Game-slinger! A short history of the Western shoot ’em up


You’re not paranoid. Really. Aliens, zombies, gangsters and of course wild west villains, have had it in for you for half a century.

Ever since 1962 when MIT ubergeeks announced Spacewar, the first computer combat game, it was only a matter of time before the game setting would shift from deep space to Wild West and the aliens become trigger-happy cowboys. And with it came some of the best gaming one-liners.

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1971: “You have died of dysentery”

It was American schoolkids who first got a taste of Wild West weaponry, in The Oregon Trail. Not a shoot ‘em as such, it introduced kids to the challenges faced by early settlers, one of which was hunting for your dinner. There were no graphics though. Whether or not you hit your prey was based on how fast you could type “WHAM”, “POW” or “BANG”. Spell it wrong and you go hungry.


There were no gunfights, but you could be told at at any time that you’ve died from a snakebite, exhaustion, dysentery, to name a few. The game is still being developed today, spreading the pleasure of dysentery death on multiple platforms.

1975: “Got me!”

Although Space Invaders is usually thought of as the original shoot ‘em up, its designer Tomohiro Nishikado, had already brought out Gun Fight two years earlier. Aiming, firing, dodging, or falling down dead of course, yelling “Got me!” as you go – all with graphics not so different from computer tennis. It was the first to pit human against human, the first to show a gun onscreen – and the first of many Japanese computer games to make it huge in the US.

1984: “I’ll get every last one of ’em!”

Advances in technology haven’t always brought better games. In Badlands you’re Buck, a man bent on revenge for your family’s murder. You’ve got ten bad guys to kill – and single button to do the job. With its animated cartoon graphics, Badlands might have looked awesome compared with other games of the time – but all you could do as a player was hit that button at exactly the right moment. If you didn’t you died and it was often unplayable – and the sudden appearance of dinosaurs was, well, odd.

Bank Panic, released the same year, hit closer to the mark on gameplay. You’re a sheriff, protecting a bank and customers from robbers. Civilians get in the way, bombs need to be destroyed, and you get more points for only killing the bad guys after they’ve drawn on you. The success of the game in the arcades saw it transferred to other platforms, like ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, making it the first mass market Wild West computer game.

Nerdy fact – get all the bad guys and a young boy celebrates by peeping up ladies’ skirts.

1994: “Don’t shoot innocent folks!”

With the 90s came games like Lethal Enforcers II: Gunfighters. It was still all about pointing and shooting (but not at civilians, whose blood could win you a demotion to deputy) but this time with a choice of arsenal, from 50 calibre sharps and rifles to gatling guns and cannons.

And as if cowboys and gunfights weren’t enough, a few 90s games started to pour whole barrels of gore into the action – with some, most notably Blood and SilverLoad, introducing black magic and werewolves. Maybe not strictly cowboy.

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2012: “You talk too much, bud!”

Of course the faster computers of the last decade or so have allowed the shoot ‘em up to shift up to a whole new level. ‘Open world’ 3d games like Gun: Showdown sometimes feel more like movies than games – letting you explore the characters’ worlds with side missions, combat on horseback, and of course an even wider range of weaponry.

So what really does make for the best cowboy shoot ‘em up? What gets your trigger finger twitching and keeps the dysentery at bay? Dazzling graphics? Crazy characters? Believable backstory? Or just lots and lots of bad guys? Answers in the style of Wild West shoot ‘em up one liners please!…

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