For my money, the NES Zapper is the pinnacle of light gun design. Light guns were hardly new – even Maganavox’s Odyssey had one – but the Zapper had the right combination of ergonomics and a steady trickle of software to use it on. Its popularity didn’t translate into the 16-bit era though. It felt like the only new lightgun games were coming out in the arcades, and the home ports they encouraged were generally lackluster. Still, Nintendo put out their Super Scope, so Sega had to respond.
I avoided the Super Scope because it looked huge and unwieldy. This attracted me to the Menacer’s modular design. If the Super Scope was a bazooka, then the Menacer is the Uzi that Dave joked about in his review. The base unit could possibly be held like a pistol by an adult, but this wasn’t going to be happening for any length of time with a 10 year old. Instead, you gripped it by its twin handles and shot from the hip, or at the shoulder like a soldier. You were free to rock and roll, though I should point out, I never bounced around the room as was promised in the commercial.
On the other hand, if you wanted the stabilization of a rifle, you slid the shoulder stock into place. If you wanted the accuracy of a scope, you slid in the ridiculous-looking binoculars. There were no lenses in these things, just an adjustable plastic sight on the end. Pressing your face to it was somewhat comfortable, I suppose, but you sure wouldn’t be impressing anyone. If they were going for comfort over long periods of gameplay, they probably should have figured how you were going to be resting the gun. Sitting on the couch meant you’d be hunching over with the gun on your knees, and tiring out quickly. On a side note, each part of the binoculars slid on separately. I remember only attaching one eye, I suppose because I thought it looked cooler.
You can’t really judge the Menacer versus the Scopezooka on accuracy, as they both used the same core technology. Both are plenty accurate for their purpose. The Menacer does tend to drift though, which is why every game on the bundled 6-in-one cart forces you through a brief calibration screen every time you start. Perhaps the smartest inclusion is the “Accu-sight” option for most of the games. This just places a digital crosshair on the screen and lets you get back to quick hip shooting and snap aiming. But then, this feature nullifies the Menacer’s attachments. Really, both companies should have just gone with pistol-style light guns and been done with it.
The Menacer always felt like something Sega “had” to put out to keep up, and never something they were actively interested in. The quality of the pack-in games reflects this. The original plan was to pull from Sega’s roster of licenses, so presumably you’d be hucking passes as Joe Montana, throwing heaters as Tommy Lasorda, and, uh, shooting open car trunks looking for kids as Michael Jackson? However, Japan didn’t want to pay the fees, so the final replacements are the unpolished, somewhat slapdash ideas worthy of the techiest of tech demos.
The first game in the set is Pest Control. Here you’re guarding a pizza on the floor of a kitchen besieged by green bugs. The Menacer guides a flashlight beam around the room, and explodes any critter it shoots. Bugs come in from the edges of the screen, and will start carting slices of pepperoni back if you allow them to touch your prized pie. Your weapon has a charge bar that discourages rapid fire, which only becomes an issue at the higher levels or with bad aim. Pressing the secondary fire button (at the foregrip of the Menacer) turns on the lights to spot any errant insects, but prevents you from firing. You’ll repeat throughout the levels, facing faster bugs and larger, tankier ones, until you’re overwhelmed and walk away with your high score.
Next we have Space Station Defender. Up to eight pods teleport into your fixed view, and open one-by-one to reveal an alien soldier. You have a narrow window to shoot the soldier before taking damage yourself. The Normal mode beams the pods in sequence, so you can get the drop on the next soldier if you remember the order. Random mode drops all the pods in at once and forces you to play a reactionary game. You’ll have to hold the crosshairs over a “Power” bar at the bottom of the screen to regenerate ammo, which you’re hopefully doing between waves and not frantically in the middle of them. Again, you’ll do this until you run out of lives, with only backgrounds and enemy art changing through a handful of variations as you go.
Whack Ball tries to present a different use for the lightgun. It’s a Breakout clone, with the Menacer acting like a giant mouse steering a large disc around the screen. You’ll hit a ball with the disc to bounce it among tiles and light them up. Light up all tiles in a stage, without losing the ball through any openings, and you move on. Each stage further has a randomly-moving flashing tile that bestows an effect (extra ball, multi-ball, or a power-down like resetting the stage) if hit. A timer tracks you as well, with any extra time added to your score. While I appreciate the variety, this was absolutely the game I played the least. It always felt a bit clunky, and didn’t match what interested me in a lightgun in the first place (shooty man action!).
