, as in “Hi Ho Silver”), the Lone Ranger’s game is a real dark horse in the video game world. True to the pioneer spirit of the Old West, it treads some unexplored gameplay territory. Gotcha! The Sport, as far as I know, was the first game to require you to hold a standard controller in one hand and a lightgun in the other, but Lone Ranger took the idea to new frontiers.
I suppose some explanation is required for just how exactly this works. Certain maze-like dungeons place you in the first person perspective, where the grid-based movement is handled similarly to the labyrinths in games like Wizardry or Golgo 13. But at certain points, enemies will start pouring out of the woodwork, and then it’s time to draw your trusty NES Zapper (which, for an authentic feel, you should have in a leather hip-holster). You can’t just set the controller down during these battles either, since enemies will often flank you, requiring you to make quick about-faces.
Despite the standard confusion inherent in all first person mazes in NES games (it might be necessary to bust out the graph paper and do some mapping for the later dungeons), these segments are easily the highlights of the game. But as fun and unique as they are, they’re actually a relatively minor component of the game. Overhead dungeon-crawling, encounters with wandering bands of outlaws, conventional side-scrolling levels (which require some pixel perfect jumps), and RPG-like towns flesh out the bulk of the Lone Ranger experience.
These towns add a little “adventure game” flair, while not boring you with the tedium of not constantly shooting people. Differentiating between friend and foe is easy; women in sun hats and period dresses are good, and everyone else should be immediately executed. For the most part, the towns exist solely so you can buy ammo and have a doctor heal you, but you can also walk into people’s houses, which will prompt them to ask things like “WHO ARE YOU?” and “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” Occasionally people will ask you, “DO YOU WANT TO HEAR WHAT I HAVE TO SAY?” and if you choose “YES,” expecting some long soliloquy, they either say something less wordy than the question they just asked you, or something even more mind-boggling, like “WHO ARE YOU?”
#2 – Sunset Riders (SNES)
Sunset Riders is practically synonymous with western games. Everybody has played it – everybody who’s not yeller, at least. A little cowardice would be understandable in this case though, because Sunset Riders is one tough hombre. The concept is simple but as sound as any; it’s Cowboy Contra, but if you ask me, this puppy is harder than any of the proper Contra titles. This is mostly due to the furiously challenging boss battles, during which bullets will fly at you from every conceivable (and several inconceivable) angles, and it’s all too easy to get cornered by flying lead. Sure, most of these bullets move slowly, but the player’s character sprites are large, and they don’t tuck themselves into little balls when they jump like the Mad Dog and Scorpion do.
Despite the aggressive nature of gameplay, the tone is more lighthearted than that of it’s no-nonsense parent series. Everything’s colorful and bright, the music is upbeat, and character designs are comical enough that the game doesn’t feel violent, despite the fact that you’ll kill probably about a thousand human beings by the end of the game. Particularly memorable and endearing are the voice-overs before and after each boss. “You in heap big trouble!”
You choose between four characters, two wielding pistols and two packing sawed-offs. Though they all have different character art, the same-weapon characters are essentially identical to each other. That way you won’t fight over who gets to use the shotgun in the excellent two player co-op mode. Konami wisely kept it simple with the power-ups; one gives you rapid fire and the other gives you a second gun for your idle hand, which you’ll fire at a slight angle. You might gawk at the characters’ fruity outfits (which include green tights and a pink poncho), but when you see a man rapidly shoot a sawed-off in each hand, you can’t help but feel a deep respect.
One thing I should mention is that, while the Super Nintendo version is a very accurate port of the arcade original, the Genesis edition is quite different. All the stuff I’ve said in the above blurb doesn’t necessarily apply to the Genny version. I haven’t personally played it, but by watching videos I’d wager to say that it’s not as good. It also seems significantly harder.
#1 – Wild Guns (SNES)
This is it; the greatest cowboy game ever created, and one of the best games – cowboy, spaceboy, ninjaboy or otherwise – for the Super Nintendo. While it’s slowly gaining recognition via word-of-mouth among SNES aficionados, it remains the very definition of a “hidden gem” in the system’s library. It must have been a limited release, or maybe it just didn’t sell well, but either way, it commands slightly higher than average prices, so expect to spend a few more bucks than usual. It’s nothing prohibitively expensive though, and I can assure you that it’s worth every silver dollar that you’ll pay.
The closest thing I can compare the game to is Cabal for the NES. Wild Guns takes that game’s formula and expands on it until it becomes something wonderful. If you’re not familiar with that semi-classic, it essentially boils down to this; you’re in the foreground shooting at enemies in the background. In Wild Guns, the game lets you know exactly where enemy bullets are going to go, an innovation which allows the game to move faster and toss more bullets your way. Playing as either Clint [Eastwood] or Annie [Oakley], you have a pretty wide set of abilities at your disposal, from diving and double jumping, to detonating screen-clearing bombs. And in one of the game’s most satisfying little details, you can actually catch a stick of dynamite tossed by an enemy and lob it right back at him, or better yet, throw it at that huge mechanical airship looming in the distance.
That’s right, airship. Wild Guns isn’t content to adhere to sensible cowboy conventions, instead combining the Western theme with elements of science fiction. It makes for an awesome mix, and the developers at Natsume really ran with the concept and made some seriously awe-inspiring environments and enemies, particularly the incredible bosses. I mean, just look up at that screen shot. If your thumbs aren’t quivering with the desire to fight that huge ‘bot, you can hardly call yourself a gamer.
Wild Guns simply has it all. Two player coop; check. Great graphics and controls; check. Badass guns; check. A five letter word for examine: check. It’s an absolutely flawless game that should have a home in the collection of any classic gamer. It’s challenging, action-packed and memorable; exactly how a game based on the Wild West should be. Plus robots.
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