“It comes with a GUN!,” every kid in America thought when they first saw the Nintendo Entertainment System. Forget that goofy robot—the Zapper is why we all wanted an NES. (Well, that and Super Mario Bros.) We couldn’t have guessed that the Zapper would, like almost every gaming peripheral, be promptly forgotten, with only 18 games supporting it in America over the NES’s long lifespan. We just knew that guns were cool (forgive us, we were kids, and it was the 1980s) and saw Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley and immediately knew what we wanted for Christmas or Hanukkah or our birthday. Sure, the Zapper fizzled out fast, and it was easy to cheat by getting as close to the TV as you could, but games like Freedom Force and (again) Duck Hunt were crucial to any well-rounded NES collection. Let’s look back on the 18 games that supported Nintendo’s light gun, ranking them from worst to best.
I definitely saw the original Chiller in an arcade somewhere when I was a kid, either a bowling alley or a boardwalk in a North Carolina beach town. It’s not a game most businesses would carry, and for good reason: it’s totally disgusting and has no redeeming value whatsoever. You’re some kind of horror movie monster who kidnaps people and brutalizes them in your torture basement, shooting away body parts and triggering guillotines and other bloody tools with your gun. It’s a game built solely for controversy, and somehow an unlicensed version was made for the NES, albeit with some of the more grotesque elements lightly censored. The NES version can be played with either a controller or the Zapper, but it probably shouldn’t be played at all.
17. Baby Boomer
This unlicensed NES game follows in the footsteps of Nintendo’s own (far better) Gumshoe: a baby crawls incessantly towards the right, and you have to shoot the various critters and obstacles that mean to do it harm. You might ask why his parents don’t just pick him up, but then Nintendo never made a peripheral that was a couple of human arms. Like Gumshoe, Baby Boomer is really hard; unlike Gumshoe, Baby Boomer has grating music and ugly graphics and looks like a cheap rush job.
16. Day Dreamin’ Davey
HAL Laboratory’s decent little adventure arrived in 1992, well after the Super Nintendo, and thus was almost completely ignored at the time. It’s barely even a Zapper game, which is why it’s so low on this list. At certain points you have the option of using the Zapper or a controller, but most of the game is played without the gun. There was little reason to play those scenes with a Zapper in 1992, and thus little reason to even consider it a NES Zapper game today. And yet it had the functionality, so it would be wrong to omit it from this list.
15. Track and Field II
Look, this is better than most games on this list, and significantly so. But it’s not a shooting game. There’s one minigame out of 15 that gives you the option of using a Zapper or a controller, and it’s a special bonus round, and not one of the regular events. We almost left it off this list entirely. The game does get bonus points for calling it “gun firing” and not the boring official Olympics term, “shooting.”
14. The Adventures of Bayou Billy
Bayou Billy was supposed to be a hit. Konami was counting on it: it was covered extensively in Nintendo Power, the character popped up in Nintendo’s Captain N cartoon, and there was even a comic book published by Archie Comics. As the first action game to use both the controller and Zapper, it also felt novel and ambitious at the time. It’s not fully a light gun game, alternating between brawling, driving and shooting, with two shooting gallery levels where the NES Zapper is optional. The game’s not fun, though, both too repetitive and too difficult, and hopping between genres feels more like a gimmick than quality game design. And despite all that marketing, it didn’t sell that well, and an industry that makes a sequel for almost anything didn’t see any money in the further adventures of Bayou Billy.
13. The Lone Ranger
Over two years after The Adventures of Bayou Billy, Konami tried to make players hop between the Zapper and a regular controller again. (They actually tried that with two games in the summer of 1991—more on that later.) The Zapper is rarely used and entirely optional in this action-adventure based on the legendary cowboy, which is actually a totally fine and surprisingly complex game in its own right. Of course it came out mere weeks before the Super Nintendo, and was based on a character that, by 1991, resonated mostly with grandparents, so it wasn’t exactly a big hit. Like Bayou Billy, the Zapper sections feel more like a half-formed gimmick than anything else.
12. Gotcha! The Sport!
This paintball game (based, inexplicably, on a movie of the same name starring Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino where campus paintball somehow turns into a Cold War espionage comedy, over two decades before Community) seems like a perfectly acceptable shooting gallery game at first. The camera pans through the woods while you shoot your paintball enemies when they pop out from behind bushes or trees. That’s some okay Zapperin’ right there. Quickly you realize that the game hardly ever changes, and you can basically see everything it has to offer within a few minutes. Light gun games are by necessity simple, but Gotcha is too simple.
11. Shooting Range
A basic collection of shooting minigames built around an Old West theme, Bandai’s Shooting Range lacks the elegance of the Zapper games made by Nintendo.
