Wild Wild West: 11 Western Games Worth Playing
A countdown of the best western video games in anticipation of Rockstar’s new smash hit
The Wild West has always attracted the hearts of those seeking freedom and adventure. Whether it be for the vast prairies and beautiful sunsets in the desert, the thrill of the sheriff and his deputies chasing outlaws or all those classic movies with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, gamers have always been eager to dive deep into this theme.
That’s why, with the sequel to the best western (and not only western) game in history just around the corner, we’d like to recap the history of Western games, to remember how we got here.
The Oregon Trail (1971)
It started over 40 years ago when a small group of developers from Minnesota set out to make a brief, replayable and educational video game for students of all ages. They wanted to put players in the shoes of 19th century pioneers and capture the gritty reality of the times.
In two short weeks, they finished The Oregon Trail – a text-based strategy video game in which you set out with a party of pioneers from Missouri to Oregon, trying hard to survive against the hardships that the land had to offer.
The game was received somewhat poorly at first but became a sleeper hit when it received new editions almost a decade later, with new graphics and fleshed out features in the same format. The gameplay might have been simple, but the replayable survival experience was very well received.
To this day, the game is considered an inspirational and innovative cult classic with countless parodies and homages.
These days, game developers are trying hard to capture the essence of dueling against a virtual opponent, in virtual reality or with touchless controls like the Kinect. It’s a shame that they seem to be reinventing the wheel, since back in 1985, we already had the pinnacle of dueling in the form of Nintendo’s Wild Gunman.
Along with Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley, this was one of Nintendo’s genre defining titles. It made use of a very light, very cheaply made light gun, that we’d point at our ancient CRTs and hear that all-too-familiar bit-crushed ‘’BANG’’ when we pulled the trigger.
It was a very basic technology, but it really made us feel like cowboys. The controls were super responsive and accuracy didn’t seem to be a problem at all. The game went down in history as an absolute legend of Western video gaming.
Yet another trip down nostalgia lane – Sunset Riders was an absolutely unforgettable experience for anyone growing up in the early 90s. This was an arcade title that supported 4 player coop with smooth and satisfying gunplay and an absolutely masterful soundtrack.
There was no getting away from Sunset Riders back in those days. Kids couldn’t resist the quality of the game, and arcade owners couldn’t allow themselves to not own a copy of it.
The game did a great job of squeezing out the maximum potential of its machine, offering gamers a full-fledged, cinematic cowboy experience.
This game was just plain weird. It took American stereotypes, mixed them with non-sequitur themes and pushed the envelope on unnecessary design directions. You play as one of four cowboys, battling cyberpunk-themed robotic enemies, across a 19th century western frontier. It’s Sunset Riders on steroids.
Oddly enough, this weird formula appealed quite a bit to consumers. The game, while less popular than Sunset Riders, became a cult classic. It even got remastered for modern consoles in 2016. And the remaster lets you play as a small dog that single handedly saves the world from killer robots, so the game definitely stands out as a unique western title.
Wild Arms came about in 1996 as a commission by Sony for a video game that would help them showcase the amazing 3D capabilities of their new console, the PlayStation. The game is a very odd combination of Final Fantasy-like gameplay in a western themed world. It’s made further strange by the addition of over-the-top fantastical elements like magic and various humanoid races.
It’s one of those Japanese titles that breaks the mold and goes in its own direction, trying to tell a story that is internally consistent but makes absolutely no sense at face value.
And, while the game was almost entirely two-dimensional, the 3D combat sequences are in fact quite memorable. These days, Wild Arms is more commonly known as an all-encompassing franchise than a video game series, as it comes with its own manga and anime adaptations, mobile games, and even musical albums.
Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive
Most people these days remember Desperados as a playable demo of a game they received in a box of Frosties back in 2001. It came out during a very saturated period of triple-A video games that were taking up all the spotlights, and even though it was heavily marketed, it still managed to slip under the radar.
Regardless, Desperados managed to snag really good reviews across the board, and everyone who played it has fond memories of it. The gameplay was extremely unique for the western genre, although the formula had been tried before in other settings. It was essentially a Commandos variant, with a top-down isometric perspective. Officially it’s referred to as a real-time tactics game.
