The very first game I wrote about on VGJUNK was Konami's excellent cartoon cowboy game Sunset Riders. As that was five months ago, I think it's about time I got my rootin'-tootin' back on, so here's a quick look at the NES version of Capcom's 1988 Clint-Eastwood-em-up Gun.Smoke. Yes, the dot is important! It's to differentiate it from some TV show I've never seen. I'd class that as important, but then I am a deeply pathetic individual.

At its heart, Gun.Smoke is a vertically scrolling shooter, very similar to Commando, except the screen scrolls upwards. You scroll upward with it, and in a rare morsel of generosity from a game of this age, you don't instantly die if you get trapped in the scenery. Joy! You just teleport free like some kind of ancient yoga master of the Old West. You also shoot a lot of people, but then I suspect you might have already figured that out.

The firing mechanic is interesting: pressing the B button fires two rows of shots out at a diagonal to the left, pressing A fires them to the right and pressing them both together fires straight forward. The arcade version has an expanded 3-button system, where each combination of button presses results in a different firing pattern. That was far too much for my feeble mind to comprehend, though, so you're getting the NES version. Hah.

You play as a cowboy called called Billie Bob (no, really), a tough talkin', hard-fightin', widow-makin' gunslinger who rolls into the town of Hicksville (no, really) one "windy afternoon" and decides to take out the evil Wingates and his henchmen. With bullets. Lots of bullets, and the occasional horse.

So, cowboying, then. At the start of each stage, you're shown a wanted poster of the level's boss. The first stage is rule by Bandit Bill, world's smuggest cowboy:

He looks like he's balancing a hard-boiled egg on his head. All that and a jaunty cravat too. Truly a bandit of taste and refinement. To get to him, you have to move upwards through the town of Hicksville, pumping lead into anything that moves. The enemies are all fairly straightforward; there are little green dudes who fire single shots, cyan guys who prance around in a truly... flamboyant manner and dynamite throwers. Everytime I see the dynamite enemies, they remind me of former WWF superstars the Legion of Doom.

Man, the ninties were great awful great.

The gameplay is as simple as you like, but that doesn't stop it being fun. The first stage isn't all that difficult either, so you're introduced to the bloody, lawless wasteland of the Old West fairly gently. It helps that the first stage has some excellent NES-produced "cowboy" music. Personally, I think it's great.

Of course, there are powerups. There are icons to increase you firing range and stopping power, as well as a shotgun, maghine gun and Mag Num to buy. I believe the Mag Num is a large, powerful handgun of some kind. Best of all, though, is the horse. A beautiful, noble steed who soaks up bullets better than Kleenex soaks up salty emo tears. He takes damage instead of you, valiantly struggling on as his bullet-riddled body slowly bleeds out, until finally he can take no more and he collapses under you. Of course, you move on straight away and leave him to the buzzards. Ah, the cruelty of the scrolling screen. There is one final item, however: the Wanted Poster. You see, the first time I played Gun.Smoke, I dutifully trudged along for a while until I noticed that the scenery was looking rather familiar. Then I realised that the level keeps on looping round until you find the Wanted Poster. You can buy it from the shop lady for an extortionate price, or you can try and find it somewhere on the stage. Good luck with the latter, though, because, like a bulletproof leprechaun, it is invisible and you have to shoot it eight times before it appears. Just pay the lady so we can move on. It does raise the nice mental image of the lone lawman riding into town, ready to deal some justice... and then proceeding to spend the next few days wandering around in a circle because he can't find the boss. Well, what do you expect with a name like Billie Bob? With poster in hand, you soon reach your target. Bandit Bill is a tricky customer, because he has a secret move up his sleeve. That move is lying down. Yes, his strategy is to lay down in front of you. As stupid as that sounds, it works thanks to one crucial element: Billie Bob is even dumber than Bandit Bill. Our hero cannot, sadly, aim downwards. Perhaps he missed that day of Cowboy School, along with the day they taught lessons on proper horse maintenace. He stands up occasionally, so you just have to pick your moment and blast him. The level ends, you shoot up the very expensive wanted poster and collect your bounty, and then it's on to the next stage. The gameplay doesn't change from here on out: it just shooting, shooting and more shooting, for that authentic taste of the Old West. Sadly there is no sasparilla-drinking minigame, nor is there the option to leave hundreds of Chinese miners trapped in a cave after a landslide. I suppose we're still awaiting that true cowboy sim. Here are the rest of the (suddenly wildly inaccurate-seeming) levels.

