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Laser-Daze: Photon vs Lazer Tag

In the future, wars will be fought by laser light gun wielding warriors trying to disintegrate each other in organized combat. At least that’s what we were led to believe in 1987, when 2 laser gun based toys and their tie-in TV shows attempted to dazzle the money out of our piggy banks with their non-lethal point and zap shenanigans. It was a wild moment in time when gun-based violence seemed somehow safe for Saturday Mornings and parent groups turned a blind eye to what was obviously a pre-cursor to today’s first person shooter video games.

In the mid-1980’s, arenas were opening up across the country where for a fee you could join the battle and test your skills against other wanna-be Storm Troopers. I remember the day my college-age brother came home and shared with me his experience of strapping on a laser gun and helmet to battle his fellow nerds. Look, my brother was the coolest guy I knew at 5 years old, but the fact that he played Dungeons and Dragons, knew how to write code for his Commodore 64 computer and was studying to be an electrical engineer, meant he was clearly treading in the realm of the geek. Geekdom aside, the idea that he had played the part of a futuristic soldier for a night, elevated him in my eyes to the status of super hero.

Though I hesitate to explain the idea behind laser tag (it seems to be as universal as mini-golf when it comes to suburban amusement), I feel that it must be done as a point of reference. In the game of Laser Tag: 2 teams arm themselves with guns that shoot light beams, while wearing vests with multiple sensors attached to them. The battling groups are then released into a usually dark, blacklight lit, possibly artificial fog-filled arena with various blockades to hide behind for cover while they try to disable their opponent’s weapons by delivering the specified number of hits. At the end of the match, the high score winner is declared awesome and no blood has been spilt.

The front-runner for this type of amusement was a laser tag company called Photon. Setting up their battle arenas in a neighborhood near you, Photon made the experience more than a mere 15 minutes of point and shoot mayhem, the participant was being recruited for an adventure. You can check out Photon’s sci-fi influenced instructional video that preceded gameplay by clicking this link. It’s easy to see why this was being pushed as a replacement for the waning roller skating rink fad of the late 70’s. I mean, who didn’t want to become Luke Skywalker or The Last Starfighter for an evening? These influences were especially apparent when you got a look at the head gear and gun designs.

You can’t tell me that doesn’t look like an X-Wing pilot’s gear. Plus, the act of putting on a helmet really made you feel like you had just joined the ranks of an elite fighting force. For me, it was the zapper/phaser/gun that really made the most impact. The sleek lines of the barrel and the way it flared out at the end were miles ahead of any cap gun I owned at the time.  Originally the only way to get your hands on this equipment was to go to one of the Photon centers themselves, but soon, just like Atari and Nintendo, you could bring the action home with you!

I remember walking the aisles of Toys R' Us and seeing the giant boxes for the Photon action sets in red or green, the logo and box art really drew me in. What I also noticed, that really came as quite a surprise, were action figures bearing the Photon name. The reason I didn’t go begging my parents for one of these larger-than-average plastic warriors, was that up to that point I had no idea there were characters associated with the game. Plus, due to their size, who was I supposed to have them zap? Barbie?! I don’t play with Barbies! But one day, not long after that, I happened upon an episode of the live action TV show on a Saturday afternoon and was introduced the intergalactic adventures of Photon.

The show followed the adventures of a teenage Photon fanatic named Bhodi Li (his gameplay code name), who is recruited become a freedom fighter in space and keep Photon power crystals from being used to decimate worlds. Bhodi battled alongside a 12 year old computer genius (aren’t they all), what appeared to be the Pillsbury dough boy after being half-baked in an oven, a Samurai robot with facial hair (‘nuff said), a dinosaur Plumber (at least that what’s he looks like to me) and an Amazon that has to have been the inspiration for Kitana/Mileena/Jade in the Mortal Kombat games. A pretty wild group, but the alien monsters they fought were even crazier. You can watch the show on YouTube for yourself, this was low budget monster wackiness at its finest.

My favorite part of the premise is that Photon game arenas are actually being monitored by intergalactic rebels looking for new warriors to add to their team. Isn’t that awesome? So every time you went in to play, you were actually trying out to become a professional laser-blaster-person (the technical term, I’m sure). While Photon was being featured in syndication the small screen, Tom Hanks took it to the big time by whipping out his laser blaster and helmet for a scene in the blockbuster movie, Big. Even with all this exposure, Photon didn’t have a monopoly of laser light action, another competitor was entering the arena with a furry friend on tow.

