History of Western Games Part 1

The Western genre, which tells the story of the 19th century American Old West, was the most popular genre of Hollywood film throughout the early 20th century. Naturally, the genre has transferred seamlessly into video games, with a variety of Western titles dating back to the dawn of gaming. With the upcoming release of Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Redemption 2 on October 26, as part of Red Dead Redemption Week, OnlySP is looking back at the history of the genre within gaming.

The first Western game, The Oregon Trail, was developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger to teach high school students about the events and realities of life in the American frontier. A text-based strategy game, The Oregon Trail puts players in the shoes of the leader of a wagon train in 1847, forced to make decisions as their group travels across the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon. The original version of the game, developed in 1971, was deleted from the school’s mainframe computer at the end of the semester; however, in 1974, Rawitsch recreated the game for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), and it was later released for the Apple II, Atari 8-Bit, and Commodore 64. The game sparked several sequels and spin-offs and has since been inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame.

Nintendo was quick to enter the Western scene with the light gun shooter Wild Gunman. Originally developed by Gunpei Yokoi for arcades in 1974, the game was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System ten years later and was one of the few games to make use of the NES Zapper peripheral. Wild Gunman pits the player against a fellow gunslinger, where they need to think—and shoot—fast to survive. The NES version also features a shooting gallery where enemies are shot from the windows of a saloon. The game is notable for its appearance as an arcade machine in Back to the Future Part II, receiving a re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console on “Back to the Future Day” in 2015.

Wild Gunman

Nintendo’s Wild Gunman, released for the NES in 1984.

Japanese developer and publisher Taito soon added its own entry to the Western genre in 1975 with Western Gun—known in America as Gun Fight—an arcade shooter where two players use the gun-shaped joysticks to compete in an old West shoot-off. The game sparked a brief Western fever among the arcade market, with several competitors following up with their own Western titles: Atari Inc. released Outlaw in 1976, Midway Games published Boot Hill in 1977, and Nintendo trailed behind with Sheriff in 1979. All games imitated the original gameplay from Western Gun with little alteration, though Sheriff is notable for being one of the first games designed by Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto, as well as being the first of Nintendo’s games to feature a damsel in distress, predating 1981’s Donkey Kong.

Pornographic video game studio Mystique interestingly decided to enter the Western genre in 1982 with Custer’s Revenge for the Atari 2600. Disgustingly, the game puts players in the boots of a visibly naked and erect man (based on American Civil War commander General George Armstrong Custer) whose goal is to rape a naked Native American woman tied to a pole. Thankfully, Mystique went out of business during the North American video game crash of 1983.

Konami entered the scene in 1984 with Badlands, an interactive movie game in which the player navigates through animated sequences by pressing a button at a precise moment. The player controls Buck, a hardworking family man, as he tracks down and kills the band of outlaws who murdered his wife and children. Konami followed up with Iron Horse in 1986, telling the story of an American hero as he fights off bands of outlaws to save bags of gold.

Sega’s arcade game Bank Panic, released in 1984, puts the player in the shoes of an Old West sheriff whose goal is to protect a bank and its customers from robbers. Several games to follow repeated a similar premise: Exidy’s arcade game Cheyenne had a similar objective, wherein the player guides and protects the protagonist and his carriage from the dangers around them; Ocean Software’s shoot-‘em-up High Noon for the Commodore 64 focuses on a sheriff forced to defend his town against outlaws and bank robbers; Ultimate Play the Game’s Gunfright for the ZX Spectrum features Sheriff Quickdraw and his journey to discover and kill a gang of outlaws in his town; Accolade’s Law of the West, a more story-focused game for the Apple II and C64, follows a sheriff as he talks with several characters in his town; and Mastertronic’s Kane for C64 centres around a sheriff’s daily journey in the Wild West.

Capcom’s Gun.Smoke is considered a predecessor to Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Revolver.

While these games focused on the life and activities of sheriffs, several players sought more criminal activities, such as in Ultimate Play the Game’s 1985 Commodore 64 title Outlaws, Magnetic Images’s 1989 title Lost Dutchman Mine for the Amiga, Atari ST, and MS-DOS, and Capcom’s arcade game Gun.Smoke. Capcom’s 1985 title was brought to NES in 1988, and became highly successful, receiving later ports to the MSX, ZX Spectrum, PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, Xbox, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. The game is often cited as the predecessor to Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Revolver, which was followed by the highly successful Red Dead Redemption—but more on these titles later.

