Sunday, July 1, 2012

What was Star Laser Force like?

Here is your virtual nickel tour of Star Laser Force, adapted from my original posting on a Yahoo group in 2009.

Star Laser Force was the first commercial laser tag venture in Houston, Texas. The facility had one indoor arena.

The building was a double sheet metal warehouse. Initially you could walk in the front door, and the waiting room was up front; later a much larger waiting area was finished and I think there may have been picnic tables for parties. When you came in the back door from the parking at the rear you passed through a dark tunnel and through the Stargate, a “chamfered” science-fiction doorway illuminated from within... well, really it was a black wooden channel with aluminum foil and Christmas lights.

The whole of the interior of the building except bathrooms and employee areas was painted flat black. There were some benches for people to wait for their turn. They always had a few arcade video games. I remember an old Space Wars early on, and later, in the large waiting area, there were titles such as Gauntlet and Bomb Jack.

You had to fill out the one-sheet sign up form to play. It had a brief and barely adequate legal disclaimer. They made cheap laminated photo IDs. You'd pay your $3.00 to play (initial price at opening), and games were initially 7 or 8 minutes as I recall. If you paid in advance (and you really had to), your receipt would get you into your game's time slot, and if you were serious about playing the game your team would sit together and work out strategy while waiting for your chance.

Aside from some sign(s) in the waiting area, you would get the rules speech from an employee before play. Teams would suit up in the charging rooms (there were two), then each team proceeded to the team Transporter rooms where they would wait for the arena to be opened for the next game.

Charging Room and Transporter

I think the charging racks were just PVC pipes protruding from the walls. There were cables for each pack and a master charger... little different from a lot of commercial gear since then. In all, 40 “suits” were built, 20 per team, plus spares for the high-damage items such as the guns. I don’t recall the maximum number put in play at any given time.

While waiting in the two teams' Transporters each and every player's gear was checked out and reset by a staff member. The game referees were known as Patrol, or Star Patrol, and there was one in with each team during “transport” to the “planet Xenon.” While the loud and somewhat disorienting Transporter sound effects track played, the employee would check cables, ask everyone to test fire their guns, and reset or “duck” every suit. The same would be happening in the other team's Transporter. The referee’s control device was called the Duck Box and it would reset a suit when plugged into a 1/4" phone jack next to the player's score display. (To discourage hacking the jack itself, the secret component of the Duck Box was a magnet that closed a reed switch in the gear.)

When the Transporter sound ended, the arena doors would open and the teams swarmed out; the two employees then became the game's referees. Employees stayed in touch and coordinated operations by walkie-talkie.

Space Suits

Before getting into the arena, let's go back to the packs, or suits.
Warrior gear for the Starship Blue Force

The player gear was based around fairly lightweight motocross body armor (roost deflectors), red for the Red team or white with blue accents for the Blue team. Originally the arm guards were left on, but later their webbing was clipped off as they were a nuisance in the suit up room. The back and front of the armor each had a cast aluminum box - battery pack in the back, electronics in the front, and cables over both shoulders.

After lifting this large armor shell over your head and lowering it onto your shoulders, you would have to put on your food-service hair net, basically just a plastic bag with an elastic opening. (This helped discourage the spread of lice and disease, one presumes, but after running around in the arena for a while, your scalp would be hot and your hair dripping. Photon used a paper-mesh type that was a lot nicer.) Then you'd have to put on the (motorcycle) helmet, and then someone would have to plug its cable in for you. (The gun plugged into the bottom of the front box; the helmet into the top of the back box.) The helmet was the most basic type; the snap-on face shields were not used.

The outfitted warriors had an impressive, fully-armored appearance that Photon’s equipment could not duplicate. The field of view was also less restricted at SLF, and while the helmet was heavier, it felt like gearing up for battle to wear the full kit, other than the lightweight plastic gun. That being said, some people described the game as like being a cast member in a low budget sci-fi film.

Shoulder sensors, coiled cables, and any semblance of “drop protection” had not been invented yet. People who removed their helmets at the end of the game often left them dangling behind them by the cable; likewise, guns dangled and scraped the floor up front.

The helmets had several light sensors and LEDs in either green or red (modern blue and white LEDs hadn't been invented, and amber was often pretty dim in those days). The boxes on the front and back each had an LED and a sensor. The guns were black plastic laser pistol toys, gutted and fitted with camera flash electronics (with some parts molded to fit the gun), a trigger switch, and a cable. The flash was reduced to a spot by a barrel lens. I'm not too sure of the range. As I recall, there was a reasonable chance you could hit someone from 40 or 50 feet away at a minimum. The visible flashes made it fairly easy to aim and you could often spot the action (and the danger) in the arena by watching for them. In my opinion it also made it easier for small kids to play, compared to Photon which used all infrared (to say nothing of their exceptionally heavy battery belt).

The digital logic was rudimentary. In the player's hardware there was no game coordination, no network, no communication at all, not even a game timer. When your pack was reset, your score was 000. You could fire at will, subject to the charging rate of the gun (about every 7-8 seconds). If you fired too soon, you might get a weak shot at best. To tag someone, you had to hit their sensors with the flash. If someone tagged you, your gun would be disabled and all your LEDs would flash while your score counted up 10 points. During the count you had roughly 4 seconds to hide and escape further damage. After that you were vulnerable again. The system had only two sound effects, the firing sound and the you’re-hit sound which you heard in your helmet. Aiming and shooting carefully was very important since you could not shoot rapidly, to say nothing of easily shooting a teammate by mistake.

