The comical hunting game whose popularity in America encouraged Nintendo to press ahead with plans to take the Famicom console abroad.
Japanese title: ダックハント • Duck Hunt
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-DH]
Japanese release date: April 1984 [HVC-DH]
European release date: 1987 [NES-DH]
Genre: Shooting (Light Gun)
Alternate versions: Vs. System ; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1986]; Virtual Console [Wii U, 2015]
It may seem hard to comprehend in this era of televised anime and convenience store sushi, but Nintendo’s challenge in bringing the Famicom to the American market in the ’80s was as much cultural as logistical. Sure, the reluctance of retailers to carry yet another game system after being burned so badly on unsold console stock after the Atari crash presented a massive obstacle… but so too did the fact that many Americans simply didn’t like Japan.
The generation that had fought against Japan in World War II, perhaps suffering injuries or losing friends and loved ones in the Pacific Theatre, ran the show in the ’80s. They still remembered the war, and that—at the time—Japan had been the only nation ever to launch a military attack against American soil. All that wartime anti-Japan sentiment and propaganda (created by such pillars of pop culture as Bugs Bunny and Doctor Seuss) was hard to let go of. Sure, the Allies defeated Japan with horrifying finality by leaving radioactive scars where two cities had once stood, but resentment doesn’t fade easily. Japan certainly didn’t ameliorate those grievances when the country overcome its resounding WWII defeat by building itself into an industrial powerhouse. By the time the NES launched, that poor little ruin of a nation had somehow gone from humbled in wartime defeat to poised to conquer the global economy.
As the ’70s became the ’80s, Japanese automotive corporations took advantage of the same oil crisis that had caused Nintendo so much trouble, pushing its fuel-efficient cars as an alternative to Detroit’s unionized gas-guzzlers. Electronics companies like Sony introduced innovative devices such as the Walkman. Japanese interests bought up American properties.
Bad memories and alarming business trends mixed into an unfriendly climate for Nintendo’s Famicom export plans: The NES represented a bold strike into the American living room, directed at the minds and hearts of innocent American children, and it supplanted failed American businesses like Atari in the process. The potential for bad feelings and pushback ran high.
Corporations don’t come much more Japanese than Nintendo—from the company’s name to its history as a manufacturer of hanafuda playing cards, Nintendo had nearly a century of being staunchly and traditionally Japanese under its belt at the time of the NES launch. But Nintendo also had a long history of navigating tricky cultural climates, from early 20th century laws that banned gambling in Japan to the hardships of the post-WWII era. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi knew better than to run headlong to challenge the massive U.S. market, and the company had built up its overseas presence slowly over time: First with distribution partners, then by establishing its own overseas distribution branch under Minoru Arakawa.
Nintendo’s approach went deeper than simply building a logistics chain, though; the company also relied heavily on a team of Americans who understood the realities of their home market. Though Nintendo’s Japanese executive team called the shots both then as now, the particulars of company’s entry into the home market were largely determined by the likes of Howard Lincoln and Gail Tilden. It was the U.S. team that directed the console’s marketing as it journeyed into the States, not only branding the system but also tweaking its design for the U.S. market. Arakawa’s staff played a big part in deciding which games would reach American retail, helping to winnow out games that wouldn’t appeal to American interests (such as Mahjong) or that might offend American moral sensibilities (for instance, reportedly culling Devil World from the U.S. lineup in response to fears about purported ties between games like Dungeons & Dragons to Satanism).
A huge part of the Famicom’s conversion into the NES involved its appearance—making it appeal to American tastes while sneaking it past game-averse retail buyers. The bright white-and-red Famicom looked far too much like a toy for the U.S., where consoles had been cast in stoic blacks and woodgrain paneling to resemble stereo equipment. Nintendo initially redesigned the console to take on a sleek, science-fiction look — less stodgy than earlier consoles in a reflection of the changing tastes of the mid ’80s New Wave aesthetic, yet still undeniably resembling a piece of powerful consumer entertainment technology. That still wasn’t enough for American retailers, who could only see the fact that this was still basically the same thing as the ColecoVisions that were cluttering Kay Bee and Toys ’R Us stock rooms across America.
The final NES ended up looking more like a VHS deck, including a clever if ultimately failure-prone front-loading slot that required players to insert cartridges as if they were video tapes. And it shipped alongside two peripherals: R.O.B. the Robot Operating Buddy, and the Zapper light gun.
