Just for a moment, cast your thoughts towards Saturday matinee Western films and reel in all of their imagery of the Old West. Picture in your minds the characters deftly dodging stampeding cattle, guiding their trusty steed as it gallops alongside a runaway train, chasing down a stagecoach, gun fighting in uncouth taverns and leaping logs, and always somehow steadying their feet atop a rattling steam train. In 1993 Konami crammed all of the above set-pieces as unforgettable moments of gameplay into a humble 8-megabit SNES cartridge. This game is so much fun that after playing it you will ask: why are there so few video games starring cowboys?
The SNES had a side-scrolling run-and-gun cowboy game worth whooping about: Sunset Riders is jam-packed with cowboys. Whilst the original arcade title allowed four players to step out into the American frontier, the SNES still did a fine job of letting two co-op players pull up their boots and dig in their spurs. It has cowboys who are so rock hard, that they enter the fray wearing pink ten gallon hats, pretty fuchsia ponchos and bright yellow wrangler pants. These cowboys are so nails they do not need tough prefixes to their names like Cisco Kid, Rowdy Yates, Texas John Slaughter or Wild Bill. They are simply known as Steve, Bob and Cormano, although one of them is called Billy, which is a cool cowboy name.
They need to be tough, because they earn each of their dollars by hunting down bounties, with the game's boss's mugshots decorating the 'wanted' posters of eight levels of incrementally more prosperous, but challenging rewards. Thankfully every $50,000 awarded earns an extra life and on occasion small piles of gold can be collected as they clutter the floors of the Old West towns. Also a smattering of 1-up heart extra lives are littered amongst the game's levels.
The heroes have two gun preferences: Bob and Cormano opt for the slower-firing, but wide spread bullet shower of a shotgun, whilst Steve and Billy choose the single shot six-shooters, allowing for more nimble, quicker fire. Therefore, progress through the game is easier using co-op and when playing as Bob and Cormano, because of their wider firing shots. A number of power-ups can be collected along the way; the most effective are sheriff's badges with a single gun star badge increasing the speed and size of your bullets, whilst badges displaying dual crossed guns double your firepower, increasing the bullet spread. It is also a welcome addition that you get to keep your powered-up weapons when you move on to the next level. Occasionally a badass bandit will lob a stick of dynamite your way, at which point you have a choice of either chucking it back or standing well clear of its Mode 7-boosted, pixelated explosions.
These cowboys do not run into battle either, they strut and if you leave them idle, they will happily show off some neat finger-twiddling gun trickery. Initial impressions suggest a comparison to the Rolling Thunder games, with power-ups stored in doorways and the way the stages often contain an upper and lower level to jump between whilst evading bullets. This resemblance may conjure images of an especially tough game, but there are such a number of variables that can be altered in the options menu, that the amount of lives, continues and options (easy, medium and hard), can all be tinkered with to create a custom game challenge.
The director of arcade Sunset Riders was H. Tsujimoto and it is not a coincidence that he also wrote and directed the arcade's Super Contra. SNES Sunset Riders tries its utmost to replicate its arcade inspiration and therefore it is to all intents and purposes paced as a run-and-gun game: the four heroes walk quickly and soon get their feet moving when forced to run on top of charging bulls, complete with comical gangly leg animations. They each have an agile move set; players will shimmy across rope wire to avoid flames and can become experts at sliding their way out of trouble, just like Capcom’s Strider Hiryu.
It is worth stating that SNES Sunset Riders is not close to being arcade perfect. The 1991 arcade game has graphical details, an influx of sprites, more clear speech and minor gameplay additions which were just beyond the reach of the SNES hardware capabilities. However, regardless of whether Sunset Riders has the looks of its arcade daddy, what is far more important is that the heart of the arcade game beats within the SNES cart. It is a much more accurate portrayal of the arcade's level layouts and playability than the Mega Drive version, plus it is still far from ugly.
