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Dedicated to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum

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Spectrum Light Guns

Light gun games are very popular in the arcades with classics like House Of The Dead and Virtua Cop, but these types of game have been pulling in the cash since 1984, when Duck Hunt from Nintendo hit the arcades.

Light Guns eventually came to the home computer market with several cheap looking, plastic moulded guns appearing for many of the systems.

The Spectrum had several including the Cheetah Defender, the Magnum Light Phaser, Sinclair’s own version of the Magnum with their logo on it, and the rarely seen Stack Light Rifle. They all worked in the same basic way, and all had a limited number of games tailored for them.

Sinclair bundled their version of the Magnum Phaser with the Action Pack and James Bond Action pack for the Plus 2 in 1990, but at least they changed the sticker on the side.

The light guns work from the raster line of the television and so require a CRT tube, they just don’t work on modern LCD or plasma sets. I had to replace my usual LCD TV with a very old 13inch CRT model I dug out of the loft for my initial testing. The position of the raster beams dictates where you are pointing and the when you fire, the screen flickers badly. This is to allow the whole screen to go black with just the target areas displayed as white blocks. The software can then check the gun is aiming at the right place. It does however, as mentioned a few lines back, cause the screen to flicker really badly, sometimes to the extent that it detracts from the game.

Sinclair and Magnum

The Magnum and Sinclair guns are connected to the Spectrum via a single lead, and plugs into the AUX port of the +2 and +3 machines. Be careful however, guns for the +2 don’t seem to work on the +3, and vice-versa, as I found out. Both offerings were, to be honest, cheap looking and badly made. They are light and easy to hold though, and the trigger feels firm enough, but there is just something that stinks of poor production.

The Magnum came in a pack that included six games, the Sinclair was bundled with its own games collection, so at least you had something to shoot when you got one. Once connected and everything plugged in, it was time to play.

The Magnum (and from here on in, this will also mean the Sinclair version) supported quite a few games, some original and only playable with the gun, some conversions of existing titles. Games like Solar Invasion and Robot Attack were specifically made to take advantage of the input mechanism, and as a result they tend to lean away from traditional direction control. Instead you get a series of targets to hit in different forms.

Solar Invasion gives you aliens floating in space, while Robot Attack gives you robots to shoot as they wonder about various platforms.

In operation the gun seemed fine, although with the small target area and my small TV, it was sometimes very hard to hit anything in Solar Invasion. Robot Attack had larger target areas and proved a much more enjoyable game.

Because the gun was, well… a gun.. you would expect several shooting range type games, and you would not be disappointed. The Magnum came with Rookie, which was a basic target shooting affair, with different scores and screens to get through. Again the targeting worked well once you had got you eye in, but still felt a little hit and miss.

Cheetah Defender

Cheetah’s offering, the Defender, was a much sturdier piece of plastic, with better styling, and adjustable sight and a more robust feel to it. It looked better too, and it worked with a standard Kempston Joystick adapter.

The six games it came with included the usual shooting gallery style affairs like Billy The Kid, which first had you proving yourself shooting cans before moving on to better things. Sadly, the gun didn’t seem to respond as good as the Magnum. There were times when it worked fine and others when, even holding the thing an inch from the screen, it failed to register a hit. This behaviour re-occurred across all of the game I tried, which was a bit of a disappointment.

Jungle Warfare, another game for the Defender looked promising. It was a kind of Operation Wolf style game with various things moving around as the jungle landscape scrolled by. Initial plays of this went well, but yet again it wasn’t long before things seemed to just stop recognising a hit. I put this bad experience down to the Cheetah gun being badly made, but then I had a revelation.

The way light guns work (see top few paragraphs) logically meant that the larger the TV, the larger the target area and the more chance you have of hitting it. With that I set about trying to track down a decent CRT TV at a good price. It wasn’t long before I came across a nice 21inch Toshiba with an asking price of £1. Being just 20 minutes away from my house, I quickly did a deal and picked up my new toy. Sadly I was a little too eager and forgot about the remote control. I suspect it never had one, and for a quid, I didn’t want to bother the seller. Instead I ordered a cheap one from eBay and before long it was time to set up the Cheetah again.

Now things were very different, and targets could be hit with ease making the whole gaming experience much more pleasing. Even the smaller targets of Bronx Street Cop fell with ease, and I couldn’t wait to have a go at Jungle Warfare.

First on the tape though was Billy The Kid, an impossible game to play previously. Now though, the tins and bottle exploded on almost every shot, even the tricky one thrown by the cowboy. I was enjoying things now, this is what it should be like.

Now onto Jungle Warfare, a game I wanted to play. Brilliant – it works as it should, with good accuracy, great action and nice gameplay. I take everything I said about the Cheetah Defender back from The Spectrum Show videos, it is a great piece of kit, but it does need a decent sized TV to get the best out of it.

Light guns give the user a different control mechanism from keyboard or joystick, and that certainly has an effect on gameplay. Like the Nintendo Wii, you feel more in control somehow, more involved in the game. You can’t jump about like the Wii, as the cables are only a few meters long, but it does give Spectrum games a totally different feel.

The Stack Light Rifle

If there was any single advert that caught my eye in the very early days of home computing it was probably the Stack Light Rifle. Not only was it a gun you could use with your computer, but it could transfer into a rifle – just like the ones in all those spy movies you used to watch when they were trendy.

The box is large, and covered with exciting images of cowboys and men shooting ducks, but the real joy is when you open it. The fake wood rifle butt, the detached barrel, scope and pistol jump out at you, and although mainly made of plastic, they are far better quality than previous lightguns.

The interface is proprietary and does not have a pass through port, so it has to be the last thing attached if you have other adaptors. The cable is very long too, and is permanently fixed to the interface and the pistol.

You can use the pistol on its own with a shorter barrel, or build the whole rifle. This is done by clipping in the butt and tightening the rear screw, loosening the end pistol clip, slotting in the long barrel and tightening again, and finally sliding the scope into place. The end result looks very impress.

Like other lightguns, the Stack Light Rifle uses the raster of a CRT television to align up the shot position, but unlike other lightguns, it does this differently. There is no screen flash, instead it tries to differentiate colours on screen to detect if the rifle is pointing to them when the trigger is pulled. For example, a dark blue background with a white target.

The first game I tested was Glorious Twelfth. This was a typical, is somewhat very basic duck shoot game. Ducks fly from the bottom of the screen upwards and you have to shoot them. As each duck reaches the top or gets shot, less of the screen becomes available via a lowering skyline, this represents daylight. The sound was good but this hardly made the hardware sing.

It was the same story for the other two bundled games, Gallery (a target shooting game) and High Noon (a cowboy shooting game). Both were dull, lacked decent graphics or gameplay, and did not draw you into the game. They were very much type-in style games. There were no more games produced for this lightgun either and I think this is a real shame because the Stack Light Rifle is a good piece of hardware.

The thing that is lacking, is some kind of calibration before you begin, then at least you know, based on your height and distance where to aim to get a good shot rather than trying to do it during gameplay.

This was, to be honest, a huge disappointment.

The best thing about it was the lack of screen flash and the fact that it could turn into a rifle. But in use it was close to impossible to hit anything. The lack of games too meant it was set to fail. There were other games announced, but none ever arrived, confining this wonderful looking accessory to the dusty cupboard of failure.