Front Line has various pieces of Soviet air and armor scrolling by the screen, and you get points for shooting them. The default attack is a machine gun with infinite ammo – your only concern is that it takes more time to destroy a vehicle with this. The secondary trigger launches a rocket. Each level gives you 10 anti-tank and 10 anti-air rockets, with the right kind automatically used. This one’s a real yawner. Eventually the vehicles start shooting back (with jets stopping in midair to turn to you and fire), and damage accumulates across the game with only a sliver regenerated after each level. The tactic seems to be to use your gun on the less-damaging (or less likely to fire) vehicles, and the rockets on the tanks and helos. Progressive waves are naturally tougher and faster. This one also features the most visual depth on the cart, with the back row of tanks being tiny and tough to hit.
Rockman’s Zone is the Menacer’s version of Hogan’s Alley. You scroll through a city mockup, and shoot cardboard cutouts that appear in the windows. Ice a bad guy and get points. Shoot an innocent and lose a life. Much of the challenge here is removed by a voice yelling “SHOOT!” anytime a bad guy appears – I don’t know why they did this. If you miss a crook, you lose a life (with no indication you’ve been shot). The levels appear to be generated as you go, since you have a “targets left” quota; miss a target, and the game keeps scrolling until you hit enough bad guys. Unfortunately, this means that the artwork is bland as can be (to tile more easily), and you’ll never see an environment change out of the city, or to a new one.
The Toejam & Earl tie-in is the best of the lot, but even still gets boring/impossible soon after level 10.
The last game, Ready, Aim, Tomatoes!, is a glimpse at the licensed games that were originally in mind, using Sega’s own Toejam and Earl in a linear shooting gallery. Music and art come from their game, and the camera scrolls right while you fire off tomatoes at wacky foes. Shooting occasional signposts lets you scroll back a bit, allowing you to pelt anyone you missed. Powerups let you shoot rapid tomatoes, slow time, or clear the immediate screen. You have a score target to hit for each level, which includes your accuracy bonus and any unused tomatoes. If you fail to hit the minimum score, you get one more chance to try again. This one’s the most creative of the group, including translucent enemies and tornadoes that fire any tomatoes you hit them with right back at you, and is certainly the one I played the most as a kid.
Unfortunately, overall gameplay for all of these games is best described as “keep slogging through and hope you see something new every tenth level.” You usually don’t. None of the games store your high score, so you’ll need to write it down if you care enough. And of course, beating that high score is the only incentive to keep going. Art for all of these games is basic. Some of the games have scrolling layers for depth, but you’ll see no shadows, no particular effects, and defeated enemies always disappear in little explosion sprites. Tomatoes features three Toejam and Earl tracks, but every other game uses the title menu music on a loop. You have no way to disable it, and you will get unbelievably sick of it.
Rockman’s Zone offers dopey arcade shooting in a city the Master System probably could have pulled off.
The Menacer itself wasn’t a terrible lightgun. I think the modular aspect was good design. Having never even held a Super Scope, I can’t say for sure, but I still suspect the Menacer is much less cumbersome to handle, and especially for long periods. Again, I wish it had been a simple pistol-shaped lightgun, but both companies clearly wanted to try something different, or perhaps get away from the “kid in a dark alley with a realistic-looking game gun shot by police” kind of stories that had been coming out.
Where the Menacer failed was in palpably less support from its parent company. Counting its own 6-in-1 cart, there were three games that used it. Most of American Laser Games’ ports to the Sega CD would later bring that number up to eight, but it was clear that nobody in the higher-ups of Sega cared much for the peripheral. The Genesis port of T2: The Arcade Game was far and away the best title for the gun (later packed with it in a bundle), but a weak reason to buy one. Worse, Konami released its own pistol-shaped lightgun, the Justifier, which had exclusive support for its popular Lethal Enforcers series. Those ALS ports for the Sega CD could use the Justifer as well, making it unquestionably the better purchase. Provided, of course, you hadn’t already dropped cash on the Menacer. (D’oh!)
As for the 6-in-1 game cart, there’s nothing remotely special here. As much of a depressing chore to play through these games is, it must have been even worse to work on them. Sega wanted the Menacer just to keep up with the Joneses (or, more accurately, the Yamauchis), and a budget of probably next to nothing inspired few ideas and even less artistic flair. In short, the cart is miserable and would barely be remembered after the first day of play – if it weren’t for the fact that there really wasn’t anything else to play with the Menacer.
I think the Menacer has the better design of the two major 16-bit lightguns. Ready, Aim, Tomatoes! is a hint of the creativity that could have been on display here.
Konami’s Justifier is what both consoles’ lightguns should have been from the start. There weren’t many games for the Super Scope, but the Menacer’s library is nearly non-existent. Every game on the 6-in-1 cart is limited to wave after wave without new introductions, and most of the games feel slapped together.