I’m not going to claim that the fall of the Western genre has led to the degradation of society, but… Okay, that’s exactly what I’m going to claim. Westerns are no longer popular, and that may destroy us all.
Everyone can identify a Western. There’s a dusty, one horse town, and a sheriff that just does his best to keep the peace. A posse of black hats roll in, scare the local populace, and only one man can stand against the encroaching lawlessness. Granted, sometimes it’s the reverse (town ruled by bad guys, and one man of honor appears with the sunrise), but, one way or another, the same basic beats are followed with the precision of a Texas BBQ. Hero does his best, maybe loses a dear friend, defeats all the henchmen, and then has one final showdown with the baddest hombre around. Everything wraps up around high noon, and the protagonist rides off into the sunset with the apparently only single woman in town. Maybe she has a heart of gold.
Given that plot synopsis, you would think there would be more Western videogames. I mean, what about that description isn’t a video game? One solitary hero against a world of “monsters”? Check. Whole world full of people that are there to offer advice but are otherwise completely useless? Check. Town in the middle of nowhere so the rest of the planet may as well not exist? Check. Final battle with the big boss that is just as allergic to lead poisoning as everybody else, but somehow is the only one that survives until the final moments? Check. Almost entirely male cast? Double check. Yet, it seems like the Western genre has been largely ignored by videogame producers. Yes, we’ve got our Red Deads and Call of Juarezes, but aside from the arcade style shooting games that are more about reliving specific dueling battles and a handful of games based on properties already firmly entrenched in olden days (does Back to the Future 3 count?), the Old West is snubbed by digital storytelling. Even games like Wild Arms and Gunman Clive seem to be living in the land of the cattle rustler, but before the credits roll, you know a space ship or anthropomorphic lizard aliens are going to make the scene. Despite efforts by highfalutin Hollywood bigshots, cowboys and aliens do not go well together.
Sunset Riders is a pretty standard Western videogame. Actually, that’s a little bit wrong, as I’m pretty sure the average Western doesn’t contain this much neon. Also, Native Americans in this Konami action game are Native Ninja. But conceptually this is a standard Western: three (nearly identical) bounty hunters and their Mexican stereotype sidekick are looking to make a few bucks, and, on the way to bigger and bigger bounties, wind up saving fair maidens and one-horse towns. There’s some cattle rustling, horseback riding, and saloons out the wazoo, so there’s no question about the Western-authenticity of Sunset Riders. Yes, the game leans on goofy whenever possible (I’m pretty sure running atop a stampede is something out of a Charlie Chaplin routine), but, glowing bullets or no, this is still a bloody Western. I’m not one for counting, but I’m pretty sure Sunset Rider Bob (clearly the best named hero of the bunch) mowed down about 12,000 gunslingers between here and the Rio Grande. They… uh… let’s assume they all shot first.
But that’s the appeal of the Western.
There are a lot of important aspects to any given Western, but the body count is always there. Why? Because when you’ve got a problem that can be solved with a sixgun, and bygum, you’ve got a sixgun, then, well, I reckon guns aren’t exactly known for the most peaceful of solutions. I don’t care if you’ve got a slab of defensive metal under your poncho, if you’ve got a Western without bloodshed, you’ve got a pretty darn boring Western. Bad guys getting their just desserts (a big ol’ helping of death pie) is endemic to the genre, and the same grandmas that would later complain about the violence of videogames seemed perfectly okay with the Baby Boomers watching a lot of rifle booming.
But that’s the thing about the Wild Wild West: it was fiction, and everyone knew it was fiction. Yes, there are stories about “the bad old days” of the West, when frontier towns were lawless and desperados roamed the prairie, but, by and large, those stories were just… stories. The Old West did not operate in any conceivable way like a John Wayne picture. If you think otherwise, at least acknowledge that your average “small town” could not have ever survived with a mortality rate of 80% and an economy based entirely on booze and whores. The truth is that a town in Utah is exactly as boring today as it was a few centuries ago, just today it might have a slightly better internet connection. The Old West has never been a place for legitimate historical dramas any more than Camelot and its band of chivalrous knights was a proper representation of the Dark Ages.
