After the dust settles, only Billy Bob Thornton remains
When you think of the term “shoot em up”, you either think of a game where you play as a space ship and shoot up aliens or other space ships, or a piece of entertainment where people are shooting things up. Either way, cowboys versus Indians isn't exactly the first thing you think of when it comes to shoot em ups on the NES, but by the end of the game, you'll be satisfied by how much adversity you've overcome as a badass gunslinger. It's also worth noting that this isn't a mere 8-bit version of the arcade original as there are many, many differences – there are less bosses and they have their names and clothes changed for the most part, but there are shops and more guns to purchase than just your dual pistols.
A bounty hunter by the name of Billy Bob makes his way into Hicksville after learning that a gang known as the Wingates have been causing trouble. Billy Bob makes his way from Hicksville to the stronghold, eliminating each gang member one by one and getting paid handsomely for it. The opening slideshow does a good enough job of setting up the game, and from there, you're just shooting up bandits and Indians who dare to get in your way. This isn't exactly Tennyson we're dealing with here folks, it's a Nintendo game.
There will be blood.
The idea is to shoot outlaws down while dodging their projectiles and hoping not to hit them... because they're covered with poison or something. Unfortunately, it seems like Billy Bob has a problem with his legs as he can only stop moving forwards during a boss fight and whilst at a shop. Other than that, he's constantly on the move! The controls are a bit different from what you'd be used to – pressing both buttons together will shoot forwards (or upwards as we see it), but pressing A will direct your bullets more to the right and B directs them to the left. Getting used to them is required as there are plenty of moments where shooting to the left or right will save your hide where shooting directly ahead of you will get you killed, plus enemies tend to come from both directions, often in packs and will often attack straight ahead. In particular, bosses are a lot easier if you shoot more to the side because being straight in front of them is often suicide as they take multiple hits, have moments of invincibility, and fire projectiles that go in front of them and/or in multiple directions. Plus... I don't know if it's just me, but pressing both buttons isn't always reliable because it's easy to slip and only hit one button, screwing up your shot. In short, after the initial hump (which isn't long, thankfully), it becomes second nature and very useful when given where enemy spawn points tend to be.
Billy Bob is given quite a lot to work with. On top of his dual pistols, he can buy a shotgun, which fires a spread shot of five bullets; a machine gun, which continually fires while you hold the button; a magnum, which does a lot of damage and goes through enemies; and smart bombs, which will kill all enemies if you get hit while equipped with it. However, the store bought weapons require ammo that you'll find throughout each level as represented by bullet icons, so at least these are balanced out fine enough. If you die and have a store bought weapon equipped, well, let's just say that the bandits will take it away from you, meaning you'll need to buy it again. Raising money isn't too hard, though, because you get money for killing bandits, as well as finding money bags inside barrels. You can also find power ups that'll increase your firing range, your movement speed, give you a horse that can give you a few extra hit points (Billy Bob himself abides by the one hit death rule), give you temporary invincibility, wipe out all enemies on screen and... well, there's the typical dickish “power up” that downgrades you in the form of a cow skull...
...and I cannot fathom why, but you'll also find wanted posters, which are required in order to earn the privelege of fighting the boss, and if you don't get this poster, then the level loops... why? These things are invisible until you shoot at the square that occupy! Thankfully, you can take advantage of the loop and raise more money so you can buy a wanted poster. But... why not just let us face the boss at the end? Sure, the game is only 25 minutes long, but damn, this sucker gets hard after the second level when it starts throwing large gangs of enemies at you that can fire spread shots or just be at the right place at the right time, while the bosses are even more relentless, meaning that time can be extended by its challenging difficulty, not... this! That's the only real flaw with this game because otherwise, it's a fun and fast paced affair, full of enemies to shoot up with a decent variety of weapons and bosses that can really test your reflexes with simple yet tough patterns.
Hold on there shopkeep, I'll save you from these bandits.
The game looks good. The best part are the wanted posters at the beginning and end of each level – they manage to make the bosses look badass, like they're not exactly the kind of people you'd want to mess with unless you can take them down. There's a fair bit of detail put into their faces and given that it's all brown, it goes well with the wild west aesthetic. Speaking of which, you'll go through an old western town, mountains, an Indian camp and a somewhat medieval-esque castle – definitely feels like you're going through the old west. I'm surprised Mexico hasn't been mentioned in some way, shape or form, or maybe I had to wait until Red Dead Redemption for that. Either way, the dusty brown colors mixed with the details on the ground and distinguishable enemies manages to make the game look pretty good, not to mention like we're going through the wild, wild west.
The soundtrack is appropriately themed. Each song sounds very westerny, like we're about to go and gun down some varmint who stole our prostitute, although some liberties had to be taken as we are dealing with an 8 bit system here. Nevertheless, the feeling that some cowboys are playing their guitars and banjos is in there. The songs are also pretty likely to stick inside your head as they're fairly simplistic songs with many repetitions, even for an 8 bit soundtrack, but that's never a bad thing if the songs sound good... which they do.
Gun.Smoke gets an 8/10 for being one intense son of a gun. It's the kind of game that'll ease you into the mould before sending waves of enemies after you, but it also gives you enough tools to make things easier. It's really just the need to find the wanter posters that drags the game down a bit, and even then, you can get enough money to buy one so it's not a big deal. What is a big deal is that you feel like a badass bounty hunter in the old west, shooting up a gang of bandits who have the assistance of other bandits, Indians and ninjas. Heck, get in some robots and this game would be an automatic game of the year of all years.
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