10. Mechanized Attack
One of the last games released with the Zapper in mind, SNK’s shooting gallery also let you play with the standard game controller. That’s because the Zapper’s overall failure was already well established by 1990. Adapted from an arcade shooter, Mechanized Attack is a fairly generic and by-the-numbers shooter: targets bounce across the screen, terrorists with machine guns pop up from all angles, and you shoot what you can. It’s solid but unspectacular.
9. Laser Invasion
Konami’s weird mash-up of various genres only occasionally utilizes the Zapper, which bumps it down a slot or two on our list. With first-person flying levels, shooting sprees and maze exploration, Laser Invasion’s diversity of play styles is notable, even if it’s not particularly great at any of them. This oddity from the summer of 1991 probably would’ve gotten more attention if it wasn’t released after the Genesis had been eating into Nintendo’s market for two years and only a couple of months before the Super Nintendo arrived and began the NES’s retirement tour in earnest.
8. Operation Wolf
This game was huge in the arcades because it has an Uzi bolted to the cabinet. You use it to mow down rows of foreign soldiers and rescue POWs, like a coin-op Rambo. At the time it offered a convincing fantasy with the Uzi and the then-high quality arcade graphics. The NES port can’t touch the original, then or now—obviously the graphics take a hit, and instead of an Uzi you’re holding a pistol that looks like it came from a cheap sci-fi movie. Still, with its scrolling screen and surplus of enemies, it’s one of the few Zapper games made with the Commando and Contra crowd in mind, and if it didn’t have a better big brother in the arcades to compare it to back then, it would be more fondly remembered today.
7. To the Earth
One of the last Zapper games released by Nintendo, To the Earth is a difficult sci-fi shooter where you have to blast alien ships and other obstacles without shooting your allies. It almost feels like Duck Hunt at first, only the ducks are alien ships and they fly right at you and they can kill you. It wasn’t played that much at the time, as the Zapper was already clearly an afterthought by 1989, but it’s a fun and challenging little footnote for the controller.
6. Hogan’s Alley
This basic shooting range game was as big as Duck Hunt at the time, a popular arcade game whose home port was a launch title for the NES. It’s perhaps even more simplistic than Duck Hunt: shoot the cut-outs of gangsters, don’t shoot the cut-outs of cops and civilians. Still, that’s exactly what players in the 1980s would’ve expected (and even demanded) from a game that you played with a fake gun, and with its recognizably Nintendo character designs and fun music Hogan’s Alley remains a minor classic.
5. Wild Gunman
The original Wild Gunman came out in the weird proto-arcade days of the early 1970s, using a light gun and a projector showing full motion video to replicate quick draw duels from old Westerns. Nintendo updated it a decade later for the NES, this time using graphics that resemble the same style used for Punch-Out!! and Hogan’s Alley. Nintendo practically tapped out the full potential for the Zapper within its first year, releasing a hunting game, a shooting range and a quick draw game at essentially the same time. Wild Gunman is a fine riff on an evergreen concept.
The weirdest Zapper game is also probably the hardest. Gumshoe was one of Nintendo’s first NES light gun games, and unlike the rest it’s not a shooting gallery. It’s a side-scrolling platformer where your character, the trenchcoated detective Mr. Stevenson, walks persistently towards the right side of the screen. You have to shoot him to make him jump, while also shooting the enemies that can hurt him. You have limited bullets, though, so you’ll often wind up unable to protect Mr. Stevenson. This is probably the most fascinating game on this list, but it’s so hard that most will probably lose interest before finishing the first stage.
3. Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting
This late arrival for the NES was the last great Zapper game. Like Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley, it embraces the simplicity forced upon it by the limited control scheme, offering up minigames straight out of carnival midways. The Duck Hunt dog even makes an appearance in one of the rounds. It offers more variety than Duck Hunt, but its more iconic predecessor is better for head-to-head challenges; between that and the nostalgia factor, Duck Hunt is a better party game today.
2. Freedom Force
This isn’t Irrational’s superhero Jack Kirby homage from the mid ’00s, but an arcade-style shooting gallery where you have to take out terrorists while avoiding their hostages. The camera pans from side to side as you shoot through the windows in buildings and planes, making it a more complex and stimulating affair than the similar Hogan’s Alley. Freedom Force offered a more realistic shooting range experience than any of Nintendo’s own games, with an action movie influence as redolent of the 1980s as the Zapper itself.
1. Duck Hunt
Simplicity counts. So does nostalgia. Duck Hunt is a simple game—you shoot ducks or you shoot clay pigeons and that’s it—but when your controller is a gun you’re kind of limited in what you can do anyway. As the one game everybody who owned a Zapper is familiar with, and as a game that almost perfectly realized its modest goals, Duck Hunt is both the most iconic and the best of the NES’s light gun games.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.