Justin C. Williams Laser reviews a timeline of light gun games’ popularity.
While the popularity of light gun games (games in which the player utilizes a controller shaped like a gun to shoot targets on screen) has been waning in recent years, the genre’s roots stretch back further than many people may realize, Justin C. Williams Laser notes. The first light gun game was created before even electronic video games were invented—the Seeburg Ray-O-Lite, a wooden arcade cabinet with analog moving parts released in 1936, used a light gun as its control method. In this case, the gun literally shot a ray of light, which was then picked up by light-detecting sensors located behind or within wooden cut-out targets of birds. The methods and techniques used to create light gun games since the 1930s, but the core gameplay has, unsurprisingly, remained the same: point and shoot.
As mechanical games began losing popularity, electronic games came to the forefront and the technology behind light guns changed to match: instead of shooting light, the guns were built to receive light that is displayed in a specific manner by the game when the trigger is pulled. Many would point to Nintendo’s Duck Hunt as the earliest example they can think of for a home electronic light gun game, but Justin C. Williams Laser points out there were predecessors. One of the earliest was for the Magnavox Oddysey, entitled Shooting Gallery.
The Odyssey was a primitive home game console with limited display capabilities. In fact, Justin C. Williams Laser notes, it could only display three square-shaped dots and one vertical line. The console was packaged with “overlays” for your television screen—in this case, players would place the “Shooting Gallery” overlay on top of their screen, which displayed numerous outlines of animals, and plug in the corresponding game card. The dots would light up behind the animals in predetermined sequences. The light gun for the Oddysey was a large, realistic-looking rifle (Justin C. Williams Laser mentions it even needed to be cocked after every shot). Most gun controllers released in the future would adopt a more toy-like design and coloring, for numerous somewhat obvious reasons.
As time marched on, several conventions of the light gun genre changed and became conventionalized: the popular rifle shape of the controller transitioned into a pistol, which is now ubiquitously the standard for light guns. New gameplay standards were also established over time, such as moving “through” levels as new targets pop up. More often than not, Justin C. Williams Laser mentions, the player is not in direct control of their character. This has led to the alternate naming of the genre as “on rails” or “rails shooter”, as an allusion to theme park rides.
Unfortunately, classic light gun controllers are no longer compatible with newer HD TVs, as a result of their technology making use of the manner in which older televisions refreshed their pictures. Justin C. Williams Laser points out that while modern controllers make use of infrared (such as the Wii controller), they aren’t as accurate due to input lag.