True Light Gun Support for PC gaming. The Arcade Guns™ Product Review.
I’m an arcade game junkie. Whether it’s classics like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or Asteroids, or lesser known gems like Mappy, Xevious, or Track & Field, I’ve played them all. I hung out in arcades when I was a kid and then continued to play into adulthood ever since I discovered the wonders of MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator). One niche area of arcade games I especially enjoyed were light gun games. House of the Dead, Crossbow, Area 51, Time Crisis, just to name a very few. I can’t tell you how many quarters I dropped into a lone Point Blank machine stationed at a movie theater in my home town. It was my sirens song.
Naturally, I wanted to relive those classic light gun memories at home using my home PC and/or MAME and began my hunt for the perfect light gun to complement my PC emulation station. Little did I know how long it would take. In this blog post, I’ll walk you through my search for the perfect light gun, including my failed attempt and my eventual success.
The First Attempt
When I first started my search many years ago, there were extremely few options for a MAME enthusiast like myself. Most of these options were build-it-yourself, non-commercial hardware and software hacks that ultimately had you scratching your head saying “Would that really work?” CRT monitors ruled the PC landscape so any solution had to be CRT focused. Flat screen monitors were just starting to emerge but were too expensive and too technologically immature at the time to be mainstream, therefore solutions involving flat screen monitors were nonexistent. Initially, the only viable option to emerge for a MAME gamer was the Act Labs Light Gun. I checked it out and decided to take the plunge. I was excited. “Point Blank, here I come again” I thought.
However, after a couple of months of trying to troubleshoot the Act Labs Gun on my PC, I finally gave up and sent it back to the manufacturer. It seemed that it wasn’t compatible with the 21″ Viewsonic CRT monitor I had at the time. Disappointed and disillusioned, I sat on the sidelines for years, waiting patiently for the day that someone else would come up with a better solution.
Fellow Cheapskate gamers, I believe that day has finally come.
Arcadeguns.com is a relatively new company to the light gun scene but appears to have their “game” together. They began research and development of their Arcade Guns™ product, an arcade light gun replica to be used at home on any type of monitor in 2009 and started selling them at the end of 2010. Recently, I was able to test a sample “Dual Arcade Guns™ PC Light Gun Kit (Blue & Red)” from arcade guns.com and was very impressed. Read on and I’ll explain why. In addition, you can take a look at our YouTube video demonstration embedded in this same review article or online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjfRsghvci0
Arcade Guns Sample Test Kit
The sample test kit included the following:
• One Blue Arcade Guns™ Light Gun with 10ft USB Cable.
• One Red-Orange Arcade Guns™ Light Gun with 10ft USB Cable.
• One Cased IR Sensor Bar with 5ft USB Cable.
• One User Manual – AIM-Trak® Setup Guide.
For the purposes of this review I was also given a “Non-Cased IR Sensor” to test as well. Only one is needed per system set-up therefore as a buyer you must choose between a “Cased” or “Non-Cased” IR Sensor bar upon ordering depending on your need. Arcade cabinet manufacturers or hobbyists will typically want the “non-cased” version as it sits better behind the beveled glass of an arcade cabinet whereas the “cased” version generally looks better atop a computer monitor using double sided tape. This sensor is what tracks the gun’s movement on screen. It works very much that same way as the Nintendo Wii® sensor.
Both Cased and Non-cased IR sensors worked well. They are exactly the same except for their physical appearance. The cased sensor is essentially a small black box. The non-cased sensor was a bit less intuitive in how it was supposed to be positioned atop my monitor. It looks like a narrow computer chip with small pronged light sensors pointing outward. These prongs must point toward the user when mounted.
Customers also get to choose whether the trigger and buttons on their gun(s) are black or white. Guns come in red, white and blue colors.
Packaging and Setup
My gun kit arrived OEM-style. There was no special packaging. The expected components were carefully wrapped in bubble wrap along with two printed, black and white user manuals. The first one was the Arcade Guns™ User Manual and the other was the Aim-Trak Setup Guide. Aim-Trak is the sensor system used with the guns. Each gun has a trigger, a lower inside button at the base of the handle where your pinky finger would typically sit when holding the gun, and a large rear button at the thumb position of the gun. Most light gun games only require the trigger button, but by having these three buttons, Arcade Guns allow for more than enough options for all styles of light gun gaming. The gun felt comfortable in my hand. I found it easy to hold and use with either one or two hands. The weight of the gun was about right. Arcade guns are light but don’t feel hollow. Just heavy enough to have the right “heft” and feel solid. I shook the gun vigorously. No rattling parts… good. There are no required software drivers therefore no discs of any type were included. Calibration is maintained within the guns themselves through the firmware, so even if you unplug them, they will keep their settings and calibration once they are plugged back in. Physical installation is quite simple. I pulled out my cased IR sensor bar and attached it to the top of my LCD monitor using black Velcro mounting tape (not included) then plugged it into the back of my PC using the attached USB cable. I then plugged the guns into the back of my PC using their respective USB cables. Finally, I turned on my PC and began the official light gun calibration with only my Windows® operating system running. This is where things started to slow down.
