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Before Red Dead Redemption 2, Mad Dog McCree was Western gaming’s sheriff in town

The hugely popular Western augured the brief rise of full-motion video

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Mad Dog McCree
Mad Dog McCree
American Laser Games

Leaving the Red Dead series aside, Mad Dog McCree is probably the most famous and most played Western game ever made. Released in 1990, the game was an arcade smash hit before appearing on multiple home platforms, the popularity due mostly to its novelty as the first full-motion video (FMV) shooting game.

If you time it right, you can visit the place where the game’s titular antagonist meets his end: Eaves Movie Ranch in New Mexico. It’s still a working movie set, but you can attend festivals that take place there, or you can book your own special event.

Fans of Mad Dog McCree will likely recognize the saloon where the stranger shoots down McCree’s confederates, the bank where he shoots down some more, and the sheriff’s office, where he springs a lawman from jail, only to see him gunned down in the street.

At the time of its release, arcades were suffering a slump, as home computers and consoles became a commonplace item. But home video games were still primitive, in terms of their “graphics.” Fast-paced action games like Sonic the Hedgehog were around the corner, but fleshed out 3D games like Doom had yet to appear.

So arcade game makers focused on graphics in order to appeal to audiences bored by older games.

Mad Dog McCree American Laser Games

Light-gun play

In 1990, cartoonish games, like Konami’s gaudy, gory sideways shooter Aliens, dominated arcades. Taito’s light-gun shooter Space Gun, featuring huge sprites and neat scrolling techniques, launched the same year. But in terms of looks, real, interactive video was a genuinely shocking development.

Mad Dog McCree plays out in the first-person perspective, with the player taking on the role of a gunslinger called the “stranger.” An old prospector informs the stranger that “we need your help. Mad Dog McCree’s gang have taken over the town.” Throughout the game, the prospector acts as a quest-giver as well as comic relief, showing up with a donkey in tow, and getting himself kidnapped and strapped to a barrel of dynamite.

The actor who played the prospector, Ben Zeller, worked on many Westerns, in front of the camera and behind it, as well as writing a novel set in the Old West. He lived on his New Mexico ranch until he died last year.

Mad Dog McCree’s New Mexico connections run deep. The eponymous villain was played by a local ranch owner called Russ Dillen. His wife, Lori Dillen, played a bar-room woman. They run a horse-riding ranch near Santa Fe. Their equine expertise is also used by TV and movie makers.

The game was published by American Laser Games, also based in New Mexico. The company was originally set up to create interactive training modules for the police, which made use of light-gun technology. Company bosses realized that the technology could have an entertainment use. Being based in the abundant countryside of New Mexico, they decided to go with a Western story.

Darn varmints

Prior to Mad Dog McCree, light-gun games were pixel affairs, like Duck Hunt (1984) on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Now, players could feel like they were part of a real cowboy movie.

It didn’t much matter that the story was hackneyed, the acting was a bit cheesy and the gameplay hopelessly rudimentary. Mad Dog McCree allowed players to draw their pistols and enjoy the satisfaction of watching a varmint tumble to the ground.

In any particular gunfight, enemies take turns shooting back, allowing the player to take them out, one by one. As the game progresses, enemies make use of cover, presenting smaller targets. There are a few random alternative narrative paths, but they don’t change the game much.

The best players make their way through various gunfights, as well as fillers such as shooting bottles out of the air. The prize is freeing the mayor’s kidnapped daughter from McCree’s evil gang. By the story’s end, only the sharpest shooter can expect to beat McCree, who (somewhat improbably) wears a bulletproof vest and must be shot in the hands.

Frankly, the story’s basic structure is probably no worse than many of the missions we’ll be playing throughout Red Dead Redemption 2 in the days and weeks ahead. But the tone of the game is definitely of its time. Sometimes, it feels more like a comical Sesame Street skit than a hard-edged game about killing bad guys.

In the years following its release, American Laser Games ported Mad Dog McCree to various console platforms, most notably the 3DO, which was launched to capitalize on laserdiscs and full-motion video. Unfortunately, the 3DO version didn’t come with a light gun, and the video quality was poor. Things didn’t pan out for FMV, which is now seen as one of many technological dead-ends in gaming history. The company tried a sequel, then moved into making games for young girls before winding up by the end of the ’90s.

Mad Dog McCree’s greatness isn’t about its playability or its acting. It represents a time when the idea of games as interactive movies generated genuine excitement. It was a great novelty to be placed inside a cowboy movie, and be allowed to actually participate. Such has the world changed that nowadays, we’re more likely to see movies trying to emulate hit games, most especially the likes of Red Dead Redemption 2.

If you’re interested in Mad Dog McCree, I recommend this short video documentary from Great Big Story. Or you can read Polygon’s review.