It’s easy to prey on those craving nostalgia. Even if you’re not actively searching for it, some things grab you as they hearken back to a time where things were good and games were iconic. I’ve been interested in checking out Duck Season for VR for quite some time but I always had one little hitch: like most people, I don’t have a VR headset. Many factors play into me not owning one; chiefly money. This is a huge barrier for most VR titles and it’ll be interesting to see in the years to come, if not sooner, how many games originally tailored for virtual reality will make their way to the humdrum life of a non-VR experience.
Stress Level Zero’s Duck Season PC is one of them. As the non-VR version of the original 2017 release, I was glad to finally have a chance to play it for myself. Set in the Summer of ‘88, you find yourself at home in your very 80s living room. Your totally awesome mom has just given you a one-day rental of a Duck Season cartridge from a Blockbuster-esque “Videovendor Rentals”. As you ready yourself, lightgun in hand, options present choices of what to do next. Should you play Duck Season and be literally transported into the game? Maybe play something else? Or should you watch some VHS tapes? Or maybe you should throw a slice of pizza at your mom?
For such a small package, there’s a lot in Duck Season. There’s mysteries, multiple endings, Easter eggs, some VHS tapes to watch as well as other game cartridges. Because there’s a ton to unpack, I’m going to break this review into a few smaller parts. I’ll also try to be as vague as I can for the sake of brevity as well as a means to provide as little in the way of spoilers as possible because I firmly believe this game is best played first hand.
Once you load up the eponymous game, you find yourself transported into the game itself. Your lightgun is now a full-blown shotgun. Nice. What’s in front of you? Well, it’s a tree surrounded by a swamp and some bushes and a beautiful sky! But what’s behind you? Well…it’s you! You’re behind you! Turning around reveals you’re inside a TV and behind the giant glass window, sitting with your lightgun pointed directly at the screen — at you.
While this initial concept made me laugh, it took a bit of time to realize what a perfect representation of escapism that’s brought upon games around the particular era the game is evoking. See, Duck Season for the Kingbit Entertainment System is a whole lot like Duck Hunt for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), so it’s understandable how you could get the two mixed up!
Stress Level Zero’s warped interpretation of Duck Hunt is a much more realistic and higher-definition version of what we played back in the 80’s. Even the cartoon dog is there in a much more realistic (and disturbing) interpretation as he taunts you at every turn, laughing and dancing with every shot hit and missed. But we’ll get to him shortly.
The realistic approach of the game was much more indicative with what I, and what I imagine a lot of you, saw back then when we first played it. We didn’t see the pixelated goofiness of a snickering dog. We didn’t see “pixels”. We didn’t think we were playing a game. That dog was our pet and the hunt was real. Stress Level Zero nailed that feeling perfectly with Duck Season.
That being said, despite all I said about how we thought of Duck Hunt in days of yore, the fact is that Duck Hunt was a shallow game without much actual content, and that holds true with this interpretation of it as well. A majority of what makes Duck Season PC so vivid is in all the other parts that aren’t in the Duck Season cartridge.
That’s because you really only have 8 levels of the game; each with 3 waves to complete. Each level only really consists of shooting the ducks before they go away or attack you/the screen. It’s very rudimentary and feels a little too straight compared to the rest of the package. It’s also not very challenging, though I would like to imagine that the VR version would provide controls that are more analogous to real hunting than just moving the mouse around.
Again, without giving too much away, the story itself is most related to completion of all 8 levels of Duck Season. But this is merely the beginning as there are multiple endings, all boiling down to how you treat your creepy, furry friend, The Dog. You start to realize that something is up with that creep fairly early on and things continue to escalate to the point where things start to feel uncomfortable. Let me tell you, it truly goes some places. Fascinating, horrific places. It’s easy to understate how weird things get, but boy…do things go horribly wrong.
Games or Movies?
But what if you get tired of playing a Duck Hunt-like and want to play something else? Lucky for you, there’s plenty to play and after nearly each round, they seem to add something new so you don’t run out of new things too soon. White Tiger was my favorite of the bunch and was a unique twist of a Fighting game and Rock Paper Scissors. It was an interesting mashup and I played it all the way through completion. The best box art goes to Sinatra, which takes the classic Contra box art, removes the familiar Schwarzeneggar/Stallone facsimiles and replaces them with Frank Sinatras. It’s utterly ridiculous and absolutely incredible.
Don’t feel like playing anything anymore? Pop in a VHS tape! There’s a good selection of tapes to play and most are era-perfect and emulate the craziness of the 80’s perfectly. I had a particular fondness for the dramatically intense car chase scene made entirely from RC cars and the sappy and god-awful music video was stuck in my head for a while. A few of the videos seem to be anachronistically out of place, like a Tim & Eric style video and a tribute to GMOD, but I still found them hilarious and fun so they get a pass.
There are 9 game cartridges (including Duck Season) and many more VHS tapes to mess with. Though I spent more time with than others all held some special value on their own. A big part of the fun is finding them all for yourselves, meaning I’m not about to spoil them for you here as you’ll appreciate coming in fresh.
Despite being scaled back for two-dimensions Duck Season PC still feels like a game designed for VR, which actually works against it. You’re entirely confined to a small area with a handful of invisible walls you cannot pass through – in both your “real” living room and when playing inside the actual game. Unlike some games that have arbitrary rules baked in due to the limitations of VR headsets, Duck Season actually addresses them in clever ways.
When you’re inside the game, you can see the invisible green walls that serve as virtual barriers. Let’s say you’re in the living room, so what’s preventing you from running off into the kitchen or bathroom? Easy: you’re holding your lightgun controller and its cord is only a few feet long and it’s plugged right into the console. So you’re not going anywhere buddy.
As mentioned above, the game has a handful of endings, but even after seeing them all that doesn’t mean the game is over. There’s bunches of Easter eggs scattered throughout your playthroughs which, for the first time in a while, had me excited to go back and scour each and every corner of the game to see everything I could.
Duck Season PC never feels like it overstays its welcome, always surprising players with something new and creative. Using Duck Hunt as its inspiration is a crazy idea that pays off, and it’s impressive how the game feels more nostalgic than the source material being emulated. Do I wish that I had this on a VR headset? Absolutely. If I ever end up getting one you can bet I’ll pick up the original version, if only to experience the game as originally intended. I can only imagine what it might feel like sitting in my living room with Mom again, light gun in hand and the glow of the TV inviting me inside…