There was a time when the future of running around and shooting at your friends was going to involve beams of infrared light, smoke machines, and wearing dorky vests and helmets. Yes, I’m talking about Laser Tag.
As with my other article on NERF, the whole idea is that for people who don’t like the idea of paintballs hitting them at 300 feet per second, games like Laser Tag can provide an alternative. It can also be a soft introduction to the sort of gameplay basics paintball offers. In other words, younger or more sensitive players may start out playing something like Laser Tag and then move on to more adrenaline-pumping games like paintball and Airsoft. So what is Laser Tag like? How does it compare to paintball? Let’s have a closer look.
Famous in the 80s
While Laser Tag is an iconic game associated with the 80s, the actual technology became available to consumers in the late 70s. Appropriately, a Star Trek toy was the first commercial example of a Laser Tag system. It was called the Star Trek Electronic Phaser Guns Set. Two players each had a sensor worn on their clothes and a gun. The sensor would register a hit, making it possible for “kids” to keep score of who did or did not take a beam of harmless light to the chest.
By 1982 one George Carter III got down to the business of turning this tech into an arena-based game. Ironically, it wasn’t Star Trek that inspired him to create such a game, but Star Wars – with all its pew-pew blaster action. In 1984 the first ever Laser Tag arena opened for business. The actual toys were branded under names like Photon and Laser Tag. By the end of the 80s these companies were out of business, but that doesn’t mean Laser Tag is dead. There are still plenty of arenas all over the world.
Buying Your Own Gear
Certainly you can go to a Laser Tag Arena and have a blast, but in a way this isn’t the main appeal of modern Laser Tag. After all, unless you really can’t stand the sweat and pain of paintball, it amounts to the same amount of hassle to arrange.
No, Laser Tag comes into its own when you buy a set for yourself and invite some friends to the park or your backyard for a few rounds. So here are a few sets that stood out to me, most with a price equal to or less than a single paintball marker. That’s a lot of fun for the money!
ArmoGear Infrared Laser Tag Blasters and Vests
At the time of writing, this Armogear set is Amazon’s best selling laser tag set – and for good reason. With target vests, invisibility mode, night vision flashlight, voice-guided directions and a 150 ft blaster shooting range it’s simply the most versatile and complete set out there. Add to that the option to change ammunition power from pistol to shotgun, machine gun or rocket, and it’s easy to see how much fun this set can be.
If we can believe the customer reviews, and with several hundreds of them I think we can, this set really delivers. The only criticism some people have is that the sensor is extremely sensitive and sometimes picks up invalid “hits”, so if you take great pride in your aiming skills this is not the set for you. It’s too easy to score.
The upside to this flaw, however, is that it guarantees more action and more fun. And given the overwhelming majority of raving reviews, that’s probably what matters most. Especially with kids.
The TAG Adventure Guys 4-Player Set
The ArmoGear set above is a good deal, but it’s not what one would consider “deluxe”. This set from TAG Adventure, on the other hand, is literally labeled as such and priced to match. At twice the price, what do you get for your money?
The first thing that caught my eye is the nice metal carry case. This is definitely a set meant to throw in the trunk and take along on holiday, to the park, or when visiting friends. It’s also a good way to protect your gear when it isn’t being used to play with.
Inside you’ll find four substantial-looking blasters. In the promo shots it seems you get four different colors, and this is backed up by the sales blurb too. This means each player gets a unique pistol. This is a fully-integrated system, which means everything is built into the guns themselves. There are no separate arm bands or vests. In essence this means you actually have to shoot at your opponent’s gun.
On the side of each unit there’s another clever idea. There’s a light that indicates which team you’re on and a meter showing how many lives are left. The blasters themselves are also more intricate than they appear. They can be set to different modes: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and rocket launcher. This influences how much “ammo” is loaded and how much damage is done when someone is hit.
Apart from lighting up, the guns also vibrate and feature sound effects. This might not appeal to everyone, but apparently this can be muted. The range is claimed at up to 150 feet, which is pretty decent.
The most interesting inclusion in this kit has to be the “beetle bug”. It’s a little toy robot target that crawls around so you can practice shooting at it. If you hit the little guy he’ll flip over and then flip back seconds later. It’s a good way to get your eye in or have some way to play by yourself.
Most impressive, however, is the offer of a lifetime warranty, although I expect there’s quite a lot of fine print involved. Overall, this is something I would consider buying myself if I were in the market.
Laser X 4-Player Set
These Laser X Micro Blasters sure bear a resemblance to the original Star Trek toys that were the first ever Laser Tag consumer products. It’s got that classic sci-fi design that I personally find quite appealing.
Now, the main draw of this set is how compact everything is. The sensor that reads hits comes in the form of an armband. Obviously this means you can’t aim for specific spots. It also means you have to flank or get the drop on someone in order to hit them, since they can use their own bodies to shield the receiver.
Still, I like the design and the colored lighting. These keep track of shots, hits, and other important numbers. The best part is that these blasters will work with any other Laser X systems, not just Micro Blasters, so you can expand on this set later. All in all, great value for money!
NERF Lazer Tag Phoenix LTX 2-Pack
Hello, hello, hello, what’s all this then? Nerf? Laser Tag? Yes sir, it seems the foam dart-flinging purveyors of plastic weapons have made the sensible decision to diversify a bit. After all, if you already make good plastic guns filled with electronics, why not make a slightly different take on a similar product?
