Originally Released on: Arcade, Super NES, Mega Drive
Currently Available on: Currently Unavailable
Having looked back at Captain America and The Avengers in the Retro Corner last month, and sampling a somewhat sub-standard side-scrolling arcade game, this month we have been inspired by the release of Call of Juarez: The Cartel, to jump on the Wild West “bandwagon”. When you think of side-scrolling arcade games, one company comes immediately to mind: Konami. The Japanese company were responsible for a whole host of great side-scrolling beat-em-ups and shooters, and today we take a look back at one of their best: Sunset Riders.
Set in the Old West, the game sees four hardened Cowboys set out on a quest to eliminate the most notorious outlaws in all of the wilderness. The four protagonists; Steve, Billy, Bob and Cormano start each level with a Wanted poster, and look to progress through the stage, dispatching all of the henchmen in order to reach the criminals in question and claim their rewards. This builds up from small-town bank robbers and an Indian Chief, to the rich and powerful Sir Richard Rose.
The game plays out in a standard side-scrolling view, and each player has three skills to control. Jumping, Shooting and Sliding. Whilst Steve and Billy use classic six-shooters, Bob and Cormano both employ shotguns. All ammunition is unlimited and players can shoot in all eight directions. The Colt Peacemaker pistols have a faster rate of fire, but the shotguns allow for spread shots that can take out more enemies – so players can choose the approach that suits them best, or when playing in co-op, a mixture of the two can be very effective. Shooting enemies who carry sacks can also yield weapon upgrades for the player. These appear as Sheriff badges, with the Silver badge rewarding the Cowboy who grabs it with a second gun, and the gold one allowing the player to fire their gun continuously, like an automatic weapon. Both can be combined in order to achieve the ultimate weapon upgrade set!
Players start with a set number of lives (and continues in the console versions) and one hit from an enemy is enough to take away a life – and any power-ups that have been collected. Enemies can all shoot in eight directions too, but some also use heavy weapons, throwing knives and dynamite to make things more difficult. You can turn the tables on these bad guys however, as dynamite can be retrieved and used against the thrower if you are quick enough. Score as many points as possible in order to gain extra lives to prolong your experience.
As mentioned previously, co-operative play is a big feature in this title. In the Arcade original, four players were supported where a big enough machine was available, whereas the home console versions only allowed for two players at once. Playing the game with a partner (or partners) is definitely the best way to experience Sunset Riders, as not only does the on-screen chaos become even more hectic, but working out the strategies that can be concocted in order to defeat bosses with two players is a lot of fun. With the inevitable race to achieve the highest scores – with the top scorer securing 1ups and stealing the entire boss bounty – there are different, co-operative and competitive elements added to the title.
There are eight main stages throughout the game, and whereas the Megadrive version reduces the boss count down to only four, both the Arcade and SNES releases contain eight intimidating boss battles – each with a higher reward as you go along. These bosses often have ironic or comedic names, such as Wealthy Rancher Simon Greedwell, or Indian Chief, Scalpem. They are all quite distinct Western stereotypes, and the game ticks all of the boxes of what you might expect to see in a Wild West Adventure, whilst keeping it all PG with no blood or excessive violence portrayed.
There are even two bonus stages thrown into the mix. After stage two and five, players are transposed to a first-person view, and we get a Lethal Enforcers style mini-game to partake in. Enemy gunfighters pop up and down on-screen in a shooting gallery of sorts, and players are rewarded with extra points and bonus lives for killing certain amounts of outlaws. The joystick manoeuvres a targeting crosshair around the screen as the user attempts to hit up to fifty bad guys, who cannot shoot back. These levels are particularly good for stocking up on 1ups, which will be increasingly necessary as players get further into the game, and dodging enemy gunfire that is coming from all directions at once becomes much more difficult.
Horse Riding stages, Cattle Stampedes, a Train-top battle and a Saloon-based shoot-out all feature in the game. These different locations and set pieces are created in a loving way, you can see the detail and care that has gone into creating these authentic (yet often technicolor!) locations. It is the variety in the boss battles and the levels themselves that really makes the game memorable.
Of the two stages that take place largely on Horseback, we get not only the classic Train run-down, but also a Wagon Train level, where players have to call the jumping skill of their horse into action, in order to hurdle objects that are thrown in their way from the back of the wagons. Hear a rumble in the ground? You had better get ready to leap into action as a Cattle Stampede is on its way. These sections are hilarious, as the characters must run (in a comically over-the-top style) over the backs of a herd of Cattle, leaping over gaps between the cows.
Boss Battles often begin with henchmen surrounding the main enemy, and distracting players with their barrage of flying bullets. After taking them all out, usually there are sandbags, balconies or the like which the enemy can hide behind – which must also be destroyed before your guns will do any real damage to the boss. Each boss is very different in their attacks and mannerisms. Some are slow and lumbering, but with huge firepower, like the mini-gun toting Paco Loco, whereas others whizz around the screen at high speed, like Chieft Scalpem, who continuously hurls knives from side to sides, which players will have to desperately try to dodge.
Each boss has a distinct style and character, that makes them all very memorable. Digitised speech is even employed for these boss battles. As was fashionable for arcade games at the time, certain actions are accented with the use of low quality voiceovers. As these are all quite poorly recorded, this really helps add to the overall feeling that we are fighting our way through a low budget Western film, complete with cheesy catchphrases from bad guys who have bad accents. Even your own Cowboys yell and “Yee-Haw” in digitised sound to celebrate a cleared stage. In one case the heroes even manage to get a showgirl Can-Can revue from a group of dancers they have rescued from their enemies as a reward.
It is in those little details that the game captures your imagination. The designers of the game may not have created the ultimate in realism and authenticity when thinking of the old American West, but they have captured the spirit and verve of Cowboy hero tales and movies. Looked at in retrospect, the game is quite violent, with gamers dispatching lots of criminals with their pistols or shotguns. However, when wrapped up in the neon colours and over-the-top animations used in the game, this all seems much more innocent. The over dramatic death of a boss character is softened as he spews out a one-liner with his dying words. Even the idea of watching the WildWest Showgirls dance is made child friendly by the colour palette and the fact the heroes strangely watch the show in cross-legged admiration.
I always loved playing Cowboys and Indians growing up, so this game was a natural extension of that for me. Everything I pretended to do then was represented in this title. Sunset Riders takes all of the horrors and the harsh realities of Cowboy life and gives it a cartoon makeover, whilst it also employs all of the best gameplay elements Konami learned with their Contra series, to create a solid gaming experience. As was the case with most side-scrollers of the time, the game may appear repetitive, but it is in the creation of a game world that the audience is captured. Hopefully the game will soon make it over the horizon and onto Virtual Console, or Xbox LIVE Arcade, for example, so more gamers can saddle up in this rootin’ tootin’ adventure.
Sunset Riders is currently unavailable to purchase new, but can be bought second hand from sites such as eBay. The God is a Geek Retro Corner is part of “Feature Friday” and will return on the first Friday of next month. You can see previous entries into the GodisaGeek Retro Corner by clicking here.