This weekend marks the 35th anniversary since our favorite overall-wearing, mustachioed plumber ingested his first mushroom in Super Mario Bros. To mark the occasion, Nintendo is releasing new games and holding events in the coming weeks. The Ringer is also celebrating, looking back at the legacy of the most iconic video game character of all time, both in games and his forays into film and television. So jump down the pipe and warp to the Mushroom Kingdom with us.
The rumor back in the mid-’80s was that if you shot the dog from Duck Hunt—whether accidentally or with a great deal of seething premeditation—your Nintendo Entertainment System Zapper, or your NES itself, or your TV, or your house would blow up. Accounts varied. (These accounts came mostly from fourth-graders at Catholic school in suburban Missouri, if that’s relevant.) I am using the official term “Zapper” out of respect even though the gun that came with the Nintendo kind of sucked, or at least it sucked how few games they made for it. Whereas I have no respect whatsoever for the dog from Duck Hunt, who sucked way more, so blast away.
The Duck Hunt dog was the smuggest public figure of the smuggest decade of the 20th century. The classic 8-bit NES made its U.S. debut in New York City in 1985 with 17 or so launch games, spreading to the rest of the country (yes, even suburban Missouri) in ’86. The deluxe edition came with both Duck Hunt and Gyromite, the latter requiring the services of a whole-ass top-spinning robot that they made one other game for, speaking of stuff that sucked. But in Duck Hunt, you hunted ducks. That’s it. As the game opened, your trusty dog sniffed along a bucolic meadow—featuring one tree and one bush—and then, without warning, dove balletically into the tall grass, out of which flew a bunch of ducks you then shot with your, y’know, Zapper. Good dog.
The problem was, if you failed to shoot any of the ducks—if you were perhaps instead curiously aiming the gun at your own eyeball, another thing you were definitely not supposed to do but the Catholic school kids did anyway—then the dog would emerge from the tall grass and mock you incessantly. In my darker moments, I still hear his high-pitched little guffaw on a loop in my head. Bad dog. Bad dog. Go ahead and shoot that fucker.
In my defense, for all you sensitive patrons of the website Does the Dog Die?, the dog for sure doesn’t die. The Zapper has no effect; your only source of catharsis is the very pleasing firing sound of the gun itself, a dry and vivid spray of static with a surprising bass kick to it. (That is my second-favorite NES noise overall, after the sound your sword makes in The Legend of Zelda with full hearts.) To actually shoot the Duck Hunt dog, you had to play the arcade version and wait for a bonus round where the dog heedlessly leapt out amidst the ducks, and in the event of being shot would emerge afterward with a blackened face, crutches, and a cast on one foot. Very satisfying.
One way I know that the 21st century has poisoned me—or at least decimated my attention span—is that I used to play individual NES games for hours and hours, Duck Hunt very much included, but nowadays they can’t hold my interest for longer than 30 seconds. In Duck Hunt, you hunted ducks, or, as a special treat, clay pigeons. (Also, there were more trees on that screen.) That’s it. And this was a launch game, bundled with the beloved system itself; when Super Mario Bros. quickly emerged as the best NES game by orders of magnitude, Nintendo came out with a mega-popular Super Mario–Duck Hunt combo cartridge, Duck Hunt the Garfunkel to Mario’s Simon, the Oates to his Hall. No way was it even the best NES Zapper game, that honor going to either the gritty shooting gallery Hogan’s Alley or the bizarre but similarly noirish Gumshoe, which required you to incessantly shoot a trenchcoat-clad detective so he could remain airborne and snag red balloons, and which featured my second-favorite NES intro screen.
My all-time favorite NES intro screen was Bad Dudes, obviously.
Stupendous. That’s an opening line worthy of Tolstoy, of Fitzgerald, of Proust. There was no such intro spiel to Hogan’s Alley, but the game was nonetheless rich with vivid characters: I would read a whole crime novel populated by the Startled Woman, the Sad Professor, the Too-Happy Cop, the Well-Dressed Thug, the Trenchcoat Thug, the Casually Dressed But Extra Menacing Thug. By comparison Duck Hunt has a Samuel Beckett austerity, the dog’s personality limited to that athletic dive and that incessant mockery. Here, watch the mockery on a loop for 10 hours.
Maddening. For people of a certain age, this was our very first experience with being taunted by technology, a formative experience indeed now that 85 percent of modern life involves being taunted by technology. Shoot all the ducks you want, for as long as shooting ducks might hold your interest, but that fucking dog forever lurked in the tall grass, ready to troll you to oblivion if your focus slipped even for an instant.
The Duck Hunt dog has enjoyed a respectable afterlife as a playable Super Smash Bros. character, and despite that continued tittering mockery seems to have mellowed somewhat, or at least the dog’s in cahoots now with one of the ducks, perhaps confirming your long-held suspicion that they were aligned against you from the start. Like the best villains, the Duck Hunt dog has outlasted many of the 8-bit Nintendo’s most valiant heroes, and therefore deserves our grudging respect, OK, fine. Let the dog live, if only so you can keep trying to kill it.