Strobe lights flash. Pinpoints of green and red light pierce the darkness. Hip-hop music blares. Sirens screech.
A never-never land? A wacky world at war? A moonscape?
Guess again. It is a laser tag arena, where fantasy becomes real and excitement runs amok.
As what co-owner Ilias Tsolkas said is Pasco County's only laser tag arena, Lazer Matrix in New Port Richey shines the light on the world of laser gaming.
The purpose of laser tag is to gain points by "shooting" an opponent with a gun, dubbed a "phaser," which emits a low-voltage beam of laser light.
Objects strategically placed around the 4,500-square-foot arena allow players to use them for sabotage or protection.
Players wear vests that blaze in red or green lights and contain sensors to record "hits" from the laser beam. To complete the package, they carry "guns" sporting one shade of those Christmas-colored lights.
Lights not for show
The lights are not just for show. In team play, players with the like colored lights are on the same team.
People are sometimes afraid of laser tag because they think lasers are dangerous, Tsolkas noted.
Not to worry.
The only real laser is in the phaser, and that one is harmless because of its low voltage and the brief exposure to the beam the combatants experience.
Lasers used in phasers are classified by the Food and Drug Administration as class II and are safe as long as they beam for only a short time, said Erik Guthrie, vice president of Dover, Del.-based Zone Laser Tag, the world's largest laser tag company. Guthrie is a former executive director of the International Laser Tag Association, the trade association for the 23-year-old industry.
The lasers in the phasers appear for only one-tenth of a second at a time.
"We as an industry have never had a single recorded incident of eye injury due to laser exposure in 25 years of the industry history," Guthrie noted.
The game uses lasers for only cosmetic reasons. They provide visual evidence of hits.
The actual recording of hits is left to infrared light in transmitters in phaser-guns hitting receptors in vests.
Television remote controls use the same process by sending out infrared light carrying signals for tasks such as changing channels to receptors in the television, said Guthrie.
The game takes place in a room dark except for those strobe lights flashing and bouncing off mirrors and tiny red or green lights on guns and vests of participants.
Eyes still not adjusted to the dim light vaguely discern about 25 various sized large rectangular objects about the room as hiding places.
To make it more challenging, the room includes sniper towers and barrels.
When a player is hit, the vest vibrates and its lights go off for a few seconds.
More points for hit
How long they're off depends on the bodily part that's hit. The longer they're off, the more dangerous the hit - and the more points the other player rakes in for the hit.
"You get more points if you hit someone in the chest or back because it's considered more lethal," said 20-year-old Mike Burnett, assistant manager of Lazer Matrix.
Shoulder and gun hits are less dangerous, requiring less "dead" time. Those give opponents fewer points.
When lights return, the player is ready to play again.
"You can't die in a laser tag game," said Burnett.
The longest you can remain out of commission is 10 seconds.
That's if you shoot your base three consecutive times and the base shoots you back and scores a hit.
Bases differ according to laser systems. The one at Laser Matrix is a thick half circle hanging on the wall near the ceiling. It appears innocuous before players understand its power.
Life is tough in laser tag.
Besides being out of commission for 10 seconds after being hit by the base, you will also lose all the 2,001 points you got for hitting it those three consecutive times.
On a recent outing of 6- to 10-year-olds from Kids Kountry Calvary Chapel in New Port Richey, the children donned vests.
Ethan Wyatt, 9, and Mia Barbin, 8, were old hands at the game. Both were looking forward to the match.
Why did Ethan like the game?
"I get to shoot people."
Mia took the more social approach.
"You get to play with your friends."
For the newcomers, Burnett explained the rules.
"You shoot anywhere you see lights," he said.
Shoot opposite color
But the children should shoot only at children displaying lights of a different color than theirs. Red should shoot at green and green at red.
"What color are you going to shoot at?" Burnett asked a little boy whose gun and vest were flashing red lights.
"Red," the child replied.
But not to worry. The system does not record "friendly fire" hits.
In the 15 minutes of the game, the rules seemed less important to the young children than the fun of running around in a dark room and shooting at other players.
Strategy becomes important to older players, said Burnett.
Some moves can become complex, he said, such as shooting another player's reflection in a mirror when the image is also reflected in another mirror to get extra points.
Playing since 9
The 20-year-old Burnett has been playing laser tag since he was about 9.
"I was hooked on it the first time I played," he recalled.
In high school, he played at least three times a week. He even managed to convert some of his buddies who were paintball fans to the game.
He said both the strategizing and the physical activity are suited to his personality.
"I've always been an adrenaline kind of person."
Ilias Tsolkas worried that Pasco County is not a populated enough venue to support laser tag.
"Statistics say you have to be in a city with at least 250,000 population," he noted.
Last year, he spent $40,000 for a new system that includes 24 vests and guns.
Such an investment is substantial, but laser tag systems go as high as $80,000, he observed.
His target players are from 5 to 24 years old, he said.
But oldsters like it, too. Lazer Matrix has a number of older adult players.
Birthday parties for the younger set in a private party room with cake and pizza interspersed with two laser games are especially popular.
Does he worry that with all their shooting the games are too violent?
Steve, his son and co-owner of the business answered that.
"It does nothing more than the cartoons that kids watch today, if not less," he said of laser tag.
Team building, leadership
The game also fosters team building and leadership, he pointed out, and helps develop hand-eye coordination.
Laser tag also beats PlayStation, a popular video game for young people, in the physical activity department, Steve Tsolkas said.
"It's safe and fun, as opposed to sitting at home and playing PlayStation, which has no physical activity. It's a great way to stay in shape."
Lazer Matrix is at 4948 U.S. 19 in New Port Richey. Call 841-0900 for more information.