American Laser Games, founded in the late 1980s, released its first title in 1990: a live-action laserdisc arcade game called Mad Dog McCree. In the game, the silent protagonist is tasked with finding the mayor and his daughter after they were kidnapped by a gang of outlaws led by the infamous “Mad Dog” McCree. The success of the game led to a sequel, Mad Dog II: The Lost Gold, which was released in arcades in 1992 and expanded upon the simplicity of the original game, adding dynamic scenes and in-game music.

Several tie-in games based on Western media were released in the early 1990s: Konami’s The Lone Ranger for the NES in August 1991 based on the radio and TV franchise of the same name; Acclaim Entertainment’s Back to the Future Part II & III for the NES in September 1990; Image Works’s Back to the Future Part III for the Sega Genesis, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, Master System, and ZX Spectrum in 1991; and two versions of An American Tail: Fievel Goes West in 1994 based on the film of the same name, one developed by Hudson Soft for the SNES and one by Capstone Software for DOS. Several Lucky Luke games, based on the comic series of the same name, were released throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

The Western genre was a perfect fit for arcades—an Old Western setting fits perfectly for cabinets using gun-shaped joysticks—so one should not be surprised that the Western genre stuck around as the days of the arcade system eventually came to an end. Konami released Sunset Riders in September 1991, where the player controls a bounty hunter seeking the rewards for several criminals; the game was later released for the Genesis in 1992 and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993. In November 1992, Konami also released Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa, based on the animated television series of the same name, with similar gameplay to Sunset Riders. Finally, Shootout at Old Tucson, Fast Draw Showdown, and The Last Bounty Hunter, all released in 1994, were some of the final games by American Laser Games and some of the last live-action rail shooters.

Freddy Pharkas

Sierra On-Line, known for its graphic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Phantasmagoria, published two western titles: Gold Rush! in 1988 and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist in 1993. The former, set in 1848, follows Jerrod Wilson as he becomes lost while looking for his brother amidst the California Gold Rush. Freddy Pharkas, designed by Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe, puts the player in the shoes of a gunslinger-turned-pharmacist in the 1880s, and the result is one of the most underrated titles from Sierra.

Software Creations—known for games such as Wolverine and Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge—developed the rail shooter Tin Star in 1994. One of the few games to support the Super Scope and SNES Mouse, Tin Star features several typical characters of Western media, including the honest cowboy, his trusty steed and faithful sidekick, the dignified mayor, an enemy band of brothers, and a snake oil merchant, among others.

MECC returned to the Wild West with The Yukon Trail in 1994, a spinoff to The Oregon Trail. Adopting similar gameplay to the original, The Yukon Trail takes place during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 19th century. The following year, MECC developed Oregon Trail II, a revised version of the original game, for PC and Mac.

Lethal Enforces II: Gun Fighters—a prequel to the 1992 game set in modern-day Chicago, Illinois—was released in Japanese arcades by Konami in March 1994. The game has five stages where the player must shoot outlaws without harming innocent civilians. The game was released outside of Japan for the Genesis and Sega CD later in the year, followed by a PlayStation bundle (with the first game) in 1997.

In August 1994, Natsume released Wild Guns for the NES in Japan. Set in the Wild West with heavy science fiction and steampunk influences, the game follows Annie as she seeks revenge for the death of her family with the bounty hunter Clint. Wild Guns was developed in five months with a small team of five, but received positive reviews upon release and has since become a cult classic; an enhanced remaster has been released for PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch.

Wild Guns Reloaded

Wild Guns was enhanced and re-released as Wild Guns Reloaded for PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.

The second and final part of OnlySP’s look at the history of Western games is now available. For more on Western titles, and this week’s upcoming title Red Dead Redemption 2, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

Rhain Radford-Burns
Rhain discovered a long time ago that mixing one of his passions (video games) with the other (writing) might be a good idea, and now he’s been stuck in the industry for over six years with no means of escaping. His favourite games are those with deep and captivating narratives: while it would take far too long to list them all, some include L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption (and its sequel), Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Last of Us, and the Uncharted series.

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