Wild Gunman: How Nintendo's "baby's toy" changed games forever

This "baby's toy" had a far bigger impact than you realize.

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Nowadays, most people's first recollection of Wild Gunman comes from Back to the Future Part 2. Nintendo's western shooter makes a brief cameo in the scene where Marty wanders into Cafe '80s, the 2015 version of his favorite Hill Valley soda shop.

But even though the 1985 NES version of Wild Gunman is downright ancient as far as contemporary gaming sensibilities go, it's actually been around for far longer. It's responsible for an unlikely alliance between rival gaming powerhouses, and even inspired a highbrow art-world takedown of traditional American masculinity. Let's dive in to the history of Wild Gunman you probably never knew.

You can practically feel the cotton candy clinging to your fingers when you play Wild Gunman. With the stunning visuals of modern AAA titles like The Last of Us Part II and Final Fantasy VII Remake, it's easy overlook the arcade lineage of modern console gaming. Bundled with a plastic gun that's far more Nerf than Tombstone, playing Wild Gunman on the NES feels just a small step removed from old-timey amusement parks and county fairs. It's an arcade game in the clearest sense of the word, even if its enduring influence on contemporary AAA titles like Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 is still keenly felt.

But that arcade cabinet featured in Back to the Future 2 never actually existed in the real world. In the DVD commentary for the movie, screenwriter Bob Gale revealed that the machine in Cafe '80s was specifically made from the film. Wild Gunman was later playable in some arcades via Nintendo's PlayChoice-10 machines, which contained variable libraries of first- and third-party games that were originally released on the NES. These machines — and the individual chip boards for each game — have since become pretty rare, but can occasionally be found on eBay or specialist collector's sites.

"That's like a baby's toy!"

Still, Wild Gunman's origins can be traced back to arcades. The earliest version of Nintendo's shooting gallery was actually released in Japan all the way back in 1974. Two years later, it was released in North America by Nintendo's soon-to-be greatest rival: Sega. The machine took arcade patrons by storm on both sides of the Pacific.

According to Ken Horowitz, author of 2018's The Sega Arcade Revolution, "Wild Gunman was highly advanced for its time, and arcade operators liked the machine despite its gargantuan size. It was considered by many to be a great way to generate interest in their locations."

Front and back of an archival flyer depicting the 1974 arcade unit and some of the cowpokes you'll face in Nintendo / Sega's Wild Gunman.

Image courtesy of the International Arcade Museum / Museum of the Game

This '70s version of the game looked wildly different from the one most of us know and love, more reminiscent of the full-motion video fad popularized by games like Night Trap and Mad Dog McCree on the Sega-CD and 3DO consoles of the early '90s. It featured a light gun and a 16mm projection screen that showed footage of men dressed as cowboys. When their eyes flashed, that was your signal to draw and shoot.

This early version of Wild Gunman was created by early Nintendo pioneer Gunpei Yokoi, who is credited with inventing the cross-shaped control pad, the Game Boy, and a leading creative talent on franchises like Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Donkey Kong.

The Ultimate History of Video Games YouTube channel uploaded this playtest of the 1974 arcade game in 2018.

This early version of Wild Gunman also inspired a 1978 conceptual film by experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin, which iMDB describes as follows:

The mythic nature of cowboy masculinity is deconstructed in this scathing montage of re-contextualized sounds and images culled from advertising, television, arcade game footage and other pop culture iconography.

While it's not possible to embed Baldwin's Wild Gunman in full here, as a former volunteer at the Whitney Museum, I can tell you that it's like many other experimental films: aggressively loud, mostly unpleasant, and best enjoyed as an excuse to sit down without one of the docents giving you stink-eye.

A screenshot of the Nintendo arcade game as depicted in Baldwin's 'Wild Gunman.'


Snark aside, video games were still widely considered junk culture or mere toys in the '70s and '80s. Baldwin's inclusion of Wild Gunman within a broader argument about American ideology and values presages the broader cultural impact and significance of games that continues to expand today. Occupying a unique transitional role between arcade and console gaming, Wild Gunman's impact was far bigger than the NES alone.

8-Bit Week is an Inverse celebration of the classic — and forgotten — games that pushed the boundaries of interactive entertainment in the 1980s and beyond.

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