R.O.B. ended up looking almost exactly the same in the U.S. as he did in Japan, save for a color variation—presumably because R.O.B. was designed as a gimmick specifically for the U.S. market. The Zapper, on the other hand, looked almost nothing like its Japanese version. In Japan, Nintendo pushed Wild Gunman pretty hard due to its remarkable legacy in that country. Fittingly, the Famicom light gun perfectly resembled an Old West six-shooter: A solid black revolver that even came with a holster for players to wear. The American version couldn’t have been more different. While it retained the same basic pistol shape and light-sensing technology of the Japanese gun, it abandoned the Winchester look of the Wild Gunman pack-in in favor of something that resembled a Luger from 200 years in the future.
The sci-fi look of the Zapper didn’t really tie it to any of Nintendo’s early light gun games, which tended to be grounded in more real-world settings: The Wild West, police work, or hunting birds. On the other hand, it also didn’t cause quite so much consternation among parents about gun safety.
Catching Satanism from tabletop RPGs wasn’t the only parental scare of the mid-’80s in America; there were far more substantial and substantiated fears resulting from kids being shot by police for playing with too-realistic toy guns. The conversation around these hazards would eventually lead to laws requiring all toy guns to feature bright safety colors, but in the meantime Nintendo wisely undertook some self-censorship.
It was a smart move. Anecdotally, my own parents refused to let me buy a Transformers Megatron figure, because the robot changed form into a convincing Walther P-38 replica. However, they found Shockwave, a Transformer who could become a ridiculous purple space gun, far more acceptable. Likewise, the Zapper with its Buck Rogers makeover was no problem. No one would ever mistake it for a real weapon, even before it underwent its safety orange makeover in 1989.
The sci-fi American Zapper had another, more subtle benefit as well: It became game-agnostic. Where the Japanese gun’s revolver-like stylings tied it permanently to Wild West shoot-out Wild Gunman, Zapper didn’t feel specific to any particular piece of software. That turned out to be important in the U.S., because Americans didn’t particularly gravitate toward Wild Gunman. Instead, it was a different Zapper game that won hearts and minds over here: Duck Hunt.
According to NES hardware designer Masayuki Uemura, Duck Hunt was the game that convinced Nintendo its plans to export the Famicom had potential despite the doom and gloom of American retailers. Corporate buyers could argue that American kids wouldn’t want to play video games, but the rousing success of Duck Hunt’s arcade trial run in the VS. System suggested otherwise.
And, really, the game’s popularity made perfect sense. As Uemura noted, Americans love guns. The United States was estabished on the strength of guns that helped kick out the British and drive Native Americans from their land. When the framers of the Constitution sat down to pen their first round of revisions, the right to bear arms came only after the right of free expression. Americans use guns for war, for hunting, for sport, and even apparently for grocery shopping now.
Naturally, a game that let players hold a gun and shoot targets on the screen would do well here, right? But that’s a glib assessment. Duck Hunt wasn’t the only light gun game to come to American arcades before the NES launch; it was accompanied by Hogan’s Alley. So how come that didn’t perform as well?
Simply put: Duck Hunt is a brilliant game. Simplistic, yes, but that’s part of its appeal.
Duck Hunt demanded more than simple quick-draw reflexes. Wild Gunman’s rival gunmen were fixed, stationary targets who tested players’ ability to fire in response to a time challenge. Duck Hunt, on the other hand, presented players with moving targets: A host of ducks that would take to the air, flutter around unpredictably for a moment, then take off for safer spaces. While its targets offered a more generous window of time in which to take them down, their quick, erratic movements demanded skillful aiming. The randomized unpredictability of the ducks perfectly complemented the game’s interface; in an era when game control schemes had yet to settle into universal standards, Duck Hunt offered refreshing directness. Nintendo would repeat this conceptual success two decades later with Wii Sports, but in 1985 nothing felt more natural than gunning down flying birds.
Duck Hunt did offer a few different play mechanics to keep things lively. Besides the randomized motion of the birds, they also came in three different forms, color-coded to represent their trickiness. The green-headed black ducks were the slowest-moving and thus the easiest to take down, while the brown ones were dauntingly fast, perhaps as a way to overcompensate for looking so boring.
As with Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt played in two modes: One in which ducks appeared singly, and one in which they emerged in pairs. The third mode offered an even greater departure from the standard game than Wild Gunman’s Gang Mode: It dropped the ducks altogether in favor of a clay target shoot. A round of Duck Hunt worked simply: Your canine companion would leap into the brush to scare up some fowl, startling ducks into the air one or two at a time. Each duck would flap around for a few seconds, and if you didn’t manage to shoot it with one of the three rounds you were given, it would escape off-screen and count as a miss.
