Howdy, yee-haw and other things cowboys say (I've run out already)! Welcome to today's article, where I'll be taking a look at Natsume's rootin'-tootin'-varmint-shootin' 1994 SNES title Wild Guns. Can it challenge Konami's Sunset Riders as the best Western-themed videogame of the 16-bit era? I'll warn you now, it doesn't feature a large bearded Mexican with a pink poncho and two shotguns so it's already got some catching up to do.
I'm never one to turn down a videogame based on the Wild West, and despite there being a fairly substantial number of games with a cowboy theme there never seem to be enough of them. Developers are happy to repeatedly bash their creative pickaxes against the always-rich veins of the fantasy and sci-fi genres, but cowboys tend to get overlooked. I guess they're just not cool enough any more, and they were even less cool in the mid-nineties, which makes Wild Guns all the more interesting.
The story is simple, even if it doesn't feature any cattle rustling or Indians on the warpath. Annie's family are attacked by an indecisive villain who can't decide if he wants to murder or kidnap them all, so he does a little of each. Annie hires a bounty hunter called Clint to help rescue her remaining family members, and together they set out to put a stop to whatever evil they come across.
Annie and Clint are, of course, based on Clint Howard and Annie Lennox. At least I assume they are, I can't think of anyone else who could have inspired them. Both characters are almost identical in how they play, so you can make your decision based entirely on whether you're feeling rugged and manly or graceful and feminine. Obviously, I started out as Annie.
Well, this all looks like a typical Western scene - the shootout in a dusty town square, varmints taking pot-shots at you from shuttered windows, a grinning man in a bandana shuffling sideways with nothing on his mind but stabbing your face. But then you look a little closer and you begin to notice things like hey, I'm pretty sure there were no neon "OPEN" signs in Dodge City and wagon trains would have been much more successful if they'd run on caterpillar tracks instead of dumb old horses.
Yup, Wild Guns takes place in the Wild West of the far future: The Good, The Bad and the Ghost in the Shell, if you will. The sci-fi Western is a surprisingly common genre and I've always thought that the two styles work well together, probably because of their similar themes - both genres are filled with stories about man's struggles on the lawless frontier of civilisation, be that in 19th century Nevada or on the Crystalline Moons of Ganfallex. So, with a futuristic theme comes an onslaught of high-tech enemies, with robots, walking missile launchers and giant cyber-crabs all eager to see you dead. Although, if this is the future than why is Annie still wearing a ploofy Victorian dress with more lacey frills than the court of King Louis XVI? I guess fashion really does move in cycles. Still, it's nice to imagine Annie as a stereotypical Southern belle, daintily fighting her way through the robot hordes and saying things like "Ah do declayuh, these new KD-73 DeathMechs are givin' me the vapours!"
Here we have a prime example of the fusion between the Sci-Fi and Western genres, the stage one mid-boss. He's a robot. They gave him a robot cowboy hat. That's not just an ordinary Stetson they put on a robot as a decorative item, his head is literally built in the shape of a cowboy hat. Someone built this robot specifically to be a gunslinger, and suddenly I'm wondering if I haven't wandered into some kind of Westworld scenario.
I'm getting ahead of myself - I haven't even talked about the gameplay yet. The internet informs me that Wild Guns belongs to a genre often known as "Cabal clones", after Taito's arcade shooter of the same name. However, I've never heard anyone use that phrase so here's a quick rundown of what's going on. Wild Guns is, at its core, a shooting gallery. Your character occupies a plane at the bottom of the screen and can only move left and right, while enemies pop up in the background. You have to move your crosshair over the enemies and shoot them, and moving the crosshair also moves your character. While you're holding down the fire button, your character stays in place, and there's a jump (and a double-jump) to help get you out of trouble.
One hit from any enemy attack kills you and you only get three lives per continue, (but unlimited continues,) so obviously to survive for long you're going to need all the help you can get. Luckily you can dodge out of the way by pressing jump and a direction whilst firing, and dodging makes you completely invulnerable. You're going to be using it a lot, mostly because it's vital to your continued not-being-dead-ness but also because it feels really cool to jump out the way of exploding sticks of dynamite.
Each stage following the same formula: two short areas with a miniboss each, followed by a large boss battle. Each of the first two areas are timed, and the timer decreases faster as you kill enemies. Once it reaches zero all the normal enemies give up and spontaneously drop dead, and the miniboss trundles out for his turn.
This large chap is the first stage's main boss. He's not very Western-themed, is he? The robot designer obviously realised that skinny droids built like amusement park animatronics weren't cutting it, so he created this thing to make damn sure he won the next gunslinging contest that rolled into town. This is going to reveal me as an even bigger nerd than you already know I am, but this boss - with his pot-belly, sickly brown colour scheme, warty shoulderpads and breathing tubes - reminds me of one of Nurgle's Plaguemarines from Warhammer 40,000. I can't help it, a youth mis-spent around overpriced plastic miniatures and the smell of liquid polystyrene cement means that anytime I see something with huge shoulderpads I assume it's a Space Marine (or Joan Collins).
