Light ’em up
Anyone who owned a game console before the 8th generation can probably remember having at least one peripheral controller. Things like guitar controllers, steering wheels, and the Wii Balance board that everyone got and hardly used.
From the NES through to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, many games had unique controllers. You know, your Guitar Heroes, Singstars, Donkey Kongas, that sort of thing. These kinds of controllers all but died out at the turn of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
By and large, that’s not a staggering loss. You mean I don’t have to shell out an extra fifty quid for a guitar to play my game? Goodness, how could I ever recover…?
What I would say is a bit more of a loss, however, is the light gun.
Early days of the light gun
The light gun as a home console peripheral first appeared in the mid-1980s with Nintendo‘s NES Zapper. Mainly used for games like Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley, the Zapper shows generally how light guns would work throughout the majority of their existence.
To put it simply, on pulling the trigger, the screen would go black save for the target on screen, which would stay light. The gun would then detect that light and register the shot if the player aimed correctly, hence the name “light gun”. This would get iterated on with later guns, but it’s a similar concept. This also, unfortunately, means that these games are only playable on CRT monitors.
For a while most of these games, both at home and in arcades, were shooting galleries. Games like Midway‘s Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Konami‘s Lethal Enforcers featured digitized sprites on scrolling backdrops. The other thing that links these games is their difficulty; much like many other arcade games at the time that sought to get as much money out of players as they could.
It wasn’t until Sega‘s Virtua Cop in 1994 that they transitioned to a more dynamic style. Instead of sidescrolling 2D landscapes of targets, Virtua Cop saw you going through 3D areas with enemies popping out of cover to test your reflexes. The game was also unique for how enemies reacted to getting shot, with different animations playing depending on where they get hit.
While at times the game expects pinpoint accuracy and near-perfect reactions, it paved the way for future light gun titles. Namely, the on-rails traversal of areas is still at the core of arcade shooters. Some games, however, expanded on this format to give some agency to the player.
In 1995, a year after Virtua Cop, Namco released Time Crisis, a game that took Sega’s cop-shooter and expand upon it. The main new feature of Time Crisis was a cover system. The arcade cabinet had a pedal that the player had to hold down to pop out of cover. In previous arcade games, the most you could do to avoid damage was either shoot down projectiles or kill the enemy before they hit you. In Time Crisis, though, you could actually defend yourself against gunshots with strategic use of cover instead of just admiring the barrel of the bad guys’ guns.
Obviously, you couldn’t just cower behind cover forever. The clue’s in the name, Time Crisis; each section gives you a set amount of time to clear out the enemies and move on. It really builds the urgency of the game. As you clear out rooms of enemies before sprinting off to the next bit of cover, desperately trying to save the president’s daughter.
While other arcade games are straight up impossible to complete in a single credit, you can beat Time Crisis without taking a single hit, and this is part of what makes it such a fantastic game. Of course, it’s not easy to beat, but it’s much more skill-based than many of its contemporaries. Take, for example, Sega’s Jurassic Park that released in 1994. If you watch this Tool Assisted Speedrun (TAS) from Prog61, you can see that it’s impossible to avoid damage. Heck, the TAS plays perfectly, and even then it’s almost dead by the end of the run.
Contrast this with a different TAS of Time Crisis and you can see that skill is king.
The House of the Dead
Back at Sega, they had begun development on their next light gun game, The House of the Dead. Developed in the Virtua Cop engine, The House of the Dead similarly was on-rails with players dispatching enemies as they appeared, this time with a horror coat of paint and zombies galore. Sega built on Virtua Cop’s positional damage system with gory chunks now blasting out of wherever you hit on zombies.
The gore was, undoubtedly, the most standout part of the game at the time. While Time Crisis and Virtua Cop both had you killing scores of enemies, there wasn’t any blood or gory elements. The House of the Dead broke the mould with an abundance of graphic violence. So much so, in fact, that the game was given an option to change the blood colour in development, as Sega AM1 anticipated that it would inevitably be censored abroad.
Besides influencing future light gun games, The House of the Dead also re-popularized zombies in wider media alongside Resident Evil. It also introduced fast-running zombies, which many zombie films in the 2000s then used. Ironically, series director Takashi Oda insists that the enemies in The House of the Dead aren’t zombies, but are “creatures” due to how they are all made scientifically instead of passing along the infection through bites.
The game got a sequel a few years later in The House of the Dead 2, most fondly remembered for its godawful voice acting.
