Nerd Culture

ZapCon 2016: A Field Guide to This Weekend's Event in Mesa

It’s a good time to be a fan of old-school arcade games right now in Phoenix. By our count, there are at least five different spots locally where joystick jocks can get their hands on quarter-powered masterpieces from the ‘80s and early ’90s (aka the golden age of arcades), including such joints as StarFighters in Mesa or Cobra Arcade Bar near Roosevelt Row.

Then there’s ZapCon, the weekend-long classic arcade and pinball convention that packs hundreds of vintage games and the people who love to play ‘em into a single venue every April. And the event only seems to get bigger with each edition.

To wit: This year’s event – which is dubbed "ZapCon IV" and will take place on Saturday, April 16, and Sunday, April 17, at the Mesa Convention Center – will feature close to 300 arcade and pinball games (its biggest selection to date), more tournaments and competitions than ever before, and a few new activities. According to ZapCon co-founder Wesley Cleveland, organizers try to level up the event in bigger and better fashion each year.

“Every year we try to one-up our previous show, and one of the ways we landed on for this year was more activities for our guests,” he says.

That includes the chance to get the biggest score on the Konami “run-and-gun” classic Contra while using a supersized version of a Nintendo Entertainment System controller or watch two-time Donkey Kong world-record high scorer Robbie Lakeman demonstrate the game’s famous “kill screen” glitch or rack up a million points in a single sitting.

Lakeman, a Valley resident who’s also notched scoring records on games like Stratovox and Super Pac-Man, will be a special guest of this year’s ZapCon.

“Robbie’s a super-nice guy and he expressed an interest in doing something with us, since he’s local,” Cleveland says. “Of course, we jumped at the chance to include him. I mean how many people can say they’ve seen a Donkey Kong kill-screen? I think it’d be interesting to people who follow competitive gaming and fans of The King of Kong.”

Lakeman won’t be the only game guru showing off his skills at ZapCon, however, as competitive gamer Robert Racek will attempt to set a world record on the ultra-colorful Namco game Mr. Driller

His attempt is likely to be one of many thrilling experiences in store for ZapCon attendees this weekend. If you’re curious as to when it’s happening, along with everything else scheduled to transpire during the event, check out the following guide covering everything you need to know.

When and Where: ZapCon 2016 will take place on Saturday, April 16, and Sunday, April 17, at the Mesa Convention Center, 263 North Center Street. Doors open at 10 a.m. each day, and the event runs until 11:30 p.m. on Saturday and until 6 p.m. on Sunday. Anyone who buys admission in advance, however, can get in an hour earlier either day.  

Prices: Admission options include daily access for either $30 on Saturday or $20 on Sunday. If you’re up for spending both days at ZapCon, a weekend pass will run you $40. Beyond that, you don’t have to worry about pumping quarters into the machines at the event as every game will be free to play.

Age Limits: ZapCon is open to gamers of any age. Kids ages 3 to 12 can get into the event for $15 on Saturday, $10 on Sunday, or $20 for the whole weekend.

Getting There: Just like Ryu Hayabusa in the second stage of Ninja Gaiden II, you’ll want to hop aboard a train in order to get where you're going. After all, there's a Metro Light Rail station on Main Street within a short walking distance to the Mesa Convention Center and fares ($2 for a one-way ticket, $4 for an all-day pass) are pretty darn cheap. Plus, the trains offer late-night hours on the weekend, just in case you’d like to stay at ZapCon until it wraps up at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday.

If you’re coming by car, however, the good news is that the venue is easy to find, centrally located in Mesa, and offers ungodly amounts of free parking. To get there, take the U.S. Highway 60 or Loop 202 East freeways to the Country Club Drive exit and then head either north or south, respectively, to downtown Mesa. 

Food and Drink: Neither are allowed inside the main hall at ZapCon due to the fact that organizers and game owners want to keep the vintage arcade games free of any sort of mess. Cleveland says that a number of food trucks will be parked outside the convention center, however. Downtown Mesa also offers a wealth of cafes, restaurants, and bars within a few blocks of the venue.

Games: A total of 140 arcade titles and 150 pinball machines will be available for play in the main hall at ZapCon, including a variety of never-before-seen gems, custom games, and variants. (The full game lineup, which includes everything from A.P.B. to Zoo Keeper, is available here.)