After 10 ducks had either been gunned down or fluttered to freedom, the round would end and the player’s score would be tallied. Each successful shot would register on the scoreboard as a red “kill” icon. Provided you took down enough ducks to push the red tally past the score indicator beneath the icons, you would advance to the next round. A game of Duck Hunt ended when you failed to meet your requisite score—a requirement that increased every few rounds, causing the basic difficulty to ramp up in parallel the ever-faster motion of the birds. And that’s about all there was to it.
Besides the intuitive design of the point-and-shoot interface, what made the game so addictive in spite of its simplicity was its whimsical personality. Sure, you were gunning down innocent wildlife, but Nintendo’s cartoonish visual design made it seem so inoffensive. Shoot a duck and its eyes would bug comically before it plummeted to the ground to be held aloft by your dog. Miss, and of course your dog would rise from the rushes for a moment to snicker at your incompetence.
Part of the game’s arcade success probably came from the fact that you could blast the dog in the bonus game, a socially irresponsible but deeply cathartic feature understandably excised from the home release (which dropped the bonus mode altogether). More than that, it was just a great-looking game with an intuitive interface and addictive design.
Like Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt has deep roots in Nintendo history. It also drew heavy influence from a ’70s-era arcade attraction based on an early form of the light gun technology that eventually made its way to the console. In fact, both game variants in the Duck Hunt video game were based on Nintendo arcade attractions from the ’70s. The clay shooting extra mode is taken from Nintendo’s very first shooting installation attraction, the Laser Clay Shooting System, which was created as a sort of hermit crab concept that gave bowling alley operators something to do with all their unused acreage once Japan’s short-lived ’60s bowling fad died off. That ended up being a disaster for Nintendo due to the OPEC oil embargo, and Laser Clay Shooting System’s failure led to the creation of Wild Gunman as a way of repurposing the technology into a more compact and affordable format—one the size of a photo booth rather than an entire bowling alley.
In scaling down the technology even further, Nintendo’s designers came up with a version that was suitable for home use. The result, Kousenjuu Duck Hunt, belonged to the same family as the company’s other light-based toys, though its light tech proved to be considerably more sophisticated. Where most Kousenjuu series toys consisted of simple, static targets that had to be shot in a small light sensor for a hit to register, Duck Hunt presented moving targets.
Players didn’t take aim at toy ducks, but instead fired at an animated projection. The light gun’s beam would reflect off the wall, and a successful hit against a duck image would send a beam of light along the same path that the bird projection took from the machine. This means that an on-target shot would strike a light sensor located next to the duck projector and cause the animated birds to switch frames and movements to simulate falling.
It was an incredibly clever piece of technology that could be used in any living room with a bit of clear wall space, and Duck Hunt for NES simply took the concept to its next logical step. It retained the basic game elements of the Kousenjuu toy, added a healthy dose of speed and randomization, threw in a persnickety dog as a companion, and greatly reduced the complexity and space needed for play by compacting everything down to a console, a controller, and a TV. And really, Duck Hunt as a concept predates even that technology. SEGA had pioneered the art of pretending to kill innocent waterfowl with a 1969 arcade game called, yes, Duck Hunt. While it operated on an electromechanical system that lacked the sophistication of Nintendo’s light and projection system, the similarities between the two games probably aren’t a coincidence.
In time, SEGA would launch its own console—the Master System—with its own Zapper-like light gun, the Light Phaser. The Master System never had a light gun game quite as simple-yet-appealing as Duck Hunt, though, proving once again that in any console war, it’s ultimately software quality that wins the day.
Nintendo shipped Duck Hunt as a pack-in game for consoles that included the Zapper throughout most of the NES’s life. At launch, it came bundled with the Deluxe Set along with a separate Gyromite cart. After a couple of years, it shipped in a combo cartridge with Super Mario Bros. Eventually, Nintendo even crammed it into a triple cartridge along with Mario and World Class Track Meet for consoles that included the Power Pad exercise accessory.
This all refers to American releases, of course—in Japan, Duck Hunt was never regarded as anything particularly special and didn’t remain in circulation for nearly as long as in the States. But even if it’s largely forgotten in its homeland, its iconic status in America shows that Nintendo’s U.S. ambitions panned out.
Duck Hunt has gone on to become an iconic part of Nintendo’s history. While it wasn’t enough of a game to hang a franchise or even a sequel on, the sniggering dog and frantic birds remain well-loved, eventually earning a place on the latest Smash Bros. roster. Duck Hunt also served as the impetus for Nintendo to finally convert Zapper games to Wii U Virtual Console. Because Americans love guns, and they love Duck Hunt.