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12 Features

History Lesson: The NES Zapper

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 10th Nov 2013 at 10:00 AM UTC

John Browning. Oliver Winchester. Horace Smith and Daniel B Wesson. There's a great man behind every great gun.

But where their weapons took their names, like lead-spewing children, Nintendo's master gunsmith had no such honour. In 1984 Masayuki Uemura brought artificial murder into Japan's living rooms, so why isn't the NES Zapper known as the Uemura '84?

Twenty-nine years in the making, this is one man's tale of experimentation and countless slain digitised ducks.

You could say Uemura was destined to bring us the home console lightgun: the tech that defines the weapon defines his entire career. Originally working on optical semiconductors for Sharp, Uemura's sales pitch for these 'solar cells' caught the eye of Nintendo's Gunpei 'Game Boy' Yokoi in the early '70s and saw him ushered into the Nintendo fold.

Yokoi had come off a big win - Nintendo's popular Love Tester - and was looking for the next big 'toy' sensation. Had Yokoi and Uemura tried the Love Tester as they talked solar cells, the compatibility would have been off the scale.

Zoom
The Japanese version of the Zapper, the Beam Gun, was far more realistic than its western counterpart. Pic courtesy of Famicomblog

The two saw a way for a smaller version of the cell - traditionally used to convert light into electricity - to become a light detector, acting as a switch if hit by a beam of light. And so the Nintendo Beam Gun was born.

It was worked into a series of novelty toys that presented bottles which shattered and barrels which tumbled when the user hit the cell in the base with the lightgun.

At the time, few toymakers were incorporating electronics into their wares, so the Beam Gun must have seemed like alien technology. Not even the terrifying box art - children firing light into a cowboy's heart or a lion's face - could dissuade the punters; Love Tester was out, pretend-shooting was in.

Could Yokoi rest? Never! Soon after, Mr Ideas observed the skeet shooting craze sweeping Japan, put two and two together and made laser-based pigeon shooting. For this feat - shooting a moving target - Uemura reversed the technology.

Now the solar cell sat inside the gun, detecting aim by drawing in light from the target. When you fired at 'light' pigeons projected on a wall, a hit would only register if you were aiming at them - a canny trick.

Not that it always worked. When the first Laser Clay Shooting System opened in 1973, the gun malfunctioned at the press unveiling, forcing a technician to hide inside the machine and fake the pigeon hits and manipulate the score.

A further nerdy fact - the technician in question was Genyo Takeda, later head of Nintendo R&D3. He's the man responsible for Punch-Out!!, StarTropics and the N64's analogue controller, not to mention the man who headed up the Wii design team. Important, then.

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The original grey Zapper and the redesigned orange version. It's said a change in the law required toy guns to look less realistic, hence the colour change.

In 1976, a home version of the hunt launched, probably to appease a nation hooked on bird-murdering. In 1975 Nintendo began focusing on a new game, the bandit-blasting Wild Gunman where players had to shoot projected film footage of a varmint before he shot them. It's easy to see the seeds of the NES Zapper firmly planted here (indeed, this game supported the peripheral when it launched in 1984).

Designed by Uemura's R&D2 team (they also designed the NES itself), the original Zapper, known as the Beam Gun in Japan, made no bones about its violent roots: it was shaped like a real revolver - a proper gun for proper shooting. By the time it had passed Nintendo's Western censors it became the NES Zapper we recognise: grey, futuristic and safe (although even then it was deemed to be too gun-like, eventually leading to the garish orange design that most of us ended up with).

Packaged alongside the Robotic Operating Buddy with the Western NES from its launch in 1985, it's difficult to gauge the popularity of the NES Zapper - it sold as well as the console. If it's any indicator, when Nintendo launched a new package minus R.O.B. it proved its most popular bundle.

The public clearly craved straightforward shooting. That said, the fact that Konami's own NES lightgun peripheral, the LaserScope, bombed on release is evidence of the specific magic of Nintendo's phantom bullet-spewer.

To this day, Masayuki Uemura remains the unsung hero of the lightgun genre. And don't worry - no ducks were harmed in the writing of this History Lesson.

There's a Zap for that

Although a large number of NES owners had a Zapper, only a handful of Zapper-compatible games were released over the console's life - and even few required it as mandatory.

Here's a slideshow with the complete list of 18 games released in the west that supported the Zapper. Some were great, some were guff.

Well... most were guff.

Additional reporting by Chris Scullion