Gaming

A new $110 light gun for old Duck Hunts: Ars tests an HDTV-friendly option

Close-up photo of hand holding plastic light gun,
Enlarge / Duck Hunt without a CRT? It’s finally doable, thanks to the Sinden Lightgun.
Sam Machkovech

Over the past decade, we’ve seen nearly every classic gaming console receive a cute, miniaturized re-release—and the variety has been staggering, from titans like the NES to arcade niche favorites like Neo Geo and Sega Astro City.

Yet somehow, one massive retro-gaming category has been left unmined for a nostalgic buck: the light gun genre. Nintendo never packed shooting-gallery classics like Duck Hunt into a plug-and-play Zapper, while companies like Sega and Namco have never released their legendary arcade gun games as convenient, shoot-at-the-TV collector’s editions.

Until recently, the wisdom preventing such a launch has been limitations with modern HDTVs; light gun games were largely coded for older screen technologies. But one enterprising Indiegogo project from 2019, the Sinden Lightgun, set its sights on solving the problem in a roundabout, DIY way: with a new plastic gun, starting at $ 110, that combines an RGB sensor with incredibly low-latency response times. After wondering how such a system works in practice (and increasingly wanting a retro-arcade experience in my locked-down home), I finally got my hands on the Sinden this week, provided by its namesake creator, British engineer Andy Sinden.

In great news, the gun works, and it rocks. Just don’t go into this PC-exclusive hardware experiment expecting plug-and-play simplicity.

Older options: Flashing boxes, fixed potentiometers

Let’s start with the question I’ve gotten a lot while casually mentioning the Sinden to friends: “Why doesn’t the old NES Zapper work on modern TVs?”

Nintendo’s Zapper is the best-known example of a light gun, and the one you’re most likely to have lying around in a pile of home-console controllers and peripherals. Many arcade guns worked like the Zapper, as well: by blacking out the gameplay screen whenever you pull the gun’s trigger. This black-out lasts for a few “frames” of screen refresh and triggers a brief wave of bright-white boxes flashing from left-to-right. At this point, a simple binary light sensor inside the toy gun looks for a bright off-on-off flash, quicker than your eye can perceive. Whichever millisecond it notices the flash, that corresponds to whichever duck or target is blinking on the screen. (In other words, pointing at a bright light or piece of paper and pulling the trigger won’t work.)

This method of light-flash recognition relies on the specific refresh speed and direction of cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs. In the Zapper’s case, a CRT’s left-to-right refresh directionality could be interpreted to more precisely define where the Zapper is being aimed at a certain moment, though this method wasn’t necessarily used in NES games. Take away the specific refresh rate and pattern of a CRT, and you take away these light guns’ working methodology. That’s why they don’t work on modern TVs like LCDs and OLEDs.

Some arcade light-gun systems released after 1985’s Zapper used different methods. Terminator 2: The Arcade Game relied on a potentiometer (pages 2-12 and 2-13) to measure the precise angle that a bolted-down gun was aimed and send X/Y data to the game accordingly, while many Sega arcade games used the “Type II” gun system with a Wii-like array of infrared bulbs. Thus, neither had to measure flashes as rendered on a CRT and could conceivably work on modern monitors, but neither is cost-effective or convenient to swoop in as a 2021 solution.

Meanwhile, the Wii’s infrared sensing bar, which powered a number of satisfying arcade shooter games in the ’00s, has a huge caveat: it delivers relative aim, not precise. You can’t look down the sights of a Wiimote or the Wii “Zapper” and expect precision—and that’s exactly why most Wii light gun games include an on-screen aiming reticule at all times. (Plus, this requires attaching a wired infrared sensor bar to your TV, which isn’t everyone’s home-theater cup of tea.)

Plugged in, ready to shoot

As an aiming peripheral for modern TVs, the Sinden Lightgun is simpler than some older options—but that’s a low bar to clear, and it’s certainly not a Nintendo-caliber, just-works kind of gun.

The first restriction is that this is primarily a PC peripheral. Hence, you can’t plug this gun’s USB Type-A port into an Xbox or PlayStation and expect it to function. But Linux does work with the Sinden, as does the Raspberry Pi platform, so if you’re the kind of gamer who typically dumps your retro collection to a device outside the Windows ecosystem, you’re in luck. (However, I only tested on Windows 10, so I cannot speak to how your favorite distro will react to the Sinden.)

