It’s pretty crazy when you really stop and think about it. The U.S. videogame industry was on the verge of total collapse, about to be buried in the New Mexico desert with hundred of thousands of Atari 2600 E.T. cartridges, only to be miraculously resurrected by an unassuming, gray, brick-like system and a certain, now legendary dual-title pack-in game. What pack-in game could have done this? What pack-in game was so mind-searingly amazing as to breathe life into a dead industry and nestle comfortably into the hearts of millions of gamers worldwide? Why … Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt of course. This pack-in title allowed gamers to control a portly, mustachioed man on a mission to get juiced up on mushrooms and dethrone a fire-breathing, bipedal turtle. If that wasn’t enough, gamers also had the option to point an actual, physical gun at their TVs and pick off innocent, wide-eyed ducks as they tried to flee.
Silly premises aside, nearly everyone can agree that this pack-in cartridge was monumentally influential – mainly due to Super Mario Bros. and its revolutionary use of hardware scrolling, colorful visuals and acclaimed level design. But, where does that leave Duck Hunt, the other half of that legendary dual-game bundle package? Was it worthy standing side-by-side with Miyamoto’s side scrolling classic and should it be considered an epic title in the Nintendo Entertainment System’s much revered library of games? To be blunt – no and no. But really, what games during that early point in the NES’s lifespan could have matched up with the brilliance of Super Mario Bros.? Duck Hunt is hardly a bad game, and certainly shouldn’t be dismissed or left to slowly fade from the annals of videogame history.
For the twelve people out there who aren’t familiar with Duck Hunt, let me give a brief description of the game’s theme and mechanics: Ducks fly up into the air. While in the air, they zigzag around erratically in an effort to stay on the screen longer so you may shoot them. While smirking smugly at the ducks’ futile efforts, you pump the water fowl full of lead. If you get tired of this, you may switch it up and shoot clay pigeons instead. There is a dog as well, but you don’t shoot him. Of course, all this shooting is done with Nintendo’s proprietary Zapper light gun – a futuristic looking pistol (well … futuristic in a Buck Rogers sort of way) in the U.S. and Europe, and an actual semi-realistic looking revolver in Japan (lucky bastards).
A feature unknown to many people: the ducks can actually be controlled by a second player if the controller is plugged in. This can make for some wacky zigzagging and a seriously annoyed Zapper-wielding gunman. (Thanks to Anthony Karge for refreshing our memories on this bit of info)
Due to the light gun requirement, this is one of those 8-bit titles that you just can’t experience properly through emulation. Using a mouse to pick off the ducks as they flap around lazily on your computer monitor just zaps (pun intended) the fun. You have to feel the weight of the gun in your hands – hear the twangy snap of the Zapper’s depressed trigger. If you have access to a NES/Famicom, a copy of the game and Nintendo’s light gun, then some good times can undoubtedly be had with Duck Hunt. This is largely due to the remarkable accuracy and responsiveness of the Zapper – an impressive feat considering this was one of the first light gun games that could be played in the home, on pretty much any size television.
Now, shooting ducks and clay pigeons can only provide so much entertainment, and that’s where the game’s biggest weakness shows up – there’s just not enough to do. Even by 8-bit standards, Duck Hunt is a simple game, and one that could have used a few more modes or variations to spice things up. That said, what’s there has been crafted with enough loving care to give the game a good amount of personality and make it worth popping into your system every now and again. The ducks themselves are animated well, feature nice big sprites and come in a variety of different colors – in fact, they are cute enough to illicit an occasional twinge of remorse after plugging one with a well timed head shot. Don’t worry about the pacifistic side of you gumming up the works though, as the mocking laugh of your hound dog when all the ducks “Fly Away” will surely drive you back to the dark side – and on a mission to blast the dirty mutt right between the eyes (which, much to millions of gamers’ collective chagrin, can’t be done).
I have no doubt that it was the Super Mario Bros. half of the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt pack-in bundle that won over most gamers’ hearts during that crucial time in the mid-eighties. Even so, Duck Hunt is a fun, if not brilliant, little light gun game with colorful visuals and a peppy soundtrack (which, incidentally, was created by legendary Zelda composer Koji Kondo) that definitely deserves a place in any NES gamer’s collection. Just make sure that you do actually add it to your collection and not just experience it via humdrum, Zapper-less emulation.