Contra III is one of my favorite action games of all time. It holds up surprisingly well for an early SNES title and considering their later work on the system I had hoped Konami would grace the system with a sequel. While that never materialized their home port of Sunset Riders was the next best thing. Featuring a similar pace to its action it scratches that run and gun itch and is an excellent arcade port. Don’t pass this up.
Sunset Riders was released at an interesting point in time. Street Fighter 2 had just hit and no one knew the impact it would have. The arcade was still pretty varied at that point and Konami were on a roll with their numerous four-player arcade cabinets such as the Simpsons and G.I. Joe. Although I never had enough money to finish it in the arcade I highly anticipated the home ports of the game. While the Genesis version was a complete mess the SNES game did the coin op original justice.
It’s amazing how closely this follows Konami’s other four player hits. There are four characters, Steve, Bob, Cormano, and Billy. If you are thinking of making a Ninja Turtles comparison you are only half way right. Steve and Billy wield six shooters while Cormano and Bob are packing shotguns. The weapons are grossly uneven; the shotguns are the equivalent of the Spread gun in Contra and we all know how much of a fan favorite that is. The six shooters fire faster but that doesn’t make up the difference. There are very few power-ups, extra guns for dual wielding, rapid fire and the occasional stick of dynamite. Honestly that’s all that is needed.
Despite the fact that you are essentially hunting bandits for money the game has a comedic tone. The bosses are definitely unique and each has some particular quirk that gives them personality. Simon Greedwell lives up to his name as even in death he refuses to give up his money. Chief Scalpem….I’m not touching that one. El Greco is equipped with a whip and shield and fought on top of a train where the landscape works against you. You can practically smell the aristocratic air surrounding final boss Sir Richard Rose and it’s not just because of his mansion. It does shift slightly in the second half but that tone is still there.
What I really like about Sunset Riders, and what sets it apart is its setting. The Wild West isn’t the most overused setting, especially at the time of its release and Konami really dove into it. All of the tropes associated are here; stampeding bulls, a battle with Indians, horseback riding, and even a bonus round that is a shooting gallery. These elements make the game incredibly varied. Now that I look back there are never more than two levels in a row of straight shooting action. These are broken up by the previously mentioned horse segments and a boss battle in a saloon which is awesome. While it is sad that the four player coop of the arcade is gone it’s for the best; neither console could handle that much chaos without it being a complete mess.
Much like the series it is loosely patterned after Sunset Riders presents a decent challenge while also being fair. It is easy to catch a stray bullet at the worst possible moments and lose your precious power-ups. It isn’t as devastating a loss as your typical shooter but it is felt, especially during a boss battle. Just like the tone shifts midway through there is a noticeable difficulty spike in the back half of the game as enemies become more aggressive and you face bosses in well-crafted arenas. The four credits might seem like enough but I’ll wager most will run out before seeing the finish but will have fun along the way.
Unlike its Sega counterpart the Super Nintendo version of Sunset Riders is a pretty faithful adaptation of the arcade game. All four characters are present, all eight levels and bosses are accounted for, and even all of the sampled speech made it. There is some missing background detail and less enemies onscreen but all things considered Konami did a fantastic job. There are a few things that have been changed though. The saloon dancers in stage four have had their risqué outfits toned down but the most significant censorship comes in stage 6. Here you fight against Chief Scalpem, an Indian chief and so the level appropriately featured Native American enemies. These have been altered to avoid controversy. The enemies were replaced with generic bandits which changes the dynamic of the level considerably. Chief Scalpem is now Chief Wigwam. It sucks but what can you do?
I loved Sunset Riders in the arcade and the SNES version turned out amazing. Konami really went all out with this port and it is one of the better run and gun action games for the system. I still like to revisit the game every year or so and it has held up wonderfully. This is definitely worth the nostalgia trip.