Day 342: Shooting The Light Fantastic

originally published December 7, 2012

When the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1985, it was more than just a way to play video games in one’s home. There were accessories, dammit – the truly lucky kids got the optional robot (which, it turns out, sucked) and the light gun.

The light gun. Formally known as the NES Zapper, this thing was magic to a 10-year-old who had grown up believing the Intellivoice was the greatest gaming innovation he’d see in his lifetime. Now my television had become an input device. Conquering these new games meant having skill, marksmanship, and – for an added challenge – the ability to hit a target bang-on after having rolled tactically from behind the sofa to fire off a quick shot from the family room floor.

Nintendo had invented the future. Well, actually they didn’t. Light guns had been around since the Great Depression.

This is the Seeburg Ray-O-Lite, the closest thing to a first-person shooter game outside a carnival in 1936. The duck would move back and forth, a little light-sensing vacuum tube embedded in it. The rifle would emit a ray of light when the trigger was pulled. Hit the target, the duck flopped over. Miss it, and feel that cold chill of shame, because it was the 30’s and manly pursuits like wrasslin’ and shootin’ were the only ways a man could prove himself back then.

Sega’s Periscope game, released in 1969, could double as an emergency shelter for a small family. It operated with similar light-sensor technology, as you would fire at the enemy (some slow-moving cardboard ships) while looking through a clunky periscope that you could hopefully adjust correctly to your height.

You see, the history of gaming is all about perspective. My kids find it amazing that games like Asteroids or Snafu were once able to entertain us for hours on end. In turn, I look back on the poor saps in the generation before mine who used to have to leave their homes and go to a mall to play any sort of interactive electronic game. And before them, it was about shooting a light beam at a bunch of cardboard boats. And I have no doubt it was awesome at the time.

Still, long before Nintendo had armed me with a plastic pistol, the Magnavox Odyssey dropped its own weaponry into suburbia. The Shooting Gallery featured a light-rifle, intentionally designed to look somewhat realistic – well, except for the lengthy electronic cable that tethered it to the game console. But owning one of these must have made kids in 1972 feel like a complete bad-ass. You had to cock the rifle between each shot – not because of any limitations in the technology, just to provide a palpable simulation of discharging a dangerous weapon.

The games itself, well…

That’s one of four overlays that shipped with this unit. You slapped this onto your TV, and the light would appear inside one of the targets, thus creating a ‘game’. The sensor technology was reversed for the home market though; the light sensor was inside the barrel of the gun, and it functioned by detecting the light emitting from the TV set if you had aimed properly. Of course this technology was looking for pretty much any light source, so you could just point the rifle at a light bulb and fire when any target lit up and you’d get the “points”.

I put “points” in quotation marks because the game wouldn’t actually keep track of points. How could it? You’d just slapped a large strip of plastic onto your TV screen, so you couldn’t read a point display anyway.

Nobody in the world of Atari, Intellivision, Colecovision, or any of their lesser competitors dropped a light-gun into their lineup in the late 70s or early 80s. We had to wait for the Nintendo Zapper:

Apart from making kids feel like a young James Bond or Han Solo, Nintendo also figured a way around the light-bulb cheat. When the trigger on the Zapper is pulled, the screen blacks out for a fraction of a second. In that moment – too quick for most players to catch – the receptor diode inside the gun can register whether or not the weapon is trained on the right part of the screen.

The most famous of all games to make use of the Nintendo Zapper had nothing to do with zombies, assassins, or blasting one’s way to find sweet deals in a department store on Black Friday (though I think such a game would really move a lot of units). No, it was all about hot, sweaty man-on-duck action.

Duck Hunt was full of replayability, assuming you have a lightning-short attention span and/or you’re simply hell-bent on hogging the TV like a dick so your little brother can’t watch Fraggle Rock. You had three modes: Game A (one duck appears at a time), Game B (two – that’s right… two ducks appear at a time), or Game C (no ducks, just clay pigeons, which recreates the thrill of skeet shooting, except with a pistol. An orange pistol).

Rather than culminate in some massive Duck-boss in the last level, Duck Hunt opted to take a more subtle approach. If you have successfully blasted your way through all 99 levels of the game, you’ll find yourself at Round 0. Here the ducks fly erratically, they fly ludicrously fast, or sometimes they don’t appear at all. It’s an intentional ‘kill screen’ to ensure a Game Over. It’s a complete “Fuck You” from the programmers to the consumer.

Of course the towering middle-finger of the game was right here:

Once you had reached the apex of your skills in the game, and you ran into that inevitable level in which you cannot shoot the soaring ducks in time, the obligatory “Game Over” is displayed, and the dog that has been collecting the desecrated mallard carcasses for you all this time snickers and mocks you. To your face.

Talk about adding insult to injury. Your loyal companion, your so-called Best Friend is overcome with the need to ridicule you upon your defeat. And the worst part is, you’re standing there with an endlessly loaded pistol and you can’t even shoot the bastard.

Actually you can – in the arcade version of Duck Hunt, there is a bonus level in which you can shoot the dog. However by doing so, you end the bonus level, so it’s considered inadvisable.

Light gun technology is not dead; they still make them for Xbox and Playstation games, and Nintendo has re-released a Zapper for the Wii, all with newer, fancier LED technology. But you can’t haul out your old NES and re-live the glory of the Hunt anymore – the old light guns only worked with boxy CRT televisions; LCD, Plasma and LED TVs won’t pull it off.

Such is the price of progress.

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