The NES Zapper is one of the system's best-known peripherals, second to none except perhaps the NES Advantage. Nintendo's Beam Gun toys of the 1970s, which used light rays to simulate targets being shot, and the Laser Clay Shooting System, an arcade attraction where players would shoot at flying light targets, more or less served as precursors to the Zapper's creation. One of the most identifiable sounds to gamers of the eighties is that satisfying *PRING* sound of the Zapper's trigger, a sharp and spammable sound which no other light gun trigger has ever matched. Zapper-compatible games may have only been a relatively tiny slice of the NES library, but the ones made by Nintendo were beloved: Duck Hunt, Wild Gunman, Hogan's Alley, Gumshoe, and to a lesser extent, Barker Bill's Trick Shooting. While it wasn't as popular among third-party companies, a few took advantage of the Zapper's potential, like Taito and SNK with their ports of Operation Wolf and Mechanized Attack. Konami allowed for Zapper use in The Adventures of Bayou Billy and The Lone Ranger, two games that involved more than just simple shooting, but all of these third-party examples could be played with the controller in lieu of the Zapper. Sunsoft decided to take full use of the Zapper and make it a requirement to play their somewhat obscure light gun release, Freedom Force.
Not to be confused with the superhero RPG by Irrational Games, Freedom Force is unlike most other Zapper games - instead of being a colorful shooting gallery, it is a gritty mission where lots of bad guys are fatally shot. The premise, in which crazed crime boss Eugene Extreme unleashes his militia of terrorists onto an airport, is right out of an action film. As either agent Rad Rex or Manic Jackson, you take down the terrorists with as few civilian casualties as possible. You neutralize threats on a hijacked airliner, a bridge, and a terminal before the bad guys spill out into the town, and it ends with a fervent showdown at Eugene's hideout. They'll fight back with pistols, machine guns, grenades, and rockets, where you can die quickly if you're not fast to dispatch them and your game is completely done if you run out of life. While there are no continues, it takes less than ten minutes to beat all five stages.
In addition to minding your bullets, you also need to avoid hitting captive hostages. Alongside running out of health or bullets, you'll note the error counter with a maximum of six nodes; if this fills up, your game isn’t over, but you are booted back to the very first level. While most hostages in light gun shooters are idiots who blow their cover just to ironically tell you not to shoot, Freedom Force gets points for making it clear that most hostages are being pushed out into view by the terrorists as bait. Not only does it justify a normally senseless hazard, but it also paints the terrorists as really vile bastards in a turn of darkness that further makes one wonder how this game wasn't toned down by Nintendo's censors. There are some violations to this realism, like bikini babes who appear to not have any ropes on them and a suicidally stupid smiling kid who rides by on a skateboard in the third level, but Sunsoft otherwise made you feel bad for killing innocents, unlike Lethal Enforcers or Virtua Cop where those idiots were better off dead despite costing you a life point.
Aside from the captives, what makes Freedom Force unlike most other light gun games is its item system, where power-ups periodically appear in a box at the lower-right corner of the screen. They flash by quickly, sometimes faster than others, but you'll need to hit the item box to get more ammunition. You do not have to reload, but if you run out of ammo, all you can do is wait until your inevitable doom. Thankfully, if you are low, the game will keep an ammo pickup flashing for longer than normal. You can also grab a .44 Magnum to make your shots bigger and easier to hit enemies with, and a rare health pickup that will completely restore your fragile lifebar, though you can also regain full life for every 20,000 points you accumulate. However, you will want to avoid the grenade launcher, which sounds awesome on paper as each shot completely wipes the screen of enemies. The caveat is that hostages aren’t safe either, so you will inevitably hit your maximum number of acceptable errors before long. There's also an icon that makes the stage harder if you shoot it, just to troll you if your reflexes are too quick.
It may not be an easy game, but there's just a lot about Freedom Force that makes it work out so well. It's well-animated and has the censor-evading bonus of blood appearing on the chests of shot terrorists before they collapse. The soundtrack is lively and bold, as is the case for most of Sunsoft's later NES games, and one of the tracks almost sounds ripped right out of Blaster Master. That track plays during the "Code Breakers" segment, where the second and fourth stages give you a bonus in the form of what is essentially Hangman. Deduce the right word and you get a bonus based on your remaining time, but five errors gets you bupkis. It's a very odd segment but not a bad diversion after spilling a fair share of baddie blood. Once you beat the last stage, it loops back to the first level, but now takes place during a sunset and with the difficulty having been bumped up. It's short if you only intend to beat one loop, but the game is technically infinite until you lose or decide to quit.
There may not be a lot of substance to Freedom Force, but it’s no more or less simple than any Nintendo-made Zapper game. It arguably sounds and looks cooler than other eight-bit light gun games, though there is a lazy sprite error where the rocket-toting terrorists, who wear a different mask, change into the conventional baghead after being shot. It's also unfortunate that the two-player option is merely alternating play instead of simultaneous shooting, but this was a technical limitation of the Zapper, so it's moot to complain about. Freedom Force plays fast and hard, so give it a play if you're looking for the least kid-friendly gun game on the NES that isn't Chiller. It can also be found in the arcades as Vs. Freedom Force as part of Nintendo's coin-operated Vs. System series. It's almost exactly the same as the home version but with slightly brighter graphics and smoother screen scrolling, so it's certainly worth a play if you can find it in public.