If there’s one thing nerds of a certain age universally agree on, it’s this….Toys (for kids and young adults) these days SUUUCK!
Oh, sure–today’s younglings have video games that would make 8 year old, Atari 2600 playing me drop dead of a pleasure-induced brain hemorrhage. And there will always be timeless classics like LEGO But as far as action figures–and their accompanying vehicles, playsets, and other miscellany go: The playthings of my 1980s childhood beat the piss out of anything the 21st century has yet to come up with–it’s not even a contest.
But this feature isn’t about how much new toys blow (that’s another feature), instead, the old and decrepit among the Nerd Bastards staff have decided to present you, the reader, with a series of tributes to the overpriced hunks of plastic of yore. Magnificent toy lines and other pieces of antiquity that make us forget how lonely and miserable our ACTUAL childhoods were.
This week guest writer Jason Helton is here to show some much needed love to an unsung–well, less than sufficiently sung – laser toy gun of yesteryear with: Photon Laser Tag
It was 1984, and the eyes of all children were on the stars. The Galactic Empire (and a whole lot of innocent Death Star contractors) met its end, Khan was busy pursuing Kirk round Perdition’s Flames, and the four television stations I received were inundated with reruns of Battlestar Galactica. While video games were still in their infancy, those digital houses of ill repute, video arcades, were entering their golden era. It was inventor George Carter III who, inspired by Star Wars, merged video games and the childhood game of Cops and Robbers in a partnership that rivaled peanut butter and chocolate, and created the first commercial laser tag operation: Photon – The Ultimate Game on Planet Earth.
Near decade before the first real First-Person Shooter video game, a visit to the Photon arena was like getting sent to the Game Grid of Tron. Stepping onto the field of battle was like being digitized into a copy of Berzerk or Robotron 2084. Lights, sound, spooky music and a team of competitors itching to pop electronic caps in your ass made for six and a half minutes of adrenalin-fueled excitement and terror. While appealing to the sci-fi hungry children of the world, Photon was designed more in mind for teenagers and adults. Between the height minimum, the need to carry about twenty pounds of equipment and the cost to play, many children were left on the observation deck, able to participate only by popping tokens into Phaser Target Station to take pot shots at the payers below, that is, until the home game was released.
The home game and arena game similarities end with appearance. The arena equipment consisted of a hair net (to protect players from Space Herpes), a helmet, chest pod, battery belt and phaser weapon. The home system came in two different configurations: the basic set which consisted of a phaser and a completely useless target, and the deluxe set which at first glance was a dead ringer for the professional equipment. Closer inspection of the deluxe home set showed that it was significantly less sophisticated than its arena big brother. In fact, Carter’s involvement with the home system was limited to signing the licensing contract.
Tom Hanks wearing the Photon Home Kit in the movie ‘Big’
The arena game worked using a reverse infrared system. The targets, namely the helmet, chest pod and bases emitted specific infrared signals which were captured by other’s phasers which transmitted a signal to the game computer indicating which player they tagged. The computer would then transmit data to the player’s equipment indicating it had been hit. Significantly less sophisticated, the home system worked on a standard infrared system similar to a remote control. It was easier and cheaper to manufacture, but changed the dynamics of the game. While the equipment was still color coordinated, team colors were irrelevant, and no longer was score a factor as player’s equipment automatically shut down after being hit three times. A week’s allowance in AA batteries powered the equipment, with the completely hollow battery belt now only for appearances.
Photon’s main competitor for the home laser tag market was the aptly named but poorly spelled Lazer Tag. The basic concept was the same, though it was often thought that Lazer Tag was a superior system with its more futuristic production values and accessories that looked like they came straight from the costume department of Buck Rogers in the 24th which is partially why the Photon home game has often been considered the Go-Bots of home laser tag. The big difference in the systems though is that Photon sensors communicated with each other. In Lazer Tag, each accessory had a sensor that would signal the game over after getting hit six times. The Starlyte gun of Lazer Tag functioned independently from the rest of the equipment, so there was nothing stopping an opponent with sour grapes from firing at you long after he had been defeated. Not so with Photon. While Photon had only the basic and deluxe kits, the deluxe kit integrated with the basic phaser and would deactivate it after being tagged out, making for a much more fair game.
