“It’s like the Wild West, the Internet. There are no rules.” -Steven Wright
Step aside John Wayne, pull up a chair Clint Eastwood, fly away Spike Spiegel, take a left turn at Albuquerque Yosemite Sam, go spin your cup elsewhere Doc Holiday. Here come the Sunset Riders, the rootn’est, tootn’est, outlaw shootn’est cowboys in the Wild West. Konami’s side-scrolling run and gun Sunset Riders was one of my earliest favorites in the arcades, and not without reason. It was a fast-paced, brightly colored and adventurous quarter-eater that satisfied every boyish fantasy, so long as those fantasies involved playing as cowboys.
Sunset Riders follows gunslingers Steve, Billy, Bob and Cormano (or the good, the bad and the ugly, and the man with no name), sharpshooting bounty hunters out for outlaws on the lam. The characters are fairly similar minus their color-coded apparel, and two of them wield dual revolvers and the other two brandish spread-shot rifles. Their attacks can be upgraded by getting a few power-ups in each stage. The original arcade version allowed up to four players at once, though when Sunset Riders was ported to the Sega Genesis 1992 and the Super Nintendo in 1993 that number of players was reduced to one, with the Genesis version only featuring Billy and Cormano as playable characters.
As you can see from the boss names and their descriptions, Sunset Riders relies heavily on racial stereotyping, what with lines like “Ai chihuahua!”, “Get ready for a Pow-Wow!” and “Die, gringo!”. I wouldn’t call it racism, however, but that’s just me. Sunset Riders is a fantasy dream of the Wild West concept without much concern for realism.
Gunning down “Injuns” in Stage 6 lays a bit of a trip on 21st century sensibilities, but changes were indeed later made to ports of Sunset Riders in an attempt to say “A little less yeehaw, please, boys”. The boss Chief Scalpem’s name was changed to Chief Wigwam, the Native American enemies were removed from Stage 6, some of the dialogue is altered, and the female bandits who toss dynamite sticks are swapped for male counterparts in an attempt to soften the blunt force of Sunset Rider’s violence.
Was the censorship really necessary? Should we pretend like it never existed, like we never played “Cowboys and Indians” when we were children? That’s another post for another time. Sunset Riders was a Japanese visionary parody of American history, with less sensitivity than America itself treats her own history today. And it’s not exactly like the Old West wasn’t racist. In the very least, its an interesting perspective, but really, it boils down to this just being an incredibly fun and challenging cartoony video game about cowboys, not about political correctness.
The-8 Bit Review
The backgrounds may at times be a tad blasé but the sprites are bouncy and well-animated, if not slightly chemical-colored. All the reds are cherry red. The bar-floozies especially look bizarre with bright purples and neon greens. There are certainly less interesting and uglier side-scrolling beat em ups and run and guns out there. I miss the visual cue of the boss sprites flashing to indicate low health!
One of my favorite parts was the voiced line-readings full of swagger: “Alright, ma’am, don’t worry about it”. Probably one of the more memorable things about Sunset Riders and it brings its characters to life. As for the soundtrack, its fairly typical of an arcade game from the era, though infused with the sounds of the Wild West. What works about it is that the OST perfectly fits the imagery of the screen and not all the tracks are 200BPM action riffs, some of them are slower and somehow sadder ballads (Stage 6, for example, of course). The bosses each have their own boss themes too.
Mixing up the level design between traveling on foot and on horseback keeps the action fresh and exciting, even if there really isn’t much difference between the two, controls-wise. On foot, the cowboys can move between the foreground and background like in most arcade side-scrollers, except in Sunset Riders this also includes jumping up on ledges and balconies, climbing rope, riding moving platforms, running on the backs of stampedes and entering saloons for a kiss with a barfly. The variation within the level design this allows makes the game more interesting. So do the different weapon upgrades, which ultimately allow for auto-fire in wide arcs.
There are a few bonus levels between the regular stages. These involve shooting galleries of bandits, emulating a quick draw. The winner is the one who shot the most color-swapped bandits and they get to rake in a few dollars more.
The 4-player Sunset Riders was a real treat I only got to enjoy a few times and the magic of that amount of co-op was never again recaptured in the console ports. This game needs an HD update with the full multiplayer roster. Sharing power-ups can sometimes seem too competitive and a little unfair, but bringing your own sundance kid along with you for a yippee-kai-yay makes the game much easier. Human shields.
This is no country for old men. Sunset Riders is pretty hard. It’s much easier on the consoles, where you don’t actually have to keep feeding it coins to keep playing, but the original arcade game was designed to eat up all your lunch money and more. In the later levels, there are so many bullets it becomes nearly impossible not to die unless you’ve got flawless timing. The average bandits themselves don’t present too much difficulty and they’re dumb enough to throw their dynamite at you and then wait around for you to pick it up and toss it right back at them, but the boss fights are particularly punishing. Sunset Riders hails from a time when attack patterns, firing arcs, blind spots and timing were the key to winning games. Sometimes it meant the difference between life and death if you scooted over a pixel or two, allowing you to land your slugs on the boss without him being able to hit you at all. The stages themselves aren’t long at all but learning to dodge bullets is on a steep curve.
As a quarter-eater, Sunset Riders is built with addictive properties in mind. Fortunately, the game isn’t too long. Unfortunately, it starts over from Stage 1 on a much harder difficulty after beating Sir Richard Rose. While there isn’t much to do in Sunset Riders other than play as the “good guys” and shoot the “bad guys”, its accessibility makes it an easier decision to make for choice of play rather than other games which are more involved. There’s a reason why its price is so steep on Ebay and Amazon!
Let’s not pretend there aren’t a multitude of other Old West themed video games out there. The Western has been a popular part of American entertainment throughout its long history in tv shows, movies and music, and video games are no different. Tinstar and Wild Guns come to mind as two other titles for the SNES with Wild West settings. Further, the arcade side-scroller wasn’t pioneered by Sunset Riders. In this respect, the game is far from unique. It’s rather a blend of various elements with simple, easy to learn/hard to master gameplay that makes Sunset Riders as fun as it is and less of a drag as other Wild West titles have been.