The light gun on home consoles
Meanwhile, on the home front, a few more light guns had cropped up. Nintendo had a successor to the NES Zapper in the SNES’s Super Scope, Konami released the Justifier for the Mega Drive, SNES & PlayStation, and Sega had the Menacer for the Mega Drive & Sega CD.
Then, in 1995, Namco released the first in the series of light guns that would dominate the market. The GunCon, or G-Con in Europe.
The Guncon was the primary lightgun for the PlayStation, as it was compatible with the most light gun games. Also called the G-Con in Europe, there were 3 iterations of it for PlayStation 1, 2 and 3. Unlike previous home console light guns, the G-Con looked somewhat like a real gun which only makes it cooler.
Alongside ports of arcade hits (including Time Crisis), the PlayStation also had original light gun games developed for it. Titles like Die Hard Trilogy, Resident Evil: Survivor, and Time Crisis: Project Titan were exclusive to the PS1.
An interesting PS1 exclusive is Gunfighter: The Legend of Jesse James, a western themed light gun game. The main gameplay has you in an out of cover, just like Time Crisis. However, certain points in the game give you shooting challenges, like hitting the rope of a man about to be hanged, or the classic pistols at dawn.
Another series to see ports to the PS1 was Namco’s Point Blank series.
Unlike Time Crisis and The House of the Dead, the Point Blank games are more carnival-esque. Instead of battling through hordes of enemies, Point Blank provides a bevy of shooting challenges that test reflexes, accuracy, and speed. With cartoon-y graphics and sprites, Point Blank had challenges like shearing sheep with bullets, popping the cork of a champagne bottle in one shot, or shooting a suit of armour off of the game’s main characters, Dr. Don. and Dr Dan.
This is in addition to more regular challenges, such as shooting as many targets of the right colour as possible, or shooting ranges with targets that give you more points as you shoot closer to centre mass. The game is designed around two players, with you and a friend competing to see who’s the better sharpshooter. However, you can play singleplayer if you want to test your skills.
There are four difficulties: practice, beginner, advanced, and insane. As the names suggest, the difficulty ramps up pretty rapidly, with ‘insane’ being brutal tests of speed and pinpoint precision, punctuated by a nice graphic of “Insane” in flaming letters whenever you start a stage.
Oh, and it also has an abundance of monkey noises.
For the PS1 ports of the Point Blank series, you could play with a controller. This was an option with most light gun games that went to console. The controller would let you control a cursor on screen with the d-pad and shoot with one of the buttons. However, this mode was obviously far inferior to using the G-Con. The cursor was too slow to move across the screen quick enough for some of the challenges, but also too fast to precisely land on a small target.
Other light gun games of the late ’90s
The late 90s are generally seen as the peak of light gun games, at least in popularity. This period saw a wealth of releases in the genre, some of a high quality and some… less so.
While not quite as revered as the giants of Time Crisis or The House of the Dead, some light gun titles are worth looking at. For example, Midway’s CarnEvil followed in The House of the Dead’s footsteps, both mechanically and with how much gore it had. And boy, did it have gore. Enemies practically fall apart as you shoot them, revealing the bones and sinew beneath.
Meanwhile, in slightly less explicit waters, The Ocean Hunter took the light gun action underwater. The game sends you to seven seas to beat 7 deadly sea beasts. Despite it all taking place underwater, The Ocean Hunter manages to offer great level variety as you go through reefs, icy waters, and ancient cities in your quest to demolish aquatic life.
On the other hand, there were some games that paled in comparison. Atari‘s Maximum Force, for example, still relied on FMV backgrounds with digitised sprites in 1997. While a solid enough shooter, it looked primitive compared to the fully 3D offerings from other studios.
The striking thing about a lot of these games is how unfair they are. Seeing enemies pop up in front of the screen and get a free hit off the player before they could ever reasonably react is a staggering reminder that games like Time Crisis were very much an exception. If anyone ever says they can beat CarnEvil in one credit, they’re either a liar or a superhuman.
Light gun games into the 2000s
One of the biggest issues with arcade ports in the 90s was that consoles at the time weren’t powerful enough to run the games as they were. Funnily enough, you could fit more computing power into a huge arcade machine than you could a small home console. For example, Time Crisis in arcades looks much smoother and more clean than Time Crisis on PS1. On the PS1, the game has a lower framerate and the graphics are much more pixellated.
