- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

If someone you love is into arcade games, touch down at Planet Play. Promoting itself as "the place to come for family fun," Planet Play — with four locations in the metropolitan area — is an indoor play center filled with newfangled and old-fashioned games of skill, motion simulators, and other activities.

The place is great for all ages, explains manager Julie French.

"Moms come in because they can have their 3-year-olds down at the Play Station while their teen-ager is here playing laser tag," she says. "And we have 30-year-old men who come here after work to unwind."

On a recent Saturday morning, I visited the Springfield Planet Play, located on the lower level of Springfield Mall. My 12-year-old nephew, Keller, accompanied me as a tester.

As a neophyte in the world of arcade attractions, I wondered aloud about the appeal of this type of "family fun center." Keller rushed happily from game to game, expertly feeding tokens into machines with names like "Tekken Tag," "Super Shot" and "Time Crisis II."

Nearly too busy and excited to speak, he offered only this commentary: "It's just fun," he said, his eyes darting past me. "I don't really know why it's fun — it just is."

It just is. This certainly was indicated by the way he zipped through 50 tokens in about 25 minutes. Tokens cost about a quarter; many games require two tokens, although the more sophisticated machines require three or four.

Clientele were few the day we visited. One boy, supervised closely by people who seemed to be his grandparents, fooled around with a basketball game. A couple of teen-age boys blasted away at one of the combat games.

A tattooed, ponytailed man lifted up his 15-month-old baby to watch two preteens play "Maximum Force." The point of that video game, said one of two employees on duty that morning, is to "shoot at the people so they won't shoot you."

As dad and baby gazed at the blood spurting from wounds suffered by the game's combatants, a message within the monitor advised viewers that "Due to the graphic violence of this game, supervision is suggested for younger players."

Five of the approximately 50 games in the arcade feature realistic-looking guns, which players point at incredibly realistic on-screen targets that get blasted away with equally realistic results.

But Planet Play certainly is not all about blasting people away.

"'House of the Dead' is our most graphic," says Ms. French. "It has very lifelike violence. Then some games are mild, and then some games are for children, as long as they can stand up and reach it."

Games include Sega skateboarding, a virtual-reality-type activity for which the player stands astride a movable skateboard. Driving games test skills aboard simulated race cars, tanks and motorcycles. Air hockey, an old favorite, is represented as well. Some games spit out tickets for points earned, which players can cash in for prizes.

Play Station, a soft-sculptured indoor playground featuring tunnels and a moon bounce, is offered in another area of the mall to children age 10 and under, as is a carousel, which is open to people of any age.

My nephew lauded the arcade for its variety: "This is a good one," he said. "Lots of places have just a couple of the same things."

The Springfield site also offers bumper cars — eight of them — in a space measuring approximately 25 feet by 25 feet. Keller and my husband took a spin on them — after paying $2 apiece for tickets — and both emerged rather annoyed. The game lasted just several minutes, and one driver's car hadn't worked well, my husband reported.

But a big draw of Planet Play is the LaserTron arena. For those who haven't heard, LaserTron is "The Ultimate Laser Action Game," played out in a 4,200 square-foot futuristically lit space of passages, steps and pillars.

Team participants don heavy vests equipped with target sensors and arm themselves with a "Phaser" gun, which emits a visible light beam. The players then are released into the pitch-black arena, spurred into action by ear-splitting rock music busting from every corner. The object is to race around the arena for 12 minutes, darting and dodging the laser blasts from the guns of opponents in a game of offensive and defensive strategy.

"More people come for the LaserTron than anything else. It is like going into a video game," Ms. French says. But 12 minutes inside a video game can seem like a long, long time after about five have passed.

Maybe a game of good, old-fashioned skeeball is more my speed. No problem — Planet Play has that, too. Just poke in a token.

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