We all adore obliterating people and inanimate objects with guns, right? It’s fortunate then that way back in 1972, Ralph H. Baer made it possible to do it electronically, thereby sidestepping a slew of messy court cases and jail time. Oh, that and murder being morally dubious too of course.
While the history of the light gun (formerly the light pen) dates back much further, Magnavox Odyssey’s Shooting Gallery was the first home video game to employ such a device. Contrary to popular belief, light guns do not actually shoot beams of light, ectoplasm, pixie dust or anything of the sort. Instead they detect changes in light patterns across CRT TV screens via a photodiode positioned in the gun barrel to establish whether or not a target has been hit.
Whenever the trigger is squeezed, for a split second, the screen blacks out. If it contains a single target, in the subsequent frame its ‘hit box’ immediately flickers white, and should you be aiming at it at that particular juncture in time, your gun detects the change in the level of brightness, the computer registers a direct hit and the eviscerated innards of the enemy soldier (or whatever) are splattered far and wide.
Gun games in effect rely on the same technological limitation that TV ad agencies have been exploiting for decades to subliminally sell us lame products we’d never actually buy, sans their dastardly brainwashing. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it sounds feasible enough and I like conspiracy theories.
Should the playfield contain multiple combatants, ducks or twiddleybobs, each of them flashes independently in quick succession. The computer determines which – if any – of the targets have been hit by analysing the time-frame in which the diode registered a flux in brightness. This enabled games developers to devise more challenging ‘on rails’ shooters that would really stretch the player’s reflexes to their limits, whilst also introducing the concept of sprites that should be avoided e.g. hostages or innocent bystanders.
My sincere apologies if the above bombshells have landed as an illusion-shattering revelation of Santa Clausian proportions. I remember all too lucidly the day I discovered the truth about light guns. The trauma I experienced has only since been matched by the day I learnt that WWF Wrestling is an elaborate pantomime. Sorry again!
The light gun languished in obscurity for a number of years until those Mario-pushing philanderers adopted the idea, releasing the ‘Zapper’ bundled with the Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. multicart for their Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s grey and red aesthetic was chosen specifically to ensure it was immediately obvious that it wasn’t a real gun, and to distance the games from the abhorrent violence inflicted by the real thing. Nintendo were the Family Computer (Famicom) company after all.
Sega took up the mantle the following year, releasing their equivalent of the Zapper, known as the ‘Light Phaser’ for the Master System. Safari Hunt, Marksman Shooting & Trap Shooting were the Japanese gaming behemoths’ answer to Duck Hunt.
On the 8-bit, home micro side of the equation, in 1987 the ZX Spectrum fought back with the ‘Magnum Light Phaser’. This formed part of Sinclair’s ‘Action Pack’ system bundles, along with the cassette tape highlights, The Living Daylights (based on the James Bond movie) and Operation Wolf, though was also sold independently, as was the case with the light guns for its rival platforms. The same gun was issued for the Amstrad 464, a foregone conclusion given that it was Alan Sugar’s company that manufactured it.
A variation of the Magnum gun was also made available for the Commodore 64/128, though its main source of light gun entertainment shot onto the market in 1990 in the form of the ‘Cheetah Defender 64’, as bundled with the ‘Light Fantastic Pack’ featuring the headline title, Batman, along with the ‘Blaze Out’ box set (an exclusive compilation of the shooting sequences from Robocop, Rambo III, Platoon, Hyperschool and Combat School).
|This is actually the Jon Hares’ Marpes Light Gun for the Commodore 64… and I’m totally like not even joking, or anyfink.|
The 16-bit consoles joined the me-too conga line in 1992 by way of the Sega Mega Drive’s ‘Menacer’, and the SNES Super Scope, though referring to this evolution in artillery as meager ‘guns’ hardly does them justice; they could more aptly be described as bazookas!
Of course there existed multiple third-party blasters for most platforms. The Amiga for instance enjoyed a tetralogy of light gun peripherals; the Actionware Phaser Light Gun, the Colt-like West Phaser from Loriciel, the – is that a speaker cobbled onto the side of it? – Golem Light Gun, and the Trojan Light Phazer. The Atari XG-1 Light Gun is cross-compatible, and you can even use Sega light guns via a simple DIY adapter.
As if that hadn’t already covered all your bases, English Amiga Board member, damon_siska, has been working on a project since 2005 tasked with making all light guns compatible with the Amiga by way of a universal adapter.
The same manufacturers also developed a host of compatible games to be bundled alongside the hardware (they’d be nothing more than gimmicky ornaments otherwise!), though sadly few of the better established names in the business could be coaxed onto the rifle range.
The games available (often only compatible with the relevant light gun) include…
From Actionware (developers unknown)
From Loriciel (developers unknown unless stated)
Crazy Shot developed by Hitech
West Phaser (also the name of the light gun itself if you recall)
Steve McQueen’s West Phaser (a re-release of West Phaser three years after the original airing, which had virtually nothing to do with Steve!)
From Trojan (developers unknown unless stated)
Aliex developed by Software Creations
Cyber Assault (which unusually for a light gun game also works with a standard mouse)
Firestar (which again is compatible with a standard mouse)
Orbital Destroyer developed by Software Creations
An unfinished Virtua Cop clone from Imij called Hard Target
Worldwide Hunting and Championship Shooting, both developed by Golden Gate Crew for the Golem light gun
Space Gun developed by Images and published by Ocean
(possibly) Die Hard 2: Die Harder developed by Tiertex and published by Grandslam
The insanely tough AMOS PD game L.E.D. Clones from Marksman designed to be used with the Trojan Light Phaser
Glancing over this rogues’ gallery, what should be strikingly conspicuous is the distinct lack of ‘triple A’ titles, if we ever called them that back then. This goes a long way towards explaining why the phaser gun never really set the Amiga world ablaze (you’d probably need a flamethrower for that anyway).
I owned one for the Speccy if only to recreate the heavenly arcade experience of wielding an uzi bolted to an Operation Wolf cabinet in the seaside arcades I stalked as a kid. I can’t say the same for the Amiga, and no-one I knew at the time owned one either. It should come as no surprise in which case that they are now rarer than rocking horse dung, and command exorbitant fees on Fleabay.
For any lottery winners or bank robbers out there who wish to give one a whirl, you should keep in mind that emulators do not currently support light guns, and neither do modern TV sets or monitors.
This is because light guns – to register hits – rely on the flickering raster lines that compose standard definition CRT screens. This defunct technology is no longer found in LCD or plasma TVs, which instead use pixels to render their displays, so no modification in luminance can be detected. For similar reasons, more recent CRT TVs that operate at 100Hz are equally useless – they are flicker free.
I shouldn’t need to tell you that if you push the nozzle of your weapon right up against the screen so you can’t miss, or fire it into a desk lamp or the sun, you are only cheating yourself, and should be thoroughly ashamed. I’m watching you!