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Boot Hill (Arcade) artwork

Boot Hill (Arcade) review

"The Good, the Bad, and the Blocky"

Midway Games was one of the early pioneers of video game violence. The now-defunct video game company is perhaps most famous for creating the Mortal Kombat series, a popular fighting game franchise that managed to steal some thunder from Capcom’s Street Fighter series with its digitized actors and gory finishing moves. Along with Digital Pictures’ Night Trap, an infamous victim of media sensationalism and misinterpretation, Mortal Kombat was one of the games that led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board in 1994. Paranoid parents and pesky politicians didn’t want little Johnny ripping his friends’ spines out, so the choice was between an age rating system and government censorship. Looking back, going with the former option was definitely the right move.

Mortal Kombat was not Midway’s first violent video game, just the first to get a significant amount of media attention. In the fall of 1975, Midway released a more family-friendly video arcade game called Gun Fight, which was an adaptation of Taito’s Western Gun. Gun Fight presented a simulation of a duel between two Old West cowboys armed with revolvers. Compared to Mortal Kombat, the violence in Gun Fight was innocent and cartoonish, with the cowboys comically falling over and shouting “GOT ME!” when shot. There was nothing for moral guardians to complain about here. Instead, they focused their attention on Exidy’s Death Race, a game in which you would run over pedestrians – sorry, “gremlins” – with your vehicle in order to earn points, all while leaving many tombstone obstacles in your path.

Gun Fight was an instant hit with consumers, who were drawn in by its advanced graphics and addictive multiplayer gameplay. As the very first video arcade game to use a microprocessor, Gun Fight could display sprites for characters and objects that actually resembled what they were supposed to be, as opposed to the usual abstract lines and blocks. While the game was never as successful as Golden Age classics such as Space Invaders, it still performed well enough to earn several home ports and clones for a variety of platforms. The success of Gun Fight also taught Midway that they wouldn’t have to rely solely on Pong clones such as Winner to compete with their rivals in the video arcade game industry.

With a potential cash cow on their hands, Midway naturally decided to produce a sequel to Gun Fight. Dave Nutting Associates, the developer of Gun Fight, was hired once again to design this follow-up. The sequel, Boot Hill, was released exclusively to arcades in March of 1977. Named after a common term for Old West gunslingers’ final resting places, Boot Hill was basically an updated version of Gun Fight, boasting improved graphics as well as the option of playing against a computer-controlled opponent. With these enhancements, surely the game must be the definitive version of Midway’s classic, right?

Boot Hill has the same basic premise and gameplay as its 1975 precursor. Each player uses a pair of joysticks to control a cowboy armed with a revolver. The left joystick moves the cowboy in eight directions. The right joystick, which is shaped like the handle of a gun, changes the direction that the cowboy’s revolver is pointing. Finally, a trigger button on the right joystick is used to fire bullets. The objective of the game is to shoot the other player’s cowboy more times than they shoot you within a time limit of 60 to 90 seconds. The player with the highest score at the end of the play session wins.

Players are free to move wherever they want on their side of the playfield, but they cannot cross over to their opponent’s side. The players’ revolvers come loaded with six bullets each, just like real revolvers. When a player is shot, their corpse floats toward the background, and gets replaced with a tombstone. After this, a point is awarded to the player who nailed their target, and both players are returned to their starting positions with refilled bullets. When a player runs out of bullets, the opposing player has five seconds to attempt to shoot their defenseless adversary before their positions are reset once again. If both players completely exhaust their bullet supplies, their positions will be reset immediately.

The primitive cover system from Gun Fight returns in Boot Hill, with some minor changes. When a player is shot, a cactus appears on their side of the playfield. There can be up to three of them on each side. You can take cover behind a cactus and fire bullets straight through it, but a cactus on your opponent’s side of the playfield will block your shots unless you destroy it by shooting it a couple of times. There is also a covered wagon at the bottom of the screen, which starts moving from the foreground to the background on a loop after one of the players has been shot four times. The wagon will block both players’ bullets, and it cannot be destroyed. Following the wagon can be useful for dodging bullets.

Whenever the players refill their revolvers, any destroyed cactus will be restored, so you may want to avoid wasting bullets on them. Instead, you can try to catch the other player off guard by firing at the top and bottom borders of the screen. Your bullets will ricochet off the borders, and will probably hit your rival in the head or the foot if they’re not paying attention to their surroundings. Your opponent can do the same to you, of course, but it’s less likely to happen if you’re playing against the computer player, as he appears to favor a basic shooting strategy over more advanced gunplay techniques.

While the multiplayer gameplay in Boot Hill is just as thrilling as it was in the earlier Gun Fight, the added single-player mode doesn’t carry the same amount of excitement, and loses its appeal after a few sessions. For newcomers, the computer player will provide a decent level of challenge, as he moves around the playfield in a somewhat random manner and is fairly conservative with his bullets. However, the computer player does not increase in skill as the game progresses. Veteran gamers should have no trouble getting a feel for the computer player’s patterns and defeating them in combat every time.

Boot Hill also has a much greater flaw that will probably go unnoticed by those who never played Gun Fight, but still deserves mentioning. The game only offers a single play session per credit. Gun Fight, on the other hand, allowed players to have up to four sessions per credit, depending on the hardware settings. Why did they make this change? Did they think no one would notice? To be fair, the video game community was still rather small in the seventies compared to today, so consumers probably didn’t notice, but this game was released in 1977. Just one year later, games like Space Invaders would set new standards not only for gameplay quality, but also game length. Video arcade games that could only be played for about a minute before having to insert another quarter just wouldn’t cut it anymore.

The only real advantage that Boot Hill has over the more popular Gun Fight is its improved presentation. The former game recycles many of the latter’s sprites for characters and objects, while offering a greater sense of depth. With the exception of bullets, the sprites shrink as they move further away from the bottom of the screen. Instead of having a pitch-black background, Boot Hill projects its sprites onto a colorful, pre-drawn image of a countryside dirt road, leading up to a desolate cemetery in the distance. Midway would go on to use a similar technique for some of their later games, including Space Invaders.

The audio has also been updated. Gun Fight only featured the sounds of gun shots, but Boot Hill also includes several public domain fanfares that play in specific situations. For example, “Funeral March” plays whenever Player 1 is shot and killed, while “Taps” plays on the Game Over screen. The music quality is primitive by today’s standards, and clearly uses only one sound channel, but it still provides a bit of extra charm to this otherwise simplistic action game. It was still uncommon for video games to have any kind of music at all, whether it’s stock or original, so Boot Hill earns some points for this.

At the time of its release, Boot Hill was a decent, if rather underwhelming update to Midway’s first big hit. The multiplayer gameplay is just as much fun as the original, and the extra effort that went into the presentation certainly makes it appear more attractive than its precursor. However, the advertised computer opponent is too easy to defeat, and the play sessions are too short to warrant spending multiple quarters on the same game. Incidentally, some of the home versions and clones of Gun Fight also allow you to face a computer opponent. Since you can play those for free, there’s hardly any reason to play Boot Hill today, outside of curiosity about the early history of the video arcade game industry. Boot Hill may have impressed some players with its looks, but at least Gun Fight died with its boots on.


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Community review by Midcore (September 07, 2018)

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