Whether the game had any influence over the film Wild Wild West is debatable, but what can't be denied is that the two have a similar, inextricable link between cowboys and steampunk. While the traditional steampunk time period might still be Victorian England in the late 19th Century, the setting for both is somewhat different, and talking is done with bullets rather than words. And in order to take back the city in Wild Guns, you're going to be doing a lot of talking... to both human and robotic opponents.
Natsume's Wild Guns takes its lead from TAD Corporation's seminal shooters Cabal and, more specifically, its sequel Blood Brothers. Playing as either Clint or Annie (or both in two player co-op mode), your pistolero can move left or right at the bottom of the screen and shoot into the distance via the movable crosshair. The D-Pad controls your character by default, but holding down fire makes the crosshair move instead; an important dynamic that requires mastering early on for survival.
Clint and Annie have a wide range of jumps and the ability to dive and roll, highly useful in the middle of an exchange of bullets when you need to avoid incoming fire, Of minor use depending on the circumstances are the able to lasso opponents by rapidly tapping fire, and hitting close up enemies, such as the knife man, with the butt of your gun in similar fashion.
It soon becomes apparent that your starting guns aren't nearly powerful enough to take down everyone before you. Shooting certain parts of each stage or enemies reveals a weapon power-up that gives extra firepower for a limited number of shots, including machine guns, grenade launchers and shotguns. The meter at the bottom of the screen slowly increases with time and when it fills up, you can whip out an extremely powerful vulcan cannon that carves through anything pretty quickly. And in case of emergencies, or the dire need to clear a whole screen of enemies, there are limited smart bombs to activate.
Each level has two stages, each with a mini-boss to face at the end, before a third stage with the main boss. None of these will go down easy, and completion of each stage is only achieved once the timer hits zero. Thankfully the more opponents you shoot, the quicker the timer decreases. Herein lies the balance between longevity and frustration; there are only six levels in total and none of them take that long to complete, assuming you stay alive that is.
Which is really the crux of the matter at hand. Is part of the reason the game is hard because there are only six levels, or should you be glad there are only six levels because the game is hard? Some of this debate becomes inconsequential because the action is usually relentless: your fingers are constantly moving, and the game as a whole is just so enjoyable. Single play is great, but roping in a friend to blast alongside you is even better. It doesn't quite touch Bubble Bobble standards, but it isn't far off that pinnacle.
Backing up the gameplay are some excellent visuals and sonics. Each stage is rendered with copious detail and lavished with attention that it almost seems a shame to blow it all to pieces. Thankfully the enemy sprites and designs match this care and equally seem too good to destroy; the most obvious first example is the mech boss at the end of the first level.
Wild Guns is a potent example of what the Virtual Console should be doing. Aside from the fact that this is a vastly cheaper way to legally play compared to buying an actual cartridge (go check eBay folks!), it's a chance to experience a quality game that was somewhat overlooked at the time. Especially when it comes even more into its own in two player co-op. More of this sort of thing please Nintendo!