Calibration can be a bit finicky. I had trouble at first getting my shots to register during calibration setup and when they finally did, the newly controlled light gun cursor would slam itself into the left side of my monitor. I didn’t understand why my calibration was getting so messed up. After a bit of trial and error along with support communication with Arcadeguns.com I finally understood how to do a proper calibration. To begin with, you have to be really careful not to position yourself too close to your monitor during calibration (or game play). The sensor can only accurately track the movement of the light gun if you are within a certain range. The manufacturer states that accuracy with their guns can be found in as little as 2 feet on a 19″ monitor, 3 feet from a 27″ monitor, and 4 feet from a 41″ monitor.
I had to sit about 3 1/2 feet from my 25″ monitor to calibrate effectively. Not a bad distance to play from, but I was used to sitting closer so my calibration effort was sometimes compromised. The user manual doesn’t mention this, but it is best to keep your arm holding the light gun as still as possible during calibration while only bending your wrist to aim. Move the gun as little as possible, only angling the tip of the gun to achieve the necessary aim at the top-left, top-right, and bottom-middle calibration points. Failure to understand these finer points makes calibration an exercise in frustration.
My game performance was also hampered by the fact that I had initially calibrated my guns for my wide screen (16:9 screen ratio) LCD monitor. All current PC and MAME light gun games use the standard 4:3 screen ratio for the visible game play, so when I finally achieved accurate calibration within the Windows® environment, the accuracy of the guns within the game environment fell off. The aiming reticule within the games kind of “floated” horizontally towards the middle of the screen and then raced quickly toward the outer edges once it moved about two-thirds of the way to one side or the other. This problem was fixed by calibrating the guns for a 4:3 visible screen space even though I was playing on a wide screen monitor. I simply fired up a regular light gun game, used sticky notes to mark the edges of the horizontal game area, exited the game and then calibrated horizontally toward those edges rather than the physical edge of my actual monitor like before. Another solution would be to stretch the games to use the widescreen 16:9 format, but for me that wasn’t an acceptable option. I’m a bit of purist and like to keep the visual integrity of the arcade games intact. I want them to look and play as close as possible to how they did in the arcades. Traditionally proportioned (4:3 ratio) office monitors or arcade monitors are not likely to experience this issue at all.
Optional Support Software
The Arcade Guns User Manual lists two URLs for optional support software. I downloaded and experimented with both: The Troubleshooter – Light Gun Compatibility Patch http://thetroubleshooter.home.mindspring.com/index.htm and the Ultimarc® AIM-Trak® Configuration Software Utility http://www.arcadeguns.com/wp-content/download/Aimtrak.zip.
Several of the arcade light gun classics including The House of the Dead series (I, II, and III) as well as the Virtua Cop series (I & II) have been ported directly to the PC and can be played without the use of emulation software such as MAME. However, they need to be patched in order to allow more seamless and simultaneous use of dual light guns including Arcade Guns. The third-party Troubleshooter patch takes care of this and creates a control panel icon with configuration window for use at any time.
Once Troubleshooter has done its’ part, each PC light gun game (non MAME) must be configured to accept the dual light guns as keyboard inputs within the game. Once again, the manual was lacking in information on how to do this exactly. I had to go to the Troubleshooter website to really understand how to do this for each game. Basic instructions and screenshots shown there were a huge help. I think the Arcade Guns manual could have done a better job of outlining some of the these finer points even though it’s not their software. At the very least, the fact that each game needed to be configured individually after installing the patch could have been referenced and then the URL to the Troubleshooter game configuration webpage could have been listed. This would have saved me much time and confusion.
There were other nuances of the firmware and hardware that cropped up from time to time because of my experimentation with the third-party utility software and my broad emulation and non-emulation game use. Little things like knowing that if both guns are plugged in at once and you try to change the ID of one of them using the Aim-Trak utility software, it will change both of the guns to the same ID number. Not good. I created this problem for myself and didn’t know how to fix it until I contacted Arcadeguns.com
Where arcadeguns.com lacks in detailed information in their manual, they make up for it in customer support. My emails and phone calls were quickly answered with suggestions and answers to my questions that ultimately got me through the problems I faced. Arcadeguns.com said they are currently working on an updated manual to include much of the missing details I encountered.
Default device ID settings are sufficient and correct out of the box. I recommend NOT running the Aim-Trak utility at all unless absolutely necessary and you feel comfortable with all other aspects of the guns. It’s really only needed in order to switch light gun IDs or if you really want to change the light gun button settings. I do, however, highly recommend installing the Troubleshooter utility if you intend to have dual light gun support for PC software titles (not MAME). It is pretty much essential as far as I’m concerned.
