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Duck Hunt: Primal pleasure

Duck Hunt may be the most famous NES game that doesn't have Mario in it. For the 1988 holiday season, Nintendo created a combined cartridge of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt that, together with a Light Gun, was bundled with the NES.

The ability to play games in which you shoot a gun at targets on your television screen must have seemed exciting and innovative in 1985. And, frankly, it still holds up in 2021. Target practice is a basic human activity, and the NES does not so much simulate it as offer a medium on which to really do it. 

The Light Gun (aka "Zapper") doesn't work on modern TVs because its light sensor depends on the timing of a cathode-ray tube drawing the picture line by line. Not wishing to see this beloved classic forgotten, Nintendo in 2015 re-released it on the Wii U by taking advantage of the Wii Remote's optical sensor. It doesn't sense the light from your TV, but rather infrared light emitted by a sensor bar (or, in a pinch, a lit candle!) you place below or above your TV. This approximates the original gameplay, but doesn't feel as satisfying as pointing a gun directly at your TV!

Duck Hunt is extremely simple. You choose whether you want one duck at a time or two. The latter is harder and more fun. You get three shots to take down the duck(s), ten ducks per round. If you miss too many, it's Game Over, man. But if you don't miss any, you get 10,000 bonus points. Although the first few rounds are easy, eventually the ducks start moving quickly and erratically. As you move through rounds, the number of ducks you're allowed to miss gradually decreases. Once you hit round thirteen, you can only miss two. The goal, naturally, is to set a high score. 

Like other early NES games, this is something you have to practice for hours if you want to "git gud." If you grow tired of shooting ducks (or perhaps object on moral grounds!), you can shoot clay pigeons instead. These are small and quicky fade into the background, but follow regular patterns. It's neat that the game offers this alternative for when you need a change of pace.

The only music is on the title screen, a little ditty that plays after each attempt (which gets old fast), and a slightly longer one before each round. The game's
principle drawback is that there's nothing to do except shoot ducks (or clay pigeons). That's the whole game. Like early arcade games, there is no end, no way to "win." Eventually, the ducks will be too fast for you. Perhaps if you're some sort of phenom you could make it all the way to round 99, after which the game apparently glitches out (the "kill screen").

Nevertheless, Duck Hunt is surprisingly fun. You're not going to play it for hours on end, but I don't see why anyone wouldn't enjoy a few rounds of it today. The duck and dog (who famously laughs at you when you miss--and no, you can't shoot him, you monster!) are Nintendo classics. You can play them in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and they even have their own Amiibo! Because of its classic gameplay and primal appeal, I give Duck Hunt a B+.
Linked Reviews

"Duck Hunt is a shooting game in its rawest form. The gameplay is simple and engaging, and there's nothing beyond a chuckling canine to distract you from your quest for total duck domination. Duck Hunt is a must-have for any light-gun enthusiasts to relax and unwind with."
Alex Olney, Nintendo Life, 8/10

"It’s worth revisiting if you want to initiate your own child in the ways of the hunt, or if you yourself need to become a kid again. Just don’t expect to linger."
Dylan Cornelius, Questicle, C+

"Duck Hunt has gone on to become an iconic part of Nintendo’s history. While it wasn’t enough of a game to hang a franchise or even a sequel on, the sniggering dog and frantic birds remain well-loved."
Jeremy Parish, NES Works

"The colorful and cartoony graphics were a breath of fresh air that made the game a somewhat violent but small joy."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo, 4/5

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