Today, in the United States, laser tag is an $700 million dollar-a-year business with over 3,000 locations serving up close quarters battles in darkened arenas with IR beams dancing about as the young and the young-at-heart battle for domination and a good time. In 1977, fellow Texan George Carter witness the power of Star Wars, and the exchange of directed energy bolts fueled the inspiration for a high-tech gaming system that featured invisible "laser" beams and sensors that all upgraded the game of tag into the computer age. This system that George Carter invested years and thousands of dollars became known to entire generation has: Photon: the Ultimate Game on Planet Earth. On March 28th, 1984, the first dedicated Photon arena center in Dallas, Texas and just six months later, Lazer Zone would follow. By 1986, George Carter's emerging Photon arenas was on its way to become a profitable franchise business opportunity as an home based laser tag came onto the scene of the wider laser tag industry: Worlds of Wonder's sleek system known as Lazer Tag. This set the stage for economic contest for the hearts, minds, and cash of laser tag warriors both young and middle aged broke out between the two system and there could be only one victor in the Christmas 1986 season. This was the Great Laser War of 1986-1988 and it was defining moment of my childhood just as much as the battle of the video game consoles and the bloody Cola Wars. Sit back and let FWS tell you the tale of high adventure and IR laser beams in a time called the 1980's...
Thanks Goes To...
Laser Tag Museum in Louisville, Kentucky and Laurie Jean of Photon Forever and Tiviachicklovestag.
What Does "Lazer Tag vs. Photon" have to do with Military Sci-Fi?
The Historical Context of the Great Laser War of 1986-1988
The Three Sides of the Great Laser War of 1986-1988: Worlds of Wonder, the Photon Arenas, and Entertech
Worlds of Wonder
This was the Class Act school supply line and it was expensive and featured an hard-shell trapper-keeper that was later used in as an futuristic briefcase in the first season of ST:TNG. These were sold in major toy stores, and I can remember them at my local Tulsa Toys R Us. Within this line was a locker answering machine. While Worlds of Wonder was riding high in 1985-1987, the flame that burns twice as bright, burns out twice as quickly...but more on that later. For many of my generation, Worlds of Wonder was one of the iconic toy company of the 80's and is continued to be known by its signature products: Lazer Tag and Teddy Ruxpin.
Entertech and Photon
What is Worlds of Wonder's "Lazer Tag"?
The Game Kit
The StarLyte Blaster
The StarBelt, StarVest, and the StarHarness
The StarHat and the StarHelmet
The StarLtye Pro Blaster Rifle
RetroBlasting, devoting an episode to the home market version of Photon and Lazer Tag. One day, I will own one...one sweet day.
One of the most mysterious piece of the original Lazer Tag accessory line was the StarBase, and it often of the pieces of Lazer Tag equipment overlooked. Date of release is under some debate with 1988 and 1987 thrown around, but it was designed to served as game enhancer to the base game play. It could serve as a base for one team, or as an IR beam firing drone that engaged players and raised defensive shielding. It could be set for up to 99 tags and was powered by six "C" batteries. I never say this back in the day nor did I know anyone that did.
Unreleased: The StarCade and StarStrobe
What was Entertech's "Photon: The Ultimate Game on Planet Earth"?
the difference between an Ferrari and the Hot Wheels copy.". Here is some of the differences between the home and commercial systems. Unlike Lazer Tag, the commercial Photon is a reverse IR system that has the gun be an receiver rather than an emitter of IR beams, as the case with most laser tag gaming systems. This was due to the expensive and optical work that would have been required. The IR emitters were cheaper than the receiver, pennies vs. dollars, and this allowed Photon to be brought to the market for the money available. In addition, the commercial system was fitted with an heavy battery power pack belt that would bring down your pants if not careful and accounted for a great deal of weight. The home system was an traditional IR laser tag system with the pistol being the IR beam emitter or an "forward IR system" and it was powered by an mix of 9 volt and AA batteries. You could not use the Entertech toy system in the arenas against wears of the commercial system. You also had to have an red and green colored set to wage bloodless laser combat...no friendly fire in Photon...unlike like Lazer Tag. This difference in power source created a difference in weight. The commercial system was about 13-15 lbs, while the home system was about 6 lbs. What the home and commercial systems share is a similar look and that all of the pieces of the "Photon warrior system" was linked via cables. This was in deep contrast to WoW's Lazer Tag. All of the LJN/Entertech Photon items were compatible across the toylines...so, the LJN Photon figures would be interactive with the Photon Phaser and so on.