The score display was three LED digits facing outward. If you wanted to read your own score you had to lift up the bottom of your front armor and read it upside down. At the end of the game, people did that or asked their friends what they got on their way back to the charging room or while removing their gear. The suits went back on their bars; the helmets, disconnected, went onto a drying rack.

The only “debriefing” was people comparing each other’s scores as just described, with lower individual scores being desirable; a Patrol member would sum up the team score mentally or with a scrap of paper. Scores were announced as the players retired to the customer lounge; the team with the lower total score won the match. Of course, you could get a low individual score by just hiding deep in the arena, but that wouldn't be much fun would it? While hiding might be thought of as one strategy, aggressive players systematically flushing out members of the opposing team kept people circulating throughout the arena.

The Arena

The Star Laser Force arena was constructed of plywood and studs painted flat black with some metal gratings in parts of the catwalks and black light fluorescent accents. I once heard that there had been low passages under some of the “catwalk” features that had been closed due to fire code violations, public access laws regarding ceiling height, or perhaps because people kept hitting their helmets on the ceilings; I can't substantiate that rumor. The arena lights were on a dimmer which was set to varying levels depending on the referees' or players' whim. Arena sound was a tape in a tape deck in the office (there was a mic, too, so that someone could call out “Stop firing, stop firing,” to end the game when the egg timer went off. The tape had a mix of early electronic music (Jean-Michel Jarre, and possibly others) mixed with space-war sound effects, as I recall. The arena had some instrument speakers near the ceiling, in two opposite corners I think.

The arena was rectangular, longer from the front of the building to the back. It was very dense by comparison to the Houston Photon, which had wide-open airy spaces. Star Laser Force had much in common with the modern indoor "urban combat" arenas of today, and had very distinct areas, each of which had strengths and weaknesses.

The center of the first floor of the arena was asymmetrical and had a few decorations (such as a cluster of barrels) and a small dead end which was dangerous to be caught in, yet had a ceiling to protect occupants from attacks from the second level. Brilliantly, the dead end had a tiny pocket off to the side in the back, barely large enough for one person to stand perfectly straight in, such that a careless look into the dead end might deceive passersby into thinking it was unoccupied.

If memory serves, some of these first floor features, including the dead end and the walls, were moved now and again.

Close to the front of the building on the ground floor was the Maze, and it was easy for a beginner to get lost in there. Some passages were quite narrow, and there were dead ends and murder-holes (“laser slits”?) to be exploited. Later in the life of the arena I believe the maze was simplified by the removal or relocation of some walls.

I don't recall details of the upper deck above the maze. I believe it was called the Bridge due to the Saturn space mural painted on the front wall just behind the “viewscreen.” It was served by two most excellent ramps , quite steep, that no insurance company would dare to cover today. The ramps were treated with an abrasive coating and I did not hear of anyone sliding down one, although going down too fast and slamming into a side wall was not uncommon. At the apex of the steep ramps, you could enter the Bridge area or take the catwalk from there to the Reactor.

The Reactor was a round tower in the center of the arena, which I think was somewhere between 8 and 10 feet (2.5~3.0m) in diameter. Its ground floor was a round room. Above, three catwalks led up to a strategic crows-nest sort of roundabout with waist-high walls, from which players could easily pick off anyone in the open first floor of the arena, players in the upper and lower “windows” at the ends of the field, and anyone approaching the Reactor on the catwalks. Since it was of plywood, the player could also crouch and be hidden from almost everyone else. To keep people from capturing and holding the tower indefinitely, there was the reactor “core,” a party strobe light aimed to blast anyone crouching on the roundabout. Players on the Reactor had to remain standing and were therefore quite vulnerable to anyone in all the areas just mentioned. There was also some light leakage from the core to the floor of the arena that caused trouble to players standing in the wrong place or trying to seek cover in the round room.

Toward the rear of the building there were several pitch black passages on the ground floor where no light penetrated. Players quickly learned to exploit their helmet LEDs to follow the walls. If you spotted a perceptible glow of the correct color in one of these chambers, there was a good chance to take out a member of the opposing team.

Either a catwalk from the Reactor or a ramp with a more normal slope could get you up to the upper level in the rear of the arena, where players could enjoy a parapet overlooking the center of the arena (which included barred windows that became known as the Jail), or retreat into corridors which had slightly sloped fun-house floors, which caused many a newbie to stumble.

That's how I remember it thus far, and I'm sure there are numerous inaccuracies that need to be corrected.  Please leave a comment if something comes to mind.

(Originally published 7/1/2012. Revised 3/4/2016 with numerous corrections and some additional details.)


  1. You have far more details in your memory than I have in mine, but I certainly remember Saturn and the jail area. If only digital cameras had existed... I wonder where the blueprints are?

  2. Oh, no WONDER I couldn't find one of those shallow spaces where one person could hide and shoot at others: they got moved! I spotted a friend of mine in one once but couldn't find it again. Makes sense now...

    GREAT amount of details here.