Their hair is thinner, grayer, and their waistlines have expanded. They aren't as fast on their feet anymore, either. But on this, the 30th birthday of Photon, the first commercial laser tag game, they are all teenagers again.
They arrived in Laurel from California and Washington state and everywhere in between. More than 100 players who were teammates and rivals in tournaments all over the country in the 1980s gathered at XP LaserSport in Laurel for a weekend of games and memories
Players who had known each other by their gaming names and their reputations put on the heavy helmets and the cumbersome battery pack belts to play the way they did when George Carter — who was also on hand — invented the game. They resembled the bounty hunter in Star Wars and the battery packs looked like World War I ammunition belts.
The first laser tag facility opened on this weekend in Dallas in 1984 and franchises popped up all over the country, including in Baltimore. The game has changed along with the science, but this weekend was definitely old school.
"We collected the equipment from everywhere," said Marc Mueller, general manager of XP LaserSport. "We found it on eBay and I've collected them from places that had closed down in Dallas, Chicago and Tulsa."
Mueller refurbished the vintage equipment for use this weekend. All the players agreed the modern equipment is very cool and very slick, but it can't hold a candle to the old stuff.
"It's very nostalgic for us," said Tracy Snow of Louisville, Ky. She works in the insurance industry there.
"This is the stuff I learned to play on." She gave herself the name Thunder when she started playing at 15. That was 27 years ago. She calls herself Artemus now, "Greek goddess of the hunt."
"There's a lot of good equipment now but it isn't built for the team game," said Dave Holcomb, of Fairfield, Calif. His game name is Outryder and he is 49 now and his knees aren't too good. He flew in to see his brother, Mike, who drove up from Williamsburg, Va. They were teammates in Oklahoma as kids, where they met Chris Parrish, known as 23.
"I haven't seen Chris since 1989," said Holcomb.
Parrish flew in with his son, Aidan, from Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Washington, where he is a software developer. On the journey, he tried to instruct the 11-year-old in the rules and fine points of the game, and the scores flashing on the screen above the darkened gaming maze suggested that the boy had absorbed the lessons. He was holding his own.
"I grew up at the facility," said Parrish. His parents would let him spend hours there on weekends, running off steam. He had his wife's blessing for this trip into the past. "We'll probably get in 20 games before it is all said and done," he said.
Since its invention — creator Carter was inspired by the Star Wars movies — laser tag has become a staple of the family amusement industry, with an estimated 3,000 fixed and mobile facilities worldwide that bring in about $700 million in combined annual sales, according to the Laser Tag Museum in Louisville, Ky.
The 7- to 15-year-olds who play laser tag today play it as a kind of free-for-all, perhaps at a birthday party. Back in the day, however, Holcomb and his brother and Parrish were part of a team of at least 10 players of teens and 20-somethings. They practiced and ran set plays. There was strategy and finesse. The lobby in Mueller's laser tag field is decorated with framed jerseys of the great players and memorable tournaments.
Some young local players were there during the weekend to play with and against these veterans and to get the feel of the old-time gear. For most of the players, however, this was a reunion weekend.
"I came to meet up with people I have known and played against since 1988," said Dan Moreno, a 43-year-old accountant from Germantown who looked as fit and game-ready as he might have 25 years ago. "I have to say the technology is better today, but the game isn't."