It is that rare 16-bit title to not let you kill everything that moves. Konami’s platform shooter western Sunset Riders spares an Indian’s life, Chief Wigwam, if not his stereotyped status. It is not as simple as letting him go, but presumably his daughter who dives into the fight, announcing in wonderfully retro compressed speech, that Wigwam was only following orders. It would have been far kinder if she had stopped him before he threw countless knives at the player, but it is still a change of pace.
There is little doubt Sunset Riders was born from Contra, or more specifically Contra III. At times, Sunset Riders feels like a bit of an expansion, adding different characters (really two split into four thanks to sprite swaps) and settings. That is not being fair to Riders however, which differentiates itself in terms of pacing, color, and character.
Nothing in Contra carries much personality. Faceless aliens, giant peering eyes, UFOs, and other Red Falcon lackeys exist to shoot at. Riders’ spends time, however minimal, with its bosses. Each is given an introduction, particularly the Smith brothers who throw a helpless woman out of a swinging door. It adds to the parade of pink and green bullets, giving it a small purpose and story impact.
Riders is infinitely more colorful as well. Despite the specifically hot, grungy appearance of Contra III, Riders is more of a pastel, that colorful western Hollywood loved to produce on a dime to an eager audience. You can imagine John Wayne rejecting a script involving a 500-pound behemoth with big red lips named Paco Loco, but a studio producing it anyway for the money.
It is cheap, but in a respectful way, a loving homage to those spaghetti westerns mixed with a wonderfully smooth, satisfying shooter. Riders is almost casual in its nature, the slower pace (significantly so compared to the arcade) lending a gentler air to the proceedings. Even the characters play casually, the pink-pancho wearing Cormano shoving his dual shotguns under his shirt as if no one saw him kill the 60 enemies prior to the boss.
Sunset Riders was censored for its home ports (Genesis and SNES), removing a full plate of Indian and female enemies, dressing the few woman who remain more conservatively, and changing Chief Scalpem to Wigwam. The effect on gameplay was negligible at best, the major change being the removal of a four-player option, although this was more for profits than any gameplay benefit. With crowded real estate, players feel less involved, and the pacing feels off as well.