Things were better in the olden days. I mean, not things like healthcare or civil rights or access to clean drinking water, but steam trains were just wonderful, weren't they? They were sophisticated and elegant, they gave us Thomas the Tank Engine and consequently kept Ringo Starr in work during the Eighties and best of all their lack of speed means it's possible to catch up to them on horseback and rob them. Will I be doing that in today's game? Well, you'll have to wait and see as I play Data East's 1986 Great-Train-Robbery-em-up Express Raider, also known as Western Express!Hmm, I might have let the cat out of the bag there.
A Western game, then, and I'm happy with that. I like a good cowboy game, with the two obvious stars of the genre - the genre of "retro videogames about the Wild West", that is - being Sunset Riders and Wild Guns. I'm not holding out much hope that Express Raider will reach those lofty heights. The title screen is just a picture of a train, after all. I wouldn't exactly say it's thrilling me yet.
Your mission - "get the gold," and by "get" the game means "steal". You're playing as the bad guy! Data East didn't even try to wrap it in some noble "Robin Hood of the Plains" hero-of-the-people story, you're just a criminal who punches bank employees and holds up trains.
Look, if you name your town "Gold City" you have to expect the occasional train robber to show up.
So, that's the player character on the left, in the jeans-and-waistcoat ensemble. Just to clarify that you're playing as the bad guy, Data East gave him a black hat. Let's call him Hank. That's a good, solid cowboy name, right? Getting him confused with Cowboy Henk is a risk I'm willing to take.
On the right is the banker, and the goal of this opening section is to beat the crap out of him.
Smash the financial sector! We are the 99 Percent! While battering a banker might make some people think that Hank really is a hero, we should remember that this "Banker" isn't some Wall Street bigshot, he's a lowly clerk who's trying to stop a robbery with his bare hands. Commendable in his bravery, lamentable in his stupidity.
Express Raider starts off as a primitive one-on-one fighter, Hank vs. The Banker, and you'll figure out the controls after mere seconds of frantic button-pressing. One button to punch and the other to kick, and the joystick lets you crouch for those low blows or jump, in a strangely floaty manner, to deliver the kind of flying karate kicks that cowboys are so famous for.
You might have noticed that the train has started to pull out of the station, which means I'm going to have to wrap this fight up quickly. Rather than the usual health meters, Express Raider employs a kind of see-saw system to measure who's getting their ass kicked the hardest. The red bar at the top is the key - when you've got the upper hand and are landing consecutive blows without reply, it'll move to the right. Get clobbered, and it'll move to the left. Fill it up and you win, have it hit the left and side and you lose. It's an interesting change from the usual hit-points.
For now, I'd recommend taking out the banker by kicking him repeatedly in the shins. You don't get as many points for this as you do if you punch the banker in the jaw, as though Express Raider is trying to teach me how to fight like an honourable man while forgetting that I'm a thief. If shin-kickings get me closer to that gold, that's what I'm going to be using.
I beat the banker, but I'm still not getting on the train and I'm not sure why. There's a message on the screen, but I can't read it. "Hit something for something"?
Oh, I see, "Hit Coyote for Points". Coyotes run across the screen, and you have to throw a well-timed punch to stop them in their tracks before they jump into you. I didn't hit a single coyote, and not because I'm an animal lover. Hank tested his reflexes against those of a wild predatory animal and found himself lacking. Hopefully the train will be more forgiving.
Phase two involves making your way across the train's carriages, taking out the many guards stationed on their roofs. At least, I assumed they were guards, at first, but now I'm not so sure. They all look a bit shifty and not one of them has a Sheriff's badge. My new theory is that they're all competing train robbers, and as such I feel no remorse when I kick them off a moving locomotive. Once again, this over-abundance of potential bullion thieves is what happens if you call a place "Gold City".
