For fans of retro gaming, few things are more fun than firing up an old console system on a modern flat-screen TV. Seeing how games of yesteryear look in stunning 1080p high definition is a goal unto itself. Luckily, there’s no shortage of online guides describing exactly how to upscale retro games to HD. So if it’s possible to play old console games in high definition, it should be possible to use certain accessories like old light guns, zappers and phasers on modern TVs as well, right? Wrong. Search online and you’ll find plenty of forum posts filled with the rants of frustrated retro gamers pulling their hair out because they can’t figure out how to play “Duck Hunt” on their LCD flat screen. And the solemn truth is that they never will.
The reasons why this is the case have been covered extensively in other online posts. However, for the purposes of this column, it makes sense to eschew the tech jargon and explain the issue in ways that any non-gear head can understand. So here’s a breakdown.
Light guns, zappers and phasers reflected light
It’s true—the zapper you used to shoot ducks out of the sky, as well as the Super Scope from which you launched missiles, were nothing but simple light reflectors. They didn’t “shoot” anything at all. Instead, they merely captured light and motion. So when you would aim for those ducks, what you were really doing was using the reflector to sense for motion on the screen. And for this to work as effectively as it did on those retro shooters, the timing had to be perfect. More on this below.
The guns were calibrated for timing
To pull off a shooter that actually worked, timing between the NES console and the light-gun accessory had to be perfect. The way to ensure this perfection was with the help of the TV. As it turns out, those old tube TVs of the ’70s, ‘80s and ‘90s had the perfect hardware to make this happen.
What’s a tube and why does my light gun need it?
Unlike the digital TVs of today, CRT (cathode-ray tube) TVs actually used internal vacuum tubes to present the image on screen. As you might suspect, this wasn’t as efficient as the contemporary digital models. I could now start talking about internal electron guns and phosphors and how they all work to create a CRT television image, but that’s not important. What’s important to know is that it all happened quickly and at a reliable frequency. The analog NES signal worked so well with the light gun because the CRT TV image frequency never wavered. But in modern Digital TVs there is a delay (“latency”) in delivering the image. This delay is so fast the human eye can’t catch it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s enough to throw off a NES-connected light gun completely.
And that, in a nutshell is why your zapper will never work on a modern TV. Those who do want to play “Duck Hunt” on a large screen with slick image quality have only one option, which has been covered elsewhere online: pick up an early-to-mid 2000s tube TV. The picture quality on those sets was decent, and it’s as close to digital as you’ll get if you want to use it with a light gun, zapper, or phaser.