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Hunting videogame a big hit with city slickers

7/31/2006

NEW YORK — Alexandra Broseus grabs a shotgun, lifts it to her slender shoulder, pumps, and readies her aim.

Seconds later she's firing furiously at animated deer darting across a video game screen inside a popular Manhattan hipster bar called Horseshoe.

When the shooting ends and the adrenaline wanes, Broseus — wearing a zebra-striped dress — brings the plastic barrel to her lips, blows the imaginary smoke into the air and reaches for a nearby can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Thanks to youthful urbanites like Broseus, the coin-operated Big Buck Hunter Pro has evolved into the hottest-selling, biggest-moneymaking video game in bars and arcades across the country. And it's surprisingly popular in liberal bastions with strict gun laws like New York City, where the idea of shooting real animals repulses many residents.

"It's very strange, and I've been doing games for about 24 years. There's some kind of hipness to it," said George Petro, president of Play Mechanix Inc., the Chicago-area company that designed the game.

While older versions of the game have always done fairly well in the Midwest and other deer-hunting regions, the newest line — Big Buck Hunter Pro — has caught fire everywhere, mainly because of changes in the design.

Petro said the game has been upgraded to a PC platform, giving the game more lifelike graphics. A second shotgun was added so two players could fire away simultaneously, raising the competitive stakes and bragging rights.

When the Pro version was released, "I was hooked," said 25-year-old Sebastian Baumer of New York City, who has spent about $2,000 playing over the past year.

Baumer says he's one of the most lethal shots on the East Side of Manhattan. "I've been beaten obviously — but on a consistent basis? No," Baumer asserts from a bar in the East Village, which has four of the games within several blocks.

Players score points for accuracy, distance and the animal's weight. There are different hunting adventures in states such as Montana, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming. Players can stalk elk, antelope, big horn sheep, moose and, of course, bucks.

Just like in real life, a head or neck shot instantly brings down the animal. Gut shots take two or three rounds. Slaying an innocent ewe or doe is forbidden.

Part of the allure: No shivering outside in the cold for hours waiting for a trophy buck to arrive.

"It's distilled to the cool part, the shooting," Petro said. "The thrill is getting the kill."

The fine-tuning of Big Buck has led to some unexpected success in this tough business that has been squeezed by the rapid technological advancement of home video games, said Bob Boals, executive vice president of Betson Enterprises Inc., which distributes and markets Big Buck worldwide.

"We are very stunned," Boals said. "It's doing extremely well in the Northeast and West Coast. It's been so well received in all the different locations. We did not see this in the prior Buck Hunters."

Big Buck came out in 2000 and sold a modest 6,200 machines in about six years. Betson expects to unload 6,000 Pro machines this year alone, and Boals projects he'll easily move a total of 10,000 over time.

According to the July edition of RePlay Magazine, which tracks the industry, distributors voted Big Buck the best upright video game, 12 spots above bar legend Golden Tee.

The machines sell for $6,000, earning $350 week on average, 80 percent more than rival Golden Tee, Boals said. One of the country's top Big Buck machines generates nearly $3,000 a month at a Connecticut casino, he said.

Broseus says there's no mystery to why New Yorkers crave Big Buck.

"It makes perfect sense," she said. "It's the whole thing of going out and hunting in the city. Part of the appeal of New York is going out and doing anything."

But not every city dweller approves.

"I am a friend of the animals," said Lucy Knight, a vegetarian, who has worked as ACE's manager for two years. "I find it disturbing for people to get so much pleasure out of it."

Will this start a trend? Will hipsters start taking to the woods en masse with Remingtons and Mossbergs?

Hunting purists hope not.

"I thank God they are doing it in a bar," said Russell Thornberry, editor in chief of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine in Montgomery, Ala. "I'm not sure I'd want them hunting anywhere near where I was hunting. They'd be a danger to me and the deer."