The Sinden is up there with Namco’s Time Crisis guns in terms of construction and heft.

Sinden’s physical setup is the simplest part, since it’s an all-in-one gun. Hook its cable’s USB Type-A port to a compatible device, and that’s it—no infrared sensor bar or other attachments required. If your ideal retro gaming room is particularly massive, that’s OK: the Sinden’s cord is over 15 feet in length. If the cord ever has any issues, however, you’ll need to remove the Sinden’s Philips-head screws and fiddle with its internals, as the cord’s other end is built into the gun’s innards.

In terms of physicality, the 1.21-pound Sinden is up there with Namco’s classic Time Crisis guns in terms of construction and heft. In particular, the trigger’s action is satisfying, and the grip includes welcome plastic ridging for adult fingers to press against. But this gun doesn’t include faux-gun material like metal or leather—which is arcade-appropriate, of course, but worth noting that your minimum $ 110 purchase, before shipping and other charges, isn’t going into higher-end build quality. A few of its aesthetic flourishes are tinged with the kind of plastic shading you’ll find from higher-end 3D-printed filament, but otherwise, it’s got a clever all-around style, feels solid in the hand, and screams “’90s arcade” in all the ways that I appreciate.

Once you’ve plugged the Lightgun in, download the Sinden software suite and boot it. This software is required to trigger and identify the Sinden’s key component: its 480p, 60 fps RGB sensor (in other words, a webcam). Before doing this, the software will also ask you to phone a Sinden server and check for a hardware firmware update, then pick through menus to confirm the exact size of your TV or monitor. According to Sinden documentation, this real-life measure is combined with the gun’s ability to estimate its distance from your TV for a more proper estimate of where you’re aiming.

Pop a cap in that ass…ignment

The last crucial step before turning the Sinden’s webcam on is to enable the ecosystem’s secret sauce: a white border overlay that fills out the edge of your visible desktop. The Sinden Lightgun’s webcam then translates whatever bright white box outline it sees into an aiming grid, proven out by a preview display where your monitor becomes a clear, blue box. At this point, the gun becomes a mouse pointer with a variety of keyboard and mouse buttons built-in. Yes, it’s faking like a standard-issue mouse—but, you know, with a gun’s trigger and pump-action built-in.

Before booting any games, I tested the Sinden by enabling the white border (which can be toggled on or off with a built-in button on the Sinden’s side) and clicking around with my trigger as the mouse’s left button. Sure enough, Windows treated it as a mousing device, and a highly responsive one, at that. Even when I had a massive white-background window filling out my desktop, it worked fine, and whatever input lag might be inherent to Sinden’s translation of webcam data felt minuscule—arguably slower than a CRT-reliant light gun, but as I already explained, those guns must inherently buffer a few frames to confirm what you’re shooting at, so the comparison might be a wash.

Even with ideal lighting, Sinden’s on-screen pointer is usually a bit shaky, twitching around just a bit, and that’s arguably reflective of holding a toy gun in your hand. It’s enough to make clicking on pixel-perfect Windows desktop elements a bit of a pain, but not enough to make me miss sizable targets in an arcade shooter. I adjusted the Sinden software’s “anti-jitter” compensation sliders, but this was never enough to make me want to use the gun as, say, a normal computer mouse. I didn’t get the urge to roll hard on my desktop and pop caps to pick through spreadsheet cells.

Without ideal lighting, however, Sinden’s usefulness can vary. I struggled to get it working on a 24″ monitor on a desk in the middle of a well-lit room, even after using Sinden’s software to modify the white border and add a surrounding black edge to better establish contrast. My 55″ TV, set up directly against a wall, has consistently worked better. Think about how finicky the Nintendo Wii’s sensor bar could be in well-lit rooms, and estimate your gaming room’s Sinden-friendliness accordingly.

When will the setup guide be finished?

As the above screenshots make clear, Sinden’s current software suite is unwieldy and unrefined, especially in how it spreads customization options across tabs and subcategories. The app has very, very confusing language about how its “calibration” tab actually works or whether it’s necessary, while the “cursor offset” tab includes a dizzying variety of number entry boxes, which themselves feed into visible math equations about “offsets” and “ratio factors.”

