First of all, there's the classic Konami logo, glittering like a joyous beacon in the sea of dreck that made up eighty per cent of SNES titles, and always a reassuring sight. Then the title screen, complete with horses and chock-full of cowboy font. It's certainly a game that makes its intentions plain. There's a nice little cartoon intro sequence (with some excellent music) where our heroes are introduced, firing guns and generally acting Old-West-like. Steve the cowboy, Billy the cowboy, Bob the Cowboy and Cormano the Mexican all seem to have the shooting prowess; they also appear to be colour-blind, judging by their outfits which are all in the sort of migraine-inducing neon colours that ice-pops used to be before government legislation put an end to that sort of thing.
On to character selection, and there's only one choice: It has to be Cormano, and any other choice is wrong, wrong, wrong. Why? Because he's a bearded bandito-looking fellow wearing a hot-pink sombrero and poncho ensemble and carrying two shotguns. Honestly, I think you'd have to carry two shotguns to get away with an outfit like that. Cormano does also have the advantage of firing in a spread pattern, but that really is pretty low down on the list of reasons for choosing him.
Level one begins, and the most striking thing is how colourful the game is. Maybe I've spent to much time playing PS3 games, but everything here seems to be in a kind of blazing Warner Brothers, Saturday morning, E-number- laden technicolour. In fact, the game looks like it was based on a cartoon that doesn't exist, an effect heightened by the fluid animations and the music. The music is very good, as Konami music so often was, and bears a strong resemblance to the music in Turtles in Time, especially the "orchestra hit" effect. I'm fairly certain they were composed by the same people. Anyway, Cormano rolls into town and instantly starts murdering anything that looks vaguely like a cowboy. The gameplay is Contra-esque, with the ability to fire in eight directions and also jump onto a higher plane most of the time: Cowboys throw themselves at you from all sides and, quite often, directly into the path of Cormano's bullets. He does produce a lot of bullets, especially when he picks up a couple of gun upgrades. One way to get upgrades is to walk into certain background houses, where a woman who I'm sure is nothing more than a nice young lady will, you know, power you up. Increase your firepower, so to speak. Oh, you people and your dirty minds. The level continues in this vein for a while, broken up by a buffalo stampede which our hero calmly deals with by jumping on the buffalo's backs and running along them like the T-1000. Cormano's a pretty cool guy like that. Stampede dealt with, it's time for the meat of Sunset Riders: the boss battle. The levels themselves are fairly short, so you spend a lot of time fighting the bosses, and a great bunch they are. First up is Simon Greedwell, who is dangerously close to being a very offensive Jewish stereotype. He's holed up in a house packed with gunmen and, for some curious architectural reason, has a pair of barrels for a windowledge. Bad guys appear at the windows, Simon hides behind his barrels and lead fills the air. The battle is a fairly standard affair, dodge the bullets, remove the barrels and line the greedy bastard's lungs with lead.
Back before CD-based games, synthesized speech was a big deal for me. Any time it popped up it I loved it like I loved seeing Ripley bitch-slap the Queen with the powerloader. Which is a lot. On his death, Greedwell falls to the ground and uses his dying breath to utter the classic "Bury me with my money!" Sure he sounds like his voice belongs to an electric frog made of cotton wool, but that's part of the charm. All the bosses get some voice lines, and hearing all of them was one of my main reasons for playing through the game in the first place.
Level two sees you on a horse. An honest to god horse! Your progress is hampered by the fact a wagon that is apparently transporting logs is right in front of you, and some n'er-do-well is throwing the precious timbery cargo in front of your horse. Obviously, you have to leap to avoid these: equally obviously you have to shoot everything that moves. Overcoming these obstacles, you reach the boss. A little more agile than Greedwell, Hank throws himself around with gay abandon behind some boxes, stopping occasionally to fire some bullets at you which look rather like lime and mandarin Tic-Tacs. After a while, he jumps in close to try and clobber you, but Cormano is easily up to the task. Perhaps his outfit dazzled his opponent. Hank cries "You got me!" in his crunchy digital voice, and the level ends.
Between levels two and three, a bonus stage arrives, in which cowboys pop up around the edges of the screen and you have to shoot them, much in the manner of the shooting sections from Snatcher. More dead cowboys equals more gold. By which I mean points. By which I certainly do not mean prizes, more’s the pity.
The third level is set in a larger town, and follows much the same pattern, except there is now the additional hazard of a rope climb over a puddle of burning oil, and all the buildings are bright green and purple. Maybe the Joker is in town. Speaking of jokers, the level's boss is a large shirtless chap by the name of Dark Horse, who probably turned to villainy after one too many people said things like "I hear you went out with Debbie from Accounts last night. Well, aren't you a... Dark Horse!” These are the things that drive a man to madness. His fight is similar to Greedwell's, except he's on a horse. Actually, having taken a closer look at Dark Horse, I have come to the conclusion that he isn't an Old West bad guy; no, he's a male stripper dressed as a fireman. I think it's the braces. Dark Horse is soon dispatched, and his body, slumped over his horse's neck, is carried away. Suddenly, a woman is thrown out of the saloon and asks you to sort out the scum within.
