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A History Of Video Game Westerns



Gun-toting bad asses and video games go together like a horse and carriage - as long as that carriage is on fire and being pursued by murderous outlaws. Westerns have been sprinkled throughout video game history in a variety of forms, from bullet-riddled shooters to point and click adventures. Here’s a history of gaming's dusty trails starting with the dreary Oregon Trail leading up to Red Dead Redemption..


The Oregon Trail
1971

There isn’t much gunplay in this early PC classic, but there was a lot of broken wheels, hunting, drowned oxen, dysentery, siblings named ASS, snake bites, river fording, and buffalo meat. So much buffalo meat. For a game ripe with nostalgia from our earliest years of gaming you’d think we’d have beaten it at least once, but that’s not the case. If this educational title taught us one thing, it’s that traveling to the West was tough, and if you did it, you were probably going to die.


Wild Gunman
1985

You think shooting ducks and clay pigeons in Duck Hunt is manly? Try dueling the best in the west in Wild Gunman, the NES lightgun game that recreates sweaty-palmed, white knuckle, poop your pants fast draw showdowns. Players wait for opposing gunslingers to telegraph their draw with a twitch. Think Mike Tyson's Punch Out!, but with guns. The game came packed with a plastic six-shooter to point at your tiny TV set and drive your parents nuts. Marty McFly even plays  Wild Gunman arcade cabinet in Back to the Future Part II, to which the snotty kids of 2015 reply, "You mean, you have to use your hands? That's like a baby's toy!"


Gun.Smoke*
1985

Top-down shooters from the ‘80s are commonly set in space, jungle wars, and in mid-air, but Gun.Smoke took bullet hell action to the Wild West. Never mind the fact that most guns back then fired slower than molasses in bullet time, the weapons of Gun.Smoke are on full auto. You can even acquire Contra’s deadly Spread power-up, but even Bill and Lance never thought to wield it while on horseback.

*You can blame the weird punctuation on Capcom, which added the period to avoid copyright issues with the TV show of the same name.


Custer’s Revenge
1985

Pixelating genitalia doesn't really work, so instead we added in some high quality shrubbery.


Mad Dog McCree: The Lost Gold
1990

Full Motion Video games were all the rage in the early ‘90s, and Mad Dog Mcree fell in line with miserable titles like Night Trap and Police Quest. Instead of shooting mute yet charming sprites, gamers pointed a plastic gun at terrible actors in even worse costumes. Mad Dog McCree is akin to watching a DVD of the worst Western you’ve ever seen, except you need to press a button every time a bad guy comes onscreen or you start the chapter over. I wouldn’t recommend pointing anything but a live firearm at a screen displaying Mad Dog McCree.[PageBreak]

Back to the Future Part II & III
1990

Did you think that Wild Gunman would be our only Back to the Future reference? Wrong. Half of this game was about Marty McFly cruising around on a hoverboard in the future, but the other half was about Doc and Marty’s Wild West adventures. This mostly involved throwing pie tins and using a locomotive to push a DeLorean into the future. Unfortunately, the end product was not greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s commonly referenced as one of the worst games ever.


Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist
1993

Sierra’s Old West adventure game fits neatly in the genre alongside The Secret of Monkey Island. After Freddy’s ear is blown off by a rival gunslinger, the ex-cowboy opens up a pharmaceutical store, trading in his pistol for a pestle. We wish more games tackled controversial issues in the prescription drug market like impractical remedies for diarrhea epidemics and explosive horse flatulence.


Sunset Riders
1993

In the early ‘90s there was no shortage of side-scrolling shooters on the SNES. The 16-bit console’s  big, bright sprites pop off the screen with detail rivaling its arcade counterpart. This make’s Sunset Riders setpiece moments, like running across the backs of stampeding cattle or riding speeding carriages, look incredible. But mostly it lets us take a good hard look at the game’s pink hat and poncho-wearin’ protagonist. You pretty much have to be a deadeye walking around the Wild West in an outfit like that.


Tin Star
1994

Another bright, colorful side-scroller for the SNES, Tin Star stars a robotic cowboy who puts robotic outlaws to robo-justice. It takes place in the Ol’ West, which is completely mechanized, and sees Tin Star and his pal Mo Crash on their way to East Driftwood, which is likely some sort of clumsy homage to Clint Eastwood. After riding an automated stagecoach, Tin accidentally steps on Tiny Johnson’s prized geranium, leading to a feud with the Johnson brothers. Yup, his name is Tiny Johnson.


Lethal Enforcers II: Gunfighters
1994

This Konami lightgun shooter from the mid ‘90s is about as robust as a stale saltine cracker. I’ve seen cardboard standees with more frames of animation. Each kill is punctuated with recycled, grainy war cries such as “eat lead!,” “get back!,” and “you ain’t-a gonna git me, Sherrif!” Everything is redeemed by the first level’s boss – a beekeeper who fires cannonballs so deadly that they can be destroyed by your measly six-shooter.[PageBreak]

Wild Guns
1995

If Tin Star was all about a robotic sheriff taking out robotic outlaws in a mechanized Wild West, Wild Guns is about Clint Eastwood destroying a mix of robots and flesh-and-blood bad guys in a neon steampunk world. Imagine if Terminator’s robot apocalypse landed in the late 1800s, and instead of John Conner, freedom was in the hands of Clint. It probably wouldn’t end well, though, because Wild Guns is hard as nails.

