Duck Hunt, the Template for Wii's Success

30 years ago, Nintendo's iconic sports shooter predicted the future.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Back in the '80s, Nintendo quickly rose to the top once it entered the Japanese home market with Famicom. Yet they may never have been able to reproduce that success abroad if not for the presence of two famous peripherals: The Zapper light gun and R.O.B. the robot.

You should know the story by now: American retailers were burned out on games after taking huge losses in the wake of Atari's collapse, so Nintendo Trojan Horsed the NES into the market by presenting it as a toy, emphasizing its peripherals. The NES sold largely because of R.O.B.'s visual appeal and because Duck Hunt was deliriously fun.

Truth be told, it wasn't an entirely base deception. Sure, the games that made use of R.O.B. -- all two of them -- were pointless, and setting up the stupid robot in the first place was far more trouble than it was worth. But Duck Hunt, which shipped with NES bundles well into the system's stout middle age, was simple and addicting. Plus, it pretty much served as a perfect encapsulation of the Nintendo way of doing things. In fact, it effectively predicted how Nintendo would make its mark with the Wii more two decades later.

For starters, Duck Hunt was based on a vintage Nintendo game. This may sound strange -- as of 1984, the company had barely been in the video game business for half a decade -- but in fact the Duck Hunt brand predates Nintendo's video arcade business. Back in 1976, near the end of the company's run as a toy manufacturer, Nintendo created a standalone game called Duck Hunt, which projected images of ducks onto your wall and used a sensor in the gun barrel to register hits and misses.

Duck Hunt for NES takes this creative electronic devices and reinterprets it in video game form, in some cases almost literally: The video game's animation cycle (ducks fly at a roughly 45-degree angle and fall inverted to the ground upon being shot) is taken almost verbatim from the original. It's a remarkably faithful adaptation, in fact, but it's much more compact and convenient (not to mention colorful) in video game form. Much as the likes of Ultima made tabletop role-playing games much less cumbersome through digital automation, Duck Hunt for NES takes the whirring electromechanical noise out of the game and throws in little embellishments (some modest, like the backgrounds, and some memorable, like the sneering dog who mocks you for missing your targets).

Sometimes, the dog was cool. Mostly, though, he was just a jerk.

Duck Hunt made a strong case for the NES as both toy and video game console, justifying the inclusion of a light gun with the system. Where R.O.B. was just a goofy waste of plastic, the Zapper -- paired with Duck Hunt -- made the NES memorable. For gamers who found the nuances of Super Mario Bros. too difficult to grasp, Duck Hunt's immediacy (you point and shoot at ducks with a gun, just like you would in real life) made it instantly relatable to everyone and helped the NES find acceptance that it might not otherwise have achieved with Mario alone.

Right here we see the formula Nintendo would use to conquer the world two decades later with Wii. The remote control-like stylings of the Wii's controller made it far more intuitive for general audiences than the competitions button-laden plastic bricks, and the simple, imitative design of Wii Sports offered a hook for grandma and grandpa to become hooked. And of course Nintendo would be nothing without its ability to dip into its back catalog and dredge up old concepts to refresh, just like they did back in 1984 with a clanky, decade-old electromechanical tabletop game. Some things never change.

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Comments 11

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  • Avatar for jmroo #1 jmroo 4 years ago
    This series(?) you're doing is great! I was excited this morning to see what you were going today. How many of these pieces did you say you had again? Can't find it on twitter at the moment.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @jmroo Thanks! The plan is to do one a day. This week's theme is how Nintendo overcame challenges. Next week's is how the platformer genre matured in 1984.
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  • Avatar for jmroo #3 jmroo 4 years ago
    Wow! This bears a resemblance to 1up's Cover Story segments! It might be too early to say, but this might be some of my favorite stuff US Gamer has done yet!
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #4 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    These articles are pretty great,

    I know this might sound impractical Jeremy, but would there be a possibly of collecting these articles and releasing them into an ebook format of some sort?

    They're excellent.
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  • Avatar for docexe #5 docexe 4 years ago
    I agree with Funny_Colous_Blue. I have always found your work as videogame historian outstanding.
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  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #6 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    Like others have said below, this series is outstanding. I can't wait until next week's series on platformers!
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #7 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    Always loved the Zapper games, Duck Hunt included. This article reminded me of when this came up on IGN, and I really wanted it to actually happen, despite the obvious tell that it was a joke:

    I also would have loved to have seen some Zapper games revived on the Wii, too-- shame that never happened, for some reason. Yeah, there was the semi-Duck Hunt homage in Wii Play, but that hardly counts.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #8 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn It’s probably some sort of technical issue of not being able to pick up a proper signal on anything but a CRT monitor.

    Though I’m positive they should be able to implement this feature with some sort of software emulation. It’s just so incredibly frustrating that they haven’t!

    Games like Duck Hunt, Metal Combat: Falcon’s Revenge and Elemental GearBolt are fantastic light gun games!
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Funny_Colour_Blue Namco did a decent job of faking it for Time Crisis on PlayStation Move. The lack of Zapper emulation/simulation is especially disappointing in light of the fact that Nintendo used a Duck Hunt mock-up to promote Virtual Console at E3 2006.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #10 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    @Funny_Colour_Blue@jeremy.parish Indeed, I remember those previews. Notwithstanding, a remake along the same lines of what we saw in Wii Play-- but more elaborate, of course-- would be welcome as well.

    Would love to see an updated Hogan's Alley, too.
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