After Bioforge last week I was trying to think of another old favorite with gameplay that would still seem original today. The Commodore 64’s Law of the West immediately came to mind. The concept couldn’t be simpler – you’re a sheriff doing his rounds until sunset. No name, no stats, no cutscenes. Just dialogue with the fine townsfolk of Gold Gulch interrupted by occasional gunplay.
Not Much Game
As I watched the entire 13 minute playthrough I was struck by how little actual game there is. Your perspective is from behind the sheriff’s back with gun hand hovering over a holstered pistol. It’s impressive how economical the whole thing is and how much it got from four backgrounds and very little animation.
Tiny individual townsfolk walk out and start conversing. After each statement you are given one of four responses. After three exchanges the encounter ends. I think that’s why I replayed the game so obsessively. There are a lot of permutations and most encounters turn hostile or friendly depending on your approach. While it seems beyond obvious now, this was the very first use of dialogue options in a game. Before this we simply never had a choice of what to say.
Some conversations lead to alternate scenes; be sweet enough to the Miss Rose the saloon owner and she’ll let slip that a bank robbery is about to occur and your rounds get interrupted foiling the robbery. The “action” consisted of drawing your gun and awkwardly aiming the reticle with the joystick. It was hard; the more difficult encounters had tiny black sprites on black backgrounds. They moved quickly and shot you within a few seconds while your aim moved slowly.
Getting shot meant death unless your encounter with the belligerent, alcoholic town doctor ended on friendly terms. You return to duty a blood soaked bandage wrapped around your arm. The nature of the C64 upped the stakes considerably to my impatient child mind. Death required flipping the disk over and restarting, a loud process that took at least 5 real minutes to end.
Aside from the tiny townsfolk the only thing that animated was you lower arm from the elbow, tracking your aiming as you moved the target across the screen. With only the elbow working it turned grotesque if you forced it to track somewhere unnatural.
Efficient Game Design
Despite the sparse gameplay the game managed to constantly startle me. Some townsfolk were tricky and would pull out their weapon before the customary 3 exchanges occurred, or pretend to walk into a building peacefully only to open fire from a window. The music gave clues, ranging from ominous for the mexican gunfighter to sassy for the criminal frontierswoman (who shot you quickly if you strayed too far into casual old-west misogyny).
Being an immigrant, the game also introduced me to an entire new old west vocabulary. Tinhorn, painted jezebel, cahoots, cattle rustlin – the words mystified me for years until I ran into them again in westerns and could decode through context.
The game’s simplicity and slight variety drove it’s replayability. Unlike more complex games there was the tantalizing prospect of discovering every permutation and having the perfect game. I never managed it and I don’t think I got tired of the game. There was an agonizing period where the disk read intermittently and then died before I could make a copy.
Of all the games I’ve reminisced over, this would hold up least and would seem the most simplistic but there’s a very smart core in there. By removing all abstractions and boiling the action down to a simple but difficult reflex driven mechanic that echoes the real motion the lone programmer (Accolade’s co-founder Alan Milner with his first and only game) could focus on a wide variety of interactions that were all meaningful.
Law of the West was one of Accolade’s launch titles in 1985 and the company grew and put out a string of successful games. The Test Drive series being the longest lasting, evolving from 1987 to 2011. Alan Milner left in 1995 and the former CEO of FAO Schwarz (the massive toy retailer with the giant piano that Tom Hanks dances on in Big) took over before leaving a few years later.
Accolade also had the distinction of being the first company to reverse engineer the Sega Genesis so they can program for the platform without using Sega’s proprietary hardware. Sega sued and partially lost ushering in the age of 3rd party developers.
A Hong Kong based company bought the brand recently to revive the Bubsy franchise. By a strange coincidence that Bubsy game is coming out tomorrow on Steam. I only realized when searching for an image of who the fuck Bubsy was.
I knew and loved Accolade for the amazing Test Drive, Hardball and other sports titles. All of which I had considered doing for this column previously. There’s an entire ecosystem of console titles I didn’t know exist.