Notice that there's a bomb on the coupling between carriages, which means I can't take my time while trying to best these men in pugilistic combat because if I take too long, the bomb separates the carriages and I can't move on. Very early on I settled into a pattern of starting each fight by running towards my opponent and opening with a Bruce Lee-esque flying kick, because the woolly jumping mechanics means you can sometimes get multiple hits in while floating, foot extended, in mid-air. After this initial assault, I finished off my foe with a flurry of low kicks, like a bloodthirty Cossack dancer who has taken his dancing skills and perverted them into a brutal weapon of war.
I also discovered that by holding down and away on the joystick, I could perform this manoeuvre:
I have yet to find a use for it. This is probably because Express Raider does not feature a section where Hank goes to a nightclub and gets drunk enough to decide that sharing his "sexy" dancing with everyone present would be a good idea.
I suppose it might have helped here, as the large bearded man threw bottles at me and an overhanging sign threatened to knock me clean off the train. It might have helped, if crouching wasn't equally effective and didn't have the side effect of Hank thrusting his groin at everything that stands in his way. I'm playing as a bank robber, not some kind of sex pervert.
Okay, this guy was rude enough to bring a gun. He deserves a crotch-thrust or two. Don't overdo it, though, because this enemy will crouch down and shoot right in the thrusting appendage.
Facing a gunman while unarmed might seem like a challenge, but because you can duck under his bullets and he has no close-range attacks, he's actually the easiest kind of enemy to dispatch. This is not true of your next opponent, a deadly warrior who has mastered the ancient killing techniques of coal.
I'm not kidding, this coal can be a nightmare. You can't duck under it and I'm not sure you can punch it out of the way, and even if you do get close this guy has a spade that he can hit you with. Guns don't kill people, shovels do. Thankfully, once you've made it past the Coal Killer, you've reached the engine and the gold.
Forget wondering why the bank decided to store the gold in the engine rather than one of the many carriages it's pulling, ponder instead that fact that no-one's driving the train. A piece of subtle satire on Data East's part, commenting on the poor management and insufficient regulation of the financial industry? Maybe the driver just saw me kicking all these other people to their deaths and decide that he'd rather go out on his own terms, without a bank robber thrusting his crotch at him.
So, I've got the gold. Now what?
Horse riding, shooting - now this Wild West game is getting a bit more Wild West-y! Fighting on top of trains is all well and good, but whenever I think of train-top combat I think of Dennis Hopper getting his head knocked off in Speed, not Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull or anyone else named after a large grazing mammal.
The gameplay is completely different now, and your goal is to shoot these people as quickly as possible from horseback while avoid being shot yourself. Move your horse with the joystick and fire with one button, which sounds simple until your factor in the awkwardness of your steed. Your horse is an independent sort, and the second you let go of the joystick it'll start veering around the screen, almost as though it's scared by all this gunfire and needless carnage and it wants to escape from under you.
There are several types of carriage, and the most notable thing about them is that they differ wildly in how difficult they are to clear. The previous screenshot shows one of the tougher ones, by virtue of the fact you have to adjust your aim up and down as well as left and right. This one's not so bad, because once you've wrangled your horse into the right vertical position, you can simply move along the top of the truck to shoot anyone who pops up.
The ones with windows are even easier, because you know exactly where the targets are going to appear thanks to the windows opening slowly first. The only trouble you're likely to have is that a child occasionally appears and throws you a bag of money, and if you're too quick on the draw you're likely to plug this kid and lose a life.
Speaking of lives, you don't continually move along the train, and you don't merely have to survive to be allowed to progress. The only way to move on is to kill a set amount of the occupants of each train car. You can see your target score at the top of the screen, it's the row of square boxes. Kill that many people before the timer runs out to move on. It doesn't slow the train down or anything, Hank is simply a cold-blooded psychopath who cannot continue on until he's snuffed out the required number of human lives in what is surely the mostly brutal example of OCD in history.
Even the train's not safe, and once you reach it you can score bonus points by shooting the invisible targets for extra points. Yep, invisible targets. That sounds like the excuse that Hank will be screaming at the marshals who eventually bring him down in an attempt to justify his killing spree, all right.
