Light Gun Round Up: NES Zapper

Game consoles have had accessories in the past to enhance the experience of playing. Racing games have had special controllers designed like a car’s dashboard, such as the Arcade Racer Joystick for the Sega Saturn and the Hurricane Steering Wheel for PlayStation 3, space shooters and aerial dogfight games had joysticks made to feel more authentic, like the NES Quick Shot and the Saturn Mission Stick. To me, probably the most effective accessory is the light gun. It’s one of the oldest little toys, going back to the first game systems and even earlier.

Light guns are accessories that put you right into the action. Granted that you are almost always restricted in movement, they are based on quick reflexes and can give a more satisfying experience than most motion control games. That said, they don’t appeal to everyone. A lot of light gun games are slow paced or monotonous, and for a lot of gamers, rail-shooters are just unappealing. However, I personally have always enjoyed them, be it in the arcade or at home.

This series will take a specific console, look at the choice accessory for that console, and examine some of the light gun games available. Today, it’s the NES and the NES Zapper.

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How It Works:

The Zapper is essentially a single button controller. When you pull the trigger, you send a signal to the console to blackout the screen for a short instant and all the available targets on screen turn into white squares. In that fraction of a second, a photodiode in the gun is activated and if it senses the white light, the system registers a hit.

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When there are multiple targets, each white block is marked in sequence and depending on which light is seen, the system determines which target gets hit. Many people say that you can trick the gun into registering a shot by aiming at a light bulb and pulling the trigger, but I’ve never known that to work. This is probably for the same reason that the Zapper doesn’t work on modern flat screen TVs. If you want the gun to properly register a shot you will have to use it with an old fashioned CRT TV.

As these things go, the Zapper is pretty simple, but it was still a very efficient controller. Over the years though, many people experience issues with the gun not properly detecting hits, or simply not working at all. Because of this, buying a Zapper second hand can be tricky, however companies like Retro Bit have produced replica Zappers.

The Games:

Duck Hunt-

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For most people, this is the one Zapper game they will play. After the Zapper became part of the NES standard package, it was bundled with the original Super Mario Bros. and later one cart even included World Class Track Meet for the NES Power Pad. There are three settings: Game A, which has one duck on screen at a time, Game B with two ducks, and Game C which has you shoot two clay pigeons per round.

In each game you have three shots per round. If you miss all three, then the duck(s) fly off and you lose the round. They will also fly away if you take too long. If you miss too often, then it’s game over. The longer you play, the faster the ducks will become, and the small the margin for error will shrink. Games A and B also have a nifty little two player mode where one player uses the gun and the other uses the controller to move the ducks.

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In Game C, two targets are thrown into the distance and you have to hit both with only your three shots. The farther away they get the more precise you have to be.

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This game is a classic and is definitely still a fun time. Though it is pretty lean on content, Duck Hunt is the kind of game you can get in the zone for.

Hogan’s Alley-

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Hogan’s alley is a more straightforward shooting gallery game. There are once again, three modes to choose from: Hogan’s Alley A, Hogan’s Alley B, and Trick Shot. In Game A, three targets appear before you and you have only a brief moment to take out the enemy targets. You have to be careful, as there are also good guy targets, and if you hit too many of them or miss too many bad guys, it’s game over. As things progress, more bag guy targets will appear at once, and your window of opportunity shrinks.

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Game B is a little different. Now, instead of targets lining up, you are put into a small town with windows and ledges. The enemy targets will appear in random areas and you have to get them, while avoiding the good guys. This game offers a little more variation than the last one, but you will end up going through the same four areas repeatedly.

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The Trick Shot is an interesting little addition. In this game, cans are tossed from the right side of the screen and you have to get them to the left by shooting them, keeping them from falling. You get more points depending on where the cans fall on the left side and there is a small platform that is relatively easy to land on for reduced points.

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On the whole, Hogan’s alley is one of the more basic Zapper games. There’s very little room for variation and unless you are competing with a friend, it isn’t as enjoyable to play on your own as Duck Hunt.

Wild Gunman-

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This was initially released in arcades in the mid 70s. In that version, there would be a short film projected in the cabinet of a cowboy or outlaw and you had to wait for the right moment to draw.

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The NES version is played basically the same way, but with cartoon characters and some small additions. This version has three modes: Game A, with one opponent, Game B, with two, and Game C, a shooting gallery mode where the outlaw gang appears from windows in a saloon.

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There isn’t much to this game. It’s very similar to Hogan’s Alley, but the presentation is a little more impressive. In the arcade your signal to draw was a flash in the enemy’s eyes. In this one, the flash is accompanied by a small voice clip shouting “Fire!”

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Freedom Force-

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From SunSoft, we have Freedom Force, a rail shooter that shows a lot of the hallmarks of things to come. A terrorist cell called The Unknown Guerillas have taken over an airport and the police send in its top officers, Rad Rex and Manic Jackson, to take them out. There is a two-player mode in this game, but it is not co-operative. You just take turns playing the same level

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There are three levels with two stages each. As you move along, enemies will pop out of cover and fire at you. Some only take pot shots, doing little damage, while others lob grenades and fire machine guns, which can take you out in an instant.

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You have a long, but limited amount of ammo in each stage. Periodically, power ups, health, and ammo will appear in the lower right hand corner of the screen. You have to be careful though, because there is an option to increase the difficulty that will flash as well. When you hit that, more and harder enemies will appear.

The final things to watch out for are innocent bystanders. You can only make so many mistakes before getting a game over and when you lose, you lose the whole thing and it’s back to the start.

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The only other thing to note is a small mini-game that occurs between levels. You have to guess a word based on the category. This is kind of a lost cause, since the hint is so broad, like “a person”, or “a thing”. Getting it right is pure luck. You only get points for it, and there’s no penalty for loss.

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The overall presentation is pretty good. Everything moves smoothly, the graphics are distinct, and the music is decent. Again the big set back is content. Once you beat the third stage, the whole thing loops, however I can’t grudge the game for being short considering the era it was made.

To The Earth-

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This is a science fiction rail shooter by Nintendo that sees the player navigating through the solar system to defeat an evil alien army. Every stage takes you from one planet to the next and is broken up into two sections culminating in a final boss fight.

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Every time you attack you lose a small amount of health, but taking out enemies refills it. The challenge here is balancing defensive shots, taking out incoming missiles, with offensive ones, taking out enemies for health. After a few consecutive shots an icon appears that allows you to clear the screen of enemy ships. At choice moments, a comet will flash across the screen and if you hit it you will get a protective shield that can take a few hits.

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This is the most action packed Zapper game I’ve played. Although it’s relatively forgiving at the start, the amount of things appearing on screen very quickly becomes overwhelming. The zapper isn’t very well attuned to being rapidly fired and it can strain your finger. In addition, the Zapper makes a pretty loud click, and while it’s pretty noticeable in the other games, like Freedom Force, the noise gets annoying with how fast you have to shoot.

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The game is quite long. There are several levels and each has a unique boss. The trouble is that the difficulty increases dramatically making it exceptionally hard to see the later levels. There are no continues, so once all your lives are gone it’s back to the start.

The graphics are good and the music is pleasant, but the difficulty makes it a hard sell.

Conclusion:

The Zapper was a nice accessory for the NES. Although the games were pretty basic, they still have that addictive arcade appeal. It’s a shame there weren’t many long games dedicated to it, but a good portion of the NES library was dedicated to replicating the arcade experience, and long light gun games were a rarity then. But in giving that classic arcade experience, the Zapper delivered.

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