The light gun game is a quintessential part of the arcade experience. After all, holding a light gun at a screen, frantically firing away to kill all the baddies while dealing with arm fatigue is arcade gaming at its finest. It can be argued that an arcade without at least one light gun game is no arcade at all. The light gun games have always been and will continue to be a major draw for arcade patrons.
While there have been attempts to replicate the light gun in a home console setting – Nintendo’s Zapper and Playstation’s GunCon to name two – the experience never really feels complete. The light gun game, more so than other arcade games, only feels truly at place in an arcade. That said, here are the best of the best when it comes to arcade fire!
"Area 51" and "Maximum Force" were often packaged together into a 2-for-1 cabinet. Both of these games are like the peanut butter and jelly of light gun shooters. They are simple, yet oh so satisfying. Each game features digitized graphics that scream the '90s. When you shoot the enemies, they explode into a million little bits. You can collect power ups for better weapons as you traverse through an Area 51 infested with aliens or through exotic locales to take down terrorists.
The light guns typically attached to this cabinet were perfunctory at best and felt cheap to handle. There were no additional buttons on the guns. However, if you were quick enough, you could reach down to the start button to lob grenades and clear the enemies on screen. "Area 51" and "Maximum Force" barely squeak onto the list for being basic solid light gun shooters. Each game’s greatest asset is the insane progression of levels. Players are liable to get whiplash from how quickly the game transitions from one sequence to the next.
"Star Trek: Voyager – The Arcade Game" was released after the end of the "Star Trek: Voyager" television show. Players take on the role of new cadets on board the USS Voyager. The enemies appear mere moments after the players get a chance to have a meet and greet with other characters aboard the ship before getting to do battle with popular villains like the Borg. The game includes innovative sequences that are set in space, and features various branching missions the players can take on as well.
"Voyager" is lower on the list because of a fairly egregious inconsistency, that being with the light guns in these cabinets. In some, the light guns do look like "Star Trek" phasers. In other cabinets they look like run of the mill light guns. It may seem petty to give the game a lower rank because of that, but the inconsistency affects the immersion of the game. How many "Star Trek" fans would relish the opportunity to wield a phaser and take down the Borg?
"Gunblade NY" tasks the player to take down terrorists in New York City from the gunner seat of a helicopter. The game was released in 1995 and has charming low resolution polygon graphics that were cutting edge at the time. While players are taken on a tour of a highly fictionalized version of New York City, the game does a good job of selling the idea that you are in a helicopter. The camera swoops from side to side quickly as if you were actually flying the not-so-friendly skies.
The best part of this light gun shooter is the presentation. The best version of this arcade cabinet featured a massive 50” monitor and the game could be played with one or two players. Each player got to handle a huge mounted gun on a bar-top surface. The gun feels massive in your hands whether you’re a child or an adult, emulating the feel of a mounted gun on a helicopter.
"Lucky and Wild" is an ‘80s buddy cop action movie in arcade form. Player one always controls the character Lucky, a sophisticated gentleman about town. Player two always controls Wild, a well-named surfer bro and adrenaline junkie. Together they must take down six notorious criminals. The game was released in 1992 and has fun faux 3D graphics similar to SNES’ "Mode 7."
The biggest selling point is the arcade cabinet’s presentation and controls. Player one must use a steering wheel, pedals and a light gun to control the character of Lucky. Player two only has to use a light gun. Of course, gamers are always wont to think outside the box, so it is possible for one player to focus on driving while the second player controls both guns. The most popular version of the "Lucky and Wild" arcade cabinet was a sit down booth that truly sold the concept of driving a sports car while chasing down criminals. Everything about this game screams ‘80s buddy cop movie, and as such, it is one of the most unique arcade presentations of a game, light gun or otherwise.
"Silent Scope" boasts one of the most daring concepts for an arcade game. You are an elite soldier wielding a sniper rifle and are tasked with taking down terrorists who have kidnapped the president’s daughter! Classic. The game takes the player through multiple different scenarios including a football stadium, the busy streets of a city and even a level at night using night vision. There are even boss battles that the player must overcome!