As with previous ZapCons, a side room at the event will become a lounge area outfitted with sofas and a variety of classic gaming consoles, including the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System. This year, organizers are adding both the Sega Master System and the Sega Genesis into the mix, as well as a selection of "relatively rare and pricey games" that attendees can check out and play.  

Competitions: Joystick Jedi and pinball wizards alike will be battling for high-score supremacy during any of the various tournaments and contests that will take place throughout the weekend. In addition to the numerous pinball tournaments that have become a hallmark of the event — including the popular Pinball Rodeo — there will be fighting game battles, attempts to rack up world-record high scores, and competition involving titles both old and new.

Local retailer The Gaming Zone, for instance, will host separate tournaments for Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Capcom vs. SNK. Meanwhile, The Grid will have its popular 10-player game Killer Queen available for match play and competitions involving the Sega import Cyber Troopers Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram, Namco’s Mr. Driller, and the locally produced vector game GravitreX (think Asteroids meets Lunar Lander), are also planned.

And as we previously noted, attendees can also try for the best score on the console version of Contra using a ginormous NES controller, although they won’t be able to use the infamous “Konami Code” while doing so.

“We tried to put together events to accommodate casual and serious competitors,” Cleveland says. “Hopefully people will have fun with them.”

After-Party: When ZapCon wraps up on Saturday night, it won’t necessarily mean “game over” for attendees. Mesa game bar The Grid, 525 South Gilbert Road, will host the convention’s official after-party, which kicks off at 9 p.m. and will include a performance by chiptune/synthwave duo Arcade High. Themed cocktails will also be served and every game in the joint will be free to play. Admission is free for ZapCon attendees with their badge, $7 for everyone else. 

Keep in Mind: A majority of the games at ZapCon are either of a vintage nature or have been expertly restored by collectors. As such, you’ll want to avoid getting too aggressive with the controls (including hardcore button-mashing or joystick-wrenching) or taking out your frustrations on the machines in the midst of a rage quit.

Patience and good behavior also come in handy while waiting to play some of the most popular games at ZapCon. In other words, don’t get in a snit if there’s always a line for Spy Hunter or Star Wars. Just be patient, yo. Conversely, try not to be a game hog and spend hours of the same machine, as there are probably other folks that want a chance to rescue the princess or race light cycles.

Schedule and Events: Want to know when everything will happen at ZapCon? Here’s the complete schedule for the event, including the start times for every competition.

Saturday, April 16
9 a.m.: Doors open for ZapCon pre-registrants and contributors.

10 a.m.: Doors open to the general public. Meanwhile, the Pinball Rodeo and the qualifying rounds for the IFPA, women, and kids pinball tournaments – as well as the GravitreX and Mr. Driller competitions – will all start.

Noon: Qualifying rounds for the Street Fighter: 3rd Strike and Capcom vs. SNK 2 tournaments will begin.

1 p.m.: Robbie Lakeman demonstrates Donkey Kong’s infamous “kill screen.”

2 p.m. Robert Racek begins his Mr. Driller world record attempt.

3 p.m.: The Cyber Troopers Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram tournament starts.

6 p.m.: The finals of the women and kids pinball tournament.

10 p.m.: The Mr. Driller competition ends.

11:30 p.m.: Doors close and the qualifying rounds for the IFPA pinball tournament wrap up.

Sunday, April 17
9 a.m.: Doors open for ZapCon pre-registrants and contributors. Finals for the “B” and “Classics” divisions of the IFPA pinball tournament begin.

10 a.m.: Doors open to the general public and the “Colossal Control: Contra” competition starts.

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

Noon: Finals of the Street Fighter 3rd Strike competition

1 p.m. The Cyber Troopers Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram tournament starts and Robbie Lakeman begins his attempt at scoring 1 million points on Donkey Kong.

1:30 p.m.: Finals of the Capcom vs. SNK 2 competition.

3 p.m.: Award ceremony for the GravitreX competition.

3:30 p.m.: Award ceremony for the “Colossal Control: Contra” competition.

4 p.m.: Pinball Rodeo award ceremony.

4:30 p.m.: Firebird Pinball’s “Best of Show” awards ceremony

6 p.m.: ZapCon ends. 
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.