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Red Dead Revolver was the first to ask, ‘What if Grand Theft Auto had horses?’

Fifteen years ago, we got a teasing glimpse of the Wild West in an open-world game

Box art detail from 2004’s Red Dead Revolver, the progenitor of Rockstar’s Red Dead franchise Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

I took my time in Brimstone. The first town in the Red Dead franchise, the only town in Red Dead Revolver, taught me how to mosey like a proper cowboy. It lasted longer that way.

It was 2004, and Rockstar Games was the cutting-edge practitioner of open-world video game design. Grand Theft Auto 3 had launched in 2001, Vice City in 2002; and San Andreas was about to shatter all expectations in October 2004. The summer of that year, Rockstar launched Red Dead Revolver, a quirky spaghetti Western project it had acquired from Capcom when Rockstar bought up the former Angel Studios, today known as Rockstar San Diego.

And in Revolver, all we got was one stinking town to explore. So I had to make it count. There was a general store, a tailor and a saloon. Functionally, these places weren’t much more than glorified menus where I ticked off unlockables — sometimes useful, most of the time just another page on the road to completion. Then there was the sheriff’s office where you picked up the next mission. And that was about it.

red dead revolver ps2
Red Dead Revolver’s town of Brimstone.
Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

It was almost agonizing. The makers of Grand Theft Auto had taken over and made the game that first posed the question of what GTA would be like if it had horses instead of cars, stetsons and six-shooters instead of submachine guns. And it left the thought right there at the train depot in Brimstone — watch your step, ma’am. After the train robbery/rescue in Revolver, Brimstone was a sort of hub world you returned to between missions. The game’s conceit was that Red Harlow became a bounty hunter after being orphaned, so he picked up his next job at the sheriff’s office. Walking through its doors sent you on your way to the next chapter.

So I found a point on the left thumbstick where I could walk Red, real slow now, to the bank, the gunsmith and elsewhere, spurs ringing out. Those strolls prolonged the feeling I really wanted, of being a squinty-eyed Man With No Name, feared by the wrong people, needed by the right ones. Red Dead Revolver’s campaign lasted about a dozen hours, if I’m remembering correctly. There wasn’t much more to do except replay missions on higher difficulties, or try to beat them while taking less damage and shooting for higher accuracy.

Red Dead Revolver shop
Red Dead Revolver’s shop menus.
Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

After finishing Revolver, I craved any Wild West experience I could find in video gaming. There was Dead Man’s Hand, a rather linear first-person shooter by Atari. Who could forget Gun, by Neversoft, a launch title for the brand-spanking new Xbox 360. In 2007, there was Call of Juarez, which featured two playable characters, one of whom would whip out a Bible and read from it (no, really!) to distract foes.

All these games had open-world or exploration elements. But none — not even Gun, which was the first to really try giving you that GTA-on-horseback feel — were as rollicking as Red Dead Revolver. Revolver had the bizarre steampunk, high-tech bosses that made such a place worth exploring. It had the Deadeye gunfight system, which was amazing in the hands of Jack Swift, the trick-shot dandy from England.

Deadeye was one of the few threads connecting 2010’s Red Dead Redemption to its 2004 forebear. Some of the original characters became available later as multiplayer skins; John Marston bore the same cheek scar that marked Red Harlow; Bonnie MacFarlane dressed somewhat like Annie Stoakes and was just as capable with a rifle. But otherwise, Revolver and its characters and occurrences didn’t get full canonical inclusion, leaving the first game as a true curiosity of the times, a relic of a business deal that Rockstar decided to finish.

Red dead revolver - Deadeye combat
Red Dead Revolver’s Deadeye combat system.
Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

On one hand, I’m sort of disappointed that I never got to see Brimstone as a proper open-world setting. On the other, I think it’s best if the things that made Red Dead Revolver so captivating remain with that game and not borrowed by its successors.

But when Red Dead Redemption 2 launches Oct. 26, the first thing I’m going to do is take a slow stroll around the first town, and take in the chime of the shopkeepers’ doors, the hubbub of the saloon, the greetings of passers-by in the street. And I will remember Brimstone and Red Dead Revolver, and be grateful that I can now mosey through a proper Wild West town, with the sun on my neck and a six-shooter on my belt.

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