Oh Natsume. Most modern gamers know Natsume as the publisher of a never ending stream of Harvest Moon games and related spin offs. This isn’t a bad thing, my hats off to the developers as they’ve somehow managed to make a game ostensibly about farming fun. But for those of us who grew up in the 80s we remember when they created kick ass action games like Shadow of the Ninja and S.C.A.T. (probably the most unfortunate acronym ever). So when Wild Guns was released us old school gamers knew, the old Natsume is back. Well briefly at least.
Let’s get this out of the way now; the main characters are basically Clint Eastwood and Annie Oakley. As either of the pair the object of the game is to exact revenge against a gang that has killed or kidnapped Annie’s family. Set in a Wild West meets steam punk influenced world there aren’t many games if any that mimic Wild Guns aesthetic. If you’ve ever seen the old cartoon Brave Starr then you have an idea of what the world consists of, large storming mechs set against the backdrop of the American West.
Natsume would go on to create the Harvest Moon Empire after Wild Gun’s release so it serves as a fitting last gasp of their former action heavy past. Whether it was intended as such is irrelevant as Wild Guns is one of the best pure action games for the SNES that should be parked in your console immediately.
The style of Wild Guns is wildly different from your typical side-scroller. As a third person action game each level consists of multiple single screen segments. Think arcade classic Cabal or Nam -1975. Part shooting gallery part platformer there is very little scrolling from one side to the other leaving the focus squarely on the shooting. The object of each level is to survive each segment until the timer runs out and you move on to the next or fight a mini boss and ultimately the final boss of the level.
Killing enemies will cause the clock to run down faster which has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand you can complete the levels faster but then you’ll miss out on some awesome power-ups. But if you let things drag on too long the game becomes hectic in short order. It’s a balancing act that doesn’t lean too strongly in one direction. For gamers who suck you have the option to potentially avoid potential headaches. If you are an ace gamer who laughs in the face of danger it’s incredibly satisfying to completely clear the screen in moments without dying. The enemies come in all shapes and sizes and from every corner of the screen at a moment’s notice so it’s a good thing the game is built on a solid set of play mechanics.
If Wild Guns were made today it would be a cover based shooter; you have no such luxury here. Instead you are given a number of tools to escape from danger. Both characters can roll to both sides and double jump. Your standard pistol is supplemented by an infinite supply of lassos that freeze enemies in place, including groups clustered together and even bosses. The differences between Annie and Clint are slight; Annie jumps higher but rolls a shorter distance while Clint is the opposite. Once you learn that distinction it’s easier to apply that knowledge in any given situation.
The key to surviving is taking advantage of what each move has to offer. For example, rolling and tossing a lasso will make you invulnerable while performing each act. So theoretically you could sit there and twirl the lasso indefinitely but that would be stupid. In the heat of the more brutal fire fights a well timed roll is the difference between life and death. In most cases enemy fire is designated by a target on the screen where the bullets will land, giving you the opportunity to dodge it or even better destroy their bullets with your own. In addition when you are in danger your character will shout “Look Out!” It’s a nice touch that makes a huge difference amid the chaos and puts the onus on you to react quickly enough to avoid death. They’ve managed to pack in so many nuances in what is essentially a simple concept.
There’s a nice sized selection of secondary weapons available, all varying in power. The most frequently available is the shotgun but gatling gun, and grenade launcher are also accessible. While ammo is limited they do make you feel like a bad ass for a few brief moments. Except the pea shooter (for lack of a better name) which does no damage and forces you to waste its ammo in frenzy before you die foolishly. Honestly that’s a fucked up weapon to include but hey, whatever keeps you on your toes. The requisite screen clearing bombs are in short supply and like Sunset Riders you can pick up dynamite and throw it back but I was never brave enough to try. One last power-up you’ll rarely see is tied to a meter at the bottom of the screen that builds up as you kill enemies; once full your are granted the V-Gun, able to decimate foes in seconds. Too bad it doesn’t carry over from one level to the next.
With just 6 levels Wild Guns isn’t long. It’s challenging enough that it will take a few hours to finish but luckily the game is so fun you’ll go back to it more than once. My only other issue with the game is that the lasso could have been assigned to a separate button; in the heat of combat it’s all too easy to forget to hold the fire button for rapid fun and tap it repeatedly and execute a series of lasso throws. Come on, there are six buttons on an SNES controller and 3 are unused!
With its sci-fi meets Wild West setting Wild Guns is certainly unique. The enemies and mechs are all well designed and the backgrounds feature many destructible elements. The boss battles pit you against massive screen filling robots with fun patterns to decipher. The game is not too big on special effects, instead relying on boss art direction with the only noticeable effect being the heat haze from destroying the bosses. Wild Guns wouldn’t look out of place in an arcade cabinet in my opinion and actually that is where this style of game is most popular.
Since it was released in mid 1995 Wild Guns isn’t too popular. But now is the time to rediscover a lost gem from the 16-bit age. Cabal style shooters aren’t too common and frequently terrible but when they hit all the right notes are truly something special, a distinction which fits Wild Guns perfectly.