Monday, September 2, 2013

NES Replay: Duck Hunt

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: October 1985
Duck Hunt shows how far you can take a simple concept if you throw in a little bit of character.

At its heart, Duck Hunt is an incredibly simple shooting gallery game. One or two ducks will appear on screen and fly around, and you have to use the NES Zapper to shoot them down. If you miss the ducks and run out of bullets or don't take your shot before the ducks fly away, you have to try again. Miss a certain amount of ducks, and it's game over.

There's also a clay-pigeon shooting game in Duck Hunt, but no one remembers that one as well as the duck-shooting. Why is that?

It's all because of this dog.

Whenever you kill a duck, this dog pops up and holds up the dead duck for you. However, when you miss the ducks, the dog pops up and laughs at you with a really high-pitched giggle.

Now, I'm not a violent guy by nature, and I would never dream of shooting a dog in real life, but I want to shoot the Duck Hunt dog. Everyone who has ever played Duck Hunt wishes that they could shoot the dog. People have made games and posted them online specifically so that the player can shoot the dog. There is not a person alive who can honestly say that they like the Duck Hunt dog.

Everyone has such a visceral reaction to this dog just because he laughs at you for failing. It drives us crazy because we already know we missed the ducks. We don't need a computer dog to rub it in. Yet, there he is, mocking us and making us feel inadequate.

We also have that strong reaction because of the impotence we feel toward the dog. It sits there, laughing at us, and we have no recourse against it. We can’t shoot it. We can’t make it stop laughing. We can only sit and stare as it laughs at us while we quietly seethe.

The funny thing is that this was a huge leap forward in gaming. If you think about it, the Duck Hunt dog is really the first video game character that inspired widespread hatred specifically because of its pre-programmed personality.

There are a lot of video game characters that generate hate among players, but for different reasons. Some characters might control poorly or wander around doing stupid things. Ashley in Resident Evil is an example of this. Other characters are hated because they're difficult to defeat, like the Cyberdemon in DOOM.

But this was different. The Duck Hunt dog was programmed to be annoying, and it succeeded beyond Nintendo's wildest dreams. That’s a crazy idea that hadn’t really been explored on a large scale. There were certainly RPGs that had characters in them that touched people’s emotions in specific ways, and there were text adventure games that had done the same thing. However, to get so many people to all feel the same way about one character was completely new. This was proof among a wide cross-section of people that video game characters could inspire genuine emotions.

That's what makes Duck Hunt quietly revolutionary. It's amazing that a little cartoon dog that laughs at you showed the path to emotional engagement in a video game, but it did. By putting forth a little extra effort, you could actually feel an emotion at a video game character.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to load up Duck Hunt again and try and shoot the dog.

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