Review by xenodolf
Iron Horse is another gem in Konami's 80s library I happened upon due to my commitment to the Xbox 360's Game Room App. One of the earliest Western-themed beat 'em ups (I think Data East's Express Raider is the only older title), Iron Horse was in that experimental phase before games like Final Fight and Golden Axe came along that populated the brawler genre with a lot of wannabes and knock-offs. The Game Room port seems to be a flawless transfer of the arcade experience, aside from a questionable absence of music (I had to look at YouTube videos to hear the OST) - so this seems like a fitting enough venue to review the game for this website.
Bandits have hijacks a train, and it is up to a daring lawman and his trusty arsenal of weapons to defeat these desperadoes and secure the locomotive. That's about all there is to the plot (it was 1986, after all).
Despite their dated appearance, the visuals here are actually pretty flattering here for their era. There are a good amount of enemy designs present (with various features like handkerchief masks, Mexican shawls, and sombreros). The level set-pieces range from storage decks to dining compartments - and the backgrounds often display the sun glaring off the unspoiled landscape of the frontier West. There's also some action in the foreground - horses running alongside the train for show, or bandits in carriages pulling up next to the locomotive and tossing bombs onto your position periodically.
Its a cryin' shame that the Game Room port failed to insert this game's catchy soundtrack. You can definitely tell that Konami (who would come to score some of the best music in the industry) was involved in this. The main theme has a cool bit of whistlin' set to a synthesized banjo, and the rest of the stages feature well-rendered Western-style musical pieces that are much more complex than I would have thought an '86 game would have been able to devise. The sound effects are pretty solid too, with lots of ambient train sound and a whip noise that actually comes off like a whip being snapped.
There is no lag or input delay that I felt during my time with Iron Horse. I must point out, however, that the inclusion of a jump option would have really helped. There are many times during the course of a level where some wave of fire rises out of a shattered oil lantern and I would have liked the ability to hop over it if I couldn't otherwise duck into cover. This would have been especially appreciated during the last stands the enemies make at the end of each level - where sometimes (even using the rewind feature Game Room added to the original formula) I couldn't step away from one pool of flames without falling into another, even with the best of reflexes. I think they were enough bullet, knife, and fist hazards without making the underfoot inferno an instant-death consequence.
Iron Horse is roughly one-third a side-scrolling shoot 'em up and two-thirds a side-scrolling beat 'em up. I say this because (unlike almost any other games of either genre) you select your weapon prior to the start of the game and never change them then-after. Your arsenal is a six-shooter that has the longest range of the three weapons, a whip that seems a bit faster to spam than the gun but covers slightly less ground, and your trusty fists that can only deal with enemies directly beside you. Why use your fists at all then? That would be because they earn you twice as many points per defeated enemy as the other two weapons, plus its amusing to watch you deck one bandit in the face and have him knock over all his buddies behind him as he loses consciousness. Aside from the default weapons, you can pick-up several powerful special items that can clear the entire screen before you if used correctly. These include an oil lantern that bursts into a wave of flame when shattered, a bunch of lassos that tied any hit enemies up automatically, and bombs that seem to have a delay effect before exploding in case you're timing an incoming wave of bad guys. Beware, however, that the enemies constantly use these same weapons against you - although in some circumstances you can duck into cover or climb a ladder to avoid injury. As I mentioned in the control section of this review, I would have liked it if you could jump over the flames - because after the first level you have to zig-zag between movement planes because of bullets, knives, lassos, and such and the flames can be unfair as they can hurt you on any plane and burn for a second before disappearing. The game gets pretty difficult early on, especially if you're using your fist since it won't hit enemies from afar spamming bombs and lanterns. Speaking of game-play, the mechanics are a little different than most beat 'em ups from the 80s. You move from left to right (although you can backtrack a bit), fighting enemies that come from either side while grabbing money bags or power-ups. Each level has an upper or lower section with its benefits and risks (the upper tends to have less weapon-wielding enemies but lacks any kind of cover, along with environmental hazards like holes in the roofing). The cover system allows you to slide into spaces in the background and strike out at enemies (making Iron Horse one of the few 2D beat 'em ups that can you punch toward the screen in) or simply wait out a volley of projectiles. After running around the train for awhile, you'll come to a standoff section at the end of each stage. There is a barricade erected that you cannot pass through, that separates you from a pile of stolen money bags. These parts of the game were always the hardest for me, because the enemies rush over the barricade - firing guns, throwing knives and lassos, and hurling oil lanterns at you and the limited section of space you're allowed to maneuver in. It would be the best advice to tell you to keep any special items on-hand for these sections, as you could clear entire bandit waves in a single usage and earn yourself some desperately needed breathing room. I've suffered a lot of frustrating deaths in Iron Horse due to the volume of projectiles and the embedded enemy positions - but overall I would say that it remains a fun game to play, even if you're not likely to beat it without serious dedication.
Having the option of three different primary weapons (not to mention special items like the oil lanterns, lassos, and bombs) allows you to play through the game multiple times without it being exactly the same. Sadly, Iron Horse was born into an era prior to co-op game-play and multiple endings, so that's all it really has for a gamer to look forward to in terms of repeated play-through encouragement.
Even with its tough and often overwhelming obstacles, Iron Horse is quite an enjoyable beat n' shoot 'em up hybrid that has enough character and magnetic game-play to draw my attention despite being only a few years younger than me. If Game Room's developers ever fix the lack of music in their port, I would wholly recommend everyone make it their definitive version to play. Otherwise, boot the rom up in MAME or try to track down an arcade cabinet and see if you have the reflexes to administer justice to those train-robbing rascals.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/03/11
Game Release: Iron Horse (US, 12/31/86)
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