2 years, 4 months ago
The first light gun was a 1936 amusement park game called the Seeburg Ray-O-Lite. Its design mirrored that of the technology’s most iconic form, the NES Zapper, at least in practice: you hunted ducks. In theory, however, they worked quite differently. The Ray-O-Lite was accurately described: it was a gun that emitted light, which was in turn detected by a target-mounted sensor - a vacuum tube, in its case. But with the turn to screen-based games, as opposed to the physical targets of the Ray-O-Lite, the technology shifted. Light guns such as the Zapper are, in fact, essentially cameras - pulling the trigger causes the screen to momentarily cut to black and then flash white in the valid target areas. If the photosensor within the gun’s barrel sees the flash, it registers a hit.
On one level, the Super Scope is simply explained as the SNES equivalent of the Zapper. And this is a true story; given that the Zapper was an iconic part of the NES experience, a Super version of some sort was effectively inevitable. But there’s more to the iconography here. The Zapper was an oversized handgun, and its defining game, Duck Hunt, was about shooting cartoon ducks and being laughed at by a dog. (Duck Hunt was covered by the Nintendo Project here.) The Super Scope, on the other hand, is a fucking bazooka.
This is not a decision justifiable in any sort of gameplay or design sense. The Zapper was an easy to use item. The Super Scope, on the other hand, was physically exhausting; it was not as though it was too heavy to lift or anything, but hefting the thing on your shoulder for an extended time was genuinely tiring. There was far more of it than there needed to be, for reasons that had nothing to do with anything other than the idea that a shoulder-mounted gun seemed cool.
The aesthetic continued into the packed-in game, Super Scope 6, a return to the multi-game cartridges sold with the bulk of NES systems, which were either Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt if you bought the Action Set, or Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet if you bought the Power Set. In each case, however, the setup was basically that of a pop single - a clear a-side in Super Mario Bros that had hours and hours of replay value, and a pair of peripheral-centric b-sides that were generally fun for a few hours.
Super Scope 6, on the other hand, is all peripheral based, and lacks any sort of headlining game, instead offering six disposable minigames in two categories, called LazerBlazer and Blastris. The former is the headlining category, with all three of its games demoing first if the game is left to run without starting. All three are about fending off an alien invasion, shooting down missiles in the first, and spaceships in the other two, and match the general aesthetic of the Super Scope with hard, angular, metallic designs. Blastris, meanwhile, features two Tetris derivatives and a gun-based whack-a-mole game.
None are overtly bad, although the early levels of the two Tetris clones are full of impatient waits for blocks to settle in (there’s no “fast-drop block” option). This is something of a pity, as they’re conceptually the most interesting games. One involves proper Tetris blocks which you can’t actually flip or move, but can destroy up to two individual squares of, with the shots rolling over block to block, and is actually quite clever, while the other is a Doctor Mario-style game with individual blocks some of which can be shot to change their color. (Curiously, this is accomplished by rotating the blocks, which cycle through three colors in sequence despite being cubes.) Both really are interesting, at least at the moments you’re not bored out of your skull. (Whack-a-mole, meanwhile, is whack-a-mole.)
The LazerBlazer games are less inspiring. The first - Intercept - involves shooting down missiles, and is almost completely lacking in any satisfying gameplay, while the third - Confront - is strangely unsatisfying, as the necessary tactic for success involves destroying the spaceships when they’re still distant dots on the horizon, making the whole thing feel quite empty. Only Engage, the second game, really sparkles; it’s another “shoot down the spaceships,” but with closer engagement, and a balancing act between targeting the spaceships, targeting the occasional missiles fired at you, and finishing off the spaceships before you run out of fuel and die (this last issue being a challenge unique to Engage).
But there is something oddly unsettling about this terrain, in ways that go beyond the slightly militaristic turn implicit in the bazooka design and the military sci-fi game. The sense of the unnerving increases as one paws at the other games: the easter egg in Lemmings 2 that allowed you to use a Super Scope to gun down the Lemmings, for instance, or Yoshi’s Safari, a childishly easy rail shooter that kept strictly to the cartoonish fun of the Mario universe, but nevertheless involved machine gunning cute animals from atop Yoshi.
