Wild Gunman was the first Nintendo game in a movie.

Marty McFly in a Cafe '80s in the future looks at a vintage arcade cabinet. The marquee says Wild Gunman, Nintendo.
Marty McFly eyes a vintage Wild Gunman arcade in the future.

But it wasn’t this movie, and it wasn’t this Wild Gunman. Let’s start at the beginning.

Most people think Donkey Kong was the first Nintendo game released in America. Others will point out that Radar Scope came first. But those were just the first games released by Nintendo Of America.

Before 1981, Nintendo distributed their games through companies who were already established in America. Nintendo’s first two releases — Wild Gunman and Shooting Trainer — were sold by none other than SEGA, who would become well-known for being Nintendo’s biggest rival, and then their bestest friend.

At the time, SEGA was well-known for their elaborate electro-mechanical games like Gun Fight in 1970. So it was odd when Nintendo announced their own western shooter would also be called Gun Fight

A collage of early promo materials of Wild Gunman from when it was originally called Gun Fight.
A collage of early promo materials from when the game was called Gun Fight.

We can’t know definitively whether Nintendo was aware of SEGA’s popular and highly influential arcade game, but the Nintendo toy they ended up naming their arcade game after — 1972’s Wild Gunman — looked suspiciously like a home version of SEGA’s Gun Fight. And Nintendo’s 1976 toy Custom Gunman also resembled SEGA’s Gun Fight.

Labeled images of four Nintendo "Gunmans": Wild Gunman toy (1972), Custom Gunman toy (1976), Wild Gunman arcade (74/76), Wild Gunman NES (84/85).
Nintendo’s three-and-a-half Wild Gunmans.

 You might say that SEGA brought everything full circle when they distributed Wild Gunman in America To avoid confusion with the other two and a half Wild Gunmans, I refer to this arcade game as Wild Gunman ‘74 — the year it was released in Japan.

What made Wild Gunman ‘74 so revolutionary is that it was like playing a movie. But it might’ve been a little too ahead of its time. The purchase price of the cabinet cost between three and six times the amount of a typical arcade attraction. By the time the NES remake showed up in the late ‘80s, the original was a distant memory. 

Today Show anchorwoman Katie Couric points a plastic gun at an oversized flatscreen CRT playing Mad Dog McCree.
Katie Couric plays Mad Dog McCree on the Today Show circa 1991.

So when people saw Mad Dog McCree in 1990, most reacted as if live-action games were a brand new concept. These would later be called “FMV games,” short for “full motion video,” a genre that paved the way for interactive movies like Bandersnatch. Mad Dog McCree was considered the first fully live-action FMV game, preceded only by animated games like Dragon’s Lair

Both games used a technology called Laserdisc — a precursor to DVD that allowed the game to skip directly to a new scene based on player input. By contrast, videotape and film could only be wound forwards or backwards, making anything resembling an FMV game simply impossible. 

Except that’s exactly what Nintendo did, two decades earlier. 

How It Worked

Wild Gunman ‘74 used not one, but two 16mm projectors. The reels ran in synchronization, but only one was projected on the screen at a time. So if you were too slow, the first projector would continue running and inform you “You Lost.” But if your aim was true, the other projector would immediately switch on and your opponent would fall.

U.S. patent illustration shows a man pointing a gun at the screen of a large cabinet, with two projectors hidden in the section of cabinet closest to the man.
U.S. patent illustrion showing the position of the two hidden projectors.

Unfortunately, footage of the game is difficult to come by. Only two sources are known to exist online.

The first is an experimental film from 1978 with the creative title of “Wild Gunman.” Director Craig Baldwin spliced together repurposed footage into a vague critique of cowboys and consumerism, wrapped in conspiracy. But without intending to, he ended up forever preserving snippets from an otherwise forgotten piece of gaming history, albeit in pretty rough shape.

An edit of Craig Baldwin’s short film containing only the Wild Gunman clips.

The other online source is handheld footage from 2011 demonstrating a working cabinet located in France. While not the preferred way of capturing on-screen visuals, the video does do a good job of showing the cabinet in action, including a brief glimpse under the hood.

Footage of a Wild Gunman cabinet from 2011.

While reading the comments, one in particular caught my eye. What is “Gas“? And could this be a potential third source?

A little digging revealed that Gas was a raunchy comedy from 1981 that bombed its way out of theaters just as Donkey Kong was bursting into arcades. In fact, the movie was so poorly received that it was never released on DVD. So if I wanted to watch it, I’d have to track it down on VHS.

Surprisingly, what I found didn’t disappoint.

I mean, the movie disappointed. Wow, did it disappoint. But this *one* scene…well, here, just watch:

Wild Gunman in the 1981 film Gas.

Naturally, the moment I dropped cold hard cash on an out of print movie that otherwise deserves to be forgotten, the whole thing suddenly showed up on Youtube. But *my* copy doesn’t have the little graphic in the corner. Worth it?

What’s great about the scene itself is that game footage is presented in such high quality, with unfaded colors. I suspect the editor likely spliced pieces from the reels right into the film.

The only downside of the game footage filling the screen is that enemies’ eyes get cut off. Gas was filmed open matte, which means that the top and bottom of the picture was matted out when shown in theaters. Fortunately, the VHS is presented in full frame, yet the game footage still gets cut off because it’s aspect ratio was essentially a square.

Surprisingly, the back of the arcade flyer reveals that even more picture exists. In fact, some of this uncropped footage appeared in a Custom Gunman TV commercial. Sadly, the commercial doesn’t exist online, but it does raise an interesting question: Does the footage still exist in Nintendo’s archives?

Let’s Talk About Preservation

In total, Nintendo released four 16mm arcade games before going all-in on pixel-based graphics. But will these games ever be playable outside of collector’s circles? 

A line-up of four Nintendo arcade cabinets of different shapes that all played 16mm film: Wild Gunman, Sky Hawk, Battle Shark, and Test Driver.
Nintendo’s 16mm games.

I almost thought Nintendo was going to do it. In 2017, they opened a live presentation with a live-action Western teaser, but like discovering your princess is in another castle, it ended up being just a promo for an overpriced tech demo called 1-2-Switch. Though it did demonstrate that Wild Gunman’s basic gameplay could easily be replicated using Joy Cons.

The main obstacle is that these games weren’t ROM-based, so even if you digitized the film elements, there’s nothing to emulate. The games would have to be simulated, essentially recreating the program from scratch.

Personally, I’d love to see even just the footage itself digitized and made available online. But for the games to be playable, our best hope would be Hamster’s Arcade Archives series. Nintendo allowed them to release the long lost arcade Sky Skipper, so maybe the 16mm games wouldn’t be completely out of the question. The only problem is I can’t imagine them getting around to it until they’ve finished releasing literally everything else.

A comparison of the Back To The Future on-screen footage to the Famicom/NES release. The former is missing all the UI elements and features twice as many enemies on screen.
The fictionalized Back To The Future game footage appears to be hand-animated.

But if there’s one arcade port they’re never going to release, it’s Wild Gunman ‘84. Not because it’s lost, or because it’s incompatible, but because this arcade game never existed. The cabinet was just a movie prop, and even the in-game footage was fake.


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Sources

SPECIAL THANKS: Dan Hower (Flyer Fever), Dustin Hubbard (Gaming Alexandria), Ethan Johnson (History Of How We Play), Erik Voskuil (Before Mario), and The Secret Writers Society.

MUSIC: “Fast Talking,” “Cool Vibes,” “Backed Vibes Clean,” “Walking Along,” “Dances And Dames,” “I Knew A Guy” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

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