It's out into the desert for stage 2, where this lumpy fellow named Cutter awaits.

Good god, he's a phrenologist's nightmare! Those two lump above his eyes look disturbingly like proud buttocks. He fights with boomerangs, which are always a good choice against guns.

Next it's Comanche country, and you battle the game's mandatory Native American chief.

He is called Devil Hawk, and he can shoot fireballs, a well-know technique of the proud Native American race. His stage is a bit more verdant than the previous two, and it's filled with teepees so narrow you wouldn't be able to lay down in them, thus making them the worst house in the world that wasn't once owned by Josef Fritzl. There's no buffalo, though, The white man killed them all. What a bastard.

Stage four, and Capcom suddenly decide that what Gun.Smoke really needs to give it that extra bit of pep is ninjas.

Damn right too. There aren't many things that aren't improved by adding ninjas. With surprising originality, the boss is a ninja called Ninja. I guess Capcom used up all their creative juices coming with the genius-fuelled braingasm that led to them putting ninjas in the game in the first place. The stage takes place on Death Mountain, and the name does not disappoint. This is where the game starts getting tricky, because ninjas. Ninjas everywhere, like a purple herd of buffalo that once used to roam these great plains before the white man killed them all. What a selfish prick.

It's also around this point that I realised I was paying more for the wanted poster than the bounty on the boss's head. I can only hope Billie Bob isn't in it for the money.

Stage five is patrolled by Fatman Joe:

GET DOWN HE'S GOING TO BLOW. He has a cannon, along with around one hundred thousand cowboy associates with no greater desire in the world than to see Billie Bob in a pine box. He also looks sort of Dragonball Z / Super Saiyan-esque. I think it's the veins.

Finally, stage 6 arrives, and it's time to go mano-a-mano with Wingates himself, with our hero determined to make him pay for his vaguely-defined crimes.

I've just invented my own backstory where Wingates is Mike Haggar's evil twin brother who travelled back in time. I think it holds up pretty well! Wingates is hiding out in a cemetary, and his deadliest weapon turns out to be the stage itself. How so? Well, look at this screenshot:

The white brick pattern covers 80% on the stage. Not only is it pretty painful to look at, (I think my eyes keep trying to resolve it as some kind of Magic Eye puzzle,) but it is almost exactly the same colour as the enemy projectiles, so you can't see the bullets flying towards you face. I've just noticed that those graves have crosses on them, in defiance of Nintendo's infamous "No religion" policy. Way to stick it to the man, Capcom. The final boss appears and, slightly underwhelmingly, it's a guy with a machine gun. You kill him, and he reappears as a guy with a machine gun that fires slightly more bullets. Deal with him, and it's game over. Billie Bob has saved the town of Hicksville, and he is left to contemplate his crippling wanted-poster-incurred debts. I think it would be fair to say he could be regarded as a podner. Then, it classic NES tradition, the game kicks you back to the start. You shouldn't play through it again, though. Go outside and get some exercise, your mother and I are starting to worry about you.

So, Gun.Smoke. It's pretty good fun! You should try it out, just don't expect Red Dead Redemption. Kids these days don't know they're born, etc, etc. The gameplay is solid, it controls well, and it isn't quite as punishingly difficult as other NES games of the time, Plus, you get to play as a cowboy called Billie Bob. What more could you ask for? Well, here's something else: a rather nice remix of the first stage music.

And with that, I shall ride off into the sunset on my meat-shield of a horse. Adios, gringos!

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