The Duck Hunt Conundrum

-Concerning the pixelated mallards of the 80's-

Reader. I love me a good game of Duck Hunt. That game that came out in 1984 about shooting ducks in a field. That's some good, clean, simple gameplay. Not sold yet? Let me set it up.

Nintendo was poised to release their newest product into the market as a toy and not a video gaming device. During the time, gaming was considered a passing fad that appeared to be failing at retaining a stable marketplace. Video games weren't popular anymore, therefore kids did not find them appealing, and parents did not want to spend money on something their children didn't want.

To sell their console as a children's toy, Nintendo would need to necessitate a product that gave off the facade of a "play thing." It is out of this need that consumers were introduced to peripherals such as R.O.B, the Power Glove, and the Zapper. The Zapper is a plastic handheld gun that detects lights projected on a CRT television. Turn these lights into assets like ducks and clay pigeons, and the formula for a game like Duck Hunt is born.

Duck Hunt is a game where one shoot ducks with the Zapper. The player is given the task of progressing through numerous waves of flying ducks while being allowed a certain allotment of missed shots. Eventually, failing to hit a single target results in a game over. So with all of this in mind the question now is, "What does music have to do with it?"

The Limitation/Innovation of the 2a03

There are many aspects of the NES hardware and software that merit extensive explanation to the uninformed ear. For now the focus will solely be placed on a component of the microprocessor known as the pAPU, or Pseudo Audio Processing Unit. The APU in question is the Ricoh 2A03. It has the capacity to create a combination of waveforms, noise, and albeit archaic, various audio samples.

You've probably heard this before. It's the jingle played before the beginning of a game of Duck Hunt. This is an example of the culmination of pulse, triangle, and noise channels that the 2A03 has to offer.

Here is an example of the DMC, or sampling channel. The barking of the player's dog as it jumps into the field of grass before a round of play.

These aspects of synthesis in modern day seem very limited, but during Nintendo's descent into household notoriety this level of musical expression was not seen in electronics outside of actual Electronic Music in the 80's; a topic for another day.

Hirokazu Tanaka, as with many of the staple NES titles of the era, was responsible for the Duck Hunt soundtrack... if you want to call it that.


More than half of Duck Hunt's OST pieces serve as sound effects. Remember, that an APU is the sole source of all sound from console to television. This means that sound effects and music are processed in the same vein. Aside from this detail, the track this whole article and my slight frustration is based on, is number 6.

Being a scholar of music, this specific track has aroused my intrigue through a combination of hardware limitation, ambiguity, and most likely, no other good reason. The issue itself is one of interpretation in terms of compositional identity.

Is this a duple, or compound phrase?

Consider the two musical examples for track number 6.

Example A: A jingle in 4/4, duple meter containing quarter and eighth notes.

Example B: A jingle in 6/8, compound meter containing dotted quarter notes and triplets.

It is with these two examples that an impasse of orchestration is brought into question through simplicity. The length of sound, variance of tones, and rhythmic emphasis on the triangle (bass) channel separate this phrase from a sound effect. Effects most commonly manifest themselves in the form of non-melodic, unmetered, percussive moments.

Example B fairs a better chance of assuming a truly musical function. As opposed to Example A, Example B completes the greater unspoken task of musicality by ending cadentially on the down beat of it's musical phrase. We observe this only through the example that the writer has given. The possibility of other interpretations aside from Example A or B are not out of the question. For all we know it could simply be a non-metered musical segment, but that wouldn't be any fun at all, would it?

However, In regards to "musical function" both examples reveal a harmonic lack of closure in the passage's resolution to the sub-dominant tone; an Ab major chord in the key of Eb major. Perhaps if Hirokazu chose to resolve to the tonic (Eb) we might have witnessed the fastest plagal cadence in video game history.

In Conclusion

What does any of this have to do with anything at all? Nothing really. It's more of a chance to see the inner workings of the fringe elements to something as simple as deciding what to do with your Friday night off. Countless changing variables, and technological advancements for half a second of sound ending in a question mark... to one person in particular.

I throw the ball into your court dear reader. Perhaps you don't have as many notches in your belt to understand the deep artist point I'm presenting; totally understandable. But it shouldn't stop you from noticing the intrinsic complexities of what we now know as out-dated technology. This is what I call, Retrology.

To those with the musical mind, what is your opinion? Give the track a once over and come to your own conclusions short of calling the composer and asking him yourself, which is probably something I could of done in the first place... do you really think he'd have time for that? I certainly do, and I find in these times of modern gaming stagnation, looking back at the intricacies of things long retired can offer some amazing insight to the here and now, and the next and far off.