The ACT-Labs PC USB Light Gun: A New Meaning to “Plug” and Play
Review by Kevin Steele
Update 4/2004: Andy Warne of Ultimarc tracked down the reason for the problems I had with the ACT-Lab light gun when used with an ArcadeVGA card and a WG D9200 arcade monitor. The review has been updated.
After building an arcade cabinet with joysticks, a trackball, and spinner on it, the next logical gaming controller to add to the system (at least, in my eyes) was a light gun. However, choices in the PC arena are pretty lean for light guns. ACT-Labs, however, has come to the rescue with their “PC USB Light Gun,” a light gun for Windows-based PCs that is specifically billed as being MAME-compatible.
Being the only game in town, does the ACT-Labs light gun measure up? Or are PC gamers still stuck with using a mouse to “pretend” they're shooting in arcade shooters?
ACT-Labs bills its light gun pretty highly: “The ACT LABS PC USB Light Gun sets the new standard for PC shooting games. It will blow you away with its pixel accuracy, sleek pistol grip, and easy USB plug and play setup.” Guess what? For the most part, this statement is right on the money.
The ACT-Labs light gun is a single-unit affair. Everything is connected to one central control box: the light gun, USB cable, and VGA monitor cable. The only other thing in the box is the “instructional” CD (there's no drivers involved, so I can't really call it an Installation CD).
The gun is silver-colored plastic, with a rubberized grip. It's fairly solid, but it does have some plastic “creak” when gripped that makes it feel less than lethal. The gun is lightweight, but it does have a very comfortable feel in the hand.
Besides the trigger, there is also a second button on the left side of the gun, and a calibration switch on the right side. One mystery about the light gun is the “pop-off” top, which seems to be for a future enhancement: a scope, perhaps?
The gun comes with a nice CD that explains how to install the light gun and even includes a video showing how to calibrate the gun. It also includes a sample Flash-based game, and links to “over 80 free online games.” Unfortunately, many of these links were dead, and almost all were for web pages with Flash-based shooting games. There are no actual PC shooter games included with the gun.
Installation of the ACT-Labs light gun, while not quite as simple as a simple USB “plug-and-play” operation, is almost so. To install the light gun, you first plug in the USB cable from the control box and then let Windows recognize the device. There are no drivers involved.
After you've plugged in the USB cable, you then detach your monitor's VGA cable from your video card, and plug it into the light gun control box. Once you've attached the monitor to the control box, you plug the control box's VGA cable into your PC's video card.
That's it. You're done with the installation, except for calibrating the gun.
To calibrate the light gun, you simply slide the calibration switch on the right side of the gun. This turns the PC display white, and then you point the gun at the screen and wave the gun up and down and left and right in front of the screen while holding the gun about three inches away from the monitor. Flick the calibration switch again, and you're ready to start blasting things.
You'll need to re-calibrate the gun each time you change screen resolutions, but it's fairly painless to do this, and only takes a second. Gun accuracy is greatly increased by calibrating it.
Once calibrated, the gun acts a mouse in Windows, simulating a left-mouse click wherever you “point and shoot.” The second button on the side of the gun acts as a right-mouse click. You can, in fact, use the gun as a mouse for everything except “click and drag” operations.
In gameplay, the light gun was fairly accurate. I played a number of different MAME shooters, and didn't notice any major accuracy problems in any of them. I do recommend calibrating the gun after loading each new shooter, however.
With close examination of where my shots were showing up onscreen, I noticed that the gun actually fired a little low and to the left. This can be corrected, however with some tips mentioned in the ACT-Labs light gun FAQ.
One thing that some have found annoying with the ACT-Labs light gun is the white screen flash each time you pull the trigger. It is bright, but I actually didn't find it irritating personally, and it was a nice acknowledgment that a shot had been registered by the system.
I did, however, experience occasional “wild shots” in some games, where I would notice a shot going to the far-right side of the screen when I was shooting in the center at the time. This usually happened in a “rapid-fire” situation, and didn't occur often enough for it to be a major annoyance.
One problem that was a major annoyance, however, is the inability of the light gun to “shoot off screen to reload” in games such as Area 51 and Maximum Force. Luckily, MAME Analog+ has a built-in solution for this problem, allowing you to re-map the second fire button on the gun as a “reload” button.
The ACT-Labs light gun requires a IBM compatible PC running Windows 98SE, ME, 2000, or XP. It also requires a VGA monitor, as it will not work with an LCD or plasma display. It supports screen resolutions up to 1600x1200, and includes 3D accelerator support as well.
For you arcade-cabinet enthusiasts, the ACT-Labs light gun works perfectly with the Wells-Gardner D9200 arcade monitor (see review). Unfortunately, I wasn't as lucky with the Ultimarc ArcadeVGA card — what I first thought was a defective light gun turned out to be an incompatibility with the ArcadeVGA card when it is used with Wells-Gardner D9200 monitors that have a "Rev. B" P1279201 Video/Sync input board. The newer Rev. D version of the board works fine with the ArcadeVGA card and light guns.
There is very limited PC gaming support for light guns (less than 10 games, if that), but since the ACT-Labs gun supports MAME and Nintendo emulators, you've actually got a fairly large selection to choose from.
You also cannot currently use two light guns at the same time, at least not officially. I have heard of someone successfully using MAME Analog+ and Windows 98 to successfully daisy-chaining two light guns together and use them simultaneously. (Note that Windows 2000 and XP do not support multiple mice, so you are stuck with using Windows 98 if you want to try this trick!)
The light gun also will not currently work with a TV display, but ACT-Labs is planning on releasing a TV-compatible version of their light gun in late September or early October. One of the interesting things to note is that this version of their light gun will have official support for two light guns at the same time!
Being one of the only (if not the only) light guns for the PC, the ACT-Labs light gun had better deliver. Luckily, it does. Not only that, but for a price of only $34.99 direct from ACT-Labs, the gun is a bargain as well. Reasonably accurate, easy to install, and easy to use, it's hard to find much to criticize. If you're looking for a light gun, the ACT-Labs PC USB light gun should be at the top of your list.