Most of us know that Nintendo first started out making toys and card games before creating Mario and the team of mascots we all know and love. They produced simple plastic contraptions that engaged families with a sense of fun. This has never been lost through the companies storied history as we’ve seen with the Wii console and, more recently, Labo products. It’s this simplistic approach to enjoyment that has always spurred on the Japanese giant and it’s perhaps perfectly epitomised through the game Duck Hunt.
Before the creators went on to bring us icons like Samus and Kid Icarus, they cut their teeth on ducks and lightguns. Indeed, before Gunpei Yokoi went on to design and develop the Game Boy and Masayuki Uemura had a hand in the NES, they would first work on Duck Hunt on the mechanical toy — which projected ducks onto a wall — before eventually bringing it to televisions across the world. Duck Hunt is the company’s second best-selling game for the Nintendo Entertainment System and while some may balk at the figure of 28 million units sold because of their inclusion with the console, it does nothing to dampen that fact that at the time, it was a technical feat while also being incredibly entertaining and leaving a lasting memory for those who played it.
Before the inevitable revisit to the software in 2012 for the Wii console, it had been many years since we’d grasped the grey Zapper (later changed to ‘blaze orange’ in order to not be confused with a real firearm) and watched with glee as ducks fell from the sky for our dog to fetch — don’t miss, or the smug git will laugh at you. Before that even, Nintendo had produced a toy that utilised a light box, projecting patterns of ducks onto a flat wall. It’s 1976, Nintendo was wrapping up production on their mechanical toys in order to look at other avenues of home entertainment. Duck Hunt, known in Japan as Kôsenjû Duck Hunt (light ray gun duck hunt) was the last of these innovative toys.
The First Hunt — 1976
The game was the brain child of Gunpei Yokoi and his development team. Launching in an unassuming beige box adorned with ducks in flight for ¥9,500, the game wasn’t a major hit on home shores. Perhaps due to the content of the game and Japanese tradition and culture not adopting the sport of hunting with a shotgun — because this initial version of the game armed the player with a shotgun, instead of the more popular Zapper handgun. In America and Europe however, the game saw success.
The game ran on a small projector which displayed the ducks. Graphically, this first iteration of Duck Hunt resembled the LCD jumble of shapes found on the dual screen Game and Watch titles. The shotgun, which ran on batteries, would fire a beam of light after cocking the hammer back to load the gun. On top of the projector was a moving mirror which bounced the images onto a wall and made them move in random patterns, though keeping an up and down arc. The all familiar dog is absent, as is any scenery — Nintendo urged consumers to draw their own scene on whatever surface the game was projected onto. Looking at the range of products Nintendo now has, it’s interesting to see that their theme of innovation and consumer participation thrives after forty years.
The magic happened within the projector box. Everything moved with great speed considering it was a mechanical toy. The engineers at Nintendo pushed for the miniature technology; all of it powered by ‘D’ and ‘C’ batteries, made it very portable for the late seventies. The actual invention of the light gun technology was credited to Takao Ohta in a US patent from 1980, Yokoi harnessed it into a forward-thinking idea for mass production.
In order to register a hit on one of the ducks, the shotgun fired a beam of light, which would reflect from the wall or surface and into a light sensor within the projector. A complex set of wheels and cogs kept the mirror moving, as well as changing a range of cards with duck silhouettes to display the bird in flight, the bird when shot and the bird when falling.
The Second Hunt — 1984
Of course, technology moves fast, and video games were becoming a revolution in how people interacted and were entertained. It wasn’t long before Nintendo took advantage of boosts in tech and the entertainment industry, transforming their toy for the home to an arcade cabinet. Vs. Duck Hunt hit arcades in 1984 and the public loved it. The Vs. cabinets weren’t all that different to the home console releases of Nintendo titles. They were primarily introduced in order for people to play against friends. This meant two guns and a gauntlet thrown down as to who could bag the most birds.
The game featured a few different features to what we’d come to know on the NES — in fact, you could actually shoot the dog in the arcade version, though it would earn you an instant game over as he shouts “Ouch, shoot the birds, not me!”. The aim was always to shoot as many ducks as possible, racking up points for the other person to try their hand at beating your score. As with the NES version, on some cabinets the second player could control the birds on screen.
Differing to the home version, there was no ‘one duck’ mode here, always two ducks on screen at once and of course the clay pigeon option was included. Notably, the arcade versions of video games were always much harder than their console or computer counterparts, in order to make players part with more money and Duck Hunt was no different. It was known to be harder but also included a selectable higher difficulty, as well.
With an upright cabinet, a bulky CRT screen and a gun that looked more like a revolver, Vs. Duck Hunt was a very different experience that needed streamlining for home release. The gun changed, features were stripped back and the game was squeezed onto a cartridge alongside Super Mario Bros to be packaged in with the NES.
