Zapper mystery zapped

I’ve always wondered how the Nintendo Zapper worked. I was a big fan of Duck Hunt as a child.

We are living in the era of the wii – remotes with in built motion sensors with signals picked up by special peripherals near the TV. But in 1984 (the actual year – not the Orwellian future) these were the things dreams were made of – the 1984 type of dreams (the Orwellian future – not the actual year). 1984 was the year Duck Hunt was released.

Anyway, the Zapper apparently worked like this:

When you shot at one of the ducks in Duck Hunt, the screen would flash for a split second, and the duck would either plummet to Earth like a fallen angel, or continue flying around, oblivious to your vain attempts to destroy it. I always just assumed that the flash was for dramatic effect, but it turns out that it was the key to the Nintendo Zapper’s closely guarded secrets.

Instead of emitting an infrared blast every time the trigger is pulled, the Zapper housed a small sensor that could pick up the flashing screen. If you watched closely you would see that, every time the screen flashed, the duck(s) would be surrounded by a box that was a different color than the background. If the Zapper was pointed at one of the ducks when the trigger was pulled, it would register that the color was different, and thus score a hit. All of this would take place so quickly that, unless you knew what to look for, you would never notice.