Nintendo’s debut title for its light gun peripheral, based on an innovative film-based arcade installation from the ’70s.

Wild Gunman

Japanese title: ワイルドガンマン • Wild Gunman
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-WG]
Japanese release date: Feb. 1984 [HVC-WG]
European release date: 1988 [NES-WG]
Genre: Shooting (Light Gun)
Alternate versions: PlayChoice-10 [Arcade1986]; Virtual Console [Wii U2015]

When Back to the Future Part II protagonist Marty McFly traveled with Doc Brown in a flying nuclear DeLorean 30 years into the future, to October 21, 2015, he stumbled across a couple of kids playing Wild Gunman in a retro ‘80s cafe. While the kids scorned the game for forcing them to use their hands, Marty seemed excited by the sight of the classic Nintendo shooter. Now keep in mind that Marty’s temporal origin point of October 25, 1985 meant that to his point of view, Wild Gunman had only been released in the U.S. a few days earlier in extremely limited quantities. 

The NES’s initial U.S. launch was exactly one week prior to Marty’s precipitous departure from Hill Valley under threat of death-by-terrorist. What few games magazines existed didn’t report on the NES until months later, and the system’s debut made no headlines. The NES’s launch in October 1985 initially happened at just a handful of retailers specifically located in New York City, with the national rollout happening in mid-1986.

Wild Gunman would eventually appear in PlayChoice-10 arcade cabinets, but that system didn’t debut until 1986. And while Nintendo’s VS. System had been present in American arcades since early 1984, Wild Gunman was never distributed in that format. So it follows that Marty either followed game news closely through early online services, or else he was even cannier than that and actually had access to an imported Famicom prior to the NES launch. In either case, you have to respect the guy’s commitment to nerdiness—he was way ahead of the curve.

But while Wild Gunman was a cool new concept in video games for Americans when it debuted on NES, for Japanese gamers it felt more like a fun blast from the past. Duck Hunt would be the light gun pack-in for the American console, but Wild Gunman marked Nintendo’s first foray into Famicom light gun games back east. It even shipped in a special package that contained both the game and the light gun, which is about the closest you’ll ever see to a pack-in game in Japan.

Wild Gunman had heritage among Japan game enthusiasts, and its arrival on Famicom definitely drew a through-line connecting the console to Nintendo’s long history as a toy maker. It made a clear statement that Famicom was simply the latest iteration in Nintendo’s legacy of innovative electronic toys.

The game itself is ridiculously simple—it was barely enough to qualify as a standalone piece of software back in 1985. These days, it feels like the sort of thing that would be nothing more than a minigame within a much larger collection of games—and in fact, that’s exactly true, since Wild Gunman appears as a microgame in the WarioWare series. Of course, at the time, Wild Gunman had to stand alone as its own game, because the system’s cartridges couldn’t have handled anything more. Unlike most other NES launch games, Wild Gunman featured big, detailed graphics drawn in Nintendo’s ‘80s house style, which was patterned after Shigeru Miyamoto’s art (if not actually drawn by him). Where sprites in other games tended to be extremely small, the characters in Wild Gunman were nearly one-third the height of the screen. They would march onto the screen, change direction, and flop comically to the ground when shot.

Players can choose from three different modes in Wild Gunman. Mode A is a one-on-one showdown in which a rival marches onto the screen, takes position, and shouts “FIRE!” Literally shouts, in fact—Wild Gunman was the first NES game to take full advantage of the system’s fourth audio channel, which allowed for digital sampling. No doubt the brief, scratchy voice clip that plays during each faceoff also consumed a ton of cartridge space, further reducing the opportunity for more diverse and varied game content.

