Tag, You’re Lit!

Do you feel lasered? … Well, do ya, punk?

You’re staring down the red-beam barrel of a glow gun wielded by some Dorky Harry Callahan — just blast the lug with a hail of ray-fire, then pivot around to another victim so you can pump ’em full of light.

“Normally I just go on top and sniper people, but they were just coming from everywhere,” says Dave Harper, fresh from a “mission” at Laser Quest, cheerfully bemoaning his 15th-place finish. “I don’t think I’ve ever done any less than first, second or third. I need a different strategy.”

One of the few grown-ups amid an eager army of adrenaline-addled teens, he ponders the reasons behind his lackluster performance. “Fast kids … and age.”

Zap-happy hordes regularly crowd into Laser Quest’s Aztec-flavored, red-and-maroon-walled lobby leading to a black-lit maze of glowing ramps and pillars. That’s where they’re transformed into laser tag combatants — outfitted in blinking-light backpacks and armed with Super Soaker-style ray guns — resembling a movie-hero montage reel: prowling stealthily like ghostbusters, fighting futuristically like Jedi warriors and firing frantically like John McClane on a yippeekayay bender.

This is state-of-the-art regression into childlike giddiness.

“It’s almost like playing a video game, but actually being inside of it,” says Laser Quest manager Daniel Wheat, noting that their clientele includes such celebrity laser-blasters as Andre Agassi and members of Panic at the Disco. “You step into a whole new universe, lasers flying across the maze, bouncing off mirrors, people glowing. It’s the idea of an alternate reality that makes it so appealing.”

With 33 players in a 20-minute game — sometimes reserved in advance as groups, often just walk-in strangers thrown together to aim red lightning at each — contests kick off in a briefing room decorated like a mini-Mayan temple, where a game supervisor dubbed a “marshal” explains the cosmic details.

“Everyone here is now your enemy,” says “Marshal” David France to his gang of Day-Glo gladiators, his shirt’s luminescent staff insignia and shoelaces eerily bright in the semidarkness. “They may look like your friends, but they’re your opponents.” Then he leads his charges in a recitation of the “players code,” including safety rules and a pledge to “play fair, play smart and give it my all.”

Now it’s on to the “Air Lock,” a prep room where players grab their weapons and suit up in electronic sensor-laden vests for a sci-fi-style free-for-all inside a spooky, 9,000-square-foot layout of runways and columns that’s shrouded in fog, action goosed by a thumping musical soundtrack. Throughout, a computer records merits and demerits based on how often competitors are tagged or tag others.

“When they’re trying to avoid the laser fire, dodging and ducking, there’s a lot of crazy movements,” Wheat says. “When you see grown men looking like they’re dancing like that, it’s quite a sight to see.”

Like paintball minus the sting and splat, laser hits fetch varying point scores for nailing someone’s back, shoulder or other exposed areas, while rules prohibit holding the same position for more than three seconds to prevent unfairly hiding one’s sensors against a surface. “With the younger groups, you don’t hear them screaming,” France says. “But the older groups you do. I don’t know why.”

After 20 minutes, the screaming, running, shooting, hiding and giggling fades, and an anticipatory buzz builds outside.

“That was a great time,” says Norm Zohner, gathering with the considerably younger crowd in the lobby to await announcement of the standings. “But I think I was shooting myself, with all those mirrors, like ‘Oh, that’s me!’ And I’m standing out there in the open, but I gotta get behind those pillars, make sure no one’s tagging me.”

For Chris Eliason — code name: PAPABEAR — who often comes with his church group, this round found him battling one particular nemesis. “This guy!” he shouts good-naturedly at a competitor. “I won’t name names, but he kept following me, man!” Still, laser combat leaves him pumped.

“I started coming here with my dad, and he’s like, ‘Hey, shoot that guy!’ It’s like you’re at war, but no one gets hurt. There are people who are better than me, I will admit that, but I’m pretty good. And I swear, I lose about 10 pounds in sweat.”

But beware of returnee Alisa Atherton, whose ultra-quick learning curve makes more than a few “punks” feel lasered. “The first time I came in 19th,” she recalls. “The next time I came in second.”

In Laser Quest lingo, that makes her Dirty Harriet Callahan.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0256.

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