The NES came with a bunch of different accessories that helped Nintendo justify calling it an “entertainment system,” including the first interactive light gun designed for home gaming. The Zapper only works on old TVs, but one YouTuber is struggling to figure out why they can’t hunt pixelated ducks on a CRT that measures just half an inch in size.
With the right hodge-podge of dongles and cables, making an original NES console connect to a modern LCD or OLED TV isn’t terribly difficult, but it will come with some compromises. Games that looked great (relatively speaking) on the beefy CRT TV in your parents’ basement are going to look like a pixelated eyesore on a giant hi-def or 4K display. The cathode ray tube technology used in old TVs had a softening effect that game makers took generous advantage of to smooth over the limited graphics capabilities of the NES.
The other compromise is that the NES’s Zapper doesn’t work on modern TVs—or at least, it doesn’t work reliably. Many assume the NES Zapper worked like a TV remote, sending signals to the TV which were used to detect when the gun was accurately targeting a fowl in Duck Hunt. But in reality, the accessory was nothing more than a dressed-up light sensor. Every time a player squeezed the Zapper’s trigger, for a brief second a black and white image replaced the on-screen gameplay, with bright white boxes on a black background that correlated to the position of valid targets on the screen. If the light sensor in the Zapper detected the bright square, it was assumed the gun was aimed correctly and a hit was registered.
Making that targeting system work required perfect timing between the NES hardware and the CRT TV it was connected to, which refreshed on-screen images by drawing them line by line, one after the other. Modern TVs work differently, refreshing every pixel that makes up each image all at the same time, completely throwing off the precise timing hard-coded into games like Duck Hunt. There are solutions to playing Zapper-dependent games like Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley on modern TVs, including hardware hacks for the game carts and gun, or pre-built solutions like Hyperkin’s $25 Hyper Blaster HD. Or you can just skip the modern TV altogether and go old school.
However, it turns out that games like Duck Hunt don’t always work properly on all CRT TVs. Specifically, the incredibly tiny half-inch CRT—smaller than a US quarter—that was designed for use in the viewfinder of smaller camcorders in the ‘80s like the RCA CKC020 which was considered compact at the time. The YouTube channel “Atari Video Music CRT Garage” managed to get an NES connected to and working with the tiny CRT, but tragically the Zapper won’t register any hits, even when placed inches away from the screen.
There’s a very good chance that the NES’ Zapper, which featured a plastic lens at the end of its barrel, was calibrated to only work with CRT TVs of a certain size, ensuring that the white targeting boxes that briefly appeared on the screen were large enough to be detected. On this half-inch CRT screen, they could just be too small to be adequately detected, or it could be an issue with the screen’s poor contrast, as the Zapper detected both black and white flash screens to register a hit. It could also be something entirely different, and if you think you know why this isn’t working, you can leave a suggestion in the YouTube video’s comments, as we’d really love to see this experiment actually work.