What Makes the Bow the Ideal Video Game Weapon?

In less than two weeks, a new archery-savvy heroine will be playable on our screens with Horizon Zero Dawn's Aloy. And it got us thinking, what are the best bows in video games?

Analysis by Caty McCarthy, .

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.

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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.

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Comments 8

  • Avatar for Vaporeon #1 Vaporeon A year ago
    The bow was my absolute favorite weapon in Skyrim. Unlocking the perk to slow time while drawing was really rewarding. The tension was palpable when my character held his breath and steadied his aim. And that "thrum!" when the arrow released and knocked a foe off a bridge... so great!

    I wonder if I enjoy the stealth of the bow so much as an adult because, as a kid, I defaulted to over-leveling and rushing in full force. Anyway, great topic!
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #2 Ohoni A year ago
    I definitely enjoyed using the bow in Tomb Raider, I almost never use the guns if I can at all help it, even after getting silenced sniper rifles and the such. Bows are just so much more "tactile," even though it's all just button presses. I recently saw this interesting video by Shadiversity on the topic of how often female characters end up equipped with bows in games and movies, even though, strictly speaking, the bow is a far more upper-body-strength based weapon than many alternatives.

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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #3 touchofkiel A year ago
    @Vaporeon I've also been a bow user in all the TES games (including ESO). I mean, I use a bow in just about any game that will allow me - but in those games in particular, I can honestly say I used a stealthy bow build because the rest of the combat was so bad and I'd just as soon avoid longer battles if I could.

    You're right though, it's very satisfying to use in Skyrim... unlike Oblivion.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #4 benjaminlu86 A year ago
    1) Tomb Raider (2013)

    2) The Last of Us

    3) Wind Waker HD (being able to move and shoot)
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  • Avatar for Jericho-GM #5 Jericho-GM A year ago
    Shout out to Titan Souls where you only have one arrow and have to fetch it after each shot.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #6 VotesForCows A year ago
    Brave is awesome.
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  • Avatar for Crepe_Suzette #7 Crepe_Suzette A year ago
    It's something to do with the physicality of the whole thing, which I find is an important component of any game, of the ''game-feel'' part of any game at least. As you pull back on the thing and feel the tension in your rumbling controller, and then let go and an actual physical projectile gets thrown in the air and then causes a reaction of recoil, animates a body under the laws of physics, it all feels pretty good. It's part of the reason why I like the shooting in the Resident Evil series from 4 onward (excluding 7 which I haven't played): to have the reticule be a laser physically present in the environment that you have to meticulously aim gives a rhythm and a feel to the shooting I quite like in those games and somewhat reminds me or archery.Edited February 2017 by Crepe_Suzette
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  • Avatar for jynxce #8 jynxce A year ago
    Deleted February 2017 by jynxce
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  • Avatar for Belderiver #9 Belderiver A year ago
    @nimzy +1 for the Princess Mononoke reference. :D

    I've had some of the most fun using a bow, and it seems to take a little more skill than a normal firearm in games where both are available. The Last of Us had a nice aiming mechanic that showed the arc of the arrow, and it was very satisfying to hit something from a long ways off. The chapter where Ellie is hunting a deer comes to mind.
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