Games time forgot: Sunset Riders

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Sunset Riders is basically Contra, but in the Wild West, and with a greater emphasis on shootin’ over jumpin’.

Honestly, that’s really all there is to be said for it — but in a sense, that’s all that needs to be said. Contra is an incredible game, so any game which is at least partially similar to it (so long as it changes up its gameplay a bit, and maybe throws in a few horsies) is also destined for greatness.

Yet Sunset Riders, while popular, doesn’t stand in the annals of history alongside Contra as a great example of the Jesus-Christ-this-is-so-hard-why-do-I-only-die-after-one-shot side-scrolling genre. Why?

Hit the jump, and we’ll see if we can figure this out.

Story:

Four bounty hunters — two armed with pistols, two armed with shotguns — set off to collect the rewards on the most notorious criminals in the whole of the old west. Gunplay and horse riding ensues.

Gameplay:

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As I said, it’s basically Wild Wild Contra (or Metal Slug, depending on which game you feel best exemplifies the run-and-gun genre). Rather than focusing on a myriad of powerups or giving the player the ability to jump around as if he were an Olympic gymnast, however, Sunset Riders focuses much more on the player’s ability to shoot quickly, and in the right direction.

The player’s jump isn’t particularly high and really not that great for dodging bullets, and the player himself presents a pretty large target. The key is to shoot your enemies before they even get a chance to squeeze a shot off at you — and should they happen to, it’s often harder to dodge their fire than simply running in one direction or jumping in another. This means that the enemies don’t really fire as often, and their bullets travel a lot slower. To be completely honest, I’m not sure if this makes Sunset Riders easier or harder than Contra. I’m tempted to say easier, if only because you can get from the first level to the last pretty easily so long as you’ve got 30 lives, but, on the other hand, the final boss is so balls-crunchingly difficult (the player is permanently surrounded by no fewer than five baddies, all of whom fire in different directions, and will respawn almost immediately after being killed) that I’m tempted to give Riders a little more credit.

Sunset Riders has a few extras which set it apart from other run-and-gun titles. Firstly, the two different initially available to the player can have quite an impact on the gameplay; do you want a more accurate pistol with a speedy firing rate, or do you want a slower shotgun with an incredibly large spread? Powerups allow the player to dual-wield and engage in permanent rapid fire mode, but those are the only powerups in the game. The focus is on you, and your gunsmanship (it’s a word). Additionally, after levels 2 and 5, the player can play through a first-person shooter minigame; baddies pop up on the screen, and (using the joystick in the arcade, or the d-pad on the SNES) the player has to shoot as many as possible within a time limit. Not a really big deal, but they provide a fun change of pace from the side-scrolling gameplay.

Oh, and there are horse levels. They’re hard, but pretty badass.

Why you’re probably not playing it:

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I won’t lie and say Sunset Riders is better than Metal Slug or Contra. It isn’t. It’s generally easier than those two franchises, it’s awfully short, and its core gameplay mechanics aren’t really that different; considering these factors, maybe it’s not a surprise that modern gamers don’t sing Sunset Riders‘ praises as often as they do Contra‘s or Metal Slug‘s.

Still, though, Sunset Riders isn’t a game to just be up and ignored. It’s damn fun, and provides a gameplay experience which, while not drastically unlike Contra‘s, just feels a bit different — just different enough to feel fun and fresh.

Divine intervention notwithstanding, you’ll probably never find an arcade version of it (which allowed for four-player co-op — I can only imagine how fun that’d be), but the SNES and Genesis versions are almost criminally easy to NOT emulate, and, hopefully, we’ll see Sunset coming to the Wii virtual console sometime soon.

In other words, find Sunset Riders, play it, and enjoy it. Westerns have a hard enough time as it is within the realm of videogaming — there’s not much reason Sunset Riders shouldn’t be played as often as the other run-and-gun games of days past.

I also wouldn’t mind a sequel, Konami.

Anthony Burch