Monday, October 5, 2009

Top 6 Videogame Westerns You Should Mebbe Checkout

Just played Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood recently, and it was good stuff; a decent McShooter dripping with pure, unadulterated "western", a theme I've always enjoyed. The guns are modest, dusty Winchesters and Colt Single Action Armies, rather than the usual modern guns and doofus sci-fi weapons. The dialogue is all hardboiled hick from the 188os ("AHM A CALLIN' YU OUT.") The Unwritten Law of the Size of Your Cowboy Hat, as Yahtzee so brilliantly pointed out, is in full effect. The music is classic western ragtime, and the gunshot sound effects straight out of the old movies and serials. And most important of all, that moral quagmire you find in the best of tales from the Old West shines through; the bad guys are vicious and brutal (worst of them a renegade a-hole Confederate colonel who vows to "return the darkies to bondage") while the goodies not much better (the poor Navajo learn this lesson quite the hard way).

Bound in Blood was polished and enjoyable enough to intrigue passers-by as I played it, including my fiance M, who then asked why isn't "The Western" more often of a theme in videogames. After all, many games are about shootin' shit, and many westerns are also about shootin' shit, and there's no shortage of tough guy tropes in either for children and man-children of all ages to roleplay as. The answers to that is 1) the videogame industry right now is fixated on McShooters, the gameplay of which doesn't always lend well to westerns (or, "the guns are shite", as Yahtzee phrases it), and 2) the western HAD in fact been a fairly common theme in videogames prior to these times, even right at the very beginning, such as Nintendo's very first game (Sheriff), the very first Japanese arcade game to be brought to the United States (Taito's Western Gun, via Midway), and as one of the first light gun games for both arcade and home console (Atari's Outlaw and the extremely rudimentary Shootout for the original Magnavox Odyssey). And without further ado, here's six more Western-themed videogames of note.

6. Mad Dog McCree

In the early days of gaming, Laserdisc/FMV games allowed many a company to dive into the videogame market using Old Media methods (such as Z-grade actors and cheesy props) without any of the fuss of dealing with the newer technologies videogames relied on. The drawback was, of course, that's little interactivity involved in a "game" that's basically a movie which runs on Quick Time Events. That didn't stop now-defunct American Laser Games from churning out a slew of these types of games, including this one.

In Mad Dog McCree you play the part of a nameless stranger who has obviously encountered the cowpoke equivalent of Caracas, Venezuela, being that he is shot at within half a minute of arriving into town. Seems that Mad Dog McCree and his gang are running wild, inflicting the town to such violence and humiliation as the imprisonment of its own sheriff at 2:24, the bad acting of the sheriff at 4:41, and the hilariously insane murder of the sheriff at 5:11. Fortunately, McCree's crew are complete dumbasses, as can be seen at 3:31; unfortunately however, the deliciously vicious cruelty of Mad Dog himself knows no bounds, as can be seen at 6:17 when he casually tries to blow up your grizzled friend with tens of pounds of dynamite.

While McCree was able to inspire a couple sequels, and the campy cowboy charm enduring (love the town mortician's various commentary that plays when you are killed), the title was obviously not a worthy pricey purchase then or now, as the "game" isn't much of one and requires at least a light gun of some sort to be remotely decent. But thanks to the unique interfaces of newer gaming platforms, Mad Dog McCree has encountered a renaissance as part of an affordable Wii bundle and even an iPhone release, where you'll be poking those outlaws to death with your finger. Make sure to use the middle one for Mad Dog, he deserves it for all this trouble.

5. Gun.Smoke

If the town in Mad Dog McCree takes place in Caracas, Venezuela, then the events in this game must occur during the Siege of Sarajevo. Ain't no wussy Z-grade actors in costume here in Gun.Smoke (sic, likely to avoid legal trouble with the show of the same name); cowboy hero Billy Bob, in his quest to free the town of Hicksville from the grasp of a family of robber barons known as the Wingates, will be taking on an endless horde of desperadoes, killers, Indians, snipers, bombers, ninjas, and a madman who's so obsessed with dynamite, it's literally on his mind. As in, lashed to his forehead. Fortunately, Billy Bob is armed with what could only be described as twin nineteenth-century RC-P90's. The tagline for this game reads: "RAIN OF BULLETS WITH THE TWO DEATH-DELIVERING GUNS". They aren't kidding.

The NES release of Gun.Smoke is a triumph from a musical standpoint. Despite the technical limitations, composers Ayako Mori and Junko Tamiya crafted a wonderful MIDI soundtrack that successfully evokes memories of Ennio Morricone, Luis Bacalov, and Vaughn Monroe. It was one of the earliest examples of videogame music achieving art and legitimacy. Not bad for bleeps and bloops.

4. Sunset Riders

Sunset Riders was, I believe, the last title directed by one of Konami's great arcade gurus, H. Tsujimoto of Super Contra fame. Sunset Riders was certainly one of his best, and ranks right up there with the other Konami arcade greats of this period such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons; addictive gameplay that supports 4 players (!!), allowing a group of friends to blast their way through a very Wild West. Click the video to meet your heroes: bounty hunters Steve, Billy, Bob, and Cormano.

Believe it or not, Cormano, with his pink poncho and sombrero, is NOT the gay one. That would be Billy, who can be seen here sulking while his compadres wolf whistle at a showgirl revue. Who says Brokeback Mountain was groundbreaking?