Indeed, the Super Scope itself was cited in a lengthy Senate presentation by my then-Senator, Joseph Lieberman, as part of his continual obsession with violent video games, coming under fire for looking like an assault weapon. Lieberman, of course, is a fucking moron, but just because his delusions about the pragmatic danger of video games (which were in practice just a recycled version of the same “kids these days” argument that occurs with every generation) doesn’t mean he wasn’t noticing something real about video games of the period. The bulk of his presentation focused on Sega’s wares, and particularly the infamous (and awful) Night Trap, as opposed to the Nintendo end of the pool, but the point remained: there was a visible mainstreaming of an altogether harder, more traditionally masculine aesthetic within video games.
Lieberman’s pearl-clutch was pathetic, but he’s not identifying anything we haven’t already seen in this territory. But I would suggest that the heart of the issue lies elsewhere, at least in terms of the Super Scope; specifically, in the name of the device. With the Zapper, the gun is defined in terms of its capacity to act - to zap. But the Super Scope is defined differently - as a means of seeing. This is, to be clear, physically true - there’s a literal scope to gaze through, and the anchoring of the peripheral on your shoulder grounds you in the physical act of gazing through it.
But, of course, recall what the technology of the light gun is. The Super Scope is slightly more clever in approach than the Zapper - it doesn’t require flashing the screen, instead using the position of the electron beam used by cathode ray tube televisions to figure out where the gun was aimed, but the basic concept is the same: the gun’s actually a camera. In other words, the Super Scope is a controller that merges entirely with the player, uniting both in an act of vision. That light gun games also physically position the avatar in a location coextensive with the player emphasizes this further, creating a startling and unsettling unity.
But more important is the radicalness of this unity. I have suggested in the past that the act of playing a game must be understood as a voluntary submission to a particular set of rules, presumably (though not in practice necessarily) for the purposes of deriving pleasure. But in most games, these rules mediate how we act upon objects. With the Super Scope, they instead mediate how we see. The game does not define what we may do to the world, but rather our very perceptions of it, which is to say, its very nature.
The mouse was independently invented several times, with the earliest version (properly a trackball) in 1946, but its iconic form debuted in December of 1968 during Douglas Englebert’s legendary demonstration of the oN-Line System. When that system fell into disuse, many of the people working on it moved to Xerox PARC, taking the idea with them for the Xerox Alto, which was in turn imitated for the Apple Lisa, mouse included, leading the device to emphatically enter the mainstream in 1984 with the Macintosh.
On one level, the Super NES Mouse is simply an exercise in playing catch-up. With so many computer games getting console ports the limitations of d-pad controllers for playing games with cursors were increasingly problematic. And it succeeded in addressing this problem; where SimCity, Populous, and Lemmings all required the d-pad, with varying degrees of success, SimAnt, Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods, and Lemmings 2: The Tribes were all mouse-compatible, as were other computer ports like Doom and Sid Meir’s Civilization.
In most regards it’s a normal two-button ball mouse. There were, however, oddities. The SNES Mouse had an acutely short cord, demanding that the player sit physically close to, if not the television, at least the console, and creating a more immediate tactile relationship with the television and the game. In many ways, the result was to more closely replicate the PC experience, with the television becoming more akin to a computer monitor than it normally would be. It also came with its own mouse pad, a hard pad designed, in practice, to rest well on carpet. The resulting posture, in the realities of an American living room, resulted in a default position of laying on the floor to play.
Perhaps most notably, however, the SNES Mouse was not a stand-alone object. In this regard it differed from, say, the Super Advantage, an arcade-style controller similarly designed for enthusiasts for a particular style of game ported from another context such as the popular Street Fighter II, released a month earlier than the SNES Mouse. Instead, it was sold as an accessory included with a specific game: Mario Paint.