You have a split-second after an opponent’s eyes flash to gun him down, or else he’ll shoot instead and knock a life off your total. There are five different opponents altogether, though little besides their appearance distinguishes them. Each opponent has a semi-randomized reaction time to beat, measured in hundredths of a second, which is given in the upper portion of the screen as they emerge onto the stage.  If you don’t take aim and fire within this fraction of a second, you lose. While enemy times vary, certain characters tend toward opposite ends of the time scale. The timid, lanky gunman and the bolo-wearing rancher tend to offer the most time, sometimes as much as 9/10s of a second. On the other hand, the guy in the brown leather vest tends to have the fastest reactions, sometimes as little as 4/10 of a second. 

Assuming you manage to beat these times, you’re given bonus points based on every tenth of a second by which you outshoot your opponent. This is added to the base reward you earn for bringing in these deadly desperados. As you advance, rival gunman tend to give you less time to fire but offer larger rewards. There’s no endgame to Wild Gunman besides running out of lives, either from being too slow on the draw or firing before being told to shoot.

For those who master the A game, Wild Gunman also offers a B mode in which players face off against two gunmen at a time. This is a much more difficult prospect, since you can’t simply hold an opponent in your sights and fire as soon as he gives the word. B mode requires faster reflexes and precise aiming, as well as the ability to instantly recognize when one fighter draws his weapon but the other doesn’t. It works as a sort of expert mode. 

However, the real fun comes in the third mode, in which gunmen pop up at random in the doors and windows of a building. In this mode, you don’t need to wait for permission to shoot—as soon as you see a bad guy, you can unload into him. While it’s more forgiving in that sense, it also brings its own distinct challenge: Limited ammunition. 

Still, that’s about all there is to the game. It’s fun and colorful, but you can see the entirety of the game in about five minutes. Each opponent you face represents a different Old West stereotype: From a bolo-wearing rancher to a leather-clad outlaw to the somewhat unfortunate bandito in his serape and sombrero. It’s hard to be too offended by the more questionable character designs given the general silliness of the game—at worst, Wild Gunman offers innocent, lighthearted fun that happens to hail from a less sensitive time and a country whose only exposure to the Old West came from American western films. 

Still, it’s tough to imagine Nintendo making a game exactly like Wild Gunman these days, since the game consists entirely of players gunning down human characters. But again, its roots lay in Nintendo’s product line from the 1970s, where they produced far more risqué material than a shooting gallery consisting of cartoonish Old West stereotypes. The original Wild Gunman first appeared in 1974, a decade before the Famicom version made its debut. Nintendo produced it as an arcade machine, but it wasn’t a video game. Rather, it was an electromechanical amusement based around a projector system that used dynamic film loops to present players with a standoff in which they dueled with live-action cowboys. Based on the speed and accuracy of the player, the projector would switch to register either a successful hit or the enemy firing, game over.

According to Florent Georges’ book The History of Nintendo, Wild Gunman was created—unsurprisingly—by resident design genius Gunpei Yokoi. It demonstrated the company’s enduring ability to respond to financial challenges, both internal and external. 

Wild Gunman was part of a line of compact projection-based shooting amusements that president Hiroshi Yamauchi commissioned to pull Nintendo out of massive debt brought on by a failed business gamble. In 1973, Nintendo had introduced an elaborate large-scale target shooting installation called the Laser Clay Shooting System to take advantage of the empty space left in wake of Japan’s collective abandonment of bowling. Bowling had been a huge phenomenon in Japan in the ’60s, but interest tapered quickly in the face of new amusements like karaoke early in the ’70s. 

Japanese popular culture tends to be extremely faddish and trend-driven, and that was certainly the case with bowling; it went from massive hit to uncool drudge almost overnight. All those expensive bowling alleys that popped up to take advantage of the trend couldn’t be repurposed overnight, and Nintendo saw an opportunity there to create new forms of entertainment in otherwise disused spaces. The Laser Clay Shooting System initially looked as though it would work out to be a huge success, with orders coming in from all across the country, but then disaster struck: The OPEC oil crisis. 

