What if you could play an arcade type game but in your own house with an accessory that had never been seen in a video game console?
Duck Hunt was a video game released by Nintendo in 1985 which used the new Light Gun shooter called the NES Zapper. The game involves having three shots to hit ducks that appear one or two at a time and fly at various speeds. Duck Hunt would become one of the best-selling video games of all time.
I remember it like yesterday. Getting the NES Action Set for Christmas that not only came with two controllers and Super Mario Bros but a pretty hyped new game called Duck Hunt. This was the first time we had a legit arcade style game you could use in your own home. It had the Zapper gun, and it really worked! This game did not suck despite this being an early form of the technology.
There were other shooter games but Duck Hunt was hands down the best. It’s hard to tell what made it so successful, and playable, but it landed on the perfect formula and is synonymous with the early days of NES.
There’s an interesting story behind Duck Hunt, and the concept of the Light Gun, that goes back almost 20 years before it even came out.
Let’s look back at Duck Hunt: The Original First-Person Shooter.
Setting The Stage For Duck Hunt
So Duck Hunt actually came out in 1969 by SEGA. Wait, I thought you said it came out in 1985? Well the NES version did but an early iteration of Duck Hunt existed in 1969 in arcade form. It happened to also be called Duck Hunt but didn’t use a light and projection system the way Nintendo would but more of a mechanical style. It also had a fixed rifle attached to the entire cabinet that you would shoot with.
Duck Hunt as we know it would have roots in a few other shooters, most notably the Back to the Future 2 staple: “Wild Gunman”.
Nintendo had some novelty shooting games in the 70s that it had introduced after bowling alleys in Japan started emptying out. Bowling had been a short-lived fad through the late 60s and they needed some kind of novelty games to fill up the empty space they had.
Nintendo had created a light-based shooting simulator that used animated clay targets as the object. It’s the reason you see clay shooting as the third option on the original Duck Hunt. The problem was that these simulators were huge. They basically took up most of the space in a bowling alley.
The oil crisis of the 1970s lead to increased costs and people less likely to purchase this electronic shooting game system for use in their businesses. Nintendo needed to repurpose this concept into a more compact and affordable compact and that’s exactly what they did.
The shrunk it down to about the size of a photo booth and with added a whole new dynamic and game play.
They’d call it Wild Gunman
Shrinking Down The Technology
Wild Gunman was a huge hit in Japan and the ability was there to shrink this technology down to something you could use in your home. The thing was light based shooting guns had already existed, but they worked with real-life toys that would collapse when hit with the “ray”.
Yosenju was a company that was part of Nintendo that dealt with the toy light gun technology and they would put out Duck Hunt that was a boxed set to be used in the home. They had really advanced the light gun technology to this point. The box set would come with a mini “projector” that could shine images of ducks on to any flat and clear surface.
You would fire the light gun and the beam from it would hit the duck. The projector is following the path of the duck and the light beam that hit off it would reflect back to the projector and recognize a “hit”. This would then cause the projector to change the direction of the animated birds by putting it on a different path causing it to fall off the screen.
Duck Hunt for NES would follow this same simple, but very effective, technology.
Developing The NES Zapper
Since WIld Gunman was a huge hit in Japan, it had only made sense to model the light guns off of an old 6-shooter Smith n Wesson style of gun. When Kosenju released the boxed Duck Hunt set the guns followed in this similar model.
If you haven’t brushed up on your NES history, it first existed in Japan as the “Famicom”. The system had a different look and color scheme than what you’re used to but the light gun released with it over there took on this same vintage gun look. It even came with a holster you could wear it with. If you want a full history of how the NES came to be, I recommend checking out my blog that covers it all.
The NES zapper would have a completely different look, for a few reasons. It still kept a gun-like shape but looked more like something that RoboCop would carry with him. It seemed odd because it had a futuristic look but the first bunch of games released for the NES were traditional shooting, or hunting, type games.
Gun safety is obviously a big concern right now, but it still was in the 1980s. There are a few unfortunate cases of some young people being shot and killed by police for carrying realistic looking fake guns. Laws were put in place so that any toy gun would have to include bright safety colors so it could be identified as a toy. This is why in 1989 you see fluorescent orange on the NES zapper and the same color, or fluorescent green, used on most others such as Nerf guns and Super Soaker etc.
Look back at an original G1 Transformers Megatron shown below. It looked so close to a real gun and there had been incidents of people arrested at airports for having one in their luggage. This was before those laws were put in place but Nintendo was smart for switching up from the original style guns with the Famicom to something more space/futuristic looking.
Releasing Duck Hunt
When you think of Nintendo, you probably think of Mario as being the centerpiece of the whole company. This is true now but before the NES was launched in North America Mario wasn’t considered a big factor. They did not understand what an iconic character he would become but the motivation for thinking the Famicom would succeed in America was because of Duck Hunt.