Nerf is famous for their great gun designs and I think in this case they’ve kept up the good work. These guns have a distinct style from the rest of the Nerf line, but are still interesting and quite pretty to look at. To me they have a sort of steampunk aesthetic. Don’t be surprised if some sci-fi movie features repainted copies of these, as is wont to happen with Nerf blasters from time to time.
The pricing on this set is very competitive and yet, in typical Nerf style, there are some real innovations here that make it seem like these should cost quite a bit more. So let’s talk about the Phoenix LTX Tagger for second, because there’s a lot to this gun. While this set comes with two of them, you can combine as many as you like. They aren’t paired or anything. This is another integrated system, with the sensor on the gun itself. This is better than an armband in many ways, since there’s no real way for your opponent to hide the sensor with their body without also removing their ability to shoot.
The blasters are pretty sophisticated, even simulating recoil by using vibration motors. However, they are LESS sophisticated than their predecessors. Other Tiger electronics taggers had featured screens and a special system where you could point your gun at another player and see which team they belonged to. The Phoenix LTX guns have only indicator lights to show you things like your level of health.
Tiger Electronics, which used to own the official Lazer Tag brand, still has compatible hardware out there. Apparently these Phoenix LTX taggers can still join in with games hosted by those older machines.
So these are more streamlined that the Tiger originals, but they are accurate, sophisticated, and well-made. User reviews are almost universally positive, so I honestly think buying two or four of these would make for a really enjoyable session of Laser Tag.
Rec-Tek Duel Set
Finally, here we have the budget option. These are the cheapest blasters I could find so far; for the price of a single Nerf blaster you can have a complete dueling set, including two blasters and two sensors. In terms of design, well, these look like those cheap potato guns I used to play with as a kid. Rudimentary is an understatement. However, as long as the electronics work properly, the design of a blaster is really only an ergonomic issue. While the design is uninspired, these don’t look that uncomfortable to use.
One cool thing about this budget set is that they have gone for the traditional center-mass sensor. I don’t really like the armband solution because it’s too easy to cheat with it, but here someone has to obviously cover up the sensor if they don’t want to play by the rules. Overall, this is the purest, most basic set I’ve seen. Buy two sets and have the most affordable 4-player free-for-all possible.
How the Game is Played
Unlike paintball, Airsoft, or Nerf, there isn’t much standardization between Laser Tag systems. So the exact rules will differ depending on the hardware system. Hits are determined without your intervention or that of a marshal. It’s all automated.
Laser Tag can be played anywhere, so you can buy your own kit for home use or playing in a local park. However, if you actually want to see the beams, which is pretty cool, you need to go to an arena that uses fog machines to make the light beams visible.
Just to be clear, the beams you see are not what the gun actually tags with. There’s a visible light laser sight and then an invisible infrared beam. These two lights are supposed to be aligned, but they can drift after a while. There are targets at most good arenas that let you check if your infrared beam and sight are no longer firing at the same target.
As you probably already know, the aim of the game is to shoot at other players, who are wearing sensor vests and sometimes helmets. If you land your beam on one of these sensors it will register as a hit. Laser Tag makes heavy use of cover, almost like CQB Airsoft. It’s also usually played in very dark venues, so it’s a good idea to scout the arena when the lights are on – spotting good places to hide or to find opponents.
As I said, it really depends on each individual system or arena when it comes to how many hits will “kill” an opponent. Some systems have multiple sensors, with some being instant kills and others only adding a point.
Laser Tag vs Paintball: Pros and Cons
First of all, I’m not saying you can only play either one type of game or the other. This is about being aware of the different combat-simulation game types and deciding which one is right for the situation.
The obvious advantage of Laser Tag is that there’s no actual ammunition; so no BBs or paint splats or any sort of mess. The only consumable parts are the batteries, and since plenty of Airsoft and paintball systems also rely on battery power, that’s hardly a downside.
Then again, Laser Tag doesn’t do much for you in terms of marksmanship. When you’re firing beams of light at someone there are no ballistics to speak of. In fact, unless you are playing in an arena with fog, you can’t see your sight beam as anything other than a dot on the target. So if you want a game where target shooting is a major part of it, then Laser Tag isn’t going to do it, especially since the range of the guns is quite short.
If, however, you are OK just enjoying the strategy and thrill of battling against other humans, Laser Tag has plenty to offer. The forced close-quarters battle could even be seen as a positive thing. You can play just about anywhere, rope in some friends, have a bit of fun, and pack it all away with far less fuss and hassle. So I guess you can think of Laser Tag as the quick snack of combat games.
It’s also considerably cheaper. You don’t need protective gear; no gas or ammo or any of the other many costs that creep up on paintball hobbyists.
One downside however, is that you can’t just get together with people and combine your gear. Everyone has to use the same system, which is a major pro in favor of paintball. Likewise, you can’t bring your own equipment to an arena, which is the only real option for large numbers of people. In short, Laser Tag is a fun, easy to set up diversion for a few friends to play together, but falls short as a game of marksmanship or one where people can invest in universal gear.
There isn’t any serious argument you can make that Laser Tag is a replacement for paintball. Paintball is visceral, dirty, and comes with pain that makes it feel more real and memorable. That doesn’t mean a game like Laser Tag is outside of the realm of appeal for paintball fans. It’s good, clean fun you can play with people of all ages. It doesn’t have to pump your adrenaline to be worth playing. In fact, it could be seen as a nice reprieve from the sometimes self-serious world of paintball. Everyone needs a break from time to time, right? Maybe a little make-believe laser fighting is just what the doctor ordered.