Overall Rating: 3/5 Stars
Cowboy Kid was a Nintendo Entertainment System video game released in 1992 by Romstar, who made a handful of other cartridges such as Championship Bowling and Snow Bros., along with some arcade titles in the 1980’s. This Western-themed adventure beat-’em-up style had minigames, RPG elements, and some rather humorous touches.
Taking control of protagonist Sam, the player begins in a 2.5d Wild West town, wandering around and admiring the scenery before discovering that he can enter buildings with open doors. In the first one, a kindly gentleman remarks that he should not be unarmed, so he gives him a free knife. As absurd and amusing as this is, it is rather essential, as obtaining the knife allows the player to encounter enemies, kill them for money, and open boxes and barrels by stabbing them. Stabbing repeatedly will be a constant theme throughout Cowboy Kid, as soon-to-be Sheriff Sam (he becomes Sheriff at the end of the opening level) will end up viciously stabbing hundreds of people to death before his duties are over.
After the opening level, the player is given a menu of six wanted villains to choose from, each having their own stage to play, similar to Mega Man. Each level has villains to kill, items to find and gather to meet objectives, and an ending sequence before the final boss battle.
The gameplay is a roughly a beat-’em-up scene like Battletoads, but with a heart gauge that can be restored in increments depending on the healing item (French fries heal two hearts, while chicken heals four, for example) or increased in total altogether, and some minigame portions, including blackjack, a shooting gallery, and Striker, a version of the “grab an oversized mallet and hit the target to make the marker rise up the post” classic carnival game. Since money is collected for items and health can be increased, along with entering building and talking to people to discover the information needed to complete level objectives, this is a game slightly deeper than your typical stab-’em-up, and ends up being perhaps most comparable to River City Ransom, although not quite as good.
Romstar has never had one of the premiere reputations among NES developers, and their not-quite-elite development quality shows in some quirky flaws throughout Cowboy Kid. For example, the player can come across a set of barrels that includes money and sheriff’s stars (five of which grants an additional health heart), bust the barrels, take the items, then scroll until the barrels are off-screen, return to the barrels, and see them whole again. This basically means a patient player can max out on the two most important scaling traits in the game, or at least make massive gains as much as desired. The level designs are also somewhat convoluted; and although this can be seen as an appropriate challenge, even the linear portions (cue the train-hopping end to Slash Joe’s level) can really seem to drag on. Also, the combat mechanic itself is underdeveloped, with odd hit detection not quite polished, and can be a challenge with such large cartoon-like sprites yet when the player gets “used to it” seems forgivable; in reality, it should have been a bit more refined, but as published amounts to a two-frame stab animation that relies on arbitrary pixel-simple hit detection. If that critique does not make any sense, try this: Play Double Dragon for ten minutes, then Cowboy Kid for ten minutes, then try to explain exactly why the hit detection and fight mechanics in Double Dragon are obviously superior yet difficult to fully elucidate as to why.
This is one goofy-lookin’ game. The oversized cartoony character sprites are childish and silly, but do provide some of the funniest bits of gaming to be found on the NES. On the aforementioned Slash Joe level, for instance, there are Mexicans walking around and taking swigs of drink before you stab them, and Slash Joe himself grabs his balls every time you stab him, implying that in this game you kill the boss by slashing his testicles repeatedly. On another level, you fight farm animals. On other levels, the expressions on baddies’ faces upon their deaths are outright laughable. Strangely, though, the backgrounds and certain other elements actually look solid, and the large item icons are easily identifiable, unlike some particular other games of the era. The villain selection screen is a pleasant touch, with the iconic Wanted posters used.
The sound effects are barely even noticeable, but the background music is explicitly country-Western right from the start, with a memorable title screen track that leads into barn dance tunes throughout. While some may not exactly be fans of country music, it is at the very least complementary to the gaming theme present, and not rendered terribly.
Cowboy Kid is an unusual game, fairly unique, and can be considered remarkably original, if not simplistic in how it achieves its grand ambitions. Even if other NES games were adventure or beat-’em-up with RPG elements, none of them quite did it like Cowboy Kid, especially considering its consisent Western theme; which, even if itself was not unique, again, was never quite done in this style of gameplay. There are subtle touches of fun throughout, like getting called a “yellowbelly” if Sam says no to the offer to become sheriff at the end of the opening chapter.
But despite its humor, its distinctive nuances, and its solid overall presentation, the oddity of the bland fighting mechanics along with not-fully-enjoyable levels prevent this from being a truly great game. There are, however, many much worse options out there, and Cowboy Kid fairly carves up three stars out of five.
Oh, and another interesting game for comparison is Willow (deeper RPG elements, but similar town-navigation and combat hit-detection issues). Just sayin’.
For a review look at other obscure NES video games, check NintendoLegend.com.