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Patrick Hope: Which Wild West game is the best?

The Old West is one of the most romanticized aspects in all of American history. Entire genres of movies and books are devoted to it. It spawned its own music genre. There is even an historical theory about how the expansion of the frontier influenced American democracy. It’s creatively called the frontier thesis.

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Video games are no exception to having fallen under the spell of the Old West, with a whole bevy of games ranging from absolute garbage (like the laughably bad Town with No Name on the Commodore Amiga) to the very good (Red Dead Redemption). While Western games span most genres out there, a natural choice would be to make Western shoot-em-ups. Well, that’s exactly where we’re going today with two of the Super Nintendo’s best: Sunset Riders and Wild Guns.

Sunset Riders was originally an arcade game in the vein of Contra developed by, and this isn’t a huge surprise, Contra-developer Konami. The arcade version supported four-player simultaneous play as you and three friends could blast through stages as four bounty hunters out to take down the toughest criminals in the West. It was ported to the Sega Genesis in 1992 and the Super Nintendo in 1993, and took a hit in graphics and sound design, as well as in the number of simultaneous players, which dropped from four to two. The Super Nintendo version did, however, keep in the arcade digitized speech, which is always fun to hear on a 16-bit console.

Despite these changes, Sunset Riders delivers a great run-and-gun experience on either console as you collect bounties for fun and profit. The stages range from your generic small town to the inside of a saloon to a large river canyon, and you’ll fight bosses like the mad bomber Smith Brothers, the whip-wielding El Greco (who I guess is out to bury you like the Count of Orgaz) and Simon Greedwell, whose dying wish of “bury me with my money” has become a minor meme. Sunset Riders holds up today and, especially when with a friend, is a great way to kill an hour or so. It’s usually the first game people think of when they hear “western” and “Super Nintendo” together, but maybe it shouldn’t be, as the other game I’m going to cover here, Wild Guns, may be better.

A 1995 release of Natsume, best known for the Harvest Moon farming simulator series, Wild Guns stands out among not just Western games, but shoot-em-ups in general due to its presentation. Instead of going through a scrolling stage, in Wild Guns your character stands at the front of the screen and can only move laterally as enemies fill the screen in front of you. Think of it like a shooting range, just with being allowed some movement, as well as the ability to dodge. It’s a pretty rare setup, with the only games I can think of that work like Wild Guns being the Punisher game on the original Nintendo and much-ported arcade shooter Cabal.

Unlike Sunset Riders, Wild Guns also has a story. Annie’s father was killed by a gang of bad guys, so she hires bounty hunter Clint to take them out. She also tags along.

You may think this is the plot of True Grit. Well, you know what John Wayne/Jeff Bridges didn’t have to face? GIANT ROBOTS. That’s right. Wild Guns goes all steampunk and has you fighting not just robots but motorcycle bandits, armored trains, tanks and airships. And Wild Guns does not mess around. This game is hard and Natsume knew it, giving you unlimited continues.

And any discussion of Wild Guns wouldn’t be complete without a mention of its really cool powerup system. In addition to your normal arsenal like a shotgun, Gatling gun and grenade launcher, Wild Guns has a super-special powerup that you can earn. Normally you can dodge attacks, but if you want to be cool, you can shoot incoming bullets, which fills up a meter on the bottom of the screen. Fill up the meter and you get the Vulcan Cannon, which has unlimited ammo and absolutely decimates everything on screen. I can’t think of another game that has such a clever way to get its best weapon.

Both of these games are really good and you can’t go wrong with playing either, especially with a friend. I like Wild Guns more due to its unique style and the fact you fight giant robots, but your mileage may vary.

It’s also technically much more affordable. If you want a physical copy, Sunset Riders, which really falls into the “common but really popular” category, it will cost you about $50. Wild Guns, which is more or less the Earthbound of Western steampunk shooting games, is $150, and that will probably get you a copy with a jacked-up label. However, Wild Guns is available on the Wii Virtual Console for eight whole dollars, making it an easy buy. So saddle up for a trip in the Wild West and ride off into the sunset with either of these classics.