The Sudden and Unexpected Return of the Light Gun Shooter

One of the features of an old boxy CRT TV was that you could shoot at them. A light gun pointed at the screen could read the position of the electron beam based on when the phosphor lit up, and pulling the trigger let the gun register the shot. The old NES light gun was a bit cruder, but still more than good enough for Duck Hunt. The tech required exploiting a quirk of how a CRT tv works, though, so when HD TVs came along, light gun games all but died off. There were a few attempts using the Sony Move controllers, and I like to think they had to have been better than the games trying similar things with the Wii remotes, but in practical terms the genre died when TVs changed.

No genre stays dead forever in gaming, though, and now the light gun shooter is back and bigger than ever. Which doesn’t take much, admitted, seeing as they were always a niche, but it was a fun niche with a surprisingly diverse library. The Point Blank series was completely different from Ninja Assault, Elemental Gearbolt could in no way be confused with House of the Dead, Zombie Raid could sit beside Time Crisis and hold its own, and Gunblade NY was its own special brand of awesomeness. Some games came home, others were stranded in the arcade, but eventually they went away. Then VR happened and now the genre lives again. It looks different now, of course, because a decade will do that, but a combination of factors makes the VR shooting gallery both the logical evolution of the light gun shooter as well as being in danger of over-saturation.

One of the problems with VR is player motion, in that running around FPS-style is a great way to make someone physically sick. Sick players don’t tend to play a second round, ever, so the solution has been to make shooters use the room-scale feature to allow for real-world dodging while almost rooting the player to the spot for the actual shooting. It’s basically Time Crisis with a bit more freedom of movement, happening all around you. SuperHot, Space Pirate Simulator, ROM: Extraction, Lethal, Arizona Sunshine, Serious Sam: The Last Hope, and many, many others all work on roughly the same framework. SuperHot plants the player in a small area, defined by the boundaries of the play space, while Arizona Sunshine uses the teleport option to travel around an area, but the shooting, throwing, and even occasional punching is done standing still.

While the liability of VR motion sickness makes standing still during a firefight the most comfortable way to shoot, it’s the advantage of the controllers that really revives the light gun shooter. Whether Vive wand or Rift handsets, aiming is done in as a real-word action where you hold the controller just like a plastic gun, and the skill of the player tends to be dependent on their aim. At this point I have to admit to having only played a handful of the shooting galleries available, so can’t speak to whether there’s aim-adjustment in the way that some FPSes have, but everything I’ve played so far has been nicely unforgiving on the bullet placement. Get the angle off by half an inch and the games give exactly what you asked for, which unfortunately was a near miss. Some games let you have two guns at once, others put a shield in the second hand, and one memorable scene in SuperHot had me swatting bullets out of the air the head of an axe like the most badass fly swatter ever. You stand up and wield the controllers 1:1 with their in-game representation, and it makes for a wonderfully immersive round of shooting.

Still, it’s a revival that runs the risk of oversaturation. The challenges of developing a comfortable action game in VR are still being worked around, and right now the shooting gallery is a known winner. Bad guys pop up, the player mows them down, rinse and repeat in the next game. Everything has its own style and armament, doing its best to set itself apart from the crowd, but it doesn’t take playing too many in a row to start feeling the repetition. Light gun games are a lot of fun, but they work best when near some fighters, a vertical or horizontal shooter, and maybe a row of skeeball machines. It really can’t be stressed enough that VR is in its early days, though, and the genre is going to grow and evolve in surprising and unexpected ways over the coming years. And as an added bonus, you don’t need to strap a massive CRT TV to your face to dive into its world.