Hands-On Gaming

Staring Down the Barrel


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.”

The addition of these two accessories quickly paid off, and they did indeed kick start the collapsed industry; getting kids off the streets and back in front of TVs where they belonged.

And it wasn’t long before some genuine sidearm style made it across the borders and into our arcades. In 1987, Taito graced us with the awesome one-man war machine known as Operation Wolf. This spectacular scrolling shooter featured mediocre graphics, standard sound effects and uninspired music. But none of that mattered once you saw the kick ass Uzi mounted on the coin-op’s cabinet!

This magnificent piece of hardware catapulted Operation Wolf into arcade Valhalla overnight. The realistic looking submachine gun (which has been considered the pinnacle of designer weaponry ever since Arnie first brandished one with indiscriminate style in The Terminator) was precisely what the melancholic arcade creeper was looking for. The recoiling action gave the Uzi a sense of dynamic realism that belied the cartoony graphics onscreen, and coupled with a grenade launcher button on the front of the gun, the delightful power of carnage suddenly placed in the hands of a deranged youth was a wonderful feeling.

Op Wolf completely did away with an inherently tedious aspect of practically all light-gun games that came before it: an unreasonable emphasis on single shot accuracy. We were constantly obliged to refine our sharp shooting skills before any kind of progress within previous games was made, while Operation Wolf set us free to riddle the screen with virtual lead without care of consequence. There was no point having an Uzi and trying to save bullets with frugal sharp shooting; strafing every living thing and needlessly blowing shit up was the only method of progress here, and we finally got to know what it felt like to go to war as a well-armed, invincible maniac.

Once the sequel, Operation Thunderbolt, was released, we were naturally very excited about the prospect of a two player version of the classic Op Wolf mayhem. Unfortunately, the limited magic of the original meant the novelty had already passed, leaving behind a decidedly average game which could never recapture the cold steel thrill of the original Uzi-’em-up. And so it was with many light-gun games down through the years. The genre had reached an inevitable impasse that occurs when clone after clone revisits the same old tired gameplay.

Sega’s 1994 Virtua Cop refreshed matters somewhat when it took shooting games into that elusive third dimension, though the gameplay returned to the single shot tedium of the Zapper’s Duck Hunt. What really raised an eccentric eyebrow was when Time Crisis II found its way onto the PlayStation 2.

If you happened to have two light-guns, the Time Crisis sequel offered the dubious opportunity of going John Woo on the enemy’s ass! If, like me, you’re a fan of the hyper-violent action, flying blood, kneecap shots and gun-crazed anarchy of Chow Yun Fat‘s off-the-shelf macho characters in Mr. Woo’s films, Time Crisis II took on a whole new dimension.

Storming in and emptying both clips into some generic bad guy is a sensational way to revel in your daily videogame violence fix. If only someone would invent a PlayStation accessory that sprays blood all over your face whenever you shoot someone up close, John Woo could retire a happy man.

For all my ranting and raving about letting the bullets fly free without care of accuracy, a more recent venture into the arcades left that notion fully turned on its head. Konami’s 1999 sharp shooting extravaganza, Silent Scope, took the concept of single-shot accuracy in shooting games and expanded it to dramatic new horizons. The light-gun in question was a superb rendition of a sniper’s rifle, complete with spotting scope, quivering crosshairs and blissfully unaware enemies.

The cabinet’s monitor displayed an exploded view of the entire scene, while pressing one’s eye up to the mini screen mounted within the spotting scope of the rifle provided a cleverly calculated magnified target. Holding the highly accurate rifle steady was no small feat, particularly with the long range shots, but as soon as that bad guy ambled unknowingly into your crosshairs, a slow exhale and gentle squeeze of the trigger would cause his head to explode like a watermelon in a microwave. Bloody marvelous! Silent Scope offered an embarrassingly absorbing voyeuristic experience; assassinating wrong-doers from a safe distance with the perilously long arm of high-velocity justice.

Of course, it’s not just the hardware that makes a decent shooting game work. An example of both how to do it right and wrong can be found in Sega’s magnificent zombie wasting gore-a-thon series, House of the Dead. The third installment most accurately touched on the hallowed ground of the living dead movies, with a wonderfully tactile pump action shotgun for putting the undead back in the ground. The scope of such a weapon was far reaching; no more unrealistic shooting off screen to reload, a weapon that could actually cut a swathe through the stumbling hoards and, most importantly (and this might seem insignificant, but bear with me), you can attach a torch to the barrel.

While this might appear a minor aspect of the thrill-a-minute zombie-thon, the gun-mounted searchlight was an important aspect of HOTDIII‘s gameplay. Any zombie film fanatic will agree that no living dead film is complete without our protagonist tiptoeing through a pitch black room with a distinctly insufficient torch, only to illuminate a ghoul crouching on the floor two feet away, feeding on the last poor sucker who wandered through the room without turning the lights on. This small, but vital, aspect of gameplay made for a spectacularly chilling few minutes of tension; scouring the dark room for that elusive flesh muncher, then firing in panicked fury when it turns out to be right in front of you. You feel a genuine sense of relief when the lights come back up and it’s open season once again.

The fourth (and current) game of the series, however, fell into the same trap as many other shooting games. Rather than examining the undead genre and tailoring the game to reflect the many well-established premises, the designers simply stuck a different gun on the cabinet. This time, it was the faithful old Uzi, but House of the Dead IV completely botches the reloading process HOTDIII mastered. Rather than fluidly reloading a high-powered shotgun, the player has to vigorously shake the Uzi to simulate inserting another magazine into the gun, leaving the player feeling like a total spaz on the arcade floor, vibrating themselves for the want of repelling a standard zombie drone.

The long and celebrated history of the light-gun proves that processing power alone does not make a game. It takes an inordinate amount of inspiration to build a success around this most popular of videogame peripherals, which is also an integral aspect of one the most unforgiving genre’s the industry has ever known.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

About the author