5 Sunset Riders (Arcade/SNES)
Who doesn’t remember shelling out serious coinage at the local pizza parlor for a chance at target practice as Steve, Billy, Bob, or the illustrious Cormano. This side-scroller delivered exactly what it needed to: colorful bosses, multi-level action, and unlimited ammunition. In addition to the run-and-gun setup, certain levels found the titular Riders on horseback or fending off threats from the POV of each cowboy, which for the time was pretty darn cool. With bad guys named Sir Richard Rose or Chief Scalpem at the end of each level, Sunset Riders earns its rightful place here for boiling down the American Western to its most basic components: shoot, kill, repeat.
4 Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (PS3/XBox 360)
A good ol’ fashioned treasure hunt made up the premise of this throwback sequel, with little else to do than point, shoot, and explode. All very satisfying actions in their own right, and basically the founding principles of the American Old West. Gameplay followed the McCall brothers, giving players the option of choosing which sibling to embody during various missions. Through hill and dale, the McCall’s encounter scurrilous characters, oppressed natives, and a legit curse on the very fortune they seek, which ends in familial bloodshed. Juarez is the only dedicated first person shooter on this list, suggesting the Western is best presented with a broader perspective. But like a dust-swept anti-hero, that doesn’t keep this franchise from reloading, thus feistily earning the number 4 spot in this posse.
3 GUN (PS2/Xbox)
It’s hard to go wrong with such a straightforward title. Featuring the vocal talents of Ron Perlman, Lance Henriksen, (Deadwood’s own) Brad Dourif, Kris Kristofferson, and Thomas Jane, GUN demonstrated what was possible with just a little bit of ingenuity. While somewhat limited by the abilities of its host consoles, the game showed enough ambition for gamers to pick up where the graphics and story left off. Throw in some honestly fun side games of poker and cattle ranching (both would later appear in Red Dead Redemption), and it’s clear why this third ranking, user-friendly title deserves to be where it is. Also, players could scalp dead bodies, which no matter what is always a plus.
2 Oregon Trail (Old Ass Computers)
When people think of rootin’, tootin’ good times, undoubtedly the same four words come to mind: “Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.” That’s right, the proud creators of this learning game weren’t even from Oregon. But that didn’t stop the tough-as-nails consortium from introducing generation upon generation to the nitty-gritty of frontier living, replete with snakebite deaths, river fording, and even funerals. The graphics weren’t the best, but what Oregon Trail lacked in pixels it made up for in technical immersion. Sure the American Old West was about bandits and high noon hangings, but in between all that tough guy stuff was the day to day drudgery of food rationing and avoiding dysentery. This one gets the number two spot for exposing the harsh realities of the West to basically 3rd graders much in the way a father on the range teaches his young boy to shoot a gun to protect the farm while he’s out doing what men do.
1 Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360/PS3)
One of the greatest games on this list — if not one of the greatest games ever made, Rockstar’s boundary pushing sandboxer placed players in the boots of ex-bandit John Marston, tasked with rounding up his old gang in a desolate, turn-of-the century setting. As players horse-around beautifully rendered ponderosas, canyon trails, sleepy river towns, Mexican pueblos, and fancy mountainside cities, they encounter a growing starkness that comes to a head in the game’s heart-wrenching conclusion. The fact Red Dead was willing to sacrifice its main character for the sake of realism served to elevate this game from mere entertainment to sheer masterpiece worthy of real tears — and a dead eye’s respect.
There it is buckaroos, an indisputable grouping of the only games set in the American Old West worth writing home about. Think you can do a lick better? Then go ahead and make an honest fool of yourself trying, but don’t be surprised when things go south. Giddy up!