The Photon Electronic Warrior Battle Game Sets (Single and Double)
One of the most famous or infamous pieces of Photon equipment is the helmet. This futuristic space helmet was fitted with speakers, lights, an IR sensor, and an visor. Originally, George Carter disliked the helmet, but the engineers believed that the visor/face shield would be needed to protect the combatants from barrel stuffing each other in the darkened chaotic arenas...and he may have been right. What divided the Photon warrior teams at the arena and at home was the color of the helmet: Red or Green. Entertech borrowed this item from the commercial equipment and it made sense with the intention of Photon arenas of being an team sport.
The Chest Module Piece
The Practice Sensor
The Phaser Target Game (Single or Double)
The Photon Shootback Target (Unreleased)
The Great Laser War of 1986-1988
What Happened to Lazer Tag and Photon? Was there a victor in the Great Laser War?
What Killed Off Home Laser Tag?
At one time in the mid-1980's, there was a belief that laser tag would be the next big thing and a real sport would be formed out of the leagues that played serious Photon. Alas, that did not happen, but the laser tag industry is still around and nearly a billion dollar a year business that can be found the world over. But, there has never been a home laser tag system that has come close to the levels of Entertech's home Photon system or Worlds of Wonder's Lazer Tag. Why? Home laser tag matches cannot replicate the experiences that are found in commercial laser tag centers bar none. And when kids of the 1980's wanted to come together and beat the shit out of one another, there was the renewed home video game console market with the juggernaut that was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Home laser tag could not hold a candle to the fun we kids of the 80's had with the NES. Video game system like the NES, the SEGA Master System and the ATARI 7800 were more accepted by the parental safety mafia that existed in the 1980's that put pressure on toy companies to make their toy guns safer and these groups wanted kids to stop playing with their laser tag blasters and MILSIM water guns and play some Mario Brothers. In addition, these home laser tag system were expensive as hell at the time and they just had naturally limited market and play. After all, if you wanted to play laser tag, you simple go down to the local centers, put down a few bucks and have a great time...no string attached. This was not so of Lazer Tag and Photon. They were a serious investment in time and money without the payout of an NES or a few hours at your local Photon center.
Which One is Better? Lazer Tag or Photon?
It is easier today to make decision between completing items due to the internet being packed with customer reviews and comparison videos. However, back in 1986, there was no internet review culture to really spell out the difference between these two home laser tag systems and we kids relayed on our gut feeling and the limited, if any, experience we had with the Photon center's equipment. However, today is different, and we can now judge these two IR laser tag system based on a head-to-head comparison, which the 10 years old me could not do in 1986.
On the surface, the Worlds of Wonder Lazer Tag system is just a better made and styled system with a ton of optional equipment to allow you the player choses in how you played and how you want to look while playing. Lazer Tag gave you options and had an awesome pistol and rifle to chose from. The presentation of the Lazer Tag equipment outshines the Entertech Photon system easily. The Photon equipment by Entertech did not present well on the toy shelf or in the backyard and it was dumbed down from the rental gear. Even today, some thirty years(!) out from The Great Laser War, and I can still tell you that the Lazer Tag gear, especially the StarLyte, still look amazing.
WINNER: LAZER TAG!
Neither one of these home laser tag systems were cheap and they were a bad deal when compared to getting an NES or Commodore 64 instead. This made even more clear when factor in the batteries needed to power these hungry systems. According to the 1986 Sears Catalog: the base Lazer Tag system was $44 in 1986 money, which is about $98 in today's money. The base system for Photon was about $72 ($156 in 2016) for a single system and they sold a double system for $124 ($270). I originally believed that Lazer Tag was the more expensive of the two at the time, and it is so odd that the home Photon system was more expensive. To put those numbers in some perspective. the base NES system was $89 in 1985 money or around $185 in adjusted 2016 dollars.
I originally was going to hand this section easily off to Lazer Tag for their blitzkrieg marketing in 1986. Worlds of Wonder blanketed the airwave with a damned impressive commercial showing a darkened future stadium where two teams of laser tag warriors battle. This million commercial was produced Ridley Scott and it still looks slick today. This ad was run over and over and to us kids in the 1980's, it was transformative. We were hooked and we wanted Lazer Tag for Christmas. Even our comic books were not a respite from the bombardment of the marketing of Lazer Tag. Peppered throughout the major comics of 1986 where several ads for Lazer Tag that showed this king of sports in 3010. Once again, I was right to own this and use it. However, the same cannot be said for Entertech's Photon. I cannot recall any real ad and only one lame TV spot. Nor did Photon have the interactive displays in major retailers. My local Bartlesville Wal-Mart got one of these in 1986. This would mean that Lazer Tag had the drop on Photon, but my extensive research on The Great Laser War reveals that many more people recall the DiC Photon show than the soulless Lazer Tag Academy cartoon, more people discuss their love for the Photon tie-in books. There is none of that love for Lazer Tag. In someways, Photon lost the marketing war, but won in the nostalgia department. WINNER: TIE!