As for the boss, just shoot him in the face and jump over his bullets. Even with three eyes and a cannon the size of a Vauxhall Astra, he's not a very good shot. If you can't beat him, you should probably give up on Wild Guns right now because it's only going to get tougher.
That's one stage down, and so far I've got to say that Wild Guns is a blast to play. It's fast-paced, it's exciting, it falls into that sweet spot of retro difficulty where it's easy to die but the game is wonderfully fair in the ways it kills you - it even puts up markers showing where the bullets are going to strike so you can move out of the way. The presentation is top-notch, too, with some beautiful pixel graphics that give the game its own unique feel, especially the mechanical designs. Plus, the backgrounds are highly destructible, with barely a square inch of the screen that can't be blown up or riddled with bullet-holes. I love it when games let you make your mark on the surroundings - Dead Connection is another one that stands out in this regard - because if I've just spent thousands of rounds of ammunition fighting a cyborg onslaught then by god it better look like I've been spraying lead around like the world's deadliest garden sprinkler when I'm finished.
After the first stage, you get to choose what level to tackle next. They're all familiar Wild West locations - the desert, gold mines, giant battle-cruiser, a fight atop a speeding train - but, you know, futuristic. I think I'll start with Desolation Canyon.
Clint catches a break when he sneaks up on the enemy while they're unearthing a fossilised Triceratops. The best part of this stage? The bad guys who try and sneak onto the screen by carrying bushes around. Lush, verdant greenery in the middle of a place called Desolation Canyon. They even leave their hats on top of the bushes. The art of camouflage has not reached this distant backwater planet, I see.
Time to talk about weapons. Your basic gun is some kind of rifle that fires fairly quickly but isn't all that powerful, but there are a few other limited-ammo weapons that you can collect to help you out. There's a machine gun that works like the standard gun but fires a lot faster, a grenade launcher that's slow but does big damage and a shotgun, which has a wide spread which comes in very handy because you can shoot enemy bullets out of the air like the goddamn Riviera Kid and that's a lot easier when your shots cover an area the size of Wales. If that's not enough for you and you're getting overwhelmed, you can press X to use one of your screen-clearing dynamite attacks.
Yup, that'll do it. They're pretty rare, though.
The big boss is a massive battle-tank that wants to play jump-rope with you, except instead of a skipping rope it uses an enormous flamethrower. The bosses in Wild Guns generally take a bit of memorisation to defeat efficiently and this thing's no exception, but once you've fought it a couple of times it shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Next up, an ammo dump. An ammo dump defended by mounted chainguns, no less. The "Look Out!" marker above Clint's head shows that he's about to get hit unless he moves his ass, although in this case that's because someone is throwing a stick of dynamite at him. You'll come to look forward to the sudden arrival of dynamite in your life, because if you're quick enough you can pick it up and throw it back. Free explosives? Very useful.
Things get a little tougher inside the factory, because some of the enemies hide behind shields and others run away once they've taken some damage and if they get off the edge of the screen before you finish them off you don't get the timer reduction for killing them. Handily, you can trap them in place by using your trusty lasso. You didn't think we'd get through a game this cowboy-tastic without seeing a lasso, did you? Tapping the fire button charges up your lasso, and any enemy it hits when you throw it is paralyzed for a few seconds - and I do mean any enemy. It works on every villain in the game, even bosses, with the only exception (I think) being the battle-train we'll see later. Well, you can't expect to rope a train, right? No, it only works on enemies of a size up to and including "60-foot armour-plated DeathBots".
Speaking of DeathBots, this is the big boss of the stage and I'll admit I don't know what the hell it's supposed to be. Factory manager in the shape of a hovering mechanical jellyfish? All I know is that you need to bring it to justice, Old Space West style. With bullets, I mean.
Here's the gold mine stage, a quiet place where the bad guys can get together, form a chorus line and rehearse for their upcoming musical. Annie hates musicals, what with a lifetime of people singing "Hard Knock Life" at her whenever they learn her name, so she guns them all down. Also for justice, that too.
When I told them that in the future all precious metals would be mined by colossal robot crabs, they said I was mad! Well, who's mad now?! Ahahaha! Oh wait, it's me, I'm mad. Why would you use a crab, of all things? I do really love the way his front pincers look like wrenches, though. Maybe he's actually a plumber crab and he just happened to be looking at the gold when Annie arrived.
Also please note that I have trademarked the phrase "Colossal Robot Crabs" and I will be producing a Saturday morning cartoon and associated toyline based on this premise in the near future. Thank you.