Remember, this is all coming out of the great video game crash of 1983 where the industry, especially Atari, basically completely collapsed. No one wanted too much to do with video games anymore and companies like Mattel and Hasbro were trying to distance themselves as much as possible. I also recommend checking my article about the ET Atari Video game and the collapse of the industry.
So for Nintendo it would be hard to convince American retailers and buyers to buy another video game system but they had something new this time. A shooting based accessory had never existed in home video games before and they had a ton of market research showing how successful it was. It’s so funny to think of a time when retailers thought kids wouldn’t want to play video games anymore but the rousing success of Duck Hunt might be a way back in,
And there’s also this undeniable fact: Americans love guns.
The Simplistic Yet Great Game Play Of Duck Hunt
I don’t have to describe too much about Duck Hunt to you as there is NO way you haven’t played it but I want to point out some things that made it such a great game.
The first thing is it had a real cartoony effect to it and felt like you were engaging with an actual cartoon show. It’s primitive 8-Bit technology looking back but if you look at the advances in graphics that happened from Atari to Nintendo, it was pretty mind blowing.
Duck Hunt was also more interactive whereas games like Wild Gunman had fixed targets Duck Hunt was all over the place and you had to act like a real hunter by tracking and shooting them down. It actually took skill.
The game would start with “Dog” (that’s the only real name he was ever given) jumping into the grass to scare off the ducks. You had three rounds to shoot a duck and if you missed all three, and it escaped, it would count as a miss. When ten ducks had been shot, or missed, the round would be over. Each successful shot would go on the board as a red kill shot and you had to meet a requisite score to move on to the next round.
The requirements would go up each round and the bird speed would as well making the difficulty progressively harder as you played. If you missed “Dog” would come up and laugh at you. Yes, you would try to shoot him but it wouldn’t work. But fun fact, in the arcade version you could actually shoot him. He wouldn’t get murked but would limp off the screen with crutches and a cast on his leg.
Duck Hunt was great because there was no set pattern and the ducks would always fly in random patterns so you never knew what would happen. If you cheated like me, you would get right up against the screen and shoot them just as the rose from the grass. But even then you didn’t know exactly where they were coming from.
The also offered three variations of the ducks:
- Green Headed Black Duck– These were the slowest moving and were pretty easy to take down
- Brown Ducks– These were fast ducks
- Blue Ducks– somewhere in the middle and it’s these variations that lead to the challenging aspect of the game and so many variables to make it unpredictable.
They also could fly singly or in pairs which could create further challenges.
The Success Of Duck Hunt
When the NES was released in 1985, it came in various formats. There was the deluxe set which only the rich kids seemed to get that included two controllers, R.O.B, and the games Duck Hunt and Gyromite.
There was the basic set that had just the console for $89.99 or for $99.99 you would get Mario with it. There was the Power Set that had the control deck, two controllers, the Zapper gun, and the Power Pad. Remember that? The Power Pad you would run on and this set came with Duck Hunt along with World Class Track Meet. I think the Power Pad never caught on because who the hell wants to move while playing video games.
And there was the set that I, and most kids would end up getting. The Action Set. This came with the control deck, two controllers, the Zapper along with Mario and Duck Hunt. We got this for Christmas and it’s still the pinnacle moment of my life.
Duck Hunt is responsible for a lot of the early success of the NES but then Mario took over and they ran with that. It’s interesting to think how, despite its success, Duck Hunt never got a sequel. It seems weird they would never put out another version since there were limited options for games you could use with the Zapper.
They put out a version on Smash Brothers but that was a long time in between released. I have to think if they had put out another version within a year every kid would have wanted one. There were three Mario Brothers games over the course of the NES but this was now the cornerstone of the whole company.
All in all Duck Hunt remains one of the best-selling video games of all time coming in at number three with 28.31 million units sold. And this is just one game that was released in 1984. This makes me even more shocked that a sequel wasn’t released. The two other higher selling games? Tetris and the original Mario Bros.
Wrapping It Up
Duck Hunt is a monumental game that every kid in the 80s has almost certainly played. It was a huge success for Nintendo and made best use of the NES Zapper gun. The success of Duck Hunt had seen to be the influence behind the development of the Wii. They could take Zapper based games and integrate them with the new Wii controller for a more interactive gaming experience.
Either way, Duck Hunt can be thanked for not only being a classic game but for helping to relaunch the entire video game industry. And I wanted to save the best for last:
Apologies if you already know this but Duck Hunt is actually a TWO player game. Not two guns, but if one player is using the gun you can plug in one of the controllers and that person can actually control the ducks on the screen.
I’ll let you put your brain back in that has now been blown out…