While Lazer Tag was fully developed for the home market, it missed an important element that Photon nailed: Playability. Any laser tag system had to be ready to deal with the rock-n-roll of play combat, and on the surface it would seem that Photon would be the loser here with the heavy gear and all of the equipment being tied together, but that made it more stable for aggressive play both on the Photon arena field and at home. Lazer Tag's Achilles' heel was the StarSensor or rather its method of attachment to the player's body. Velcro was not up to the task of being a reliable means of attaching the heavy IR sensor to the wear's body and expect it stay on during during running. Often, we had to hold to the StarSensor to prevent from falling and smashing. That could cause arguments over you covering your StarSensor. This may been the genesis behind WoW selling the StarSensor outside of the Game Kit. While Photon being a laser tag system born on the battlefield was designed to suffer through the rigors of laser close quarters warfare. If the equipment was not tied down properly, it would bounce all around like Kate Upton jogging, but if tided down, it was more solid. In the end, that is true test of any laser tag equipment, how good is it to play with, and both Photon system had the lock on that and makes Photon the winner here and the overall winner.
The Photon Arena Centers: Pure 80's Laser Combat Magic!
Overall, the Photon brand of laser tag was born, grew, and ultimately died in the arenas. It was the core business and experience for those of us that knew Photon during The Great Laser War. George Carter III invented the sport of laser tag and founded the basic principles of commercial laser tag and its business via his Photon centers. These Photon arenas were either corporate or franchise, and were found across the United States and the globe until about 1989 with the arenas being found in strip malls, malls, standalone buildings and warehouses. During the apex of the popularity of the Photon centers in the mid-1980's. they were a place of community, celebration, and laser battles in a futuristic maze where adults and kids tested their skills.
Physically, the arenas were divided into two areas, one being the lobby where new Photon warriors were inducted into the game via these photo ID card and awaiting warriors could gather or play games of pool and arcade games. This made the Photon centers more than just laser tag, and those in the malls, where hangouts as much as the food court and the arcade. In the lobby, Photon swag could be bought and tales of laser combat could be toasted with an sugary fuzzy drink.
The heart of the Photon center was the arena designed by J.C. Collins with the music by Ken Caillat, that featured towers, catwalks, ramps, and mazes obscured in smoke. When a game was ready, you were assembled then divided into either red or green team, and then moved into the staging arena to kit up. On these equipment rakes, you donned your gear only after placing a surgical cap on your head to protect the helmet from sweat and lice. Photon staff often helped the first timers with the gear, including the heavy ass battery pack belt. Once your were kitted up, your ID card was scanned while the Phaser blaster was inserted into a slot. After that you waited in a corridor for the countdown. It was here that a instruction video was on loop and experienced team members formed tactics. When the final countdown head, you were ready and nervous, then you hit the massive cavernous space of the Photon arena. For the next few minutes, all hell broke loose as you rushed around the low visibility arena firing at the enemy and their base. It was glorious.
After less than 10 minutes, it was over and your score was posted on TV monitors according to nickname (I believe mine was "Khyron"). You would rehydrate, load up, and do it again...and again. This was not just a place for birthday parties (I had one there...and yes, it was awesome!) and parents to drop off their kids, it was place for league play and champaign matches to be waged. The excitement of these centers was short lived for the most part. The majority of Photon arenas were gone by 1989 with some franchise locations holding on longer.
Some of these former Photon centers morphed into general laser tag business with newer equipment.
For the record, here the physical locations for the Photon Centers I played at back in 1986-1987:
-Dallas: 2630 Northwest Hwy #300
-Tulsa: 49th and Memorial in an old tire store
-Albuquerque: located on the lower level of Montgomery Plaza shopping complex on the corner of San Mateo Blvd and Montgomery. It became an movie theater and I saw Cliffhanger there in 1993 and fondly remembers my grandmother driving me to the Photon center during the summer of 1987. Good times.
Were There Ever any WoW Lazer Tag Arenas?
Entertech and Worlds of Wonder where both toy companies heavily involved in the titanic struggle over wrestling the hard earned cash out of the hands of parents and put a IR blaster in their kids' hands. One way that the corporate Photon hoped to perform that task was via their nationwide network of 45 Photon arena centers, which is how DiC and Entertech came to see Photon as a viable commercial venture. This was simply an piece of the Photon empire that WoW's Lazer Tag did not or would not possess during the Great Laser War...or did they? There were rumors running around my grade school in 1987 that Worlds of Wonder had indeed founded their own prototype laser war gaming arena center in California, where the company was based and it was opened under a year. during the apex of WoW's success.
