I love scrolling shooters. Call them what you want: SHMUP, Bullet Hell, just-plain-’shooters’; this is one of my favorite video game genres. One of my earliest experiences in this classic style was Galaga. I used to drop quarter-after-quarter into the arcade cab at my local pizza parlor as a kid. My dentist office had a tabletop version of Gorf in the waiting room. My home time was often dominated by Life Force. It just goes on and on. Over the last fifteen years or so, I have been getting more and more into the Japanese Bullet Hell games like the Touhou shooters, Ikaruga, DoDonPachi, Giga Wing and other genre staples. Many of these games have something in common: flying. Whether you are soaring through the clouds as a magical anime girl or a mecha-sci-fi-fighter-jet, you are almost always skybound. So, if you are feeling airsick, maybe you can enjoy unnaturally scurrying along the Southeastern American desert for a shot at Gun.Smoke.
Capcom’s shooter (ported to the NES from arcades) is an excellent, unique and challenging NES shooter and collectors, fans of the genre, or fans of the NES should give this one a shot. If you were put off by the name or the setting, don’t be. Yes, it shares the name with a bland-but-popular Old West TV series from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (minus the copyright-safe period in the title), but it is its own experience. Gun.Smoke takes the typical scrolling shooter tropes and adds some of its own flavor. First up, you have its distinctly Western theme and when Gun.Smoke was introduced to gamers in 1985 it had to catch at least a few people off-guard.
Uncommon theme aside though, where Gun.Smoke shines in its mechanics. Instead of having a traditional fire button, it has two. The B and A buttons on the NES controller represent left and right firing directions, respectively. This forces the player to use the firing angle to target enemies in the periphery or use combinations of buttons to fire forwards. Movement is also very quick, and ruthless enemies harass with bullets and take cover to shield themselves from your bullet onslaught from a near-endless supply of barrels and other obstacles. There are also the wanted posters, too. These are required to uncover the level boss in every level to beat him and progress, otherwise the level will loop forever. The goal is to find the hidden items, accumulate cash and buy the necessary upgrades and posters from shops in each level that you cannot pick up for free to make the boss fights as quick and painless as possible.
Because of this design, Gun.Smoke can feel a bit repetitive at first. However, once you familiarize yourself with the levels and the various tricks to beating the tough-as-nails bosses and the quick ways to find the wanted posters that do not require loop-after-loop of money-grinding, the flow becomes more about the classic shooter style, rather than a constant barrage of endlessly-looping cowboy-riddled landscapes. The two-guns gameplay adds to this as well, requiring you to think your way through the fights as they come, but this comes with a price: Gun.Smoke is hard. Very, very hard. I would place it up there with Alpha Mission and Abadox as one of the harder shooters on the NES. It is ruthless and requires you to not only master the directional shooting but also familiarize yourself with the location of items hidden in the game world.
Gun.Smoke is a beast of a game and fans of the genre should find enjoyment here. Fortunately for collectors, this game will not break the bank. At the time of me writing this article, the game is running around $15, but that may increase as this has sort of become a lost classic and more and more people are jumping on the opportunity to pick up a copy. It is the rare occasion of an NES game that did not pick up momentum in its popularity until many years after the NES was discontinued, so the demand for it is there. I would say, if you love the NES, love shooters, and love a punishing challenge, Gun.Smoke may sate the masochist without punishing the wallet.