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It's Zap or Be Zapped in a Galaxy Far, Far Away (in Fountain Valley)

March 31, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

"Schedule a private party and battle for supremacy with your comrades."

Not your usual loads-o'-laughs, tons-o'-fun get-together announcement. It sounds a little like a Daniel Ortega garden soiree. Still, the true nature of the announcement is almost as strange: It's an invitation to congregate at a place in Fountain Valley called Photon and blast your pals--figuratively, anyway--to atoms.

Photon is a high-tech emporium where you can play cops and robbers in a galaxy far, far away. It's a murky, maze-like indoor playground filled with eerie sounds and lights and fog where you can run amok with ray guns, gleefully zapping your pals in desperate 6 1/2-minute skirmishes.

Orange County's Photon franchise (there are 20 nationwide), which is in a small shopping complex in Fountain Valley, offers everything for the would-be space warrior. For $3.50, visitors get rigged up with a helmet with radio receivers, signal lights and stereo sound, a "phaser" gun that shoots a beam of infrared light, a control module containing microchips that register scores and a belt filled with batteries to power all that armor.

Thus rigged, the players are divided into equal teams of no more than 15 to a side, are herded into small rooms on opposite ends of the indoor playing field and turned loose on one another.

The idea, simply, is to zap your opponents while avoiding getting zapped yourself and ultimately to penetrate the other team's territory to score a hit on that team's base goal. Each hit on an opponent is worth 10 points; each score on a base goal is worth 200.

If you are zapped by an opponent, or if you accidentally zap a member of your own team, your equipment won't fire for five seconds. You aren't "dead," just temporarily helpless.

A hit is scored when the infrared beam from your gun strikes a light on an opponent's helmet or control module, which hangs at chest height. And, because the ray from the gun is invisible, electronic tones in your headset tell you when you hit and miss--and when you've been zapped.

The playing field is a carpeted, two-tiered maze of doorways, partitions, ramps, portholes and crannies and "it gets really wild with all the lights going, the music and the fog and all the people running around," said general manager Jim Neal. "You can work up a sweat. You do a lot of running around, and the equipment weighs about 15 pounds. Two games of this is like a game of racquetball."

Nearly 1,000 people show up to play Photon on an average day, Neal said, mostly young men between 18 and 24 years old. About 20% of the players are female, he added. And there is a hard core of players who have become nearly fanatical about it.

"We have some people who just live here," he said.

Many players, Neal said, become so expert at battling for supremacy with their comrades that they play in leagues on Monday and Thursday evenings.

Currently, the Fountain Valley Photon facility is the only one of its kind in California. Neal said another is planned in Studio City and smaller versions are being considered for shopping malls.

And, he said, new phasers that shoot beams of visible light are scheduled to make their debut at Photon in June.

"They're kind of like the strobes on cameras," Neal said. "You can actually see the light coming at you. It makes you duck. It should make the game a lot more interesting."

PHOTON AT A GLANCE

What: A futuristic "cops-and-robbers" game in which teams armed with light-emitting guns do battle on an indoor playing field.

Where: 9380 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley.

Hours: Summer (mid-June through mid-September)--noon-midnight Friday and Saturday, noon-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. Winter--6-10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday, closed Wednesday.

Rates: Tickets (called passports) cost $3.50 for each 6 1/2-minute game. Special all-day unlimited play passes issued during summer and school holidays for $12.

Requirements: No age or weight requirement, but all players must be at least 4 feet, 6 inches tall.

Additional features: Expert league play Monday evenings, intermediate league play Thursday evenings. Private parties arranged. Snack counter and pro shop (T-shirts, hats, etc.) in lobby.

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