The whole of level four is a boss fight, with two hideous little men called the Smith Brothers, who throw bombs and fire at you. It is at this point that Cormano gets a chance to swing from a chandelier and shoot a guy, which I'm sure is the dream of an awful lot of people. This is the first boss that's a little more challenging, but the reward is well worth it: The saloon's dancers (I presume they are dancers, and not some very strange townsfolk) perform a can-can of sorts, while Cormano kneels before them and shouts "Yahoo!". Incidentally, I took a closer look at Cormano: his sombrero appears to be studded with rhinestones around the rim. I guess he's even more fabulous than I first thought. These dancers then tell Mister Fabulous about his main target; Richard Rose and his three henchmen.
Our hero boards a train for level five. You have to have a train level in a western game: it's an immutable law, like the conservation of energy, or former Hollyoaks actors appearing in panto (I hear Jake Dean is great in Aladdin). After a lot of, well, shooting, along with admiring the excellent parallax scrolling effect, El Greco appears. Greco
reminds me rather a lot of Senor Ding-Dong from the Simpsons, and he gads about merrily trying to lacerate you with his whip and generally being an arse. He falls soon enough, and it's onward to levels six, which is a long climb up a mountain. And you know what this mountain has? That's right, lots of falling rocks, along with some very nice music, possibly the best in the game. At the top, Chief Wigwam awaits at an Indian burial ground (I've seen Pet Semetary, so I know what one looks like). Isn't being called Chief Wigwam like being called King Palace, or Duke Large Country Estate? Also, it's very difficult for me to not type Chief Wiggum every time I write his name. Anyway, as a boss, the chief is balls-out tough. Jumping around and throwing knives is his thing, and he's real good at it, as you will find out when you die here ONE HUNDRED TIMES. If you manage to defeat him, his sister approaches and begs you not to kill him because "he was only following orders". If I'd had the option, I would have told him it didn't excuse the Nazis so it sure didn't excuse him, and then blast him, but I guess Cormano is less of a sociopath than I am, so he lets him live and moves on to level seven. It's back on the horse for this level, and I'd like to take a moment to discuss the horse's colour scheme. A dark red horse with a pale yellow mane, neon pink saddle and reins and fluorescent green accessories? I'll just let you soak that in. Still, Bob's horse is cream with a mint-green mane and, aside from making me want mint ice cream, is even further from the realms of possibility. The level itself is disappointingly bland and flat, and at the end what appears to be a shaven gorilla named Paco Loco awaits, sitting high upon his fortified wall, shooting at you with a machine gun while his associates throw grenades at. After Chief Wigwam's brutal assault, Loco is a bit of a relief, frankly. Several shotgun blasts and he falls to the ground, saying "Hasta la bye bye!" in disturbingly child-like voice. Well, look at that, you killed a retard. In your defence, he was trying to mow you down with a machine gun, but I doubt the jury will get past the “killed a disabled person" element of your trial. With that obstacle removed, you can move on to the final level.
Richard Rose is your target, and his picture shows he bears a disconcerting resemblance to Steve Buscemi. The level starts off as a fort, with a little bit of everything from the previous levels thrown in, and soon you reach the final area: Rose's Mansion. As with all good villains, Rose is English, greets you with a hearty "Cherrio (sic) Old Chap!" and promptly launches you into a bullet hell worthy of Radiant Silvergun. Yes, the screen is 90 per cent bullets at this point, with Rose actually aiming at you (as opposed to just firing straight forwards/upwards) and goons pouring in from every angle. Eventually the lackeys die away, and it's just you versus Buscemi. Then he hits you with a sliding kick, and you die instantly. The rage begins to mount. Death by bullet? Fair enough. Knives, bombs, fire? Fair enough. A fey Englishman gently sliding his loafers against my no-doubt incredibly butch ankles? You, sir, are a son of a bitch. Eventually, you'll do him enough damage and he'll fall. But what's this? He stands up and removes a metal plate from under his shirt. At this point, he's gone from son of a bitch to motherfucker. You go through the motions again, and this time he stays dead. His final words? "I say, bit of bad luck!". Oh Richard/Steve, I take back all the bad things I ever said about you.
And that's the end of Sunset Riders! Your reward? A single screen that says "Congratulations! Good Job Podner!" That's it. I went through all that just to get one lousy congrats screen? And what the fuck is a Podner!? Goddammit all.
So, that's Sunset Riders. It's not a truly classic game; it has some problems with difficulty spikes and not being able to see enemy bullets and such, but it's done with huge charm in the graphics and music, the gameplay is solid and it's just good, old-fashioned fun, especially with a friend. Look it up some time. I hope you've enjoyed this little trip through the Old West, and I hope you'll join me next time, Podners!