That might all sound cliched but it’s the giant mounted sniper rifle on the arcade cabinet that puts this game above and beyond. The sniper rifle has its own scope display, which the player must physically look through in order to make their shot. It honestly feels like you are firing a rifle in order to stop the enemies, and can be as difficult as such an activity sounds! The best arcade games’ ultimate selling point is immersion and experiences that cannot be replicated at home. In that,"Silent Scope" proves to be one of the all-time greats.
"Police 911" is another game in which the presentation and immersion it provides is what separates it from other light gun games. The player acts as a police officer who is tasked with taking down a crime syndicate that spans from Los Angeles to Tokyo. During the game, the player can rank up through the police precinct from lowly officer to commissioner.
What sets this game apart from other light gun games is that it physically requires the player to move in a 3D space in order to dodge incoming enemy fire. Of course, this being an arcade game, there is a timer ticking down to force the player to quickly progress through a stage. The game was released in 2000, which is several years before home consoles like the Wii or Microsoft Kinect were released for consumers. It’s another instance of the arcade creating an experience that would be mimicked in home consoles. The unique immersive experience of "Police 911" is what puts it on this list.
Behold, the power of rock! In the far, far dystopian future of 1996, you must rescue members of the band Aerosmith after they’ve been kidnapped by the evil New Order Nation. Your weapon is a machine gun that has been modified to shoot special CDs. The soundtrack is high energy and gets players hyped to do battle with the New Order Nation. There are even real Aerosmith songs playing within the game!
The light guns for the game are mounted on the cabinet, certain deluxe versions of which had light guns for three players! Each of the guns had a side button you could press to launch the CDs. The light guns even look like real guns that were modified to hold a CD launcher, which was a nice touch. The game is like a time machine into 1990s aesthetics, as everything about that decade is amplified in its depiction of a future dystopia. "Revolution X" gets on this list for having intense action with satisfying music and graphics. And because Aerosmith, obviously.
Possibly the scariest game on this list, "CarnEvil" pulls players through a haunted, demonic carnival of terror. Players travel trough roller coasters, bumper cars, torture chambers and other twisted takes on classic carnival attractions. The game features a huge variety of enemies including undead corpses, nasty gremlins, literal spider monkeys, flying specters and more. The carnival music that plays throughout the game is high pitched and sinister, adding a nice atmospheric touch similar to old school haunted houses.
One of the biggest draws this game has is its light gun, resembling your classic pump-action shotgun. Players can either shoot off screen to reload or physically pump the handle to reload. "CarnEvil" is another light gun game that features three player action. The innovative light gun is one reason why "CarnEvil" is placed so high on this list, another of which is the creepy atmosphere and setting of the game, which is unlike many light gun games.
"Lethal Enforcers 1" casts players in the roles of modern day (1992) police officers responding to high tension situations like a bank robbery, hijacking and a factory overrun with criminals. "Lethal Enforcers II: Gun Fighters" takes the players back to the wild, wild west to take down outlaws. The third game, "Lethal Enforcers 3," was released and set in 2005. The player is a modern day Tokyo police officer who must navigate different scenarios throughout the city.
"Lethal Enforcers 1 and 2" share super fun digitized graphics for the time while "Lethal Enforcers 3" has more traditional artwork seen in modern video games. The commonality between all the games is that in each, there are six different stages for the player to traverse. Each of the game's arcade cabinets has great design. The first one makes you feel like a hard boiled cop in the early ‘90s. The second features a light gun that looks like an old six shooter. The third game features a high tech cabinet. The Lethal Enforcer games are classics in the genre that deliver amazing light gun action.
"Teraburst" was released in 1998 and set in the distant future of 2017. In the game, players are soldiers defending Earth from an alien invasion. It then takes players through New Chicago City as they ward off aliens, the designs of which are fun and fantastic: bug-eyed alien beasts with triangle heads and humanoid bodies. It may seem a bit campy by today's standards, but at the time, it had a creepy look and fun sci-fi feel.
The main draw to this game, and why it’s so high on this list, is the light gun itself. For Teraburst, they are not in the traditional hand gun style; rather, these guns are massive purple rifles that take quite a bit of effort to hold – especially if you are a young child (or a very weak adult). These rifles rattle in your hands, giving you feedback to the impossible amount of bullets you spew at the alien enemies. There’s even a special button on the rifles to deploy rockets and bombs. The arcade cabinet features an enormous screen to go along with the giant guns, giving everything an appropriately grand feel.