Squat-kicking gold and jumping over explosives? It's like I'm right there at the O.K. Corral!
This all looks very familiar, doesn't it? That's because Express Raider has two types of gameplay - Train Rooftop Negotiation and Arbitrary Horseback Murders - that it alternates between, occasionally adding in a new hazard along the way. For example, the train now travels through tunnels that you have to duck under lest they hit you in the face, and there are many crates.
Just when you thought nothing could surpass the combat effectiveness of a man with a coal shovel, here comes Bearded Billy McGruder and his Invincible Wooden Crate style of cowboy martial arts. All he does is push the crates towards you, creating a race against time where you have to smash all the crates before being nudged off the train. Then you have to beat up The Cratemaster, which isn't easy because he was strong enough to push all those crates. He's the most difficult and frustrating opponent you'll face, and because we're playing as a dangerous madman with no regard for property laws or human life that makes Bearded Crateman a god damn hero.
Duck or Eagle will get me? If I had to choose, I'd rather the eagle got me. For one thing ducks are, as I'm sure you're aware, necrophiliac cannibal rapists. Plus, getting killed by an eagle sounds just that bit more macho than a duck-based death.
The train stages are all pretty much the same, with the appearance of the dive-bombing eagles and the ever-stricter time limits and murder counts being the only changes. There is an eagle in the screenshot above, and if you're saying "well that's rather difficult to see" then tell me about it. You have to lean off your horse to avoid the eagles. I very rarely saw the eagles coming, and in this instance I'm fairly certain I was trying to dodge a bullet and my evasive movements just happened to coincide with an eagle attack.
And so on Express Raider goes, with Hank robbing trains, murdering hundreds, evading the law and, as pictured here, having the top of a tunnel smash into his face which provides a welcome moment of slapstick levity amidst the cruel realities of frontier life.
Because this is a Western game, there are naturally Native Americans just waiting to get in on the action. These Indians stand on poles alongside the tracks and shoot arrows into your ankles for no reason I could discern beyond "because they're dicks". You'd think they'd be on my side, I've killed a load of white people and not harmed a single buffalo. Of course, if the Native Americans had a banking system based on the stockpiling of gold I'm sure Hank would be round there in a flash to lend a hand to the genocide.
After eight stages of increasingly difficult train robbery, Express Raider loops around and you're back in Gold City, replaying the first stage. I think that's a good place to call it a day. Congratulations, Hank, you've certainly proven that you're real good at removing gold from trains (also killing people). Now you can retire to wherever it is people retired to in the late eighteen-hundreds.
I'm sure Hank has the funds to do whatever he wants, honestly. I finished up on 231,950 points, and the game seems to imply that one point equals one dollar. Let's say Express Raider takes place in 1881 - according to one online calculator, when adjusted for inflation that gives Hank $5,271,590 in present-day money. If he didn't have a compulsion to murder a set number of people at regular intervals I'd say Hank was set for life.
I think it's pretty clear that Express Raider doesn't quite match up to the stars of the genre that I mentioned at the top of the article, but then I never expected it to. In truth, I'm not really sure how I feel about the game, even after having spent enough time playing for it to lap itself. Did I have fun playing it? Yes, I suppose I did, but I think a large part of that was down to the Wild West setting that I always seem to enjoy more than I expect to.
Nothing about the gameplay is wildly exciting or especially innovative and the presentation is merely workmanlike, with adequate graphics and utterly forgettable sound, but there's a solid gameplay core at work and the game is surprisingly gentle when the player screws up - while it does get punishingly difficult towards the end, as the time limits wither away and your enemies realise that maybe they should fight back instead of just letting themselves be karate-kicked in the mouth, the restart and continue checkpoints are generous.
In conclusion, I'm going to tentatively recommend Express Raider as long as you don't come complaining to me when you realise it's not very good and I'm easily swayed by a rootin', tootin', varmint-shootin' atmosphere. Alternatively, go and play Sunset Riders and Wild Guns. That way everybody's happy.