Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Me ready for pow-wow: Sunset Riders (Arcade/Gen/SNES)

Sunset Riders (arcade/SNES/Genesis, 1991-93)

The 16-bit generation of games, and its corresponding period in arcades, didn't see much innovation in its core genres of action, platforming, and brawlers. Sure, there are tons of great classics, but we didn't see the kind of massive leaps as we did on the NES, nor in in the 5th generation and the dawn of 3D. The 16-bit generation was less about innovation and more about refinement, taking the mechanics that worked on NES and expanding them, building upon them. At their core, 16-bit games have very little difference between their NES counterparts (in most genres, anyway). But the increased power meant that developers could - had to - put a lot more thought into a game's details, setting, and character. By the same token, setting and character stand out a lot more in this generation than they did before.

Christ! This isn't meant to be a history lesson. What I'm getting at is that Sunset Riders, a classic Konami arcade game from 1991, is so full of charm and unique character (and Japanese cultural insensitivity) that we tend to forget just how average and uninspired its gameplay is. At its core, it's a re-skinned Contra (Konami, after all). Well, scratch that - the game's core is actually less complex than Contra, which had players carefully choosing their weapons of choice and offered more platforming challenge.

Sunset Riders is simpler than that. In no instance can you change weapons. The game offers four characters - two with revolvers (pretty much the same as the standard Contra rifle), the other two with shotguns (which have a minor spread range). You can grab two upgrades - one doubles your guns, offering a sort of spread; the other adds auto-fire. Except for the rare occasion you can shoot/explode environmental hazards, or pick up and return thrown dynamite, the game offers absolutely no other offensive options.

Which would have been nice, because the game uses the same one-hit-you-die scheme as Contra. Any quality run 'n' gun game know this simple fact: if you're going to leave our hero that vulnerable, he needs the firepower to compensate. Sunset Riders fails this pretty hard, particularly in its boss fights. These feel like the real meat of the game, considering the levels themselves are pretty short. Boss fights are pretty varied, at least, but they also cross that fine line between "challenge" and "quarter-draining unfairness" (not to mention, it's most definitely designed to be played with other people - up to 4 players at once). To mix things up a little, you're occasionally treated to a pair of horseback stages, which have a nice sense of movement but do little to make the game more compelling. There are also a few very pointless shooting gallery bonus stages.

The gameplay is not all that interesting, being a subpar run 'n' gun; it's not that interesting to write about, to be honest. What does interest me is the setting. Quick - off the top of your head - how many Wild West games can you think of? Aside from more modern games, like Gun and the Red Dead series, I can only think of a few shooting gallery lightgun games that are so inconsequential I can't remember their names. The Wild West setting is criminally underused in games, and that makes games like Sunset Riders really stand out, especially when it's presented in a humorous, cartoony way.

Of course a game like this would never see release today, and maybe for good reason. There is great fun in seeing our hero run into a saloon and return, with either a barmaid on his arm or a bottle of whiskey in his hand, and a brand new sheriff badge (weapon upgrades), and it always amuses me to see him burnt to a black crisp if he should fail to avoid dynamite. When bosses keel over, they blurt out catchphrases like "bury with me my money" in amusing digitized voice clips. It's all well and good until you start to encounter racial stereotypes, like a grotesque Mexican named Paco Loco or savage Indian named Chief Scalpem, whose level has you running through canyons and mowing Indians down by the hundreds.

I'm not so big on the ultra-sensitive PC world that is America 2016; but there's a line, and this game crosses it. We have a tendency to gently forgive what we perceive to be racial insensitivity coming from Japanese developers; we like to think that Japan's famous isolation sort of excuses cultural ignorance, or something to that effect. This of course is its own type of racism, but I digress. Sure, 1991 was a different time, but it's really hard to make excuses for Chief Scalpem. When you first encounter him (in a medicine wheel), he mutters, in a supremely moronic voice, "Me ready for pow-wow." There's far worse to be seen in other games and movies in 1991, no doubt, but it's still baffling to me how something like this made it out without someone (in the US or Japan) raising an eyebrow or two.

Provided you can get past that - I did, and I suspect most people can - you'll find a game that's full of classic Konami charm and fun. It's not a beautiful game - even Konami's own brawlers look better - but the animation is always a joy to watch, and the cartoony take on the Wild West is a lot of fun. Never mind the fact that the gameplay is just a watered down version of the 4-year-old Contra; in the early '90s, a little charm went a long way.

Konami released a Genesis port a year later in 1992, and an SNES port a year after that. Unlike other Konami releases, like Batman Returns or Sparkster, which saw vastly different games with the same name released on separate consoles, the two versions are functionally identical. But they do provide an interesting case study, like Street Fighter II, of how technically inferior the Genesis was. The Genesis port of Sunset Riders is practically neutered; both versions have varying amounts of censorship (Chief Scalpem was renamed to the barely-less offensive Chief Wigwam), but the Genesis port has inferior music, fewer bosses, and only two characters to choose from. Maybe these differences wouldn't have mattered much if the ports came out earlier; but in '92 and '93, it represented a a minor point in Nintendo's win column against the already-aging Genesis. Luckily you don't have to choose in the year 2016; that's what MAME is for.

All screenshots are my own; Genesis box art from GameFAQs

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