Skip to content

Shootout at the local pub: Big Buck Hunter is a hit

photo5.jpg

Big Buck Hunter Pro is so popular that many bars across the country have hosted informal tournament nights to attract players and patrons. (Katie Strang)

photo3.jpg

The latest version of the game allows users to play individually or battle in a head-to-head shootout. (Katie Strang)

Mike Pantaleno wipes his hands on his jeans before he takes a bright orange gun, raises it to eye level and squints to line up a shot. It’s just before midnight on a Tuesday at Lido Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y., which means the weekly Big Buck Hunter Pro Tournament has begun.

Pantaleno rocks back and forth as he vigorously reloads the barrel of his plastic weapon and, with ease and precision, takes down animated deer that dart across the screen.

“I smell a double perfect!” shouts one onlooker as Pantaleno drops the gun and raises his arms in jubilation, celebrating his performance and awaiting his score.

Pantaleno is one of the growing number of bar patrons flocking to play Big Buck Hunter Pro, a simulated hunting arcade game that allows users to shoot deer, moose, elk, rams and sheep while battling to best fellow players.

Big Buck Hunter Pro, also known as BBHP, is the newest and most popular version of the Big Buck Hunter games first launched in 2001. Since the pro version was introduced last year, more than 7,000 units have been sold in the United States, and it has been ranked the most popular coin-operated game three out of the past four months by RePlay magazine.

“They’d have to come up with something pretty good to beat this game,” said Kenny Williams, who started playing BBHP at his favorite watering hole, Keegan’s Pub in Chicago. Williams thought it looked ridiculous at first, but once he played, he was addicted.

“You can forget all the worries in the world if you are with a couple of friends playing Big Buck Hunter,” said Williams, who has since started a Big Buck Hunting club of friends who don orange hunting hats when they gather to play at Keegan’s.

Ryan Cravens, marketing manager for the game at Betson Enterprises, the company that distributes BBHP, said it had attracted fans all over the country. They include inner-city youth, middle-age women and hipsters in urban areas like Brooklyn.

“It really opens itself to a wide array of people,” Cravens said.

Indeed, at tournament night at Lido, a variety of players with different backgrounds and techniques battle for the weekly title, which gives the winner bragging rights and comes with a free $25 bar tab.

Regular contenders include Nick Brown, a bartender and art teacher with a self-described rapid-fire style; his best friend and roommate, Dave Obuchowski, a vocalist for a rock band; Hillary, nicknamed “killshot” for her accuracy; Justin, a freelance writer who, when excited, has a tendency to scream at the game in Russian; and Kenny, a bassist covered in tattoos and piercings who plays with a well-refined strategy.

“I just try to be precise,” Kenny said. “I try to stay very calm and let the deer run its course. That way I’m not shooting wildly.”

Like Lido, bars across the country have hosted local tournaments that have increased the game’s profile and attracted new users. The game is expected to have online capabilities late this summer that will allow players to track their statistics and compete in national tournaments, Cravens said.

Once an organized national tournament begins, Tim Zahn, a regional route manager for BBHP in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, expects the game’s popularity to grow even more. Already, Zahn said, BBHP is the top-earning game on his route, outperforming games like Golden Tee and Silver Strike Bowling, and has the potential to bring in $500 a week in one location.

A national tournament will likely appeal to power players like Albert Zuro, head chef at Slugger’s Sports Bar and Grill in Aberdeen, Md. Zuro has won two Baltimore-area tournaments, using his real-life hunting experience to claim major prizes that include cash and an original Big Buck Hunter game. He keeps the game at the restaurant and allows patrons to use it free.

“I’m pretty good with a gun, and I’m really good at video games,” Zuro said. "Put two and two together and it’s pretty hard to beat me.”

Zuro’s first-place finish at Nottingham’s Tavern in Columbia, Md., won him a hunting trip with Baltimore Ravens defensive end Jarrett Johnson.

Zuro has been playing Big Buck since it was first introduced. The latest version is definitely an improvement, he said. “The realism and the graphics are dynamite.”

Mark Macy, who co-designed Big Buck Hunter Pro with Will Carlin, said they wanted to make a fun game with a shooting theme that everyone could enjoy, not just hunters.

For BBHP, they improved the graphics from previous games by adding three-dimensional effects. They also introduced new animals and bonus rounds and added an additional gun so two players can play head-to-head.

Tweaking the game has led to increased sales. In five years, about 15,000 units of the previous four Big Buck versions were sold compared with more than 7,000 units of BBHP in the last year. And BBHP has seen a significant increase in international sales. More than 500 units have been sold to bars in Europe, Australia and Asia.

“We knew we had a hit when the janitor kept playing the game in our building,” Macy said.

Cravens says his company has not received many complaints about the game’s content. But the game does have its detractors.

In an e-mail message, Erin Edwards, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said hunting games “encourage participation in blood sports and breed insensitivity toward the suffering of others.” She added that “we hope that video game companies will do the right thing and stop creating games like Big Buck Hunter that promote violence.”

Macy said he and Carlin had worked to downplay the killing of animals when they designed BBHP.

“The animals are treated very majestically,” Macy said. He added that when shot, they merely tumble over and don’t show exit wounds or anything gruesome.

The more frequent complaint comes from players who find themselves spending too much money on the game.

Obuchowski admits that he has spent more than $50 in a single night of Big Buck hunting. He said that if he were strapped for cash he might even opt to empty his pockets on Big Buck Hunter Pro instead of on groceries.

“I’d say instead of buying food I’d play Buck,” Obuchowski said, “because you can always find food somewhere."

E-mail: cjs2137@columbia.edu