The game and its two sequels might not have exploded into the mainstream, but Desperados certainly did a great job entertaining our young minds back in 2001. The graphics were gorgeous and made full use of the monitor resolutions we were used to back then. The art direction was on point and the gameplay was gripping. This game is one of those unknown classics that you want to reminisce about with other people that vaguely remember playing it back in the day.
Darkwatch: Curse of the West
Darkwatch was a real odd-man-out, but it was a barrel of fun. It combined the age-old Star Wars honor system, where your character is constantly faced with having to decide whether to be ‘’good’’ or ‘’bad’’. And just like in Star Wars games, which magical powers you chose to use determined the nature of your character.
The story, while unoriginal, was absolutely riveting – you play as a man who accidentally released a vampire lord from captivity. You are then forced by a group of vampire hunters, to hunt him down and gun down as many monsters as you can along the way. Problem is, you’re turning into a vampire yourself. Classic.
The choice between good and evil is essentially the choice between using vampiric powers or human ones. It’s also worth noting that the game has an added mechanic of not letting you use vampiric powers when you’re exposed to daylight.
The strangest thing about this game is that in between all of these fantastical elements, it is in fact, a western. It does take place in the 19th century frontier, and you are in fact a cowboy of sorts. The game isn’t particularly talked about these days because it was only available on PS2 and Xbox, but if you’ve got one of those consoles lying around, or are up to the emulation challenge, you should definitely give the game a shot.
Neversoft pretty much kicked off the high definition cowboy season that we’re used to today, with their 2005 title ‘’GUN’’. This game pioneered everything we know and love about modern cowboy shooters. The game got so much right, that it’s no wonder that it was an absolute award grabber when it first came out.
What was so great about GUN? Well, it was a fully open world third person shooter, that let the player feel like a cowboy. You could ride horses, rescue damsels, drink hard liquor and explore the untamed west.
The game was a great example of developers working within their limits. The game’s world is rather small by today’s standards, but the level designers managed to place enough assets in just the right spots so that the world feels realistic. There are no pointlessly large expansions of land in GUN – every filthy alleyway has its moment in the sun.
The shooting was super responsive, extremely accurate and just all-around fun. Even the story, which could have easily been left as pointless padding, was so fleshed out that it felt like watching a quality western throughout. GUN remains an absolute landmark of western gaming.
Call of Juarez
Game developer Techland created a very similar game to GUN the following year, ‘’Call of Juarez’’, but took it in a wildly different direction. Instead of playing it safe, and coding within the box, they went all out. They experimented with new graphical features and a more advanced form of gameplay, essentially setting the stage for the three other westerns that they later made within the same universe.
This is why Call of Juarez appears to be ages ahead of GUN, even though it only came out a year later. The game was an absolute delight to play, and while it didn’t sell very well in The States, it helped spark the Call of Juarez franchise and received critical acclaim.
Red Steel 2
Red Steel 2 is yet another western title that combined genres that are mutually exclusive, with gameplay mechanics that are not at all intuitive for the topic at hand. The original Red Steel was strictly oriental – very eastern. The sequel, on the other hand, kept all the oriental elements and tacked on western ones, with no forced symbiosis. In other words, you play as a cowboy with a katana, who battles ninjas atop a steam train.
The combination of these two themes might not have been intuitive but it made for a ridiculously unique experience. And, coupled with the Wii controls and first person perspective, this game easily sucked you into its cel-shaded world.
The best thing about Red Steel 2 is that it’s obvious that the developers didn’t care about coloring within the lines. They had a particular vision that they followed to fruition, quite expertly, and we got an amazing game out of it.
Red Dead Redemption
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of this game. The western to end all westerns, Red Dead Redemption. It’s GTA, with horses. When this game first came out in 2010, PC gamers had no choice but to kick themselves, in knowing they’d never get to play it.
It’s almost offensive to even try to describe how all-encompassing and amazing this game was when it first came out. Rockstar are very well known for fleshing out complete gaming experiences and leaving no stone unturned in the refining process of their games.
Red Dead Redemption was a staggeringly beautiful cinematic experience, throughout which the player had full control. The game was linear, and it still felt like you were writing your own story. The graphics were so groundbreaking that they hold their own against 2018 standards, with Xbox One backwards compatibility; the story was gripping and emotional, the gameplay was smooth and seamless and the awards were countless.
The only thing missing… is the sequel. We’ve been waiting for 8 years now for what will undoubtedly be an absolute gem of video gaming. Now, it’s just a few weeks before we get back in the saddle.