But, over time, the Western has fallen out of favor. Maybe it’s because people got tired of the formula, or because Clint Eastwood is three years shy of 90, or maybe it’s just that Hollywood finally called in an exterminator to take care of that tumbleweed problem, but, one way or another, the Western is by and large dead. It’s an anachronism, and the best the genre can hope for is a Wolverine movie or two. The Western is in a pine box, and, in its place we have… the exact same stories. One hero against a gang of bad guys, and all of the guns is the only solution to every conceivable problem. The only difference is that now it’s set in the now, and the bad dudes aren’t just black hats, they’re all manner of scary terrorists and smart white guys and maybe even a foreigner or two. Modern movies feature modern threats in modern settings.
And that’s the problem: modern media blurs the lines between fantasy and reality to a significant degree. It’s easy to immerse yourself in a videogame that could potentially be taking place down the street, but it’s a little disconcerting when that game encourages you to steal everything that isn’t nailed down and murder anybody that gets in your way. No, I’m not going to claim Grand Theft Auto has magically transformed the videogame playing masses into murderbots with a taste for trashcan medkits; but, in a time when we need empathy more than ever, it’s very easy to lose yourself in a world where nothing matters but you, player, and everybody else is a brainless NPC that just happens to look like the average person you’d see on the street. No, I’ve never encountered anyone wearing a ten-gallon hat and two straps of chest ammo, but I have encountered the average “business guy” or “dude in a bandana” that I’ve plowed over in Saint’s Row before. We’ve still got all the violence of the imaginary Old West, but now it’s right here in our backyard.
Assuming those neon bullets are as lethal as their Contra brethren, Sunset Riders has an incredible body count. But it also takes place in a magical Old West that no one is going to mistake for something with historical accuracy. But Sunset Riders is also an anachronism onto itself; the Western is dead, and no we’re stuck with a simulacrum of reality for all of our murder simulators. So maybe we need our Westerns back, if only to give our children something new to shoot. Or… uh… old, I suppose.
Where have all the cowboys gone? And could they remember to bring the neon? Makes ‘em a better target.
FGC #295 Sunset Riders
- System: Super Nintendo for the review, though there is a very compromised Genesis version out there, too. And, of course, find an arcade cabinet wherever available.
- Number of players: Two for the SNES, but a whole four if you’ve got an arcade handy. Simultaneous play is always the best.
- Favorite Character: I had to choose Bob for obvious reasons, but Cormano secretly holds the key to my heart. An all pink/purple poncho and sombrero? You’re the hero we all need, Cormano.
- Favorite Boss: Chief Scalpem/Wigwam is the weirdest kind of racist. He’s a Native American “savage” like you’d cringingly expect to see in your average Western, but in this case, “savage” equals “ninja”, so he flies around like Rolento tossing knives all over the place. I am not familiar with that particular stereotype.
- Speaking of Racism: Okay, I might miss the Western, but I do not miss the inherent racism in the genre. I have no idea why the playable characters for this game are three identical white dudes and then one random Mexican fellow. I have no idea why Dark Horse appears to be some manner of stripper riding an armored horse. I don’t even want to know the deal with Paco Loco. It’s all very confusing.
- Did you know? Also speaking of racism, a number of subtle changes were made to the SNES version. Instead of murdering an entire stage of Native Americans, now there’s just the one at the end of the level. All the women have slightly more modest outfits, and, to prove that Final Fight isn’t the only franchise with this problem, all female enemies were modified to be male. But everything else is the same! Except the dogs!
- Would I play again: This is a fun game that is ideal for multiple players. It’s basically a beat ‘em up meets Contra. And that’s fun! But I’ll probably never play it again, because, ya know, Westerns are dead.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Driver for the Playstation 1! Who wants to go driving… I guess? Please look forward to it!