Hands-On Gaming

Hands-On Gaming
Staring Down the Barrel

Spanner | 26 Sep 2006 08:01
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With its simplistic point-and-click interface, handheld portability, multi-format compatibility and chic social accessory status, it's no wonder the common household gun has had such an impact on the videogame world.

And why wouldn't they? Guns are tremendous fun. With a little bit of imagination and a bucket load of gratuitous violence they can transform an average game into blood-splattered, lead-filled, cap bustin', thrill-a-minute pandemonium. If only more game developers would stop shirking their responsibilities and ensure at least half the titles they turn out have some semblance of firearm-related entertainment, the videogame market might not be faced with such a depressing sales slump.

Now, I realize there are some gamers out there who like their toast lightly buttered, their seats well cushioned and their games filled with cutesy cartoon characters who are assailed by nothing more threatening than a brightly colored mushroom, but I'm confident that even you tedious pacifists can enjoy light-gun themed videogame carnage if properly educated. The gun has a rich and magnificent history in both the arcades and the home gaming arenas, and I'm here to celebrate the wonderful world of the virtual shooter.

When Ralph Baer invented the home videogame way back in the late '60s, one of the first human interface devices he and his engineering team at Sanders Associates (which just so happened to be a military contractor) devised was a makeshift light-pistol. Not really anything more than a light "detector" with a handle, the pistol was used to select bright white squares against a black background in various test routines. It was then re-engineered to fit inside a toy rifle bought at a local department store, and was finally redesigned one last time as a pump-action shotgun accessory for the first ever videogame console released in 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey. Not only was the console a commercial success, but the high-priced rifle accessory also sold extremely well, shifting around 80,000 units during the console's lifespan.

Perhaps not the exact model upon which subsequent light-guns were based (as players could effectively cheat at Odyssey games by pointing the rifle at a light bulb instead of the TV screen), but the impressive sales certainly established the public's willingness to loose digital light-bullets at anything and everything that moved onscreen.

Whether or not it was a deliberate marketing strategy (and I suspect it wasn't, since the light-gun apparatus had already been established out of necessity rather than commerciality), the introduction of a light-gun to the new and untested videogame market was undoubtedly a lifesaving move. Kids had been playing with toy guns ever since real firearms were invented, so weaning them into a whole new concept of entertainment through an established, tactile symbol of youthful recreation provided a valuable introduction to a future market that might otherwise never have developed an interest in videogames.

In 1984, when the U.S. market devoured itself and the public began lynching anyone who even uttered the word "videogame," Nintendo of America was faced with the monstrous task of duping the jaded consumer back into buying home entertainment equipment. Once again, the toy gun was used to tempt us into the videogame section of toy stores. Nintendo's tactic was risky, but brilliant.

The Famicom had been selling terrifically in Japan and was remarketed to apathetic middle-America as an accessory to a couple of moderately dispensable electronic toys. One was R.O.B. the robot - a bug-eyed little critter who struggled around the floor in accordance with the onscreen antics of a couple of rubbish games - and the other was a considerably more interesting device: a futuristic looking light-gun called "The Zapper."

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