Saturday, 13 December 2014

Western Games

Here's a six cylinder-ful of western games from the 8-bit era (Spectrum and C64 games). I tried to look past the usual action shooters and check out more complex gameplay. This bunch would make neat premises for new games with only modest changes and additions.

West Bank (ZX Spectrum)

Ok, I'll start with a bit of a shooter anyway, but it is an unusual one. As far as I know, this is a direct copy of the arcade game Bank Panic. There are 12 doors to your bank, and three of them are visible at a time. The doors open quickly, with customers approaching. Or a bank robber! The villains are shot simply by pressing the key that corresponds with the door, which I find more fun than if I had to aim at them. Shooting the bad guys before they shoot you gets you forward, whereas shooting an innocent person will set you back.

At the Weird West Bank.
There's honest looking folk, something that looks like a bar singer, thieves with covered faces and so on. The friendly folk bring their bags of money, whereas the nasty folk bring their guns. And it's not always easy to see which way they turn out to be. Often, a tiny "clown" type of character with about 7 hats, appears. Shades of some of the more surreal Spaghetti westerns here, I suppose... Shooting all of the hats reveals either a bomb or a bag of money. A nerve-wracking procedure!

Wild Bunch (ZX Spectrum)

Nothing to do with the Peckinpah film! Here the player takes the role of a western hero who has to fight the "wild bunch" gang. This simple multiple-choice adventure has a western simulation feel, with maps, several towns and various buildings to visit. Lots of stuff can be bought from the general store, and you can enter a saloon to play poker and so on and on.

A wild bunch of equipment, not that it makes that much difference.
One clever idea is that the members of the wild bunch gang are presented as Wanted posters with identifiable features. When you meet strange people, you are given a description and you need to decide whether they have to be challenged.

Left: One of the Wild Bunch. Right: Go west, young man...
It's quite apparent that the game is based on the numerous space trader type text games, and nothing wrong with that. It's not exactly "Elite in the West", though. It's far too intense for me to take notes about the townsfolk's appearance, but that's it what it takes if you want to win. Or you need to have a super-memory. Fighting, what I've seen of it, is too simplistic. The player pits his "energy" against the plethora of snakes and critters you meet each day you work your way through the never ending desert.

Gunfright (ZX Spectrum)

Ultimate's latter-day outing. They had run a bit out of steam at this stage and this game (alongside with Cyberun) received mixed reviews at the time. Portrayed in a scrolling isometric 3-D, pretty flat here to be honest, the game at first sight appears to be a full-blown western town simulation, with money, bullets, fares, telegram and whatnot.

-Where did you get that tin star, at the carnival fairground?
-As a matter of fact, I did.
Yet this is all mostly sheen, the designers have opted for a quite surreal interpretation of a western town, a haunting collection of bare-bone elements floating against a black background. Not that it's all a bad thing, but most of the game is about avoiding the townsfolk than fighting the rather sedately moving villain. Also, despite the facades, the buildings are just empty frames in a sparse maze. At least once you get the (hobby) horse you can zoom past and through everything and everybody. It all costs money, though.
It's a horror...
Scared townspeople point at the direction of the villain, which is a nice touch. After finding and "shooting" the villain in the main view, the perspective is switched to a first person target-game/quick-draw style showdown.

Six-Gun Shoot Out (Commodore 64)

A seemingly complex tactical level turn-based game that allows re-enactment of various historical and fictional gunfights from the old west. I say "seemingly", as most of the complexity arises from the clumsy and slow interface. The idea is pretty good, there's field-of-visibility checks and a variety of weapons and body postures that (probably) affect the gunplay outcome.

Left: There's a mouthwatering selection of scenarios in the game.
Right: Though your mouth dries up as you see the game's interpretation of the Magnificent Seven.
Yet on overall the gameplay seems woefully random. Also, the play fields are not that interesting. I'd like to see the idea re-done with a Laser Squad-style engine.

Law of the West (Commodore 64)

Clearly inspired by the film High Noon, the player takes the role of a sheriff who encounters various western town types while patrolling a town. Depending on the outcome of the discussions, the day might play out a bit differently, leading to duels with villains or preventing a bank robbery. If the player survives the day, it will be scored according to kills and hearts won etc.

The wonky-rubbery gun-draw needs to be seen to be believed...
I admit the visuals blew my mind when I saw them in the 1980s. Now I feel it could look a bit better even on the C64. Yeah, the backgrounds and the characters are quite good, but the sheriff on the left is a bit clumsy. Cute how the music changes according to the character you meet.

The game scheme is pretty compelling for the few first goes, but has little replay value after most of the avenues have been worked out.

Johnny Reb II (Commodore 64)

Whether a war game based on the Civil War is a western game, is one for the philosophers. Yet there's certainly overlap between western as a kind of action setting, a period piece, or a war scenario. I like to mention JR II because it plays pretty smoothly for such an old game. Also it works on a somewhat more detailed scale than most war games of the 1980s, so they player gets "inside" the action better. And that's perhaps what justifies the "western" monicker here.

Don't get bushwhacked by Jesse James!
So, okay, the gameplay is not very fluid for today, but I remember enjoying this game back in the day. Possibly because it was faster than the dreadfully slow SSI games.

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