Anyway, the plot is incidental: the four gunslingers come across a bright idea for a payday, which is kill all the worst outlaws in the Wild West and collect their bounties. This puts them in the crosshairs for every scoundrel out there, and believe me, if you are in a four-player posse, there will be a lot of them. At the end of level you track down your quarry, who's always a memorable boss character, including the vaudeville scumbag twins The Smith Bros., the preening Briton Richard Rose, and my favorite, a gracious thug named "El Greco", who's armed with a whip and hoplon shield and who, upon death, bequeaths his blood red sombrero to Cormano so that the latter doesn't have to look so gay anymore. Gracias, El Greco!

Humorous Old West antics aside, the game is classic, hectic arcade fun, as four friends fight off armies of killers firing at them from all angles while traveling through wild set pieces such as trains, horse chases, even across the backs of a buffalo herd. When is this one coming to XBLA?

3. Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist

There's actually been several different Western entries into the adventure game genre, but this somewhat little-known entry from Sierra's Al Lowe is a favorite. It was in fact a favorite of Al Lowe himself, over the rest of his other creations, and that includes the popular Leisure Suit Larry series. The game had, aside from the expected Sierra-style adventure gaming, an entertaining, joke-packed storyline starring a charming, bittersweet character who is classic Old West knight errant, as the game's memorable prologue ballad tells you below (or, you can listen to Lowe himself warbling it).

So Pharkas was once a gunfightin' prodigy who retired (very) early when outlaw Kenny the Kid humbled him. Now a candy ass pharmacist, Pharkas finds his past coming back to haunt him when he's embroiled in a town conspiracy, and may need to dust off those six shooters when trouble threatens those he loves. The game's puzzles and exploration, more so than most of Sierra's games and certainly others in the genre, intertwine well with Pharkas' humor and storyline, even contributing a bit of deconstruction to the Old West hero trope (Pharkas' self-discovery gets bittersweet when the player helps him track down his old gunslinger paraphernalia). Frankly, it was one of the best adventure games of that period, and if you have any sort of interest in the genre (especially since it's poised for a comeback these days), be sure to check this out somehow, or at least hope for a re-release soon.

2. GUN

If there was any type of theme that lends to the sandbox genre, it's clearly the western. Ride around small towns, committing mayhem, hunting for treasure or bounty on the side, gambling parlors, drunken fights with whores at bordellos...all that screams "GTA clone". Hell, plenty of the Old West frontier, the Chihuahuan Desert for example, is LITERALLY a sandbox.

There's been a few western-themed sandbox games (including one on the horizon for next year, Red Dead Redemption), but the best of them was arguably Neversoft's GUN. Although short (which, in my view, these days merely means its filler-free), GUN was much more truer to the elements of the genre that makes it fun to play: very open-ended, plenty of sidequests, and lots of crazy offbeat activities to distract yourself with, including scalping dead bodies and sticking hapless citizens with "dynamite arrows" (see below).

Also featuring an all-star voice cast including Kris Kristofferson, Thomas Jane (of Hung fame, who does great VA work as anyone who's played The Punisher on the original Xbox can tell you), Brad Douriff (yay, the Doctor from Deadwood!), Ron Perlman (yay, period!), and Lance Henrikson (fuck yes, period!), GUN is a great choice if you enjoy the sandbox genre (particularly before the genre drowned in linear, filler-humping GTA xeroxes) , and if you like a good western, then you've struck gold.

1. Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive

This is the one that managed to addict even M, despite all the quality of the others (er, well whatever quality Mad Dog McCree has). M is at best a (highly) casual gamer and, while interested in games with western themes, couldn't be arsed with dealing with the gaming stuff that comes along with it. That's where Infograme's execellent Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive comes in.

It's hard to describe just what the heck genre Desperados is for the uninitiated, but the best would be a "tactical puzzler"; think Police Quest: SWAT 2 with a touch of The Lost Vikings. You play as hired gun John Cooper, brought aboard by a railroad tycoon to stop a vicious train bandit in hopes that one thief could catch another. Cooper labors to assemble a gang to catch the desperado (and boy does he; if only human resource schmoes in our industry were as committed), only for them all to discover just how deep the banditry runs.

Each of Cooper's gang has advantages and disadvantages they can ply; Cooper for example has stealthy throwing knives but his spurs make a ruckus when he walks about, while freed plantation worker Sam has access to explosives and even a bag with a rattlesnake in it, and on and on for a total of seven or so different allies. The game then tosses however many of your posse the narrative currently gives you access to into a sprawling map, where you guide your allies via mouse-and-hotkey to mission success by any means you wish, or in M's case, any means necessary. In other words, I was quite surprised M's method of sneaking around a large female plantation worker in the second level. The woman, busily working a cauldron outside a shack, is overlooking much of the area leading to the exit for Cooper and Sam to escape from, and killing innocents is not an option the game allows. So what's M's solution? Distract the lady with Cooper's chiming pocket watch? Crawl through the cotton fields out of sight? Slip through and over nearby buildings? Nah. M settled for punching her in the back of the head, then beating her while she's down on the ground so that the poor lady stayed KO'd for the rest of the level. Argued M: "Hey! It's not like she died!" Classic western-style moral ambiguity that Sergio Leone would've no doubt appreciated.

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