Far be it from me to complain about homebrew software that exposes tons of options and tweaks, but the current app is a far cry from “just let me shoot at some ducks.” Some sort of introductory setup process would be nice, if not a full redo of the way options are spread and explained within the app. Worse, the official Sinden Lightgun wiki’s setup guide, as of press time, is in a wacky public moderation state, with questions and requests peppering the text as marked in ASCII carrots. This hardware-and-software combo appears to be coming in piping hot.

Then again, if you’re already steeped in the finicky world of RetroArch setup and ROM dumping, you’re likely up to the task. And if your favorite classic-gaming software suite supports light-gun emulation via mouse—a popular makeshift solution seen in decades of classic-game emulation on PCs—then Sinden’s default settings will get you partially through the arcade-at-your-home door. The mouse’s left button is assigned to the trigger; its right button, often used to “reload,” is assigned to the pump. The gun’s left side has two action buttons and a d-pad, while the right side includes an additional action button and the aforementioned white-border toggle. You can use the Sinden software to rebind any of these, or you can rebind keyboard and mouse functions in your emulator or game of choice.

With your ideal game loaded, set it to “borderless fullscreen,” then click through the Sinden’s dedicated button to make sure the white-border overlay appears (with separate 16:9 and 4:3 options, which is nice), and you’ll likely be good to go. However, mouse emulation as powered by Sinden can throw up app-by-app hiccups. As an example, the MAME front-end I tested was finicky in terms of treating the Sinden as a wholly separate pointer from my default PC mouse, so I couldn’t get it to appear in gun games (even though my mouse worked as an in-game gun just fine). That troubleshooting rabbit hole led me to manually edit INI files, pick through per-game MAME settings, and ultimately scrap my entire install for a full MAME wipe.

A quality option—just not necessarily on the up-and-up

That being said, when I got Sinden working with some of my favorite light-gun classics, from Nintendo’s Duck Hunt to Sega’s Gunblade NY, Sinden’s sales proposition held up. Simply changing my aiming angle helped with one finicky screen, while my two others worked perfectly by default—particularly with precise, “through the sights” aiming I demand in a good arcade shooter. When configured incorrectly, you can get stuck with a more “relative” aiming situation, like in old Wii games; in those cases, the verbose menu system will be your friend. I’m glad I generally didn’t have to rely on it.

The bigger annoyance at that point became how an individual emulator or piece of software handled things like hiding mouse cursors, which ranged from “change a couple of settings” to “download community-hacked files as stored at Mega.NZ.” As of press time, the Sinden Lightgun wiki includes a left-hand sidebar roster of specific game tips and instructions—and if you’re interested in adding Sinden to your home rig, now’s a great time to review what the process might look like before… ahem… pulling the trigger.

As a modest, seemingly DIY enterprise, the Sinden Lightgun comes with a specific range of caveats, beyond my above warnings about its somewhat finicky software and slapdash wiki. There’s no guarantee that your order will be met with in-stock inventory on a timely basis or that any defects in your ordered hardware will be easily rectified—especially with shipments apparently coming from Sinden Technology Ltd.’s West Midlands headquarters in the UK. But a thorough look at the official Sinden Discord channel reveals what appears to be a positive, supportive community of owners and fans, as opposed to a rash of complaints, which is a decent sign.

My review unit, the $ 178 recoil-ready model, has held up to anecdotal testing on a Windows 10 PC. But it’s worth noting that personally dumped game options may be limited with a scarcity of PC-compatible light gun games. In my case, the only games I personally dumped in my testing were a few Wii discs and a single NES cart, along with one Steam purchase (the mouse-controlled version of House of the Dead: Overkill, as hidden within The Typing of the Dead). Thus, if you’re trying to use the Sinden Lightgun on the up-and-up, that may prove tricky.

If all of this sounds like a murkier path than Nintendo or Sega selling an all-inclusive, games-filled light-gun option, then the Sinden likely isn’t the add-on for you. Whereas if you have experience manually editing INI files, downloading monthly MAME compatibility updates, tweaking RetroArch, and making sure your favorite TV screen is set up for ideal lighting conditions, then you’ve basically cleared the Sinden Lightgun orientation process in advance. In that case, the $ 110 model should fit squarely in your sights—and it’ll likely arrive before we’re back to hanging out at arcade-styled bars, to help you get a light-gun fix while we’re still locked down for a while.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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