With Becky.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This edition looks at Natsume's Wild Guns, released for the SNES in 1994 .]

The third-person “shooting gallery” game is a lost art. In fact, it was barely an art at all. It was just a misleading name given to the genre of action-shooters born when TAD Corporation's Cabal hit arcades in 1988. It wasn’t a particularly long-lived trend, most likely because every title that followed, from SNK’s Nam 1975 to Seibu Kaihatsu’s Dynamite Duke to Konami’s G.I. Joe, did little to enhance Cabal’s central idea of characters who ran across a limited foreground while dodging enemy attacks and shooting everything in front of them.

When Street Fighter II and its adjoining hordes of fighting games took over arcades in the ‘90s, the Cabal-inspired shooter and its routine play mechanics were mercilessly squashed. They lingered on through a few little-seen releases (including Nix’s surprisingly fun Pirates), but the dream essentially died with Wild Guns, a 1994 Super NES game from Natsume.

Annie's slightly maniacal grin suggests that she's on the verge of snapping completely and killing everything in her path. Clint's expression suggests that he's realized this.Just to watch it die

Natsume, while perpetually overshadowed by Konami and Capcom, built up a solid reputation during the NES era through action games like Shadow of the Ninja, S.C.A.T. and Shatterhand. Their break came in 1993, when they landed a major cult hit with Pocky and Rocky, a vastly improved Super NES port of an older Taito arcade shooter. Natsume followed it up with Pocky and Rocky 2 the next year and then, perhaps overestimating the demand for shooters, took a chance on the entirely original Wild Guns.

Pocky and Rocky 2 drew as much attention as the first, but Wild Guns was largely forgotten a month or so after its release. It had the lower-than-average production run common to Natsume releases and limited distribution through Tommo (even today, it’s tough to find a copy that isn't clearly a former rental) but there was something more basic behind its quick fade: no one really cared about shooting-gallery games during the mid-'90s, not when they had Mortal Kombat II, Donkey Kong Country, and a vast lineup of Atari Jaguar titles.

At most, Wild Guns had some praise from critics, who recognized it as an excellent game. Presumably inspired by Cabal’s sequel, the Western-themed Blood Brothers, a five-person team of Natsume programmers envisioned Wild Guns as an unpretentious tribute to the myths of the American Old West, albeit an Old West full of towering robots, futuristic tanks, flying androids, and other high-tech embellishments. In another stagecoach-era echo, the tale itself concerns the revenge-driven Annie, a gunfighter whose family was murdered by a massive criminal empire called the Kid Gang, and her only ally, the less attached Clint. They play much the same, and differ only in aesthetics. Clint pays tribute to you-know-who by wearing sensible desert clothes, while Annie wears a revealing dress, a floppy hat and a smile entirely too perky for someone who’s just seen her loved ones slaughtered.

How the South remembers the War of Northern Aggression.Like Harvest Moon, but with gutshot bank robbers

True to its genre, Wild Guns has Clint and Annie dashing to and fro before many different backdrops, including mines, railroads, the streets and bars of Carson City, and, of course, the enormous mechanical fortress of the Kid Gang’s mustachioed leader (whose name actually appears to be “Kid.”). The enemies range from generic thugs to an impressive variety of robotic creatures, and there’s an equal mix in the weaponry for Clint and Annie, who can use shotguns, grenade launchers, assault rifles, Gauss guns, a high-powered vulcan gun, a humorously ineffective "P. Shooter," and even an enemy-immobilizing lasso. Far more flexible than the typical shooting-game heroes, the pair can also double-jump, narrowly sidestep gunfire, and even toss back enemy-hurled explosives.

Wild Guns has its limits, of course. It’s an arcade game in design, if not in platform, and mowing your way through its six stages and two bonus levels doesn’t take all that long, especially not in the two-player mode. It also lacks the trackball-based control used by Cabal and other shooting-gallery games, and Clint and Annie are hampered by the fact that they can’t move while firing, the inevitable result of the SNES controller having only one directional pad.

Yet Wild Guns is rarely frustrating in its challenges, and it’s often fun just to play with the game’s smaller details, as everything from whiskey bottles to ceiling tiles can be shot. The soundtrack and visual style are both solid, and while Wild Guns never quite explains its setting, it doesn’t have to excuse the appeal of controlling a blond, manga-eyed Annie Oakley as she guns down horse-mounted bandits and Mad Max desert buggies racing beside a massive armored train.

Clint breaks the fourth wall to remind players that the point of the game is, in some capacity, to avoid bullets.Into the sunset

Unlike the other titles I’ve backhandedly complimented in this little chronicle of failures, Wild Guns fell short through no fault of its own. It’s a well-made action game that simply came too late and at too busy a time, when not even the best Cabal-style game could resurrect a buried genre.

At least there’s a nice ending to it all. In 2000, the shooting gallery game was brought back for one brilliant moment with Treasure’s Sin and Punishment on the Nintendo 64, and other games from the field have since been rediscovered through emulation. Wild Guns itself is now an underground favorite among 16-bit action games and stands as one of the rarer first-rate SNES titles. Despite its initial obscurity, it’s come into its own as a collectible classic, and an enjoyable reminder of how much potential yet remains down its path.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]