In the late 80s and early 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were big. Very big, with a hit cartoon, a live action movie series, a couple fantastic video games, and a toyline that was extremely popular. As with most such properties, a slew of imitators, if not outright ripoffs, followed. Talking, human-like animals of all varieties were on TV, toy store shelves, and even in the arcades. In the video game world, one of the greatest of TMNT's followers was Battletoads, a game that has become legendary due to its difficulty. On television, a Saturday morning cartoon featuring anthropomorphic cows found some success: the Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa.
The similarities to the sewer-dwelling, green-shelled ninjas were obvious, but that didn't make the show any less fun. A radioactive meteor from outer space (groan-inducingly dubbed a "cow-met") smashes into a plateau, mutating the animals into smart talking, upright walking versions of themselves. An entire society sprang up, based around the tales of the Wild West, with a hefty dose of garish colors and bad puns. Just listen to the names of the main characters: Marshal Moo Montana, the Dakota Dude, and the Cowlorado Kid. Totally awesome, or painfully inept? Either way, the show was memorable, and remains so to this day.
Following in the footsteps of Ninja Turtles, a toyline and an arcade game based on Moo Mesa were released. Konami, who proved they knew a thing or two about good co-op brawlers with 1991's Sunset Riders, brought Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa to arcades in 1992. The two games are very much alike, from the neon color palette to the run and shoot gameplay. Sunset Riders was already an excellent game, one of the best of the era, and taking the same formula and adding in talking cows fighting bad guys with names like Boot Hill Buzzard and Sherriff Terrorbull (not even making this up) took Moo Mesa to a whole other level of greatness.
Though the cartoon featured three main C.O.W-Boys, the arcade game added in a fourth character, in order to support four player co-op. (Incidentally, C.O.W. stands for "Code of the West", in case that ever comes up on Jeopardy sometime.) Buffalo Bull, a huge bovine decked out in Native American themed gear, fit in quite nicely among the other pun-laden characters. While the four lawmen (or would that be law cows?) shared similar moves, they were all slightly different, mainly due to their default weapons. The most interesting of the lot has to be Marshal Moo Montana, who shoots stars from his sidearm.
For the most part, Moo Mesa adheres to the same foundations as the rest of the genre. The joystick controls movement, as well as aiming, and there is one button to fire and another to jump. Pressing both buttons together activates a rolling stampede attack, which handily clears groups of generic bad guys. Powerups like explosives, a wicked tomahawk, or even an electric attack can be activated in the same way. A few upgrades allow for faster shooting, or a triple bullet shot that is particularly effective.
The action is quite fast paced, with a good variety, always keeping things fresh. The environments allow the heroes to jump around on multiple levels in order to more effectively mow down the baddies. The levels can be played in any order thanks to the level selection feature - a nice touch. In addition to the standard walk and shoot levels, there are several auto-scrolling levels, including a particularly fun one set on a moving train. Perhaps the most memorable are the quasi-shooter sections, where the large C.O.W.-Boys are flown through the air by rather scrawny looking vultures. As far as mixing up the fighting is concerned, Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa compares very favorably to Turtles in Time, which is high praise indeed.
I had no memory of playing Moo Mesa in the arcades, but checked it out via emulation before writing this article. My eleven year old son, a great co-op partner, was very impressed, and told me it was clever and funny. I very much agree with him; Moo Mesa is one of the better games in its genre - especially for its time, the heyday of the side-scrolling fighter. While it's very true to its era, with garish colors, a goofy concept, and the semi-knockoff pedigree, the game stands up even today. Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa is undeniably a Co-Op Classic.