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Don’t Call Them Badlands: A Look Back at Wild West Video Games
What could we conceivably not like about the allure of Wild West video games? The pounding cadence of your horse’s hooves punishing the Earth with every stride. The spin and click of a revolver’s cylinder snapping into place, fully loaded and ready to deal death. The unsettling creak and groan of an architecture slapped together by lumber and nail or even the occasional brick and mortar. The aroma of whiskey and gun smoke that permeated every saloon and jailhouse. Redemption is often the item of the day, and these wildcard heroes will deliver their justice by any means necessary.
These were the days of manifest destiny.
It was a time when America’s intellectual evolution was stunted by the pursuit of freedom and finding your own slice of heaven hidden somewhere in the unknown frontier. Man lusted after the pursuit of wealth and power granted by land, gold, and weaponry. The country’s steel-lined, steam-powered industrial revolution clashing with the bare knuckle, salt-of-the-earth way of life is a fictional paradise with plenty of fertile ground to cultivate. The romantic nature and sense of freedom used for fictionally portraying the Wild West usually has a fair chance of making for great game drama.
A title like GUN touted a strong spine on the merit of a tale of bloody vengeance and violent hope, all while coupled with unique combat mechanics. For GUN, it found a winning recipe with a quick draw ability that created a first-person-viewed “bullet time” effect. This mode only lasted a brief while but your meter regenerated via headshots or high-profile kills that were made easy by the action’s speedy sense of brutality. From riverboat dynamite fights to voice-over work from some well known Hollywood talents (i.e. Hellboy‘s Ron Perlman and The Punisher‘s Thomas Jane), there was plenty to do in GUN to get your cowboy juices flowing.
It was the first title to ever strike the iron while it was hot, designing a fully realized, open-pasture kind of world. In any other universe, it may have had a shot at a sequel. Unfortunately, the GUN team had only just released their product a little over a year after a certain juggernaut freight train was heading out of its station for the first time. We would be referring to the Spaghetti Western we know and remember as Red Dead Revolver.
Revolver, the first entry into the series, was lauded for its grainy film effect that smacked of a John Wayne classic. The violence was hyper stylized, and characters were given an over-the-top veneer in order to make everything about the game seem larger than life. For once, this honestly felt like the long lost adventure shooter that people had been searching for. We were introduced to a sweat-inducing dueling system that, despite a rinse-and-repeat feel, felt organic enough for teaching itchy trigger fingers how to focus. Not to mention, Revolver was also the birthplace of the Dead Eye effect, allowing players to turn groups of enemy banditos into a carnival shooting gallery. They even went as far as incorporating a stellar multiplayer option, which included an impressive poker-inspired theme where players would earn cards to build hands for every opponent dispatched.
The game may not have blown too many people’s hair back or swept the shooter community into a frenzy. However, unique characterizations and a lack of similar competition or harsh criticism garnered enough acclaim for Take-Two Interactive & Rockstar Games to find the property laudable. When Sony & Microsoft both delivered powerful system successors in the PlayStation 3 & Xbox 360, the Red Dead team was challenged to rise to the occasion and push console limits. The developers completely overhauled the nature of the title from top to bottom and left gamers with what could ultimately be regarded as Grand Theft Auto: 1911 Edition. Their effort ultimately birthed the magnum opus we now know as Red Dead Redemption.
Every detail imaginable was handled, polished and cared for before shipping to store shelves. The company believed their work on Redemption was more ambitious than GTA IV and claimed that it would surpass its modern-day brother to become the ultimate open world game. In one fell swoop, the genre was both vindicated and constrained. If the title’s dynamic landscape, rich sound and unforgettable mechanics quality is to be the bar at which all further Western games are now graded, then the learning curve will be a steep one for smaller teams to handle. The depth, ambiance and sheer beauty that helped breed one of the most complete gaming experiences ever made leaves Redemption as a man among boys.
In an attempt to not get too caught up on the big Red machine and our hopes for a PS4 Red Dead entry from Rockstar, we can’t help but take note of some candidates who at least earn honorable mentions as proud Western representations. Especially when it comes to sequels, the undisputed PlayStation Wild West crown assuredly belongs to the Wild ARMs franchise. Wild ARMs games have been a mainstay and exclusive Sony property throughout the lifetimes of the company’s first three consoles.
While each individual title is set in worlds completely independent of one another, in much the same vein as Final Fantasy games, the overall presentation of the series was thoroughly Western with a certain shade of weird. Dusty trail crusaders were meshed with a chimera of traditional fantasy, sci-fi and steampunk themes. Acting as the sole JRPG in this article, ARMs titles made for an interesting crossbreed that actually made sense when you think about your typical turn-based ventures. A diversely strange gang of heroes, each proficient with their own weapons of choice, is a Japanese sensibility through and through that played heavily into the series mythos.
There have been many other forays into the genre that also deserve a fair amount of attention if you ever find the urge to saddle up. Including the above, we would strongly recommend looking into the Call of Juarez and Lead & Gold family of games. So with all the recent history to show for it, what spur-spinning action can we expect for the PS4? It just so happens that there already is a tumbleweed tango in the works for Sony’s high end platform.
Secret Ponchos was a feature game displayed by Sony as part of its indie game initiative during the PlayStation 4 demonstration at E3 2013. The game has an aim set for mixing the tension of a Western shootout back-dropped by a reminiscent League of Legends-inspired PvP system. Gaming desperadoes will face off over network play, pitting gunplay skills against one another in an effort to earn reputation and notoriety points. Secret‘s top gunfighters will find success tough as it will breed bounties. They become the target of players who want to receive the bounty’s increased reputation reward, even more so given that players can form a team of like-minded hunters.
Sure, This desert-bred PvP showdown machine recently suffered a release setback of cattle drive proportions. Once advertised as a PS4 free download title for the month of April 2014, this cartoony twin stick shooter is still awaiting beta testing results. The title’s developer Switchblade Monkeys holds a staff headcount smaller than the one we feature here on Leviathyn, but this diminutive crew will stop at nothing to make well on their PlayStation Plus commitment and help carry on the Wild West banner.
What about you, stranger? What great western gaming memories do you have?