I’ve been thinking about Photon a lot recently.  For those too young (or perhaps too old) to remember, Photon was the first mass marketed Laser Tag facility.  Let me put a little perspective on this.  While laser tag has become commonplace in the last decade and a half, with family entertainment centers cropping up all over the planet featuring electronic combat, there was a time when the adventures of Star Wars and other sci-fi films were limited to the imagination of children and confined to the theater.  But in the late 1970’s, inventor and entrepreneur George Carter III saw Star Wars in the theaters and was inspired, he wanted to be able to recreate the epic battles featured in the film and allow children and adults of all ages to experience their fantasies in the real world.  In 1984, the first Photon laser tag center was opened in Houston Texas, the world’s first laser tag facility.

It didn’t stop there.  For starters, Photon centers opened up across the planet.  But Carter wasn’t going to stop there.  Taking a page from George Lucas, he began an unprecedented marketing campaign and turned Photon into a true sci-fi property.  If Photon wasn’t in a town or city near you, you could certainly buy the home game, which was designed to look almost identically like it’s big arena counterpart.  A TV series was developed (albeit poorly) in Japan which aired bother overseas and here in the US, a series of novels was developed as well.  Action figured, lunchboxes, Nintendo games, the Photon brand made every attempt at being as huge as Star Wars.  Over time, thanks to over expansion, a changing economy, and other issues, Photon eventually went the way of the Dodo, with only a handful of centers remaining open, until finally only one was left, located in Laurel Maryland.  Eventually that one closed it’s doors as well, and reopened a few months later under a different name, but using the same equipment and playing field until finally, the needs for modernization called for the final Photon to migrate to new, more sophisticated equipment.  Photon was officially dead, and aside from a valiant attempt by Jim Strother to restart the franchise in recent years, it’s remained for the most part a fond memory and an inspiration for laser tag manufacturers all over the world.  

 

There is a reason I’ve been stuck on Photon recently.  A few months ago I wrote an article for ToplessRobot.com on forgotten ‘80’s Children’s Sci-Fi series (http://www.toplessrobot.com/2012/03/8_forgotten_80s_live-action_childrens_sci-fi_serie.php).  The list covered (and poked fun) at multiple live action series of that era, with a special place for the Photon TV series at Number 1.  If you visit the site and watch the clip, you’ll see why I was a little hard on the series.  But truth be told, as a child, I absolutely loved the series, the books, and especially the game.  The wonderful response I got from the article and inspiration from many great Photon memories triggered me to take a plunge and I put together a proposal for a 30th anniversary follow-up to the novel series.  The big reason I haven’t been actively posting here is not because of copious video game playing, but because I am hard at work on my first sci-fi novel, Photon: Eclipse, due out in Spring of 2014 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Photon.  Now that that shameless self promotion is over, I want to take a second to wax poetic on my own Photon experiences, and why I think they are so important to me.

The first time I walked into a Photon center, it was for my friend Tom’s 10th birthday.  It was located in Dundalk Maryland, just a few miles away from my grandparents.  Had I known about it sooner, I would have been obsessed with it much earlier than I was, but I have the distinct feeling that my mother was conspiring to keep me away from that place, for she knew I would be hooked instantly.  I can’t imagine how much money Tom’s parents spent, at this point you still needed to have a membership to play, and with 20 or so crumbsnatchers, each needing memberships, plus two games apiece, plus pizza, cake, video game tokens, goodie bags etc, I could safely believe that they could still be paying for that party to this day.  

Once gathered together, we waited in line for our first match, all of us laser tag virgins.  A cheesy video ran on TVs mounted above the queue, showing us how to suit up and play the game.  Then it was time to suit up, which for a 10 year old was an exercise in strength and agility.  Today’s laser tag gear can be as little as a laser gun, but usually consists of a light/sensor covered vest and your laser weapon.  Photon’s gear was more like suiting up for a hockey game.  First you strapped on a battery belt, which at the time felt like it weighed 40 pounds, followed by a shower cap which they said was for cleanliness, but was more likely to prevent a massive outbreak of lice.  Next came the chest pod which rested around your neck and clipped around your waist, followed by your helmet.  Finally, you drew your phaser weapon from the wall mounted holster and queued up once again, this time to register for your game.

You walked to the front of a computer terminal where an employee scanned your membership card and registered your code name.  I distinctly remember being told by the staff that I could not be “Butt Buster”, so it was shortened to “B Buster”.  We marched into our holding area and awaited our “Game Commander” to bring us to our starting places.

Aside from the path we were taking to our starting points, the arena was pitch black.  I knew nothing of adrenalin at the time, but it was coursing through my body, with a healthy dose of fear and trepidation.  I was torn between the childhood fear of the dark, and the anticipation of the adventure ahead.  Once corralled into our starting points and after our Game Commander left us with instructions to wait until the end of the countdown to start, the entire arena went pitch black, aside from the steady pulse of the lights emanating from our gear.  One fellow child immediately freaked, begging to be let out and ended up huddled in the corner, others stood quietly or talked to give themselves comfort.  Suddenly, a sultry robotic voice filled the arena: “Welcome Photon Warriors.  Commence strategic maneuvers at audible command signal.  5…4…3…2…1…Begin!”