One thing both games had in common was they both went to the Spaceballs School of Marketing, though Photon edged out its pricy competitor. Lazer Tag made its money through accessorizing. The steepest investment was the basic kit which was necessary to begin playing, but Worlds of Wonder didn’t stop there. Vests, helmets, ball caps, walkie talkies, even automated base targets could be purchased. Photon went in a different direction however. Instead of selling every bit of equipment piecemeal, the only equipment options were the basic set or the deluxe set. Photon instead took inspiration from George Lucas and made every product imaginable. T-shirts, Underoos, lunchboxes, were the beginning. An incredibly cheesy live action kid’s show created a whole science fiction universe for the self-proclaimed “Ultimate Game on Planet Earth”. With the TV series came the Halloween costumes, the Colorforms, the series of novels by Michael Hudson and a young Peter David. The true marketing standout however, were the Photon action figures.
Based on the Gouda-dripping TV series, the action figures were far different from any other toys on the market. First, they were a good nine inches tall, made of a hard plastic, with, depending on the character, a whopping five or seven points of articulation. At first glance they just look like larger than normal action figures with their obligatory set of accessories, but closer inspection showed that these had more action in them than figure.
Each toy was armed with one or more gun-like objects. The hero, Bhodi Li was dressed and armed like any visitor to a Photon arena, that is, if that person happened to be wearing red capris and a wife-beater. Warriarr, the four-armed alien packed something similar to a Klingon disruptor in each hand. Flipping a switch in the back however turned the figures on, and pressing a button on the back triggered them to make the sounds of the home edition phasers. But wait! There’s more! Each toy also was outfitted with a replica chest pod, which, if stuck by the opposing toy’s phaser beam, would light up and make the sound of getting hit. That’s right kids, you could play laser tag with action figures. What’s even cooler; those action figures worked on the same frequency as the home edition game equipment, so you could test your marksmanship by lining up your action figures and taking pot shots at them. It was almost as cool as shooting them with bb guns, without the inevitable grounding you would get for putting holes in the drywall.
As quickly as laser tag and Photon gained popularity, its golden age ended just as quickly. The arena based Photon grew exponentially, with forty stores opening by 1987. Unfortunately, money quickly became scarce, and by 1989 the company had begun to sell off its assets, leaving only a handful of franchisees to fend for themselves. As time went on, those closed their doors as well, with the final store, now rebranded XP LaserSport, changing its equipment in the early 2000’s. A revival in the late 2000’s in Oklahoma stayed in business for only a matter of weeks before being forced to close its doors.
Photon toys quickly moved from Christmas lists and Kiddie City shelves to the bargain bins at K-mart. Only two of the planned action figures ever went beyond prototypes. Manufacturer Entertech quickly fell into obscurity thanks to lawsuits regarding their line of realistic water guns, which had been deemed responsible for the deaths of a few children at the hands of police. Parent company LJN transitioned into developing video games and were later absorbed by larger video game developers.
For all intents and purposes, Photon is but a mere memory for its fans. A laser tag facility in Kentucky still uses the original Photon field along with XP LaserSport in Laurel Maryland which played on a slightly modified Photon field design. Its dedicated followers are still as rabid as ever for the original laser tag game; a 30th anniversary reunion is scheduled to be held at XP LaserSport in July of this year, where it is likely the original, now antique Photon equipment will be used for the last time.
EDITORS NOTE: This article was submitted by Jason Helton. Jason is the creator and host of the now defunct Iron Otaku radio program from WHFC and XM Satellite Radio. He has been a “nerd-culture” journalist for both radio and print for over a decade, more recently writing for such websites as DenOfGeek.com and ToplessRobot.com. Jason is an eternal nerd (much to the chagrin of his wife) with an unhealthy obsession with pinball, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica. He can be followed on Twitter @Razgriz1138