Use with MAME does require some working knowledge of the MAME software configuration screens
MAME games must be configured both within MAME32UI and within the individual ROM configuration screens. Details are found in the Aim-Trak Setup Guide and are explained well. I had no problems. Other websites such as http://wiki.arcadecontrols.com/wiki/Mame_Lightgun_Setup also offer light gun instruction for MAME. Key changes in how MAME uses light guns have been implemented since version .134u so it’s best to use that version or higher. I tested my set of Arcade Guns using MAME version .141
So, after having correctly calibrated the guns and configured the game software, how did the guns perform with MAME? In a word…excellent.
I fired up MAME and then launched Point Blank, my old favorite. I was thrilled to find myself playing a light gun game as it was meant to be played. It was like a time machine. Suddenly I was 12 years old again at my favorite arcade. Trigger response was excellent, with a nice “click-click” sound that seemed to have just the right amount of tension and not too much noise. I was very impressed with the fact that I didn’t have to stand half way across the room from my monitor in order for the guns to work. Accuracy was good, and the responsiveness felt right.
Once satisfied that I could play Point Blank to my heart’s content, I decided to test out a few more MAME games with varying play styles. Area 51 was followed by Lethal Enforcers then Revolution X and finally Crypt Killer. All worked great. Some of these games are programmed to use the off-screen reload feature, while others are auto reload, and some are 2nd button reload. Arcade Guns handled them all like a champ. Even the rapid fire mode of Revolution X worked well just by holding down the trigger as expected. I was lining them up like a kid at the arcade holding a bag full of quarters. Zero Point 2, Operation Wolf 3, Beast Busters, Terminator 2, Lethal Justice, Vs. Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley, and more. It appears that any limitation with Arcade Guns™ relative to MAME is found within the MAME emulator software itself and/or the romsets rather than in the gun hardware or firmware. Basically, if a MAME or PC light gun game will work with a mouse, it will work with Arcade Guns™. Arcade Guns proved to be truly 100% MAME compatible as advertised.
Stand-Alone PC Light Gun Games
OK, so the guns work with MAME. What about stand-alone PC games? They work equally as well. I launched the entire House of the Dead series (I, II, then III). All great games that played even better using dual Arcade Guns. My 13 year old son and I had some great fun shooting zombies side by side. Great accuracy and the perfect arcade feel. “Reload! Reload!” the game yelled at us. Shooting just off-screen like in the arcade gave us a new clip of virtual bullets to fend off the hordes of monsters constantly coming at us. Last night I made it all the way to the final boss in The House of the Dead by myself for the first time. I suddenly realized that I had let go of thinking about how the light gun in my hand was working and just let myself become completely immersed in the game.
Virtua Cop and the sequel Virtua Cop 2 also worked perfectly. Off screen reload required in Virtua Cop worked just like in the arcade. There is no obnoxious white screen flash upon trigger pull with Arcade Guns either. Accuracy of my shots mimicked my previously completed screen calibration. Good fun. A more complete list of available PC light gun games can be found here:
Additional Features of Arcade Guns™
There are a few other basic features of Arcade Guns that I could not test directly but feel are worth mentioning:
• Compatible with ALL Windows OS; XP to Windows 7 both 32 and 64 bit versions.
• Compatible with a select number of light gun games on PS1 and PS2
• Supports up to 4 guns at a time
Arcade Guns™ is an excellent light gun system. Highly recommended for any PC light gun gamer or MAME enthusiast. The only thing that would make these guns better in my opinion, would be to have an arcade-like recoil feature and more detailed manual information regarding PC game set-up and calibration. The manufacturer reported to me that they are working on an add-on recoil prototype which may become available in the future.
Costs and Guarantees
A kit like the one tested containing two light guns, an IR sensor bar and printed manuals currently retails for $172 plus shipping. A single gun kit goes for $95 plus shipping. Not cheap, but given the enhanced game play, more authentic “arcade experience” and quality parts these guns offer, I believe the cost is worth it. Arcadeguns.com also offers a 30 day return guarantee and a 1 year parts and repair warrantee.
Are there other options? Sure, and a couple of them seem to be right on the heels of Arcade Guns, but they also all seem to be hampered by one issue or another; CRT monitor support only, do-it-yourself build, screen-to-gun ratio too large, a more difficult and less stable calibration system, more cumbersome hardware set-up or immature software drivers to name a few. Arcade Guns seems to have overcome the problems that their competition still deals with and now leads the pack.
The bottom line is that these guns work perfectly and look great. Consider grabbing yourself a set at http://www.arcadeguns.com and start getting the most out of your home arcade light gun experience.