In life, we rarely shoot. The times we do are pedestrian or unobtrusive: we shoot photos; we shoot the breeze. As kids, we might have shot a BB gun or water pistol. Some of us shoot animals for sport, or clay discs for marksmenship. If we spend too much money, we shoot our wad. But by and large, we’re occupied in other, non-shooting tasks: eating, driving, walking, typing, thinking, watching, reading. In games, though, we are almost never not shooting at things.
These things are usually people, or humanoid aliens, or monstrous creatures. They often bleed. The stuff we shoot at them are usually bullets or some kind of projectile or artillery. Once, we shot Aerosmith records; we don’t talk about that very much.
Today’s digital violence-orgy is no mere reaction to our current state of global unease, a way to blow off steam after the latest political or ecological disaster. From the earliest days of descending invaders to the most bleeding-edge virtual reality fragfests, games have always asked us to shoot one another. But with the release of Nintendo’s Splatoon 2 this week, we’re reminded that not all guns expel bullets and not all targets ooze blood. Here are ten “shooters,” in chronological order, that subverted expectations and asked us to do anything but kill our enemies.
In a way, this classic arcade game is the most violent of all-time; it is, ostensibly, about nuclear holocaust and the end of the world. But your goal as the player is not to create armageddon but prevent it. Your cursor is not a reticle to be aimed over your opponents’ heads but a last-ditch effort to preempt incoming missiles from destroying your pixelated city. Years later, players will send out ever-grander projectiles into the sides of enemy crafts (or torsos). Here is an early example of trying to shoot those projectiles down and, for once, stop the destruction.
Atari ST, 1987 / Game Boy, 1991
A precursor to the early first-person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom that would lay the template for our ongoing all-you-can-eat bullet buffet, this quirky hide-and-seek game pitted you against giant smiley faces. Sure, you “shot” at them, but they disappeared in a poof; the action felt more like a hand reaching out during a game of Tag than a gunpowder-enabled munition. Better yet, if the smiley face shot first, you were treated to an optimistic message: “Have a Nice Day,” the screen read. Those floating heads are the sweetest assassins ever. It was originally known as MIDI Maze.
Everybody knows about Duck Hunt. Everybody hates the dog who laughs at you when you miss. Fewer know that dog’s side-gig: a Master of Ceremonies’ assistant for a shooting gallery carnival. Use the Zapper to take aim and fire at floating balloons, items falling behind windowpanes, and thrown dishes. This is a throwback to when “gun games” meant the kind of innocent amusements found at the penny arcade, where the reward wasn’t salvaging humanity but a large plush toy. The soundtrack by Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, he of Metroid and Balloon Fight fame, doesn’t hurt. Just don’t shoot the dog. Or do.
The 16-bit era seems like the starting point for what became an escalation of violent imagery. It was important that Mortal Kombat on Genesis had blood; the Super Nintendo version, with its palette-swapped sweat, was made into a mockery. But not every title on Sega’s mean machine pushed Congress’s buttons. Global Gladiators is a McDonald’s tie-in starring two young kids zapped into a comic book by Ronald McDonald. You’re “killing” monsters, sure, but these slime creatures are incarnations of pollution, so it’s okay. In a way, this is a weird kind of Splatoon pre-cursor, with the kids brandishing Super Soakers and spraying colored goo everywhere.
b> Arcades, 1994 / Playstation, 1997
A year before Namco released their popular arcade shooting game Time Crisis, a typical cops-and-robbers affair, they made Point Blank. What appears to be another “shoot-the-bad-guy” experience is a more playful, clever take: Shoot the “criminal” and he bursts into shards of cardboard. Other stages have you taking aim at cartoon dragons, a junkyard jalopy, or the parabolic arc of a falling leaf. Would that today’s shooters had the same variety and playfulness as this two-decades-old classic.
Nintendo 64, 1999
Leave it to Nintendo to scrub the murderous intentions from your typical Big Game Safari and hunt instead for high-quality photographs of their famous pocket monsters. At the time, the novelty of waiting for creatures to appear to take their photo was seen as a shallow, quick cash-in on the growing Pokémon craze, but seeing Pikachu and Bulbasaur in full color polygons for the first time was magic. Its cult status has only grown with time.
The Wii was made for shooting games; you literally pointed the default controller at the screen as you would a pistol. But alongside your House of the Dead: Overkill’s and your Mad Dog McCree’s were some novel uses of the aiming mechanic. This early game from a Konami not yet creatively bankrupt is an easy charmer; instead of bullets, you shoot objects with a kind of magnetic levitation beam that allows you to lift them up and move them around as you look for tiny electrical beings called Elebits. With enough power you can lift a house.
PC / Xbox 360 / PS3, 2007
What began as a student prototype called Narbacular Drop became one of the most inventive and iconic modern games of this young millenium. It plays like an FPS boiled-down, stripped of all excess, then infused with the napkin scribblings of a bored MENSA comedian. The game is an answer to a question too rarely asked: What if these fantasy guns didn’t kill people but did literally anything else? In this case, they plant little time-space continuum windows onto walls and floors. Soon the puzzles spiral into unanticipated madness, using momentum physics and a few simple rules to build a maze where you’re the rat and an imaginary cake is the cheese. The sequel proved there was more juice to be squeezed from the already-tasty fruit, but the original remains the purest expression of a brilliant, bloodless idea.
Playstation 3, 2012
Most guns destroy. The ones in Unfinished Swan create. Set in a white void, you blast your surroundings with paint that sticks to previously unseen surfaces; slowly, what was once a blank nothing becomes a labyrinthine reality. Equal parts surreal and cerebral, this also began as a university project before being picked up by Sony. The same designers would go on to release this year’s wonderful What Remains of Edith Finch.
Nintendo Switch, 2017
This collection of twenty-eight micro stand-offs includes actions as diverse as shaving, eating, chest-pounding, dial-turning, and, of course, milking. But Nintendo introduced their latest co-op experiment with “Quick Draw,” a cowboy duel minus the tumbleweeds. Two people stand in a room and face one another while holding a Joy-Con, Switch’s detachable controller. When a gravelly voice yells, “Fire!” you point at your opponent’s chest and squeeze the trigger. Fastest wins. Who needs a screen filled with digital flesh when you have your roommate and an imagination?
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.