The Photon arena was a sprawling, multi-floored maze, complete with ramps, tunnels, and a metric crap-ton of other players, most of which were a lot bigger than the flotilla of pre-teens I was a part of.  For six and a half minutes I ran, shot, dodged, ducked and got completely peppered with enemy laser fire, all while desperately holding onto my pants for dear life and wishing I had worn a belt…and underwear.  My score, while not abysmal or reaching into the dreaded negatives, was certainly not good, with older and more experienced players having taken advantage of the ample amount of noobs on the playfield (the laser tag term for a game like this is a “Bunny Hunt”).  As tired as I was though, I had been bitten by the Photon bug.  Pizza, soda, cake and presents came and went with little attention paid to them, the only thing in my mind was the anticipation of our second game.  Even the lure of arcade games seemed to have lost it’s luster, as my tokens were for the first time left abandoned, my time seemingly better spent on the observation deck watching the pros play and contriving a plan for the second game, now having seen a bird’s-eye view of the arena.  

The second game, came and went faster than the first, now that all fear had been extinguished.  Exhaustion was staved off with the thrill of battle, and I fought valiantly and with reckless abandon, thanks to the second hand belt my mother purchased at the flea market next door during our intermission.  The second game ended and our Photon adventure was over.  For some reason, even though it was a two miles from my Grandparents house, my parents wouldn’t take me back there.  

It wasn’t until the next year, for Tom’s 11th birthday, that I returned to play Photon again.  Ironically, earlier that morning I ended up getting a few stitches thanks to doing something stupid during Sunday School, which severely threatened my chances of going to wait for me was the event of the year.  For some reason, I distinctly remembering timing the poor doctor with a stopwatch as he sewed me, for fear that I would be late to the match.  My mother tried to use my injury as an excuse to not go, but somehow I was able to convince her that no further injury would occur.  It was well worth it, for the experience was just as magical for me the second time as it was the first, albeit without the fear aspect from my first visit.  By then I had discovered the Photon marketing juggernaut, and had read every single Photon novel I could get my hands on and would wake every Sunday morning at 5:30 to manipulate our single rabbit eared TV into displaying the absolutely horrible Photon TV series, aired only on channel 54 in Baltimore.  That Christmas brought the Photon home game, Photon action figures, and a Photon lunch box which I proudly carried to school.  

I switched schools late in my 6th grade year and quickly lost touch with Tom.  As obsessed with Photon as I was, it was not looking like I would be going back anytime soon.  That is, until I saw that Photon had opened in the local resort town of Ocean City.

The Boardwalk at Ocean City had always been a favorite attraction for me.  My grandmother would hand my sister and I each five dollars with every visit to the Boardwalk.  Normally, it would be blown by me very quickly at Marty’s Playland, which at it’s height will always remain the arcade by which I judge all arcades.  When Photon opened though, my money would be blown even faster.  For some reason, I seem to remember that $4.50 was enough to buy you a two game special at the OC Photon, and in the much more safe (or naive) era of the late 80’s, I was free to roam the Boardwalk so long as my parents had a general idea of where I was.  I second that five spot hit my fingers, I was off and running down to the Photon, which until that summer had been the home of a Ripley’s Believe it or Not rather than the Ultimate Game of Planet Earth.  The end of my OC vacation that year was highlighted by the purchase of what would be my favorite attire for years, a Photon T-shirt.  

As the years went on, every vacation to Ocean City involved me playing as much Photon as possible.  I even convinced my father, aunt and grandfather to take a trip to planet Photon, all while the rest of the family took pot shots at us from the observation deck.  

A few summers later, I experienced crushing disappointment, when a visit to my beloved Ocean City Photon, which had been closed in the off-season, replaced with a Wax Museum.  To add insult to injury, the museum was built using the Photon playfield, the ramps, hideaways and obstacles now housing wax likenesses of monsters, historic figures and TV characters.  A few years later, the Wax Museum would fail and a new laser tag, Q-zar would replace it.  A handful of years later, that too failed (though I did spend an awesome summer working there), replaced once again by a Ripley’s.  During that period, laser tag exploded, with multiple sites opening across the country, all with different arenas, gameplay systems and styles.  I ended up playing regularly and eventually working at the local Ultrazone, a period which I still consider some of the best of my youth.  A Photon resurgence also took place near my home town.  Over time, I became friends with the owner, started playing it regularly like I always wished I could, and in time, even worked there as well.  Unfortunately, business comes first, and Photon was not equitable to continue.  The last Photon site, XP LaserSport, eventually had to retire the ancient gear in favor of much more reliable, light, and profitable newer equipment.  The economy being what it is, the attempt by Jim Strother didn’t survive more than a few weeks in business.  While laser tag lives on, Photon as I knew it is no more.

No other laser tag though has ever compared to Photon to me.  Maybe it’s the memories of my wonder as a child, or that it was so advanced for it’s time, or that I spent so much time in my youth pursuing it.  Perhaps the lack of Photon is what makes it so special to me.  Dare I say it though, every time I walk onto that Photon field at XP LaserSport, regardless of what brand of equipment I have on, it still manages to choke me up a little bit.  Memories of my childhood flood back, and for just a second, if I close my eyes, I can still hear that computerized voice counting down.

Aside from my forthcoming novel, something else has me thinking about Photon.  In a few days I’m taking my seven year old nerdling to play laser tag for the first time.  I’m sure he will love it, and I wonder, if in 25 years, his memories of laser tag will be similar to my memories of Photon.  I hope they are.  The light shines…

FYI: you can follow me on Twitter for updates on what’s going on as well as random quips on writing, nerd culture etc.  @razgriz1138