However, with the advent of the PlayStation 2, home consoles began to catch up to arcade machines. Namco also released the Guncon 2, which would become the standard light gun for PS2. The G-Con 2 had a new d-pad on the back and a button on the bottom of the handle. The d-pad allowed for movement options, while the new button was just a cooler way to reload in certain games. In Japan, the G-Con 2 released in black, however it was made blue in Europe and orange in North America due to toy gun laws.
Now, home ports wouldn’t be so much of a downgrade, and a fair few arcade games saw releases on the console. This was also alongside updated versions of older light gun games. For example, Virtua Cop 1 and 2 were remastered for Virtua Cop: Elite Edition that came with a graphical upgrade. This was alongside Time Crisis II, which also saw a similar treatment.
Time Crisis II
Time Crisis II first released in arcades in 1997 and was initially being developed for the PS1 and Dreamcast. However, during development, Namco decided instead to make Project Titan, as porting Time Crisis II to the PS1 would have been difficult and ultimately, more trouble than it was worth. So, the game was then eventually ported over to the PS2 in 2001 with a graphical overhaul.
Out of all light gun games, Time Crisis II is decidedly the one I have the most memories of. Between playing it at home and seeking it out whenever I was in an arcade, I have nothing but fondness for this game. It builds on its predecessor by having two players who both take slightly different routes through the levels. It also ramps up the action with segments on speedboats, a train, and a final boss against a satellite.
The two player aspect adds more to the game than you might initially think. With moments in the game that have you and your partner shooting over each other like it’s some buddy-cop action movie. Previous light gun games did have multiplayer, however those games only had one screen. Time Crisis II’s addition of two screens let both players take slightly different routes through levels. The game also had secret paths, for example, the second Area of Stage 1. Shooting the stage boss’s hat off every time you see him lets you gun down a horde of yellow-suited enemies at the end of the area (the yellow-suited enemies are usually hidden and give fair more points than regular enemies).
The two-screen two-player would become a series staple, with most future Time Crisis games using it. Subsequent games introduced some new features, but the multi-screen would ultimately be the biggest leap forward for the series.
The rest of the Time Crises
While not massive leaps forward, these new features did add to the gameplay. Time Crisis 3 added weapon switching, with a machine gun, shotgun, and grenade launcher to play about with. The stipulation with these new weapons being that they had limited ammo, unlike the handgun. It also added enemies with health bars, as opposed to every enemy going down in one hit like previous titles. This gave more than a point incentive to shoot yellow-suited enemies, as they now gave extra ammo to these sub-weapons.
The next big addition came with Time Crisis 5, which had two pedals that let you switch between two different covers. This feature made things even more dynamic as you can rapidly switch between covers to get the drop on your enemies. However, 5 also marks the last entry in the series to date, and it released in 2015.
Outside of the numbered titles, there was also Crisis Zone and Time Crisis: Razing Storm. These games functioned differently to the mainline entries, replacing handguns with machine guns and cover with riot shields. Still the same fast-paced, high intensity action, but with a lot more shooting and destructible environments.
However, given that there’s been no Time Crisis games in 7 years and no news of a new one on the horizon, the series is very much dormant at the moment.
Other PS2 light gun games
The PS2, with its G-Con 2, had a fair few light gun games released for it. Vampire Night, for one, is a spinoff of sorts to The House of the Dead. Developed by Sega and published by Namco, the game forgoes zombies for vampires in a bid for a cooler aesthetic. While nothing spectacular in comparison, the game did include a cancel guage on boss attacks which would be carried over to future House of the Dead games.
Resident Evil would also take another foray into light gun territory with Resident Evil: Dead Aim. Unlike other light gun games, Dead Aim allowed freedom of movement with the d-pad on the back of the Guncon 2. Players would explore in third person and then click the trigger to switch to a first person view where they could shoot enemies. This is a similar system to previous entries in Capcom’s Gun Survivor series, which allowed free movement along with use of a light gun. These entries are Resident Evil Survivor, Resident Evil Survivor 2 Code: Veronica, and Dino Stalker. While most of them were tied to the Resident Evil series, Dino Stalker was instead a part of the Dino Crisis series.
While the PS2 had a decent array of light gun games, it wouldn’t be until the next generation that home consoles would get a ton of them.