The "Virtua Cop" series started in 1994 and was one of the first light gun games to feature 3D polygon graphics rather than 2D graphics. While the graphics in the first game have not held up well, at the time they were considered quite advanced. The graphics were also in line with Sega’s other Virtua titles including "Virtua Fighter" and "Virtua Striker." The second and third game improved the graphics substantially, with the latter in particular looking like it was part of the Xbox 360 era.
The gameplay in all the "Virtua Cop" series is what puts it on this list, being particularly singular to the genre. The action, meanwhile, is basic but refined. "Virtua Cop" is a series that uses a philosophy that "simple can be harder than complex." The players might see a fairly basic game, but it takes immense skill to create that experience, let alone master it. The "Virtua Cop" series delivered that polished experience in three separate games, all of which hang in the hallowed halls of arcade game history.
The "Time Crises" games might be the most stress-inducing light gun games on this list. On the screen for every game is a fairly large countdown timer ticking away while the players try to pick off enemies one by one. Over the course of five games (so far), the series continues to deliver rock solid light gun gameplay. It’s a great feat to stay consistently on-brand for the series while adding new elements like different guns and power ups, but "Time Crisis" does it with suitable aplomb.
Whenever anyone thinks of "Time Crisis," they think of one thing. It’s all about that pedal as it is most definitely the defining feature of the "Time Crisis" series. In fact, mechanic to get in cover and reload is one of the most innovative and unique mechanics in any arcade game, light gun or otherwise. The back and forth between shooting and stepping on the pedal can make playing "Time Crisis" almost feel like a rhythm game, and is an impressive and lasting innovation that makes "Time Crisis" a top tier light gun game.
"The House of the Dead" games succeed on their atmosphere. All four of "The House of the Dead" games feature grotesque monsters, dilapidated environments and eerie music. The frequent boss battles the player encounters showcase truly disturbing character designs. When you play these games, you feel grimy afterwards, which, in a way, is what makes them so satisfying to play. Also, it must be said, that these games feature hilariously bad voice acting... which is also part of the fun!
The light guns for this series started off fairly basic. The first two games featured a red and blue gun for player one and two, respectively. For the third game players got to wield a light gun shaped like a shotgun. This shotgun did not have any pump action mechanic. The fourth "House of the Dead" game gave players mini Uzis to use in their hunt of the undead. For all of these reasons, the world of arcade games would be a lesser place if these games hadn’t existed.
One of the greatest action movies of all time gets one of the all time greatest light gun shooters. Players take on the roles of T-800s reprogrammed to battle against Skynet. The plot of the game is a rough approximation of the plot of the film. Players start in a future warzone before traveling back in time to iconic locations like Cyberdine Systems and the steel mill. The game features digitized graphics of key characters from the movie like Sarah Connor and the evil T-1000.
Players get to use light guns mounted on the cabinet that rattle and shake with the feedback of the rapid fire machine gun. Each gun has a special button to deploy explosives. The aesthetics of the cabinet are fantastic. On either side of the cabinet are massive portraits of Arnold Schwarzenegger, while the dark blues and red trim on the cabinet mimics the look from certain scenes in the movie. This game is fantastic and a great companion to a great film.
"The Lost World: Jurassic Park" arcade cabinet is a sit-down booth that is completely covered in the famous red and black logo for the franchise. The booth itself looks a little like one of the famous Jeeps featured in the movie. There’s even a small curtain on either side to envelope the players and fully immerse them in the experience of surviving against wave after wave of dinosaurs, including the T-Rex, velociraptors, dilophosaur and more!
The arcade booth forces players to sit close to an already giant screen, which is terrible for your eyes but great for adventure! It creates an illusion that the dinosaurs are larger than they really are. When the T-Rex chases the players, it really feels like a giant carnivore is mere moments away from an attack. What makes this the best light gun arcade game is that all the elements of the game and its presentation combine together to make an experience that simply can’t be replicated unless you go to an arcade.
What light gun game was your favorite? Did we miss one? Let us know in the comments!