The final stage of the four you can select is the train case, and it looks a lot less impressive in a static screenshot than it does in motion so please don't judge it too harshly. It would be terrible of me to not point out that that bad guy is riding a robot horse. The people of this planet clearly have access to all manner of off-road vehicles, but they went ahead and built robot horses anyway. My theory about this all being a Westworld-style theme park malfunction becomes ever more likely. The main effect of seeing a robot horse is that I now have the Bravestarr theme stuck in my head, but then I'm an irredeemably pathetic manchild who spends too long wallowing in nostalgia.
Hang-gliders seem like they'd be even less effective, but they're harder to hit than the horse guys so I guess they're not too bad. Not that it matters whether I hit them or not, because in a moment of pure, unadulterated cruelty Wild Guns has well and truly shafted me on the weaponry front. You see, as well as collecting normal weapon power-ups, sometimes the mysterious "?" item will float by. Shooting it gives you a random weapon: either one of the three more powerful weapons... or the pea-shooter. I picked it up in the screenshot above, you can see it in the bottom-left corner. It does no damage. None at all, zip, nada, and it comes with 50 rounds that you must fire off before you can go back to your normal gun. My advice to you if you see a question mark float by? Don't shoot it; it's not worth the risk.
On the flip side, there's one more weapon I haven't mentioned. There's a power bar just below your score that is filled up as you kill enemies, and once it reaches the top you're granted the Vulcan, a ridiculously powerful Gatling gun that destroys everything in it's path in mere moments. I think it might even make you invincible while you're using it, although it could have just seemed that way because its awesome power meant I'd murdered all the bad guys before they could fire off even a single shot.
The boss of the train is a little underwhelming, being just a guy with a jetpack who likes dynamite. That's okay buddy, I like dynamite too. This would probably be the easiest boss fight in the game if he didn't have constant assistance from hundred of cannon fodder troops, but as it stands I hope you're good at the dodging mechanic by now.
Here we go then, the final stage. I love that villainous portrait, that must be the Old West equivalent of gangsters posing with stacks of money and uzis.
Robot gunslingers? No longer a problem, even if I did accidentally pick up the peashooter again.
Wow, the mining crab must have been working overtime. Hang on, just let me check if I've made a joke about Spandau Ballet's "Gold" recently... yes, yes I have. Oh well, let's just say that's definitely a large amount of gold and I'm going to shoot as much of it as possible in-between getting rid of all these robots.
That's not a polite way to sit when you've got company, man. I think he's trying to seduce Annie into not lining his lungs with lead, but that'll never work because Annie's desire for revenge burns brighter than a thousand suns.
It's not a very difficult battle. You've already destroyed his vast army of robots and he doesn't have much left in the tank. If you stay calm and concentrate, you shouldn't have much trouble because he's only got a shotgun and you've been fighting robot horses and the like. Shoot him enough times and it's game over, Annie and Clint have saved the day and Wild Guns is over!
"How insulting, to be beaten by a woman who has shot her way through my battalion of hyper-advanced battle droids! Oh, the indignity of my defeat at the hands of this almost supernaturally-gifted markswoman! Maybe I shouldn't have let my troops throw all that dynamite to her, that didn't help."
And then Annie (or Clint, if you're playing as him) poses in front of the villain's hideout / spaceship as it explodes. There was hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold in there, and she's just letting it burn. I know you want to be on the side of righteous justice and all, but if that guy really did murder or kidnap your entire family then I don't think anyone's going to object if you help yourself to a few bits of bullion.
Well, this turned out to be a real treat. Natsume took what could have been a fairly basic shooter and crafted a future-western gem. Wild Guns just oozes quality, from the gorgeous (and wonderfully destructible) graphics to the character designs to the excellent music. Sadly the music does get rather lost amongst the constant gunfire, but its mix of classic Spaghetti Western cues and cyberpunkish synth flourishes make it well worth checking out in its own right. Here's the Desolation Canyon theme, composed by Hiroyuki Iwatsuki and Haruo Ohashi:
There are plenty of small touches that move Wild Guns up another notch too, like being able to select your costume colour, or the inclusion of a target-shooting minigame, but none of that really matters unless the gameplay is solid. Happily, Wild Guns is just as satisfying on this front - it's an over-the-top carnival of flying lead and jumping cowboys, hard but always fair and extremely satisfying when you get into the groove and start blowing people away with skill and accuracy, with just the right amount of different moves to keep the gameplay interesting without being too complicated. My only real gripe is that it's too short, but that's just a side effect of Wild Guns being so good that I want more.
In summary, Wild Guns is a fantastic little game that I can't recommend enough to lovers of 16-bit pixel art, cowboys, giant robots or just plain old quality videogames.
Is it better than Sunset Riders? Not quite: but it's a hell of a lot closer than I thought it was going to be.
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