The Nintendo Wii, A.K.A. the light gun console
Nintendo’s Wii was perfectly built for light gun games, with its main controller easily doubling as a gun. The issue with other consoles was that players would have to buy the light gun peripheral separate. Namco would try to offset this by bundling it with other games, but for as cool as the Guncons were, it’s hard to ignore this point. The Wii, however, had light gun functionality built into the main controller. Sure, you could get peripherals to make it feel more like a gun, but you could easily play these games without that.
And don’t say “but you could play other light gun games with the console’s basic controller too!” Moving a reticle around the screen with a thumbstick is the worst way to play these games. Signed, someone who played a lot of Time Crisis II with his brother when he was younger and rarely, if ever, got to use the one Guncon we had.
So, with the WiiMote being essentially a light gun, the Wii got a hell of a lot of light gun games. On the Wikipedia list for them, the Wii has the second longest section behind arcade games.
Strictly speaking, a lot of the games on the list aren’t “light gun games” per se. Instead, they just have added point-and-shoot functionality on the Wii. Call of Duty 3 through Black Ops are on the list, as is Metroid Prime: Trilogy and Resident Evil 4. There’s also some arcade ports, like The House of the Dead 2 & 3 Return, and Ghost Squad.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
A lot of the light gun games developed for the console are exclusives of varying quality. Dead Space: Extraction and Resident Evil: The Darkside and Umbrella Chronicles are among games to be generally well recieved by critics.
However, much like the rest of the Wii’s library, there were a lot of cheaply made “shovelware” games. For every semi-decent game on the list, there’s about 10 that are either critically panned or don’t even warrant a Wikipedia article. Take Chicken Shoot, a game so bare bones that selling it for any money seems like a scam. Or Target: Terror, a game released about 10 years too late when it hit arcades in 2004, let alone when it eventually limped onto the Wii 4 years later.
In the end, the Wii wound up underutilised compared to its potential as a light gun console. It had some decent entries, but nowhere near enough for how much of a good fit it was for them.
The House of the Dead: Overkill
A standout title that initially released on the Wii was none other than The House of the Dead: Overkill. Despite sharing a name with the arcade legend, the game couldn’t be any different in tone. Aiming for a more grindhouse feel, the game has a grainy filter and apes a lot of elements of exploitation films, like excessive swearing and violence. The swearing is so excessive, in fact, that it held the Guinness World Record for most profanity in a game until Mafia II came out.
Overkill still plays the same as the other games in the franchise. However, unlike other games, the player can unlock different weapons throughout. Starting with a pistol, you can unlock shotguns, machine guns, and a hand cannon. You can also upgrade things like recoil, clip size, and damage, too. Also different to the other games is the fact that Overkill never released in arcades.
While the horror remains, the whole game has a layer of comedy over it that make it a fun entry. The game also opts for more diverse locations than the other games generally get. Overkill’s stages take players to a carnival, a swamp, a train, and a few other places. It all makes for one of, if not the most unique entries in the series.
Following its success on the Wii, Overkill was given an updated re-release on PS3 with The House of the Dead: Overkill – Extended Cut.
The light gun on the PlayStation 3
The PlayStation 3 would see the last iteration of the Guncon, and for a few good reasons. For one, by this point, HD TVs were far more common than CRTs, meaning that the old light gun tactic would no longer work for them. Because of this, the G-Con 3 needed sensors to work, much like the Wii’s sensor bar. The second reason is that the Guncon 3 was only compatible with three games. These were Time Crisis 4, Razing Storm, and Deadstorm Pirates, all of which were bundled together in one package. Finally, the Guncon 3 just looked weird, with an analogue stick jutting out the side to try and make it more like a traditional controller.
The overwhelming majority of light gun games on the PS3 were playable with the PS Move, save for the Cabela series of hunting games, which used the Top Shot Elite. The Move was functionally identical to the WiiMote, and with the PS3 being a more powerful console than the Wii, it did get a couple more arcade ports. Alongside the aforementioned Namco titles, The House of the Dead 3 and 4 also made their way to PS3.
However, this generation really was the last hoorah for light guns on home consoles. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One came and went without so much as a mention of any light guns. On top of that, more recently, arcade light gun games have been drying up too. As said before, Time Crisis 5 came out in 2015, 7 years ago now. Meanwhile, the latest entry in The House of the Dead series, Scarlet Dawn, released in 2018.
Or, at least, the latest original entry, as about a month ago we got a remake of the first House of the Dead.