In some ways Mario Paint has its roots in the same personal computer tradition that the SNES Mouse itself hails from. At its core, it is a drawing program of the same style as MacPaint, or, to use a contemporaneous example, Microsoft’s Paintbrush. But, of course, one need not go to the personal computer for antecedents; the NES had Color a Dinosaur, for instance. (Color a Dinosaur was covered by the Nintendo Project here.)
In others, however, Mario Paint is curiously advanced. It initially presents a fairly simple drawing program with a standard set of tools - three pens of increasing thickness, a spraypaint option, some shape-draw tools, a fill tool, an eraser, a simple copy-paste, et cetera. Many of these tools were not, strictly speaking, useful. There basic color palate was only fifteen colors, and while the available colors extended beyond that, they were all just half-tone blends and the like, and, further down the list, stamps and tessellations of various sorts, all generally suitable for little more than a few minutes of messing around. Similarly, the eraser tools included not just square erasers of various sizes (which were really just paintbrushes that only worked in white) but nine separate ways to clean slate the canvas with entertaining visual effects.
But a deeper exploration of the menus reveals a subtler thing. There’s a mode to create custom stamps, which both let you create your own halftone-based colors, but also to create pixel art, including sprites recreating NES and SNES games both. Combined with the animation tool, one could lovingly and painstakingly recreate scenes from games, and Nintendo Power published a detailed guide to doing just that.
Even more iconic, in many regards, was the musical composition tool, which was in effect an early chiptune composition tool, and one that got, in a charming bit of circularity, an unauthorized fan adaptation for PC and Mac that also added some key features missing in the actual Mario Paint implementation, most obviously the ability to use sharps and flats so that you could compose in keys other than C major and A minor. The program endures, with a fan community adapting pop songs and video game themes for Mario Paint Composer on YouTube to this day.
But there is something oddly inspiring about the original terrain; something that stems, I think, from the absence of the key feature that allows Mario Paint Composer to endure, namely a useful save and export function. The game could save a limited amount of data, but the only way to get any creations off of the Super Nintendo itself was to export to a VHS tape, which was, in 1992, not a great long-term investment as a storage medium, as it turned out.
As a result, Mario Paint was a walled garden, but within the walls was a structure of near limitless depth. More to the point, within the walls was a structure that rewarded the investment of time in a way only a handful of other games came close to. It was easy to pop Mario Paint into the SNES and muck around for a bit, and there were some lovely short-term distractions, most obviously the fly swatting minigame, which is actually genuinely delightful. But it was possible, albeit hard, to learn to create genuinely impressive graphics in it, or to embark on strange and lengthy animation projects. Since nothing made would ever meaningfully leave the garden, it was, in effect, a place where one could safely be a god.
But, of course, this was always implicit in the technology of the mouse, which originates in non-gaming applications of digital technology. Whereas games are based on the imperfection of control - on the irreducibility of the gap between what the player tries to do and what happens within the game - the bulk of tasks that the mouse was designed for were meant to actually be accomplished successfully, precisely, and easily.
This is implicit in the basic dynamic of the graphical user interface that the mouse supports. Whatever depth is implied by the screen, the mouse’s cursor rests at the top level, seemingly moving upon the glass itself. It also corresponds with reasonable precision to the tactile sensation of moving the mouse. It is, in other words, a mode of touching, as opposed to merely a mode of control. This explains the short cord of the SNES Mouse - there’s an intimacy implicit to the mouse that would be otherwise lost.
But more important is the radicalness of this touch. It is, in the end, not based in the dynamic of submission to rules. The cursor is the fingertip of god. It is not that there are not rules - there are. But absent is the sense of struggling against them. The rules are purely constraints; boundaries on what is possible. In most games, these rules mediate how we act upon objects. With the SNES Mouse, they instead mediate what objects are. The game does not define what we may do to the world, but rather what the world is; its very nature.
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