Alone in the Dark III
1995

By the 1920s the Wild West wasn’t very wild, so how does Interplay manage to infuse saloons, cowboys, and general spookiness into Alone in the Dark 3’s 1926 setting? A foolish film crew travels to the middle of the desert to shoot a Western in a haunted ghost town, of course! It’s up to you as a bold (and stupid-looking) journalist to discover what happened while combating crazy prospectors, phantoms, and not-so-sharpshooters.


Outlaws
1997

After id placed gamers in the boots of a nameless space marine in Doom, there were countless copycats. Among them was LucasArts, which used the engine of their Doom clone, Star Wars: Dark Forces, to create Outlaws. Pistol-wielding cowboys, shotgun-toting bartenders, and even a few chickens all fall prey to your first-person wrath. Plenty of liberties are taken with the one-dimensional Old West town layout LucasArts had to work with. At one point the player dives into a well, which leads to an underwater cavern with health and a bull skull in it. Hmm… okay.


Wild Arms
1997

If you thought video game Westerns could only be shooters, you’re wrong. Sony’s Wild Arms for the PlayStation one is all about JRPG goodness with a dusty Wild West veneer. Forget your grizzled, bearded gunslingers, because Rudy Roughknight – the dubiously named hero – is fully equipped with spiky blue hair and that androgynous look that’s always so popular in anime. But who can argue with an overworld theme that blatantly rips off Ennio Morricone’s Western anthem “The Ecstasy of Gold”?




Lucky Luke
1999

When thinking of the titular, dopey cowpoke protagonist I’m reminded of a neutered version of Revolver Ocelot. Ocelot may have used ricochets to cheat corners and shoot Solid Snake in the back, but the silver-haired villain could also look a man in the eye and pull the trigger if needed. Lucky Luke is sort of the same, but he glances shots off drainpipes and kitchenware instead, and the resulting kills just look like bad accidents.[PageBreak]

Rising Zan: Samurai Gunman
1999

One time I stayed up all night playing Rising Zan. It’s about a gunslinger that travels to the Orient to learn the ways of the samurai and returns to the Wild West to take revenge on a dirty scoundrel. But what I remember is more akin to a fever dream. Zan wields a six-shooter with infinite ammo, a samurai sword which grows five times in size, and performs a special move called “Super Sexy Hero Time.” Throw in fights with animated hay crosses, screeching ninja warriors, kabuki dancers, aliens, and death trains, and you’ve got a Western with a heaping helping of identity crisis and a side order of kooky cake.


Dead Man’s Hand
2004

Gambling has always been a big part of Wild West life. It fits in right next to whiskey, gunslinging, and women of ill repute. In Dead Man’s Hand, poker plays a more dynamic role than a simple minigame – it actually replenishes your health and ammunition between levels. Despite the game’s titular reference to the poker hand Wild Bill Hickok held when he was shot, the game is actually a familiar story of a gunslinger out for vengeance on the gang that betrayed him.


Red Dead Revolver
2004

There were just a handful of Westerns peppered throughout the PS2 era, and the seed planted by Red Dead Revolver is an important one. Unfortunately, Revolver’s clunky movement and wonky controls held it back from being much more than a quirky Western. On the bright side, it was started by Capcom and finished by Rockstar, so it’s packed with interesting characters. Red, Buffalo Soldier, Annie Stokes and more have even made it into Red Dead Redemption DLC.


Gun
2005

Did you know that before Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption, Neversoft launched their open world Western alongside the 360?  Gun was a playground of stereotypical Wild West action strung together by a weak story. Trains are exploded, heads are scalped, banks are robbed, and prostitutes are washed. Wait, what?


Darkwatch
2005

Alone in the Dark 3 isn’t the only game to infuse the Wild West with a horror vibe. Darkwatch’s protagonist, Jericho, is a vampire hunter who has been ironically bitten by a vampire. Slowly turning into the very abominations he hunts, he’s forced to make a series of good or evil choices during his pursuit of head vampire Lazarus. Topping off the horror Western theme is a awesomely spooky rendition of the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

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Call of Juarez
2007

What happens when a crazy preacher mistakes his nephew for the murderer of his brother and step-sister? Hilarity Chaos ensues. In this Techland-developed Western FPS young Billy uses stealth and cunning to flee the pursuit of Ray, a grizzled gunslinger/man of the cloth. Fans adored Ray’s intense shooting segments and groaned at the awkward FPS stealth sections. Nevertheless, this quest for the treasure of Juarez was an entertaining romp.


Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
2009

Bound in Blood took everything that was great about the first game (cowboys killing cowboys), and ditched what was bad (young boys evading cowboys). This game incorporated a type of dead eye, allowing sluggish gunmen to slow down time and look the devil in the eye before pulling the trigger. The game also takes a page from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’s plot with protagonists Ray and Thomas (Billy’s dad) fighting in the Civil War.


Red Dead Redemption
2010

This brings us to present day. This Western title is among the top contenders for game of the year. John Marston’s story of family, revenge, and badassery echoes its spiritual predecessor, Red Dead Revolver, but Redemption is a new breed of Wild West bliss. Red Dead Redemption reminds us that the Old West can be more than poker, duels, quick draws, and wagon chases. It’s also the setting for one of gaming’s best stories.

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