Light gun games provide the quintessential arcade experience. From their attractive cabinets, adorned with every type of firearm possible, from pirate cannons to space bazookas, through to the undeniable appeal of loud bangs and explosions, people have long flocked to their local amusement emporium to sample their delights.
Gun games began to appear back in the arcades of the 1930s, with mechanical contraptions springing up on piers up and down the country, catering for the new generation of holiday-goers with more spare time and money in their pocket. In the 60s and 70s, these mechanical games were bolstered by the addition of rear-projected images, which saw players shooting clay pigeons or UFOs.
Although these types of machines can still be seen in some arcades, the 1980s saw the arrival of a new breed of light gun shooter, developed with ever more impressive computer graphics, which later led appeared on home computers and consoles.
Bringing us up to date, the ever-dwindling British seaside arcade is increasingly becoming the only place to find these games, as the light gun fades from memory as a peripheral for home consoles.
Although these types of games still exist (see, for example, House Of The Dead: Overkill and Time Crisis: Razing Storm), they are designed to be played with pointer devices like the Wii remote or PlayStation Move controller.
While still fun, they don’t provide the visceral thrill of holding a real light gun. Instead, the experience is more like fending off a zombie invasion with your TV’s remote.
To properly remember the heyday of home console light guns and their games, we need to travel back in time a decade or so, with our list of the top five greatest light gun games of all time.
Sadly, the technology discussed below doesn’t work on newer, high refresh rate LCD televisions, so unless you have a CRT set hidden away in your attic, the only way you can enjoy playing these classics the way nature intended is in your memory…
The NES Zapper and Duck Hunt
How could we leave this out? For many children of the 80s, this is the alpha and omega of light gun shooters, and Duck Hunt, along with Super Mario Bros, introduced a generation of kids to videogames, since it was included as a pack-in game with the console for many years.
The Zapper was designed to look like a futuristic pistol, and was cast in cream and grey, unlike in Japan, where their version looked like a pretty realistic gunmetal grey revolver. The technology used was simple yet effective, and essentially painted the entire screen black at the time the trigger is pulled aside from the pixel that the zapper sight is aimed at, which then registers whether a hit has occurred. With a few amendments, this is the same tech that was then used for future home light gun games for years afterwards.
Duck Hunt itself was a conversion of a 1984 arcade game, and saw the player trying to shoot, you guessed it, ducks. Oh, and later on clay pigeons, but they aren’t as cute. Any failure results in the player’s faithful mutt laughing at their lack of ability, and resisting all attempts to be shot itself. Believe me, I’ve tried. Master System Light Phaser and Operation Wolf
Operation Wolf was released on every home format known to humankind during the late 80s, and my fondest memories are probably of the Atari ST version more than any other. As I played that with a mouse, however, and since the Sega Master System version is probably the best of the bunch, lets focus on that one, with its appropriate accessory, the Light Phaser.
Sega’s response to the popularity of the Zapper, the Light Phaser had very similar looks to Nintendo’s offering, but a darker and slightly more realistic colour scheme was the order of the day here, and was apparently modelled after a gun used in the anime series, Zillion.
In contrast to the 16-bit light gun era (which you will probably notice is conspicuously absent from this list), the Phaser actually had some fairly decent games designed to work with it, allowing Sega-owning sharpshooters to engage in battles with everything from Chicago gangsters through wild animals to futuristic mechs.
Operation Wolf, however, was everyone’s favourite, and rightly so. The massive guys with knives, the choppers and tanks that were a nightmare to kill, the nurses that lost you points if you shot them, are elements etched onto the minds of every gamer of a certain age, even if most of us couldn’t get past the second level.
Saturn Stunner and Virtua Cop
By 1994, light guns had gone through a turbulent few years. Petrified that young hoodlums may choose to hold up banks with them (ignoring the big long cord attached to the stock, obviously), they were subjected to ever more ludicrous colour schemes and names. Witness the bright orange or blue Stunner for the Sega Saturn – of course it doesn’t kill people, it merely stuns.
When the Saturn launched, hopes were high that it would be another success story for Sega, and the fact that the big four Sega polygon titles of the era – Virtua Fighter, Daytona USA, Sega Rally and Virtua Cop – would be released early in its lifetime was a boost for gamers everywhere, and a reason to blow £400 (yes, you read that right) on the machine. We all know how that one ended up.
Virtua Cop, to be fair, is a great game. The innovative (for the time) way you could target different parts of the baddies was a big selling point, as was an original threat indicator, plus its interesting locales and bosses. The problem was that, by now, players were expecting more from their home titles than a quick ten-minute blast, and were demanding more complexity and variety – something that Virtua Cop was never designed to provide.
G-Con 45 and Time Crisis
Now this was more like it. A bad-ass name and a light gun that looked like it could do some damage. The Namco GunCon was, and probably still is, the most technically impressive light gun peripheral released for a home machine, and bundles combining it with Time Crisis flew off the shelves back in 1997. The G-Con continues to be sold today, with the GunCon 3 working with the PS3, although with motion-based shooter games now becoming the norm, I do wonder whether we will ever see a GunCon 4.
Time Crisis built on Virtua Cop’s success as a polygon-based shooting game, but introduced an innovative ‘duck’ button. Although a simple idea, this really provided an extra element of skill and strategy that a new generation of gamers were looking for, and Time Crisis joined Ridge Racer, Wipeout and Final Fantasy VII as one of the earliest reasons for players choosing the PlayStation as their console of choice.
Another reason why the home version of Time Crisis was so popular was due to the addition of a side story exclusive to the console. Therefore, not only could PlayStation fans enjoy a very accurate conversion of the original arcade game (made with basically the same technology as the PlayStation itself), but when they got bored of trying to finish the battle against Mad Dog, or boosting their high score, they had essentially a whole new game to play in addition.
Dreamcast Light Gun and House Of The Dead 2
By 2000, Sega weren’t even trying to come up with a cool name for their newest peripheral. The Dreamcast Light Gun both sounded and looked pretty uninspiring, but it worked very well indeed, and also included a slot for the addition of either a memory unit or rumble pack – although not both, so you would have to swap them around in-game.
Interestingly, the official gun was only released in Europe and Asia, as in the US, Sega wanted to distance itself from the Columbine tragedy, so gamers were left with only third-party options. It seems light guns and controversy aren’t easily parted.
The Dreamcast did have several impressive games designed to work with its light gun, among which Confidential Mission and Virtua Cop 2 stand out. The one most people remember, though, is The House Of The Dead 2, which built on its prequel in every single way.
The first House Of The Dead had seen released for the Saturn, but looked like it had been coughed into existence by coders in a hurry. By comparison, the Dreamcast game looked great, and had some wonderful art design and boss characters, even if the script and acting were just as woeful. It’s also the only light gun game to have given birth to a spin-off where you defeat zombies by typing words, in the rather odd Typing Of The Dead.