Lazer Tag was the Pepsi to Photon’s Coca-Cola, but managed to bring their own spin to the concept in exciting ways. Instead of brightly colored equipment, Lazer Tag opted for the industrial, space-aged look of stainless steel. The silver helmets and vests that came equipped with red sensors really provided a futuristic flair to the proceedings. Meanwhile the shiny black gun had a K.I.T.T. like red band running through it for maximum coolness, it was like holding spaceship in your hand. Oh and did I mention, this was all designed by Worlds of Wonder, the company that brought us the animatronic fun of Teddy Ruxpin!

Making sure to at least cover the ground that Photon had with TV exposure, WoW worked with Ruby-Spears animation to a Saturday morning commerci-er-cartoon called Lazer Tag Academy. The premise here was that Lazer Tag champion, Jamie Jaren traveled back in time from the year 3010 using her Starlyte power to stop the evil plans of Draxon Drear with the help of her pre-teen 20th century ancestors Tom, Beth and Nicky.

I actually got a kick out of watching Jamie harness the Starlyte power from her gun to do anything the situation called for. With a pull of the trigger she could blow stuff up or just levitate it, turn on any machine and even travel back in time. The latter was my favorite, something about the laser bouncing between Starlyte sensors and teleporting people to different places really caught my imagination. Plus the idea of having a female hero who really was capable of saving the day made the show that much more interesting my young mind.

So who won the war for Laser Tag supremacy? I personally owned both sets of equipment at one point in my life, so I think I can speak of a place of some authority. Though before you peg me as a spoiled rich kid, I didn’t buy them new off the shelves. The Photon gear was purchased at a garage sale shortly after the fad ended in 1989, while the Lazer Tag gun and sensors were given to as hand-me-downs from my brother-in-law once he had trouble finding any college classmates to play against. But which gave me the best playtime memories?

Photon definitely had more of an edge to it, with its wild character designs and militaristic style. Also you have to give them props for creating a mythology to inform your gameplay while providing an in-person experience to live out your futuristic warfare fantasies. Plus, I made short home movie with my friend Bret in 1997 called "Future Cop" where he dressed up in the Photon gear, sweats and underwear outside his pants to imitate Sarah Conner from Terminator 2, telling a police interrogator about the dystopian future where Oprah Winfrey ruled the world. So that’s got be worth something, right?

That being said, Lazer Tag has always been the definitive version of this concept in my mind. The box art was just so 80’s and WoW really went out of their way to provide add-on accessories to enhance the battles. There were rifles, walkie-talkies, the automated practice drone StarBase and even an ill-conceived baseball hat with a sensor in it. But what really puts Lazer Tag over in my book is the wireless aspect of the whole design. See with Photon, you had wires that connected the central sensor to the helmet and another cord that connected it the gun, which really became a hassle as you ran around blasting your friends.

Lazer Tag on the other hand, managed to make each component work independently and even had a holster for the gun itself. Nothing was cooler than knowing you had a laser pistol at the ready like Han Solo with every intention of shooting first and asking questions later. The cordless design also meant you could do the Robocop spin to holster move and for that reason alone I have to give the win to Lazer Tag.

Honorable mention goes to the Bravestarr and Captain Power toy lines for combining this infra-red technology with action figures. I owned the Bravestarr Neutra-Laser which had a stellar, 2-tier gun design and the ability to interact with certain specially equipped figures and playsets. Captain Power took it a step further by having a video tape which activated a sensor in the Powerjet vehicle which launched a figure from the cockpit! 1987 was a great year for laser based toys and certainly left an impression.

So tell me your experiences with the Laser Tag genre. Were they Zap-tastic?

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Looking for more from Hoju Koolander?

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 14, 2014 at 03:42 PM

I'm interested in the BraveStarr figures/guns. Thinking about checking Ebay for some of those. :)

Hoju Koolander Posted on Nov 14, 2014 at 03:12 PM

Yeah, going to the Laser Tag arenas is pretty fun. The people who just hide out as "snipers" are lame, but most everybody is on the move and you never know who is around the next corner. My friends and I used to strap-on the laser tag gear to battle each other at a local elementary school around 9am at night rather than pay the $5-$10 a person.

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 13, 2014 at 11:14 PM

I only ever owned the Lazer Tag sets, so I can't comment on Photon. However, Lazer Tag was great fun when it was released. Although the sensors didn't always work well (not registering hits when it should have).

I've never actually done the indoor arena thing. I've considered it many times throughout the years, but just never committed to doing it. I'm guessing it's quite fun with a group of family or friends.

This article contained a lot of info I was not previously aware of, so thanks for shedding light on it.

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