Horizon Zero Dawn, the soon-to-be-released action RPG from Guerrilla Games (the developers behind the very bullet-happy, non-RPG Killzone series), stars a plucky, scarlet-haired woman named Aloy. And like other fictional, strong-willed heroines with red hair, she wields a familiar classic weapon: a bow and arrow. How that bow will measure up compared to other archery-savvy heroes and heroines remains to be seen, but in honor the game’s looming release date (February 28th), we’d like to pay homage to the arrow-flinging weapon of gaming’s past, present, and future.
As someone who once upon a time ventured out into the wilderness (or rather, a designated archery park) with her ol’ recurve bow (the most typical of bows), I mostly found bows in games to be trite and unrealistic. Bows in the games I played often worked like guns. They were generally semi-automatic with hardly a recoil, instead of adopting the slower, physically exhausting nature of bows. That is, if the game had a bow at all. But when I first played Team ICO’s Shadow of the Colossus all those years ago on my dingy CRT television, it was like the video game equivalent of cupid arriving and shooting an arrow straight through my heart. A figurative arrow, of course, where I knew that a game was finally getting archery semi-right.
What made Shadow of the Colossus’ bow worthwhile was how easily inaccurate it could be. In all my years of shooting at stationary targets alongside my stepdad, being precise was not only difficult, but filled me with tire and unease. Shadow of the Colossus honors this with its slow and steady approach to battles. And while precision is possible, it takes genuine effort to achieve. But as with all climbable beasts that need a sword plunged into their spine (or wherever their glowing spot lies) to keel over, the bow is often rendered obsolete in the game’s ensuing battles.
Yet for a game like The Last of Us, the bow was made essential. The Last of Us is often remembered for things unrelated to its combat—its story, its characters, its score, that ending—though its stealth-reliant combat (specifically in its Survivor mode) makes the game always feel tense, as it should be. The bow is usefully quiet. An arrow can whizz by with hardly a sound, making it the best tool in dangerous, enemy-ridden scenarios where sound can be disastrous. It also has a nice arc to it, which is to say, thank goodness it has an actual arc.
Though the arc was mastered in another game in independent developer Matt Thorson's Towerfall Ascension. Towerfall Ascension is a frenetic multiplayer game where the player’s goal is to eliminate the square-shaped arena’s co-habitants. The weapon of choice is always a bow, with special arrows littering the battle space in treasure chests. Arrows can fly across screen, catching an opponent off guard as it circles back on the opposite side. Or alternatively, arrows can lead to your own demise, should you shoot it above and find it plummeting back towards you. Towerfall Ascension, while perhaps the most unrealistic looking and most arcade-like bow-wielding game around, provides the player with a feeling that wouldn’t be the same if they were just firing off assorted guns.
Yet perhaps the most realistic bow in of all video games comes from the most unlikely of places (or most likely, depending on who you’re asking): Wii Sports Resort. When Wii Sports Resort arrived in 2009 alongside the Wii MotionPlus, it came bundled with dozens of minigames utilizing the precise, motion-capturing addition to the controller. Among those sports-related minigames was archery, of course. In one hand you held a nunchuck, the other you held the Wiimote upright, representing the curve of the bow. Using the nunchuck, you yanked the string back and fired off towards a target. Wii Sports Resort simulated archery as a meditated, step-by-step process, like the carefully weighed task itself. Because of that, it’s assuredly the closest a game has ever gotten to being a full-blown archery simulator, even if it is resigned to primarily buttons.
The bow has cemented itself as an integral, worthwhile weapon for video games, and has distinguished itself away from typical guns. It’s a weapon that leverages thoughtful skill over lackadaisical hip shooting, precision over quantity of firepower. The best bows in video games are sluggish and calculated, like the real thing. There are other great bows in video games’ past and present: the ever-agile Hanzo’s in Overwatch, Lara Croft’s craft-heavy whims in Tomb Raider, Link’s bow in any Legend of Zelda game. It won’t be long now until we find out if Horizon Zero Dawn’s archery inclinations measure up to the greats. And on that note, if even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild matches (or surpasses) the many bows of Link’s past.