During the early '90s Konami had a penchant for developing bright and colourful arcade and console games, set around the vivid art of licensed TV cartoons. TMNT and Simpsons arcade games immediately spring to mind and this approach was also taken in licensing the arcade pseudo-sequel to Sunset Riders, a 1992 game called Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa. Sunset Riders is as lively and eye-catching as these titles, without relying upon another source for inspiration. Konami's artists were able to let their imaginations go wild and proved that their designs could compete with any TV cartoon creations, which thankfully avoids potential licensing issues for gamers hoping for a Virtual Console release.
The characterisation is first-class, not just for the controllable heroes, but most noticeably with the game's eight bosses. The bosses are wonderful, although a Mexican bandit, a lost and manipulated Native American chief, plus an ungentlemanly English cad may well be stereotypical and clichés of the Western genre, it is all played for fun and laughs. If current gen games like Call of Juarez depict the grit and violence of a Sergio Leone movie, Sunset Riders has its tongue set in it cheek like a jolly Mel Brooks film. Much of the humour is conveyed through excellent animations: these sprites perform their roles brilliantly through their expressive gestures.
However, SNES Sunset Riders is also consciously politically correct, with any arcade instances of liquor swigging, harlot snogging and Native American tribe battling being removed in the conversion. The end of level bosses are vital to the game balance too, actual progression through the levels is straightforward, it is the boss who will remove most of your lives and potentially send you back to the very start of the level, particularly by the time you reach Chief Wigwam on stage six. The inclusion of outbursts of speech during boss fights adds to the humour, as well as providing quotes for retro gamers who enjoy mimicking their favourite gaming excerpts.
Run and gun games thrive from their depiction of action and Sunset Riders follows Contra’s lead with an explosive approach presented through fast, snappy levels, relentless set-pieces and enough variety to win you over with the arcade entertainment. An example of this is clambering across a train top to hunt down a $50,000 bounty for El Greco during stage five, a level in which the scrolling landscape is draped in an orange hue cast by the first display of the setting sun. You will be waving your own calls of "adios amigo!" farewell to that particulary short level's encounter in no time at all.
The designers have thoughtfully broken up the run and gun dynamics with two instances of bonus stages, following the second and fifth levels in the game. They are possibly a nod to Sega’s 1984 arcade game Bank Panic and offer a shooting gallery of quick fire cowboys as they pop up onto the screen and enable you to earn dollars galore by being a hot shot. The idea of a first person quick draw, aim and fire 'shoot out' game fits the genre so well that Gameloft brought one to WiiWare with Wild West Guns in 2008. Therefore, the variety and pace of Sunset Riders is perfectly pitched, you will be having so much fun that you may actually crave more levels.
Motoaki Furukawa was a member of Tsujimoto's sound team during the arcade Super Contra development and he was brought in score his very first solo work, for arcade Sunset Riders. Special mention must go to his achievements: the SNES converts these tunes brilliantly and all of the music, sound effects and speech erupt with the atmosphere of the Old West. The music rattles along with the clattering trains, and jauntily canters with the horseshoe beats, celebrating it’s genre with each cowboy yell. Any retro gamer with nostalgia for this game will gush over the catchy arcade tunes, just as much as for the bright visuals and addictive gameplay.
Video games set in the Wild West are simply too few and far between. From a retro Nintendo fan perspective, Capcom graced the NES with Gun.Smoke, Natsume sent the SNES sci-fi crowd rowdy with Wild Guns, but arguably best of all, Konami galloped to the SNES with a splendid conversion of Sunset Riders.
Sunset Riders can hold its head up high and stand tall amongst the plethora of amazing side-scrolling run and gun games on 16-bit consoles. It is bright, colourful, fantastically well animated, with superb music and sound. It understands its place as a Western game and within the run-and-gun genre, by combining imaginative characterisation and humour, with well-paced action set-pieces, plus variety in its gameplay. Its difficulty and options calibrations present the player with as easy a ride, or as much of a challenge as they desire, although its short length may leave you hollering for more. Sunset Riders is a late nineteenth century dime novel, painted through the eyes, talent and from the vivid imaginations of an early '90s Japanese games development team, who turned the horseplay up to the max. It is 'pulp' gaming and possibly the most fun and entertaining 16-bit Wild West game that money can buy.