Whenever I’m in a conversation that turns towards Duck Hunt, it tends to come back to the dog. The way he snuffles down the track and then flings himself into the bushes; that closed-eye chuckle; the bouncing ears; the urban myth that you could hit him, taking a couple of potshots at the mocking scumbag.
You can see why there’s a lot of love. He’s a great design – a Tex Avery-like mastiff – and, for the time, the animation was brimful of character. There’s a reason he made it into Smash Bros.: if you rip him out of Duck Hunt then the personality is ripped out with him. People often forget that there was a clay pigeon mode in Duck Hunt, and a major reason is the dog – he doesn’t show up, so why bother?
I’ve also got a theory that the dog’s a social icebreaker. Duck Hunt was a launch title for a system that not many people had, so it encouraged larger groups of people to watch. The mocking dog became a kind of enabler: he made it okay for everyone else to laugh when someone was rubbish, because he was so in-your-face about doing it himself.
If you’re not aware of Duck Hunt, the above won’t make a whole deal of sense. Duck Hunt has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts because it was a launch title for one of the first, pivotal consoles on the market: the Nintendo Entertainment System. In North America it launched in October 1985, and came to our UK shores in 1987. It was often packaged with Super Mario Bros., Gyromite or World Class Track Meet, but it was always bundled with the NES Zapper gun – a chunky, grey peripheral that laid the path for Time Crisis, House of the Dead and so many others (ah, Sega Menacer). You could play Duck Hunt without it, but you’d never want to admit to doing something so terrible. Duck Hunt and the NES Zapper were synonymous.
It’s often easy to forget how vanilla Duck Hunt was. Ten ducks, released in pairs, with increasing speeds and an increasing bar to clear, all over 100 rounds. That’s it. Sure, there was a ‘Game B’ with a different background, and a clay shoot, but – for a game that has entered the canon of classics – it’s barely more complicated than a Game & Watch. There was a VS. arcade machine, but who remembers that?
My memories of Duck Hunt are very specific. I got my NES a little after launch – just long enough for someone to be selling it second-hand, probably around 1988. It was the Deluxe Edition NES, which meant the hulking great R.O.B. and Gyromite game, as well as Duck Hunt and the NES Zapper, came bundled in. I could get in the box for the whole thing, it was that big.
It’s hard to put into words what it was like getting this whole setup: a robot, gun and console, all with miles of cable and impenetrable manuals. There aren’t many things to compare it to nowadays: I imagine that kids getting Nintendo Labo might have a similar feeling – that sense that they’re in over their head, that a little slice of future has landed in their bedroom, and that enjoyment is probably a couple of days away from them. There was just so much hardware, and at a time when Wargames was on VHS and Flight of the Navigator had just come out – and when computers were as big as cupboards – the size and plasticity of the technology just felt awesomely futuristic.
While Gyromite went in first, it was Duck Hunt that stayed in the slot. I was the only house in the neighbourhood that had one, so we’d have a revolving door of snotty pre-teens all having a go, trying to notch the best score. I remember that scores would reset when the console was turned off, so we’d do our damnedest to keep it on overnight. It probably explains why my NES lasted a few years before fizzling.
I remember a mate fiddling with a pad, and realising that he had influence over the ducks. This rocked our world – we’d been playing several weekends without realising. My mate said he had to input a code to make it work, so we would invite him over whenever we played to make it ‘two player’. Little did we know that there was no code, and he’d made it up to ensure he always got to come over. He even said he was going to submit the code to Mean Machines magazine, the filthy liar. He tried to pull that trick again when it came to Tails in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but we were wise to it.
Looking back on Duck Hunt, you can see the ripples of its launch spreading to later generations of consoles, even to the point that they’re still visible today. Nintendo have often launched their consoles with a toy – or the console as a toy itself – offering something tactile that no one has ever held in their hands before. It makes their consoles an event and a unique proposition – something you have to at least try, and gather crowds around you as you do it. They then partner the launch with software that excels at showcasing that toy: a Wii Sports, a Nintendo Land, a 1-2-Switch. Duck Hunt was the precursor to all of these, the software that launched the toy, and it’s no surprise that there are Duck Hunt-esque levels in each of the games I’ve just mentioned.
Culturally, a characterful dog hasn’t been enough to put Duck Hunt in the same league as the big boys, like Zelda, Mario and Mega Man (although it does feature in the mighty Boyz in the Hood, so who am I to say?). Indeed, Super Mario Bros. would go on to ensure that the NES was seen as a timeless console and a success. But it was Duck Hunt – and the NES Zapper – that was really the starting pistol for everything that would follow afterwards.