``Proceed ahead to meet the challenge of the Lazer Maze. Your mission is to defeat the renegade laser droids. Prepare to defend yourself.'' The words echo in Darth Vader-esque anonymity, luring the wary down dimly blinking corridors to darkened, hexagonal chambers. Suddenly, otherworldly robot creatures flash from behind plexiglass panels. The only defense: a blast between the eyes from a hand-held, machine-gun-shaped ``Lazerblaster'' that emits beams of infrared light with the pull of a trigger.
Welcome to the latest attraction from video arcade-dom's ever-burgeoning grab bag: ``player interactive, fantasy environments.''
``These are participatory, walk-through, human-action video games,'' says manager Ben Platt of the first ``Lazer Maze'' in the United States, which opened at the Sherman Oaks Galleria here last Dec. 18. ``People have gotten bored standing in front of VDTs with joy sticks. They want to get their whole bodies and minds more into the action.''
On the heels of another red-hot, participatory laser game, Planet Photon - which started in Dallas in 1984 and has grown to 18 locations, with about 60 more scheduled to open this year - the new game reflects a shift in interest for the $30 billion leisure time industry away from electronic videogames to a new age of player-interactive games.
``In a word - outrageousness!'' says Bill Stankiewicz, 16, popping out one end of the 2,500 square-foot maze. He and three friends are taking turns fighting their way through the chambers at $3 a crack for the two- to three-minute series of gunfights. Scores are registered on video screens in the lobby for everyone to see. Each participant receives a membership card with a number that tells the computer who is playing. Most use pseudonyms.
``It's pretty expensive, but it's definitely the hottest thing around right now,'' says the Van Nuys, Calif., teen-ager who goes by the alias ``Indiana Bones.'' ``I get paid tomorrow morning; I'll be here in the afternoon.''
``It's better than video, because you're part of the action, you're not watching,'' says Mark Wecker, another 16-year-old from Van Nuys.
``It's a gas,'' says Paul Bokor, an actor from Redondo Beach, Calif., who attends regularly with his five sons, aged 17 to 26, all members. ``It's a good way to lose your inhibitions without hurting anything or being hurt. It's pure fantasy.''
But like the home ``Lazer Tag'' game heavily promoted last Christmas, the new interactive laser games have ignited controversy along with enthusiasm.
``War games like Lazer Maze perpetrate traditional images of war,'' says William Hochman, a professor of history at Colorado College who has studied societal patterns of bellicose behavior. He is concerned that ``since war in the modern, nuclear age is quite different and more potentially devastating,'' games like this are not only dangerous for children, but may feed attitudes of aggression and tolerance for violence in society generally.
Donald Bechtold, director of the Child/Adolescent Clinic at the University of Colorado's Health Services Center, is less alarmed. He points out that no major studies have yet quantified the effects of such games, ``so the controversy still exists as one of personal opinion. My feeling is that nothing good can come of it, but also, for the right child, nothing bad. The problem can come with children who are already prone to fuzz over the distinction between fantasy and reality.''
Mr. Bokor says the game distinguishes itself by an adversarial relationship that is ``more man vs. machine, than man vs. man. If you gave my son a real gun and told him to go in and shoot a fly, he couldn't do it, but something about this makes it OK to take on a computer.''
So many teen-agers have already spinned, ducked, whirled, and weaved in pursuit of the maze's robotic adversaries here that the owners/creators of the game will soon open three more across the country: Manhattan in March, San Francisco in April, and a hoped-for opening in Orlando, Fla., in May. They expect 25 to 50 across the country by December. Cost? About $15,000 in franchise rights for a given population center, and another $185,000 in equipment.
``It's been phenomenally successful so far,'' says owner Lenny Sigaloff, who rents the maze's second-floor mall space here for $7,000 a month and has brought in about $60,000 since opening day.
``Weekends this place is a zoo,'' says a clerk at the neighboring Oaktree Boutique. ``You can barely hear for the screams.''
Over 2,500 have already paid the $5 membership fee (70 percent of those between 10 and 16 are regular customers) and he expects 20,000 by June, 55,000 by fall. The ``membership'' gets you two free games and an identity card. Beyond that, one pays by the game.
Brochures are available to interested franchisers. They describe the setup's ``turn-key installation, digital sound, and 32 minicomputers for the operating of special effects'' - the sounds of the droids and occasional blasts of mist for effect. A 10-megabyte IBM personal computer, designed to require a minimum of maintenance, operates the scoring and identification of members. The maze was designed by Roland Crump, former senior project leader with Walt Disney Productions. The idea was that of former real estate baron Tim Mahoney, who founded High Technology Recreation Industries to pursue the venture. The animated robots - which seem to explode when a true hit is registered - are produced for HTR by AVG Productions Inc., maker of industrial robotics and specialty animation for movies and theme parks.
The world's first Lazer Maze opened last March in Edmonton, Alberta. It took in about $150,000 in the first six months. HTR sees malls, shopping centers, amusement parks, theme restaurants, and arcade chains in the US as its main markets. They expect the demand to multiply, noting that the well-publicized decline in video game revenues has coincided with with the rise of ``interactive fantasy.''
Lazer Maze advocates say 30,000 different sequences of attacks, at each of three different speeds, insures a constant challenge for repeat customers. This avoids the ``burnout,'' they say, of video games like Pac-Man, where patterns can be discovered, resulting in boredom. Settings and characters in the maze can be changed easily. And backers are already touting the new arcade as a place to bring private groups - birthday parties and such. Tournaments are already planned.
Manager Platt says the keenest customers are 10 to 16 years old, but that Lazer Maze is visited regularly by every age group.
``I get businessmen on their way to work who loosen their ties and say, `Hand me the Lazerblaster, I'm going to relieve some stress,''' he says. ``It's the shooting gallery for the '80s. Instead of air rifle and ducks, we give you laser gun and robots.''
Sharpshooter or not, players emerge with giggles to examine their scores, listed under such names as ``The Lazerist,'' ``Thief Malmsteen,'' ``Spike,'' ``Pop Tart,'' and ``Punky.'' In the background, words that echo from nowhere drone out, ``Congratulations, you have just met the challenge of the Lazer Maze.''