Wasn't There an G.I. JOE Lazer Tag System?
Lazer Tag Academy NBC Saturday Morning Cartoon
Since it was the 1980's and cartoon tie-in shows were huge, it makes some sort of sense that WoW's Lazer Tag got their own Saturday morning 30 minute cartoon/ad. Based on some of the 3010 world developed by Worlds of Wonder, Ruby-Spears Production was brought in to develop the game and world into a cartoon vehicle. Ruby-Spears Production had much experience in the cartoon world of the 1980's with shows like Thundarr the Barbarian, Rubik, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. In the show, 3010 Earth is a near-utopia with Lazer Tag being the game of choice with nations and factions settling their differences with Lazer Tag matches. The champion of Lazer Tag was an 13 year old girl named Jamie Jared and she possessed the power within her genes to use her StarLyte pistol to travel through time and other tricks. Her powers and abilities were explored by the Lazer Tag Acedemy and the team there.
During this mission, Jamie enlisted the help of her 20th century teenager ancestors to help her on her quest along with watching out for Beth Jaren. The show would run for just 13 episodes from September to December of 1986, and be rerun on Sci-Fi Channel's cartoon block as the retitled "Laser Patrol". It was released on VHS in three separate tapes. Much like everything these days, it can be found on Youtube to remind us of lukewarm this production was. While WoW's Lazer Tag was superior in toy production and quality, the same cannot be said for the cartoon. Lazer Tag Academy is simply dreadful and soulless, especially when compared to the other 3010 Lazer Tag universe books.
What could have been something interesting that expanded the lore of the world of 3010, like the Photon TV show did, Lazer Tag Academy de-evolved into a boring, skin-deep show that lacked the insanity of the Photon TV show. I actually watched a few episodes of Lazer Tag Academy back in 1986 and it was hard to find. It seems that is was moved around the Saturday morning timeslots due to its poor ratings and being tied to a fad product. The show seems to have been on the drawing board for some time due to the inclusion of an teaser for the show in the 1986 Game Kit. The art included varied from the actually production. Most of the Jared family characters are radically different, mostly Jamie and Beth. Today, Lazer Tag Academy is not as fondly remember as its rival, the Photon TV show, and it often discussed along side the Lazer Tag system, rather than standing on its own, as the Photon TV show is today.
DiC Entertainment/Saban Entertainment Photon live-action TV Show
Unlike Lazer Tag, Photon did not have a fleshed story/universe, and it was up to DiC to create the world of Photon that would be used to market the products generated out of license and TV show.
The 1987 Takara Limited NES Japanese Photon Game (Hikari no Senshi Foton)
The 1987 Probe Software Lazer Tag Computer Game
The Lazer Tag Official Game Handbook from TSR
Photon Tie-in Books by author David Peters and Michael Hudson
Lazer Tag Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books by TSR
The Photon LJN Action Figures...Yes, there were Action Figures!
The Impact and Legacy of Lazer Tag and Photon
With the internet flooded with tons of videos and pages about topics of nostalgia, there has been a number of people that have discussed both of these systems in length and even the economic contest between them, Some have purchased these laser tag home systems secondhand to fulfill some long-held childhood desire and that speaks to the true legacy of these completing laser tag home systems: the memories. There are many adults of my generation with memories of waging laser battles in Photon arenas or in backyards and there are even adults today that have memories of Photon birthday parties and playing with Lazer Tag due to my direct involvement...you're welcome. These systems represented a time and a place for many of us and they had a direct impact on our memories and lives. So much so, that vintage laser tag systems have appeared in films and TV shows depicting the 1980's.
There is a more direct impact of the contest between these two home laser tag systems that resonates onto today: the fall of the home market toy laser tag systems. For the most part, there has been no successful home (toy) laser tag system since The Great Laser War of 1986-1988. The apex of the home market laser tag systems was 1986 with Entertech's Photon and WoW's Lazer Tag. While oter companies attempted to sell laser tag home system over the years, including several under the iconic name of "Lazer Tag", it did not catch like it did in 1986. Each of these systems as died and wind up on clearance. There have even been attempts to market home laser tag systems under the Star Wars brand around the time of Episode I release in 1999.
The Attempt to Resurrect Photon
Next Time on FWS...
The continuing mission of Future War Stories is to explore and explain the world of Military SF, and at times, we must each back into the distance epochs of time and space to uncover forgotten chapters of military science fiction and next time, we will do just that. In 1993, major American television network CBS aired an MSF show about Space Rangers on the frontier in the 22nd century. We will explore and explain this 1990's Military SF oddity.