Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 24th
At first glance, Sunset Riders appears to be the story of Billy and Cormano, two flamboyantly dressed cowboys who live in the worst town in the world. All the men are trying to kill them, herds of cattle stampede through the main street constantly, and the only woman who isn’t a prostitute is constantly being kidnapped. It’s the kind of place where a guy will just run out of a tavern and throw a stick of dynamite at you for no reason, and should you survive that, he’ll whip out a knife and try carving his initials into your face.
In other words, it’s the 1800s equivalent of modern-day Detroit.
This seems like a lot of well-organized, heavily-armed resistance, so it got us wondering – why all the hostility? Our first theory was that they saw Cormano’s pink shirt, assumed the two protagonists were gay (calling themselves the Sunset Riders probably doesn’t help), and started attacking them. We’re assuming a hyper-violent Old West town probably wouldn’t be all that progressive on gay issues, such as the right of homosexuals to not be stabbed. This could have made Sunset Riders a pretty interesting narrative – the struggle of a gay couple’s quite literal battle against intolerance and bigotry. However, this seems unlikely considering most of the guys attacking you are also dressed in bright pastel colors, so they’d be unlikely to draw such an assumption; and even if they had, it probably would have been put into doubt after the tenth or so time that Cormano ran off in the middle of a heated gun fight to jump into the arms of a whore.
So if it’s not the most obvious explanation – a bunch of heavily armed homophobes misinterpreting a fashion statement – then what is it? Having started life as an arcade game, Sunset Riders doesn’t offer much in the way of story. Stages alternate between rescuing kidnapped women and fighting guys seen on reward posters at the beginning of the stage, neither of which seems like it should provoke an entire town to rise up against you. In fact, criminal gangs usually don’t work together, so about the only time you ever see a united front like this in old Westerns is when the townsfolk finally get brave and join together to stand up to the bad guys… Hey, wait a second…
Sunset Riders actually makes a lot more sense if you think of the two main characters not as justice-seeking bounty hunters, but rather as dangerous outlaws on a criminal rampage. Not only does it explain why everyone seems to be joining forces to against you, but it also gives us a more believable idea of what’s going on in each stage. Let’s take a look:
Level 1 – This is an assault on a small town combined with a bank robbery (the target of the first reward poster is an allegedly greedy banker). The townsfolk have been warned of your approach, and the bravest men have stayed behind to defend their homes from you. At one point, they even rile their cattle up to stampede through town in a desperate attempt to stop your attack.
Level 2 –Starting at the back of a train, you fight your way through waves of enemies and work your way toward the front. Eventually you fight your way to the lead car, and kill the engineer, taking the train for yourself. This is generally interpreted as you trying to prevent a train robbery, but that theory really only holds up if you believe a gang of train robbers would number in the hundreds, and that they are trying to steal the actual train instead of just its valuables. You have to admit that the guy who sneaked onto the back of a train and then shot every single person he came across seems more likely to be the robber.
Level 3 – You rampage through an Indian village and kill their chief. Really, that’s it. Given that this game came out in 1992, and not 1870, it’s hard to imagine how this level was ever compatible with the assumption that you were playing as the “good guys”.
Although it’s equally surprising they got away with this, too.
Level 4 – No longer satisfied with small time jobs, you stage a bold home invasion of Sir Richard Rose’s heavily guarded mansion. After slaughtering his private security force, you murder him in his own home and take his money. The only justification the game gives for this behavior is to portray him as a British Aristocrat, which apparently we’re supposed to assume was a crime in the Old West. Also, considering that in the previous level, you laid waste to an Indian village for no apparent reason, and that the boss of the second level was Mexican, it would seem that the game has taken a rather disturbing turn towards xenophobia in its second half.
“But wait,” you’re saying “those guys you killed were on wanted posters! That means they were criminals.” Well, technically, they’re not on wanted posters, they’re on reward posters. There’s no indication of any crimes that they’re wanted for, or reason to believe that the person/organization offering these rewards has anything to do with law enforcement at all. You could just as easily be a couple of freelance hitmen. Not all bounty hunters are the side of the law, after all – don’t forget that the most famous one of all time worked for Jabba the Hutt.