In October 1973, the OPEC nations decided as one to raise prices of crude oil exports as a punitive measure against America’s military support for Israel, and the embargo caused a global recession. Japan, which depended almost entirely on imported oil, was hit particularly hard, and pricey diversions like indoor target shooting suddenly held little interest. Buyers who had ordered but not yet received Laser Clay systems canceled their purchases in droves, and Nintendo lost a tremendous amount of money through no fault of their own… besides having taken a creative gamble on an innovative new installation product at an impossibly terrible time. Determined to recoup their losses, Nintendo reworked the technology into a smaller, less expensive product called Mini Laser Clay, which also failed to sell in suitable numbers.

In desperation, they reworked Mini Laser Clay one final time to become the Wild Gunman booth installation. This new system allowed players to place themselves in the role of a gunslinger in the climactic shootout of a spaghetti western. Unlike the bowling-lane-sized Laser Clay Shooting System, Wild Gunman shipped in a machine whose physical footprint wasn’t much larger than that of a deluxe pinball cabinet, making it far more economical than their first venture.

The game proved to be a respectable hit, and Nintendo soon produced other similar products to help dig the company out of the money pit the oil crisis had stranded them in. Some of these became future NES games, while others—such as Fascination, which involved shooting clothes off a woman until she was left nude—never made it outside of Nintendo’s offices.

  In effect, the Laser Clay Shooting System and Wild Gunman were adaptations of existing Nintendo products: The Kousenjuu SP toy line. Introduced back in 1971, Kousenjuu SP had been a light-based target shooting system that allowed players to target interactive toys. While they were immobile and didn’t “fire back” at players the way Wild Gunman’s projected gunslingers did, a Kousenjuu SP figure would trigger some sort of electromechanical reaction when hit in the light sensor. Initially these responses consisted of lights or sounds, but the two final Kousenjuu toys—1976’s Custom Gunman and Custom Lion—were much more elaborate affairs consisting of plastic figurines that would collapse into a heap if hit in their target sensor.

The Kousenjuu series is also noteworthy for the key role it played in Gunpei Yokoi’s design career. After the success of the initial line, Nintendo produced the advanced Kousenjuu Custom series, which offered much more advanced devices. The Custom gun was rated for pinpoint accuracy at 100 meters versus the standard 4-5 meters. 

While impressive, this turned out to be utterly inane as a product. According to Georges, Japan’s cramped urban spaces meant finding a clear 100-meter space in which to play practically impossible… and in any case, the toy-sized targets became vanishingly small at that distance and were essentially impossible to see, let alone hit. More to the point, the Custom series also cost twice as much as the basic Kousenjuu model.

With a prohibitive price and impractical design, the Kousenjuu Custom line proved an absolute disaster, selling about five percent of its initial projections. But the hard lesson it offered helped inform Yokoi’s subsequent work: His toys and other consumer products afterwards were forever budget-conscious and designed with an eye for the realities of play. That’s why, for example, Game Boy had a crummy screen and an energy-efficient processor rather than trying to compete with Atari’s Lynx with its ravenous 16-bit chip and a backlit color screen. It’s easy to forget just how wedded Nintendo’s early game consoles were to its toymaking heritage, but Wild Gunman was right there in the thick of things.

That connection was particularly clear for Japanese consumers. Unlike the sci-fi Zapper Americans received, the Japanese Famicom light gun took the form of a plastic revolver, a six-shooter designed to complement the Old West aesthetic of Wild Gunman. Not only that, but the Famicom Gun shipped separately from the console in a package whose coloring, artwork, and typography bore a strong resemblance to the Kousenjuu Custom Gunman set and the standalone gun from 10 years prior. The product sent a clear message: The Famicom was a video game console, yet some of the games it offered were the latest iterations of beloved, classic arcade installations. 

The console was more of an evolution of Nintendo’s products than it was a radical reinvention. Still, I doubt Marty McFly knew any of that, even if he was enough of a super-Nintendo geek (or perhaps an import enthusiast) to be aware of (and a crack shot at) Wild Gunman a mere week after the game’s limited American debut.


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Japanese game set from the collection of Steve Lin