The Ryan Lambie Column: The all time best and worst gun games

Ryan celebrates the waving of a plastic gun at a screen in the arcades, and picks some highlights and lowlights. He works in an Michael Jackson anecdote, too....

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

If you’ve ever fired a plastic gun at a screen, you’ll know precisely the type of game I’m on about: the on-rails shooters where you fire at the digital equivalent of tin ducks as they shuffle to and fro. Between the mid-eighties and nineties, a whole gallery of gun games appeared in arcades, riding on the (camouflaged) shirttails of Taito’s 1986 megahit Operation Wolf.

I still remember seeing my first Op Wolf cabinet at a funfair when I was aged ten: the vast, incredibly realistic looking Uzi sub machine gun strapped to the front of the cabinet; the earthy, Rambo-like graphics; and most of all VIOLENCE like I’d never seen – helicopters exploding in mid air, soldiers reeling back from dreadful head wounds, hand grenades, throwing knives… it was the kind of game that would have left my mother jaundiced with horror, but left me in a state of mesmerised astonishment.

But Op Wolf was not a cabinet designed with the younger set in mind. The Uzi was ungainly and impossible to move in my immature hands, the constant chattering vibration spoiling any semblance of aim I might have had. I died in seconds, and I’m not sure I took many enemies down with me in my blaze of glory.

For many years, the genre was knocked off its perch somewhat by the decidedly off-rails FPS phenomenon, but gun games have enjoyed something of a rebirth of late thanks to the Wii’s pointy control system: Ghost Squad and Sega’s House Of The Dead immediately spring to mind.

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With this renaissance in mind, here’s a rundown of the best and worst gun games in recent memory.

The best:

Operation Thunderbolt

Taito’s Op Wolf sequel distinguished itself by being even more violent than its predecessor; taking a sprite-shuffling leap into pseudo-3D, Op Thunderbolt‘s action headed into the screen rather than across it from left to right. I still recall an early 90s BBC documentary about video game addiction, which showed a few seconds from level eight; the player slowly advances down the aisle of a jumbo jet, massacring the terrorists that pop up randomly from behind passenger seats and, comically, upside-down from overhead lockers. My mother reviewed what she saw in five words: “You are NOT playing that.”

Line Of Fire

By 1989, arcades were already full of cabinets with guns hanging off the front. Flying in the face of the adage ‘less is more’, Sega attempted to stand out from the crowd by simply adding bigger ordnance. To this end, Line Of Fire sported a ridiculous three-foot cannon that had to be operated with both hands. It was a cynical attempt to capture the coins of impressionable young males, since the game itself added nothing new to the genre at all. In my case, though, the ploy worked.

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Virtua Cop

The first gun game to employ polygons, it seems incredible now that Virtua Cop‘s egg box villains could ever have looked convincing; but in 1995, they looked great. After years of pop-up sprites and grotty digitisation (see later), Virtua Cop ushered in a new age of depth and kinetic violence: the sense of satisfaction as you fired at an enemy through a window, resulting in a balletic death and a hail of glass, was a supremely memorable moment.

Time Crisis

Just when the genre appeared to be running out of creative ammunition, Namco came along with Time Crisis, which was essentially a gun game with a brake pedal soldered to the bottom. Releasing the pedal allowed your hero to hop to his feet into a firing position; reapplication of the pedal made him duck. In a genre where defence from incoming fire was previously impossible (the strategy being ‘hit the enemy before they hit you’), Namco cleverly added an extra layer of immersion and interaction.

House of the Dead III

For my money, the best of the House Of The Dead series, mostly due to the machine’s pump action shotguns and branching storylines.

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…and now for the worst:

Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum light gun port)

The amusement arcade was always the natural habitat for the short-term, high-adrenaline gun game genre, and Sinclair’s woeful piece of hardware proved that, in the 80s at least, the living room was no place for shooting at cathode ray tubes. The ZX Spectrum’s light gun made the screen flash with every squeeze of the trigger, rendering every session with the Speccy port of Op Wolf, or whatever you played, a potential bout of epilepsy in the making. The Sinclair Magnum, as Sir Clive dubbed this hideous piece of plastic, was also terminally inaccurate, with shots veering miles off target even with the gun pressed up against your Pye 18″ colour television. Dreadful.

Mad Dog McCree

A dreadful, dreadful wild-west themed gun game with some of the cheapest, badly acted FMV imaginable. The unusually large back-projection screen was presumably why McCree was one of the most expensive arcade machines of the early nineties – something like a quid a go, which was several times more expensive than the average coin-op at the time.

Area 51

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Mystifyingly persistent blaster released by Atari in 1995. The infamous New Mexico military facility takes on the depressing appearance of an East Midlands distribution warehouse, with turgid digitised aliens leaping from behind pre-rendered crates. Dull.

Lethal Enforcers

Konami’s gun game was marked from the outset, really, since I absolutely loathe and despise digitised graphics. The early 90s marked ‘that awkward phase’ for video games, and horribly pixelated sprites were the medium’s equivalent of teenage acne. The ugliness of low-res digitised images didn’t prevent several development studios from dabbling in the practice, however – Pit-Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Narc and Terminator 2 all ended up looking the same: like their characters are made of shuffling, grainy photographs taken by a psychopath, cut out using round-ended scissors and glued into a really creepy scrap book using Gloy.

Oh, and one of Lethal Enforcers’ guns was pink.

A final interesting fact:

According to writer Paul Theroux, the late Michael Jackson owned a Beast Busters arcade cabinet. Speaking of SNK’s derivative yet surprisingly gory gun game, he said: “Oh, yeah, that’s great […]That one’s maybe too violent, though. I usually take some with me on tour.”

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