The Third Hunt — 1984/85/87
Back in bedrooms and living rooms Nintendo were taking over. Duck Hunt released in waves across the world; 1984 in Japan, ’85 for America and ’87 for Europe. In 1988 Nintendo decided to bundle the game with their biggest seller, Super Mario Bros and introduce the best way to buy into their future — the NES console, Two controllers, the double pack game and a Zapper light gun. This decision meant that every NES sold gave the owner a chance to play Duck Hunt and it was easily the best version yet.
Perhaps the version we all know of, the NES Duck Hunt gave us three modes; One Duck, Two Ducks and Clay Pigeon. Starting off slowly, the targets would fly across the TV screen and dispatching them would allow you to move onto the next round where the targets would speed up. Perfect games here would result in little more than a fanfare, which contrasts to the arcade version which actually features a Kill Screen.
The home release of Duck Hunt would still support two players, but due to the technology of the Zapper, the second player wouldn’t shoot at ducks. Instead, they would control them. Plugging a controller into port two meant that someone could control the flight of the ducks while you fired. Nicer friends could even pause the ducks on screen for you to score an easy kill. Reverse the ports, by putting the Zapper in port two and a controller in port one and you could manipulate the game in a different way; as soon as the ducks or clay targets entered the screen you could pause the game with the controller to then shoot static targets instead.
While the Zapper supported 17 other games, it will forever be synonymous with Duck Hunt — kids and adults sitting in front of TVs blasting at ducks flying through bright blue Nintendo skies, not even thinking about the technology in their hands. Whereas early versions of light guns fired a burst of light to be reflected, the Zapper actually captured the light on screen instead. You might have even noticed that when you pulled the trigger of the Zapper the TV screen would very briefly flash black and the ducks would transform to white squares. A photodiode inside the gun would detect, in that split second, whether it was aimed at the white square by using lenses to zoom into the screen.
A hit would result in the death animation playing out on screen, but as good as the technology was, it could be easily cheated. It wasn’t hugely accurate anyway, but gamers soon cottoned on that the gun could be aimed at a lightbulb, firing as the targets appeared on screen, tricking the diode into thinking they were aiming at the screen.
The Final Hunt?
In 2012, Wii Play was released and as one of the Wiimote’s primary features was the ability to aim at targets on screen, it was clear that we’d see a shooting range mini game. Among the targets in Shooting Range were some very familiar ducks. While we never saw a traditional follow-up to the best seller of the eighties, cameos have been plentiful. Not only were they seen within Wii Play, but the Duck and Dog showed up in 2014 as playable characters in Super Smash Bros for Wii U and 3DS. The oddball team display attacks from throwing clay pigeons at opponents to summoning an unseen ally who would shoot wildly with an off-screen Zapper.
The inclusion was a nod to the great history of the game as voiced by the game’s director Masahiro Sakurai who said Duck Hunt was, “the most-sold shooting game in the world”. Other than small appearances here and there (the dog appeared in the Adam Sandler film, Pixels, and the stars received the Amiibo treatment), Duck Hunt is relegated to the annals of gaming history, which is fair considering where video games now stand in regard to technology and narrative output in titles.
Each member of the team who worked on Duck Hunt were integral parts of the Nintendo machine and all went on to develop both games and hardware for the company. While each of the team members was uncredited for Duck Hunt, the subsequent years revealed their work on the title.
Executive Producer, Hiroshi Yamauchi, a name often credited on games throughout the golden years of Nintendo was once the head of the company when they still made playing cards and toys. He stepped down from his role in 2002 after 52 years, to be replaced by Satoru Iwata. He retired in 2005, retaining a 10% share of Nintendo for the rest of his life. He had a major hand in the video game production of Nintendo.
Producer, Gunpei Yokoi was inspired by liquid crystal display calculators and used the inspiration to design games that could fit in the palm of your hand with Game and Watch. With the success of the idea he went on to develop the Game Boy which sold over 100 million units. Sadly, before Gunpei left Nintendo to develop the Wonderswan he failed to capture new audiences with the notorious Virtual Boy. He will always be remembered for amazing work at Nintendo however and posthumously awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2003 GDC conference.
Chief Director, Satoru Okada directed a whole host of games for Nintendo including Super Mario Land, Kid Icarus, Metroid and Fire Emblem Gaiden while he also helped produce the Game Boy and the add-on camera.
Designer, Hiroji Kiyotake went on to design Samus for the Metroid series, overseeing design on Metroid, Metroid 2 and Super Metroid. This was while working on many games featuring Mario, he is also credited as designing the well-loved Wario character.
Duck Hunt went on to become the second biggest selling game after Super Mario Bros. It was bundled, traded and sold world-wide ensuring that practically every 80’s adult and child held the Zapper and marvelled at what was happening in their living room. Charting the design from mechanical toy to monumental seller, it’s easy to see the Nintendo mission statement and motto run throughout the years, ensuring that fun and technology went hand in hand to create something memorable and, more importantly, enjoyable.