Erm… Spoiler warning for Mad Dog McCree .. I guess… Does that need a warning?…
If movies, T.V., and the unreliable 4-year-old-me memory are to be believed, the U.S. in the 80’s & 90’s was a haven of amusement complexes and arcade machines, which the U.K. never seemed to latch on to. As a kid growing up in the U.K. my gaming, like so many, started with home computing before moving on to SEGA consoles. Arcade machines were rarely seen out in the wild beyond a small handful sitting nervously amongst fruit machines or penny falls in seaside towns, and popping up sporadically in the foyer areas of larger cinemas. The only place I could guarantee a reasonable selection of arcade machines was at a bowling alley, so take my hand and join me back in the early 90’s as we push through the double doors and on to the garish carpet of Anytown’s bowling alley*. Past the newly opened Quasar laser tag, past the Addams Family Pinball machine, toward the arcade section, and marvel as you set eyes on a huge rear projection TV cabinet. A solitary tethered pistol in the holster, the words ‘Mad Dog McCree’ emblazoned across the top, and some grizzled prospector onscreen enticing you to part with whatever small change you had in your pocket to try and take down the outlaw.
Even factoring in the novelty of seeing arcade machines in the flesh, ‘Mad Dog McCree’ stood out from the crowd. Unlike the sprite based graphics of the machines around it, MDM was an FMV game relying on real actors and footage to transport some hapless kid with a few coins back to the old west. I’ve mentioned before how I’ve always been interested in the ways that game designers of yesteryear would sidestep the technical limitations of the time with ingenious workarounds; and let’s face it, if you wanted photo-realistic graphics three decades ago, then what better way than to just use real world footage?
Under the hood, the MDM arcade game used a laserdisc to store and playback the video footage. A kind of analogue precursor to the DVD, these LP size shiny discs had the handy feature of being able to almost instantly skip to any frame and continue playback; something out of the reach of tape based video which was more ubiquitous at the time. Even if you’re not particularly familiar with the exploits of Mr. McCree and his friends, you’ve almost certainly come across ‘Dragon’s Lair’ which took arcades by storm almost a decade earlier with its Disney-esque animation and utilising the same tech to gobble up coins with its own brand of QTE memory game.
At the time however, none of that mattered, all that mattered was the… probably few minutes total… that I ever played the MDM arcade machine. My parents controlled the flow of coins and I suspect they noticed pretty quickly that with only three lives before the game over screen, MDM did not represent good arcade value for money. Especially as it was likely one of the more expensive credits in the bowling alley. Aside from occasionally wondering whatever happened to the actors who played those parts, I can’t say that I really thought much about Mad Dog in the years between then and now, until a few months ago when I suddenly had the urge to see if it ever received a home port. And yeah, it did… and a kind of impressive number for such a niche title. You could pick it up for many of the early home CD consoles**, PC, and even a release on 3DS and PS3. The version I ended up playing was the Wii port (Mad Dog McCree: Gunslinger Pack) which comes bundled with two ‘sequels’ and probably stands as the easiest way to play with something resembling a light gun considering most people’s lack of CRT TV…. and the fact that there are many Nintendo Wii’s lying around in people’s attics alongside discarded Wii Fit boards.
Unfortunately, the WiiMote is a poor substitute for a light gun. Even if you’ve tucked it in to a plastic contraption to make it sort of look like one. There’s a lag to the movement which makes it feel less like a precision laser pointer, and more like you’re doing a powerpoint presentation with a long flexible piece of bamboo. And there’s no calibration to screen position which is fine for most Wii games, but for a light gun shooter means you have to rely on the onscreen crosshair. In short, for a game that’s mostly about quick drawing cowboys and fast reactions, it doesn’t perform well. Nonetheless, I have recently used what would likely be a month’s salary of credits to push through Mad Dog McCree on Wii, and scratch an itch that I didn’t really know that I had.
Like a slap in the face as soon as you press start, the acting forms both the worst and best that MDM has to offer. It’s a kitsch, poorly delivered, and wildly over the top vision of the wild west that is instantly enjoyable for its absurdity, except for that niggling feeling that at some point they may have been trying to deliver this seriously. I particularly enjoy the undertaker who appears every time you lose a life to have a stern word, before sending you back out to restart the scene. Locations are equally low-budget, from dusty streets, sparse interiors, and a surprising amount of indeterminate wasteland. However my combined arcade sentiment and nostalgia for a simpler time meant that I couldn’t help but enjoy it and admire the designers for running with the idea. They knew what they were going for, and in that respect, it kind of delivers.
Gameplay is firmly in rail shooter territory. Enemies go for their guns and you have to dispatch them with your trusty six-shooter. If you miss then the film continues to play and you get shot, otherwise there is a slightly jarring cut and you see the bandit fall to the ground. Of course ‘rail shooter’ is a little misleading as the camera never actually moves when the player is required to shoot anything. Presumably the designers thought that having to reset (or cut) for the actors to film their ‘death’ scenes whilst matching up camera movement would be too challenging. Whilst there is a heavy emphasis on remembering who jumps out when from previous playthroughs, there are also a reasonable number of locations where the sequence of pop-up-bad-guys is randomised. There’s also a few added decisions along the way to keep things interesting. Most involve picking where to travel to next in the search for Mad Dog, but clues about the best way to go can be gathered from helpful strangers if you manage to save them during key events.
Despite trying to keep things interesting, the game suffers when it come to the core gunplay. Being live action, there is a very specific time window when you can shoot each enemy and hitboxes that seem to vary wildly through the game considering how much I struggled. Playing on the easiest difficulty I still managed to fail embarrassingly often. Some of the worst parts were the quick draw duels that the player needs to survive following a continue. Wait for the bandit to go for their gun, shoot offscreen to reload, and then shoot them… that is if you can work out the precise timing the game expects you to follow AND the precise point you need to hit the enemy. I did finally crack these, but mostly because I used the ingame audio as a cue for when to shoot. It’s tough to know if this is the fault of the original or the Wii port, but there are one or two moments that are just money gobbling arcade tactics. Needing to shoot at a blacked out window by psychically knowing some unseen assailant is about to take a shot at you from there, or having to shoot the chimney off a cabin to smoke out the bandits inside… yeah, that all makes perfect sense… I feel particularly sorry for all those poor people stuck back in the 90’s pumping money in to the machine trying to defeat Mad Dog himself in a super precise, and lightning fast, quick draw finale.
Once again I find myself lamenting the loss of the light-gun from the gaming landscape. Enjoyable as it was to take a little nostalgia walk through the streets of that Wild West town and face down Mad Dog. I just know how much more satisfying it would have been to play with a light gun. The Wii port did a good enough job of giving me the general gist of game, but I can’t say that it was a worthy recreation. For starters I wasn’t wearing shoes that had been worn by a few hundred other people. If you ever see a Mad Dog McCree arcade cabinet out in the wild then maybe drop a few coins in and give it a shot… then maybe tell me which bowling alley you found it in…
*In my case Stirchley SuperBowl in the Birmingham…
**Fun Fact: Apparently the Mega (Sega) CD version has such bad resolution that the manual has a diagram showing one of the scenes so that you know where critical ingame items are!