Type ‘Duck Hunt VR’ into Google and you’ll discover a ton of tributes to a Nintendo classic. None of them, though, are quite like Stress Level Zero’s Duck Season. On the surface, this looks like yet another clever nod to one of the first games that really let you hold and aim a gun, but it doesn’t take much digging to discover an experience that wants to pay its respects to much more than that.
Duck Season is really Duck Hunt by way of Stranger Things: a nostalgic roller coaster ride that embraces the era it’s set in through fond childhood memories and a love of the horror cinema that was so popular at the time. Set in the 80’s you play as a young boy wasting away an afternoon with a one-day rental of the titular game, Duck Season, on a console that comes as close to the Nintendo Entertainment System as possible without any legal issues.
Pulling on your headset and stepping into this world is like opening a time capsule inside VR. The living room you play in is one of the most lavishly detailed worlds you’ll find inside any headset today; videotapes litter the floor around you, cardboard game boxes are riddled with creases and tears, and your Mom busies herself behind you as she lets the TV do all the entertaining. You can swap out videos to watch strange and hilarious clips, and Stress Level has even built 8-Bit-doppelgangers of other iconic NES games to play.
Anyone old enough to remember these days will have memories come flooding back in seconds, and it’s a fascinatingly authentic experiences for those that don’t have the nostalgic reference points. You could lose hours here just exploring everything that’s between scenes.
Playing Duck Season itself brings you into the game world. With rifle in-hand you have to fire fast as ducks take off in front of you, aiming with two hands and reloading often. Again, there’s a brilliant sense of construction to the scene; bushes reveal themselves to be simple cardboard props and if you turn around you’ll see the TV screen from inside-out, your hypnotized protagonist staring intently back at you, mimicking the movements you make with your arms.
If Duck Season were actually about this singular tribute act, I’d call it a respectable bit of fan service. Ultimately this side of the game is a little repetitive, though it does have an interesting take of weapon handling that demands precise hand synchronization, but the game itself never really mixes its basic concept up enough, which is a shame considering you’ll play through a fair few levels with each playthrough of the wider game.
But, in reality, Duck Season really isn’t a gallery shooter at all. It’s something far more interesting, introducing a darkly comic twist fueled by a disturbing take on an iconic gaming character.
This is where Duck Season morphs from nostalgic love letter into, well, a more chilling love letter, smartly playing on a simple act of rebellion that anyone that played the original Duck Hunt guiltily remembers acting out. Every round of the game you play spends an hour inside the real world (the virtual real world, not the real real world). As you progress through the day you start to hear reports of strange disappearances. Each time you move back to the living room you’ll find something new to discover, be it a strange occurrence or something a little more frightening.
It gets difficult to describe from here on out without heading into spoiler territory, suffice to say that the twist the game takes (involving the dog) is inspired and gets the heart racing. Stress Level weaves an engaging story in brilliantly organic ways, relying on human curiosity and gaze cues without ever breaking immersion.
Though your first playthrough can be as fast as 30 minutes, there’s far more to the story. Multiple endings encourage you to go back and explore every facet of every scene in greater detail, with hidden messages and bizarre Easter eggs available in plentiful supply. What you get is more akin to Please, Don’t Touch Anything; a playful toy box that encourages experimentation and excites you with the mere thought of what possibilities could be hiding in every videotape and under every action figure.
Duck Season is more than a tribute to a beloved retro game; it’s a love letter to an entire era of pop culture and childhoods well-spent on a healthy dose of screen watching. As a showcase for VR it does a brilliant job of highlighting the tech’s current strengths with small, intimate environments that breathe authenticity and organic storytelling that never pulls you from the experience. I can’t wait to see how Stress Level Zero applies what it’s learned here to something that pushes the medium even further.