(Credit: Hasbro)Since time immemorial, kids have been running about the house shooting at things that aren't there.
This fall, they'll have an excuse.
Or they will if they're fortunate enough to own a couple of the latest blasters in the NERF Lazer Tag line. Much like every other NERF gun in existence, they're brightly colored, futuristic toys that are just a coat of black spray-paint away from being a prop on an ill-fated sci-fi TV show set.
But unlike typical NERF guns, propped where you'd usually expect the rear sight to be is a hefty smartphone case, like an Otterbox that's spent some serious time in the weight room. It holds an iPhone (3GS, 4, or 4S) or a comparatively recent iPod Touch, and puts that device's camera and screen to work livening up your gunplay.
It's essentially a sort of augmented-reality viewfinder: an app running on the smartphone takes the video feed from the camera and overlays it with a video game heads-up display, complete with health meter, shields, radar, and other handy toys. Then it starts throwing squiddy, tentacled aliens at you.
Better be on your toes. Literally. The radar will show you which direction the bad guys are coming from, but you actually have to spin around and aim the gun at them to take them down -- and they come pretty fast. Wii Fit it ain't, but a few rounds of this will definitely get your pulse rate up...not to mention giving any onlookers a good laugh.
The Lazer Tag app, a free download, is creditably well-featured. There's a button to reload when you run out of ammo, a shield that's activated by a neat secondary trigger, and a string of increasingly difficult levels to unlock. It even supports both co-op and competitive multiplayer play, and keeps track of global leaderboards through Apple's Game Center. Hasbro has obviously spent some money making the experience smooth, and it shows: it plays better than some releases from a couple of "proper" video game companies we could name.
But Lazer Tag's chief appeal has always been taking on a friend (or friends) in a free-for-all battle around the house, or backyard, or some other tactically rich environment. Here, too, the new guns are up to the job. Even with no iThings involved, they still work as traditional Lazer Tag blasters, using light beams and sensors to track hits, keep score, and squawk out appropriately dramatic sound effects as you play. Plug in an iPhone and you'll be rewarded with flashy visuals and cool stat-tracking to boot, but the guns work fine without.
Downsides? There are a couple. You'll need an impressive 12 AA batteries to even turn on the pair of blasters (and no, they're not included). The guns are a little fussy about the order in which you set the controls on both gun and iPhone. Ultimately, though, you're encouraging the kids to run about waving $600 iPhones at each other, and while the design of the device mount is reassuringly solid -- over-engineered, even -- we suspect that'll be enough to put some off.
Still, how many of this year's high-tech new toys actually get the kids off the couch and moving about? If you're brave enough to surrender your phone in a good cause, Hasbro's latest is bound to see summer out with a bang. Look for them showing up in stores any day now.