Ok, but what about the girl you rescue on the first stage of every level? Surely, anyone who’s willing to take out a bunch of heavily armed men guarding a tied up woman can’t be a villain, right? Sure, unless these aren’t rescue missions but rather jailbreaks. Rather than a perpetual kidnapping victim, she’s actually the third member of your gang. This is proven during the bonus stages, when she assists you in robbing a stagecoach:
Jesus Christ, Cormano! Where did you even find a pink horse?
Having her get caught every level might even be part of the strategy – a way to get a person on the inside. She gets captured, the Sunset Riders observe and watch where she is taken, and then they know where their next target is. Or she just might get caught a lot. You do have to admit that their scheme of having her hide inside a covered wagon and throw the valuables out the back to the trailing Riders doesn’t offer a lot of good exit strategies.
Gameplay-wise, Sunset Riders is basically Contra set in the Old West and with the difficulty scaled back a bit, which is to say that the game is kind of possible. Unlike Contra: Hard Corps, the emphasis is less on boss fights and more on stages where you move left to right while hundreds of henchmen take potshots at you. We’ve seen hundreds of these games before, and Sunset Riders doesn’t really add much innovation to the mix, but the execution is where it shines. The game might not be doing anything new, but it’s doing the same old thing a lot better than just about anyone else has done.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a great run-n-gun game like this came from Konami, who were the kings of this genre back then. Where Sunset Riders excels compared to most of their other games is in pacing and difficulty. Most of the platforming elements are taken out, leaving the focus on shooting and dodging without having to worry about jumping over gaps very often. Weapon power-ups are frequent, eliminating the negative feedback loop that often occurs in games of this type where you die, lose your powerups for the rest of the stage, and then are severely handicapped and end up dying again. The game is challenging, but not nearly as tough as many other shooters, resulting in an experience that keeps you on your toes but generally doesn’t feel impossible or unfair. It never approaches the blistering pace of the Contra (then again, what does?), but the whole thing feels fluid thanks to tight control and level designs that minimize obstacles in favor of keeping you moving from one swarm of hot lead to the next.
Unfortunately, by the time Sunset Riders was released, the run-n-gun genre was already losing popularity among gamers, who were looking for more sophisticated thrills than simply going left to right and mowing down everything in your path. Video games have always evolved along a path of becoming more complex and involved, but the 16-bit days were around the time where this march toward complexity passed this genre by. Games like Sunset Riders thrive on being straightforward and stripped of extraneous elements, and there comes a point where you can’t add much more to these games without changing them completely. As a result, gamers started to see shooters as simplistic, repetitive, and not all that different from each other. The same thing happened to beat ‘em ups around the same time – both genres essentially reached evolutionary dead ends during the Genesis era.
Instead of a dead end, however, I like to think that each of these genres reached sort of an evolutionary perfection. That’s not to say that Sunset Riders, or any other shooter for that matter, is a perfect game, but rather that the genre reached a point where it couldn’t be drastically improved. Tweaks could be made here or there, but all the major improvements were already made. A big part of why this game is still fun after almost two decades is because nobody has, or will, make another one like it that’s significantly better.
This is what happens when you don’t coordinate your Village People tributes properly – four guys all come as the Indian, and you end up without any cops or construction workers.
Availability: Because it didn’t sell a ton of copies back then, Sunset Riders is one of the harder games to come by today. To our knowledge, it was not released as part of any compilation, isn’t available for download on any of the current consoles, and copies of the original are somewhat tough to find. The only one we stumbled upon in our travels was from a somewhat disreputable vendor at the local flea market, crammed into a filthy cardboard box amongst a bunch of other games that it looked like he had been using to clean up coffee spills. There are a few copies to be found online; nice, complete copies seem to be running in the $20-$30 range, while cartridge only versions are a more reasonable $10 or so. That’s less than the price of a purple shirt, and way less likely to get you shot at.