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How Did the Duck Hunt Gun Work?

For many children of the '80s, a good portion of your childhood probably revolved around sitting too close to the TV, clutching a plastic safety cone-colored hand gun and blasting waterfowl out of a pixilated sky in Duck Hunt (also, trying to blow that dog’s head off when he laughed at you). The Duck Hunt gun, officially called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Zapper, seems downright primitive next to the Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect, but in the late 80s, it filled plenty of young heads with wonder. How did that thing work?

Annie get your Zapper

The Zapper’s ancestry goes back to the mid 1930s, when the first so-called “light guns” appeared after the development of light-sensing vacuum tubes. In the first light gun game, Ray-O-Lite (developed in 1936 by Seeburg, a company that made parts and systems for jukeboxes), players shot at small moving targets mounted with light sensors using a gun that emitted a beam of light. When the beam struck a sensor, the targets – ducks, coincidentally – registered the “hit” and a point was scored.

Light guns hit home video game consoles with Shooting Gallery on the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. Because the included shotgun-style light gun was only usable on a Magnavox television, the game flopped. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Zapper then fell into the hands of American kids in October 1985, when it was released in a bundle with the NES, a controller and a few games. Early versions of the peripheral were dark gray, but the color of the sci-fi ray gun-inspired Zapper was changed a few years later when a federal regulation required that toy and imitation firearms be “blaze orange” (color #12199, to be exact) so they wouldn’t be mistaken for the real deal.

While there were a number of Zapper-compatible games released for the NES (when I was a kid and my dad worked from home, we wasted plenty of afternoons away playing Hogan’s Alley), most lived in the shadow of the iconic Duck Hunt, the most recognizable and popular Zapper game.

Gone in a Flash

While older light guns like the Ray-O-Lite rifle emitted beams of light, the Zapper and many other recent light guns work by receiving light through a photodiode on or in the barrel and using that light to figure out where on the TV screen you're aiming.

When you point at a duck and pull the trigger, the computer in the NES blacks out the screen and the Zapper diode begins reception. Then, the computer flashes a solid white block around the targets you’re supposed to be shooting at. The photodiode in the Zapper detects the change in light intensity and tells the computer that it’s pointed at a lit target block — in others words, you should get a point because you hit a target. In the event of multiple targets, a white block is drawn around each potential target one at a time. The diode’s reception of light combined with the sequence of the drawing of the targets lets the computer know that you hit a target and which one it was. Of course, when you’re playing the game, you don’t notice the blackout and the targets flashing because it all happens in a fraction of a second.

This target flashing method helped Nintendo overcome a weakness of older light gun games: cheaters racking up high scores by pointing the gun at a steady light source, like a lamp, and hitting the first target right out of the gate.

If you’re hungry for a more technical depth, check out Nintendo's 1989 patent on the Zapper technology

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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