Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for “Duck Season”… also whilst I’m warning, so does the trailer for “Duck Season”.
I’d lay a guinea to the fact that most of you reading this are of that very specific age to have grown up knowing the simple time pressure of renting a videogame from Blockbuster. Three-day rental, five-day rental, it made little difference, there was always a race against time. How far could you get before the return day approached? I can’t say that I had that many of the pre-requisite entirely free weekends which coincided with a Friday night adventure through the fabled door below the ripped ticket stub in to the land of blue, yellow, overpriced snacks, and disappoint of realising that although they had about a hundred of the empty cover boxes of the latest movie you needed to find one of the generic boxes to actually rent that movie. Game rental for me was indeed a rare treat, so much so that I can remember almost every instance of it during the 16-bit era… and they were all mediocre titles at best.
“Duck Season” starts with this exact setup; the player steps into the VR eyesockets of a young boy who’s grocery laden mother bursts through the door with a special treat; a one night rental of the 8-bit classic “Duck Season” for your entirely-not-a-NES game conso… oh forget it. It’s supposed to be Duck Hunt for the NES. From this title sequence that player is placed in a VR recreation of a typical U.S. home of the 1980’s, NES-imitation console setup on the lounge floor, zapper connected, a slightly sketchy promotional video of how to play the game playing on the VCR. This lounge setting acts as the game hub area with the player returning here after every round of the game. Our ten year old little scamp can have all sorts of fun here putting the various tapes in the VCR, picking up and looking at objects, eating junk food and playing with toys. There’s also a modest selection of other mini-games to play if you rip the Duck Season cartridge out and throw one in. These fall in the category of very simple 8-bit style parodies of NES-era games such as “Pizza Boy” rather than Paperboy… and … Sinatra.
It was whilst sat on the floor, cross-legged, in this virtual lounge, infront of the virtual TV, that apparently my real life dog walked over to me and sat for some time trying to work out what I was doing. I was oblivious.
Of course the main event is the “Duck Season” game itself so blow the dust off the connectors and fire it up. The player is transported in to the game itself. It’s a beautiful evening, the sun is setting over a reed bordered duck pond. You’ve pulled up in your pickup truck, popped open a couple of boxes of shells and are now standing here watching what appears to be a child’s entertainer in a dog costume flail his arms and legs as the round begins. I imagine the first thing that anyone does at this point is fire a shell at this canine imitator but unlike Duck Hunt the dog reacts and seems annoyed that you’ve sent lead flying in his direction. Nevertheless, after a brief tutorial teaching you how to handle your weapon and reload, the game begins.
… and you really better like duck hunt, because 75% of the game is a faithful recreation of this 8-bit classic in a VR environment. Luckily it is a solid experience as long as you are onboard with shooting a seemingly endless supply of mallards. The shotgun “feels” about as good as any two-handed weapon can in a VR environment (where in reality you’re just waving some motion controllers around) and the added element of needed to keep your gun loaded & pumped adds an extra challenge, especially in the later levels where the volume of duck per minute is gradually ramped up. In keeping with the quirky, easter-egg laden, feel of the game the player can turn around to see this idyllic scene is simply a ‘set’ of sorts and can even look backwards out of the TV monitor to see the protagonist with zapper in hand playing the game in the lounge.
Spoiler Warning Once Again…
The final 25% of the game content is made up of the ‘meta-game’. As the rental hours drift by, it starts to become clear that something strange is happening. There are subtle clues: a mysterious video tape, strange reports of murders in the area on the news, and the large knife going missing from the house. It transpires that the ‘dog’ from the Duck Season game has somehow escaped and is murdering people… or maybe they’re a copycat of the game character… or maybe it’s just all in your young sleep deprived mind. Either way, after eight rounds of the game you return to the lounge to find your mother murdered and enter a climactic showdown between you and the canine interloper. These final scenes are quite violent and, combined with a few scares that it throws in, I suspect some would find it all a bit too much in the VR setting. I guess the goal was to juxtapose the building horror against the mild mannered NES classic as well as wringing the tired trope of “Everyone wants to shoot the dog in Duck Hunt” for everything it’s worth. There are a small handful of different unlockable endings to discover in subsequent plays, but considering that the player has to battle through eight rounds of duck shooting before reaching the end it’s probably not worth 100%-ing.
The biggest problem with ‘Duck Season’ is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. The VR recreation of Duck Hunt is charming and plays well (albeit within the confines of a simple concept) however if that’s what you’re interested in then I guess the meta-stuff will get tiring quickly (although there is a practice mode just just work on your duck shooting). Likewise, anyone looking for a horror experience will feel unsatisfied as these elements really only kick in towards the end of each playthrough and are over pretty quickly. From the outset the retro vibe trims down the target audience to those with both memories of the 8-bit era and duck hunt so it’s hard to understand exactly who this is aimed at. I personally could have done without the horror elements and would have enjoyed the Duck Hunt recreation with some quirky Easter eggs and unlockables far more than the grizzly tone that the game chose to end on.
Without the draw of VR it would certainly be forgettable. For those who are VR compatible I’d still only be happy recommending it as some cheap amusement if it rolls around with a hefty sale discount.