The House of the Dead: Remake
The House of the Dead: Remake is an attempt by MegaPixel Studios to fully recreate the first game in the series. That’s right, the game wasn’t developed or even published by Sega, just licensed out, and it really does show.
Part of what made the original game so striking was its visual style. The game had a very intentionally gritty colour palette and dark, baked-in lighting to really drive home the horror theme. The remake doesn’t replicate this style at all, as everything looks shiny and far too bright. On top of that, the gore effects just look worse, with the blood that explodes out of enemies being such a bright red it looks more like ketchup.
Enemies also just ragdoll to the floor instead of playing death animations depending on where they were hit. Even bigger enemies feel weightless as they rocket to the ground the instant you get the killing blow. The original game had a very deliberate feel and the remake doesn’t manage to recapture it whatsoever.
The gameplay in the PC version is fine. Out of all non-gun alternatives to the light gun, a mouse at least feels good to control. However, the enemies are wildly inconsistent in how easily they go down. Sometimes, a common mook can fall in one shot to the chest. Other times, you can shoot a creature’s head off and they still won’t go down for another 10 to 15 shots. It makes for some frustrating encounters, especially paired with cheap shots from an enemy that’s been on screen for less than a second.
So, is that it for light gun games?
So overall, The House of the Dead: Remake is disappointing, both in itself and in terms of how it reflects on the treatment of light gun games. A title with as much prestige as The House of the Dead should be treated with the utmost respect, but the remake feels underbaked. It scratches an itch, but not for long.
But, as bleak as the future of light gun games is looking, I am an eternal optimist and believe there are ways that the genre could survive.
While The House of the Dead: Remake is a disappointing game, there is potential for it to show that there’s still interest in light gun games. There’s also reportedly a remake of the second game in the works, too, so here’s hoping that one goes better.
But where would new titles go? How would we play them? Should Bandai Namco finally make the Guncon 4?
Well… yeah, they should. But let’s look at the options already available to us.
VR has really taken off in the past few years, with Valve and Oculus improving on the tech and gradually making them more affordable. Sony have also engaged with the medium, making VR headsets for PlayStation. Not only that, it’s also perfectly suited to light gun shooters.
With all of the light gun games I’ve mentioned so far being first person, VR would be a fantastic way to make these playable in modern day. Not only would the perspective immerse you, but the controllers that include haptic feedback could even simulate recoil. VR has so much potential to not only bring these games onto modern platforms, but also add another layer and make them more interesting. I, for one, would kill for Time Crisis II to be remade in VR.
The biggest issue with this would be motion sickness. A series like Time Crisis could offset it by including the option to teleport between points, but other games like The House of the Dead have you constantly moving while shooting. Obviously, this would take some experimentation with vignetting and other tactics that could ease motion a bit. In the end, though, I’d rather try it and find out it doesn’t work than not try it at all.
The Sinden Lightgun
Fortunately, not all hope is lost with home peripherals as the Sinden Lightgun is designed for modern monitors. Using a white border around the screen for the gun to read and figure out from that where it’s aiming, the Sinden Lightgun can theoretically work on any monitor.
On the Indiegogo page for the project, creator Andy Sinden expresses a desire for light guns to return to popularity. In the post, he says “my long term goal is to bring back the Light gun to the masses and get brand new Light gun games made”. In removing the technological barriers of the light gun, Sinden hopes to see the genre rise again.
Currently, you can get a Sinden Lightgun with or without recoil. The standard Lightgun costs £85, while the one with recoil goes up to £135. You can also buy them in a bundle of two in case you wanted some classic multiplayer action.
With over 15,000 people having backed the project already, there’s a clear demand for light gun games. There just needs to be companies that are willing to support this technology with new games and potentially, new peripherals. In the end, only time will tell if this will be a light gun revolution after all.
From the arcades to home consoles, the light gun shot its way into fondness and reverie for anyone who played games in the ’90s and 00’s. No doubt, if you’ve made it this far you’ll have fond memories of playing at least one of these games. Whether you spent a small fortune on them at a seaside arcade or had a G-Con as your weapon of choice, these games have had an immeasurable impact on the gaming world and I, for one, cannot wait to see them return to popularity.
What light gun games did you grow up with? Which ones would you most want to play now? Let us know your thoughts down in the comments below! Or, if you want to read more about the history of a game genre, check out our article on the history of twinstick shooters!
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Big LessJune 1, 2022 at 9:21 am
Good article. Learned a lot. I too like when the guns go bang bang.
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