Nerd Culture

ZapCon 2015: A Field Guide to This Weekend's Event in Mesa

They certainly don't make video games like they used to way back when. While modern-day blockbuster titles like Assassin's Creed: Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and Grand Theft Auto V pack high-tech thrills, lifelike graphics, and sophisticated A.I., there's a definite appeal to the games from the golden age of arcades in the 1980s or earlier, and not just because of the vintage or quaint nature of such things.

ZapCon, the two-day classic arcade and pinball convention, takes place on Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19, and offers the chance take a trip to yesteryear and get your hands on more than 200 different quarter-munchers of a vintage nature, most of which are supplied by locals who collect and restore such games.

See also: ZapCon 2014 at Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel in Photos

This year's edition, which has been dubbed "ZapCon 3.0" features a new and bigger location and more pinball and arcade games than ever. According to organizer Wes Cleveland, the event warp-zoned from downtown Phoenix (where it was held during its first two years) over to the Mesa Convention Center for its latest edition to be closer to many of the arcade game and pinball machine collectors who reside in the East Valley.

While the location has changed, ZapCon's M.O. remains the same: providing local joystick Jedi, gamers, and classic arcade fans with a weekend of button-pushing bliss. If you're down to go, we've assembled a rundown of what to expect in the following guide.

Game on.

Time/Place: ZapCon will take place from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 18, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 19, at the Mesa Convention Center, 263 North Center Street. (Contributors and those who pre-register can get in an hour earlier each day.

Price: Entry costs vary depending on your age and how long you'd like to hang at the event. Daily admission for each adult is $25, and a weekend pass is $40. Kids 12 and younger can get in for $15 on either day or $25 for the whole weekend. Children under 3, however, get in for free.

Getting There: Since the Light Rail doesn't reach into downtown Mesa as of yet, driving and carpooling is your best option for getting to ZapCon. The good news is that there are copious amounts of free parking available near the convention center.

If you're coming in by freeway, you'll want to head for Country Club Drive. Those who take the Loop 202 should then head south into Mesa and turn left on Second Street. Conversely, if you're on U.S. 60, then head north and turn right on Second. Either way, you'll hit the convention center eight blocks later. Just don't drive like your playing a real-life version of San Francisco Rush The Rock.

Age Limits: None. ZapCon is open to all ages, and bringing your kids along is not only permitted, it's encouraged. After all, gaming is an experience best shared and it will give you the chance to show those youngsters what pixelated thrills were like back in your heyday.

Food and Drink: Given that some of the games are vintage or expertly restored, neither food nor beverages are allowed inside ZapCon. If you'd like to eat or drink, there are a wealth of restaurants, cafes, bars, and bistros within walking distance of the convention center in downtown Mesa.

What to Bring: A wrist brace if you're susceptible to sprains or suffer from carpal-tunnel syndrome, a video game-inspired T-shirt (vintage or otherwise) or even a costume, and a camera to record your high score for posterity.

What Not to Bring: Quarters, since every machine will be set to free play.

What to Do: Go a few rounds with some of the more landmark arcade titles in gaming history. Relive your childhood. Challenge some friends to a one-on-one battle. Get a case of Pac-Man Fever. Make like Billy Mitchell and attempt to nab the world record on Donkey Kong. Defeat Shao Kahn and his evil minions in Mortal Kombat. Find Akuma in Super Street Fighter 2. Rack up a huge a high score on any of the games. Most of all, have fun.

What Not to Do: Abuse or damage the games by wrenching the controls, pounding the buttons too hard, or hitting the cabinets or screens in frustration after your last life is exhausted. Keep in mind that the collectors who contributed their games probably poured a lot of money into these gems.

And try not to get frustrated if some of the more popular titles always seem to be occupied. Be patient. You'll get your turn eventually. Besides, there's plenty of other games to check out. Speaking of which...

What to Play: ZapCon attendees will certainly have no shortage of pixelated and pinball-powered games to choose from. According to a recent update on the event's Facebook page, a total of 113 different arcade games -- from A.P.B. to Zaxxon -- and 110 pinball machines will be available for play.

There are all the requisite landmark titles, of course, including the likes of Galaga, Tron, Asteroids, Q*bert, Pole Position, Paperboy, Super Mario, Arkanoid, Bezerk, and Crazy Climber. You can also get in some game time on influential and well-remembered games as Contra, Ghouls 'N Ghosts, The Simpsons Golden Axe, NBA Jam, Gyruss, and Rastan.

And then there are the various rarities, curiosities, and custom games at ZapCon -- one of the highlights and hallmarks of the event. That includes a few that you've never even heard of before or have always wanted to play. To wit: the game known as Polybius. And yes, it is, in fact, the Polybius or urban legend, at least according to ZapCon's organizers.

If you've never heard any of the mysterious stories surrounding the game -- which supposedly appeared in a Portland, Oregon, arcade back in 1981 and has since grown into an Internet phenomenon -- here's a brief synopsis of the tale from Wikipedia:

The game is described as proving popular to the point of addiction, with lines forming around the machines often resulting in fighting over who would play next. The urban legend describes how the machines were visited by men in black, who collected unknown data from the machines, allegedly testing responses to the game's psychoactive effects. Players supposedly suffered from a series of unpleasant side effects, including amnesia, insomnia, stress, nightmares and night terrors.

Spooky, huh? While Cleveland claims it's the actual version of Polybius that was unearthed by a collector that's participating, we're remaining a bit skeptical and suspect it might be a prank or a mockup. If we start to forget where we are, however, we're going to hit up another game, pronto.

After-parties: In a rather fitting move, Endgame in Tempe will host an after-party on both Saturday night. ZapCon attendees who stop by the Mill Avenue gamer haven and bar can get 20 percent off their drink tab (up to $100) by flashing their convention badge or bracelets.

Schedule and Events: It's going to be wall-to-wall gaming action on both days of ZapCon from the moment the doors open up until everything's switched off. In addition to all the free play taking place, the competition will also be quite fierce during the various tournaments and contests sanctioned by such organizations as the International Flipper Pinball Association that scheduled to transpire throughout the weekend.

Here's a breakdown of what's happening each day:

Saturday, April 18

9 a.m.: Doors open for pre-registrants and contributors.

10 a.m.: Doors open to the general public and qualifying rounds for the IFPA, kids, and women's pinball tournaments will commence, as will the pinball rodeo.

Noon: The qualifying round for Danger Dann's Tag-Team Pinball competition begins.

1 p.m.: Qualifiers for the Tetris tournament, as well as the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom vs. SNK 2 battles start.

3 p.m.: The finals of Danger Dann's Tag Team Pinball competition.

6 p.m. The finals of the kids and women's pinball tournaments.

11:30 p.m.: The qualifying round for the IFPA pinball tournament wraps up and doors close for the night.

Sunday, April 19

9 a.m.: Doors open to contributors, pre-registrants, and participants in "B" division and "classics" division of the IFPA pinball tournament.

10 a.m.: Doors open to the general public

10:30 a.m. The finals for the "A" division of the IFPA pinball tournament.

Noon: The finals for the Tetris tournament.

3 p.m.: The finalists in the Capcom vs. SNK 2 battle square off.

4 p.m.: The awards ceremony for the Pinball Rodeo.

4:30 p.m.: Firebird Pinball presents awards for its "Best of Show" competition.

6 p.m.: ZapCon 3.0 wraps up.

What to Expect:

Zapcon 3.0 takes place on Saturday, April 18, and Sunday, April 19, at the Mesa Convention Center.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.