Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel

Man, would we love to get our hands on an Ice Cold Beer again. And we ain't talking 'bout a frosty pint containing an amber alcoholic concoction. Rather, we're eager to get our fill of the addicting mechanical game from 1983 that vexed us plenty (and claimed an hour or two of our lifespan) over an April weekend at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel during ZapCon. This intoxicating (and decidedly rare) arcade stand-up, which involves maneuvering silver balls vertically into various scoring holes while avoiding pitfalls, is like upright skeeball, a blast to play, and one of dozens of vintage coin-operated gems at the retro arcade and pinball convention. Local old-school gamers at ZapCon got to test their hand-eye coordination on the 100-plus flipper-powered contraptions like Centaur and hard-to-find quarter-eaters Bosconian and Forgotten Worlds. And they have two of their own, Zack Johnson and Wes Cleveland, to thank for the trip through the warp zone. The pair culled together the antiquated pixilated distractions from the private stashes of Arizona game collectors, set every single one to "free play" mode, and let in the public for a bleepin' good time. They even organized some specialized programming, including a performance by Nintendo cover band Minibosses, pinball tournaments, and screenings of such joystick-oriented documentaries as High Score and Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball. We're waiting with bated breath and nimble fingers for Johnson and Cleveland to announce when ZapCon will return for next April, when ZapCon will return for a second round, especially if it nabs us another taste of Ice Cold Beer.

Gamers, for the most part, are known for being creatures of the night. That's why you'll find them hanging out on Steam into the wee hours, participating in frag-fests at marathon LAN events, or staying up late at the Microsoft Store at Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall for its midnight release parties. Hundreds of gamers from around the Valley wait in line for upwards of four hours or more to get into the affairs, which start at 10 p.m., to get their hands on whatever hot Xbox title — including the newest entry into Madden, Halo, or Call of Duty franchises — is about to drop. Attendees can preview and play the game on the store's networked Xboxes for a few hours before getting their copy when the clock strikes 12. Each party offers unabashedly nerdy fun, with some coming in costume celebrating the respective game (like the Stormtroopers who showed up for the Star Wars: Kinnect event) and local nerdcore rapper Mega Ran performing his Nintendo-inspired rhymes. The store also goes all out with the gamer fuel (read: pizza and soda), organizes tournaments, and gives away some primo swag. It's like a see-and-be-seen affair for geeks.

Castles -n- Coasters

Pinball mythology dictates that the best pinball machines — and nearly all confirmed pinball wizards — are lurking in darkened corners of forgotten bars, covered in a portentous film of cigarette smoke. That's still the dream — unfortunately, the reality is that most bars have realized they can do better business in that spot with Golden Tee. Phoenix's remaining pinball apprentices, then, have Castles -n- Coasters' arcade to thank for an increasingly rare phenomenon: more than one pinball machine in the same place. Despite culling some of their tables a few years back, Castles -n- Coasters maintains a solid mix of older machines and newer movie tie-in models. So put some credits into The Addams Family (or the less-disappointing-than-the-movie Phantom Menace "Pinball 2000" machine) and, if it helps, try to pretend that the buttons are staining your fingers yellow.

K1 Speed

After an adrenaline-fueled morning at K1 Speed, we're no longer cynical about the future of electric cars. The 20-horsepower karts at K1 are wicked-fast, zooming up to 45 miles per hour — easily as good as the gas-powered vehicles we've driven at other kart tracks and with no annoying fumes. Fourteen laps for $26 (six bucks for a membership and $20 for a race, with discounts available for buying more races) is well worth the experience of doing things in a car that you normally can't do without risking a trip to the hoosegow. Like, for instance, wrestling with the steering wheel to maintain control in a high-speed, rubber-screeching turn. All the while, the electric motor smoothly boosts the g-forces at every chance, even reaching a satisfying growl at max speed. Maybe it's time to trade in the pickup for a Tesla Roadster.

Home Run Stadium

Important batting-cage questions to ask: Is the price right? Is it open late? Are the cages tall and long enough that admiring your shot is an option? Is the machine's command of the strike zone Diamondbacks Randy Johnson or Expos Randy Johnson? Home Run Stadium, Mesa's most optimistically named batting cage, ticks off three yeses and one Diamondbacks. It meets all the secondary batting cage requirements, too. There's an arcade and a concession stand, not to mention shade and air conditioning for when you have to pretend you're not tired after your first token. If you're much more serious about this than the average slow-pitch softball slugger, private hitting lessons and team rentals are an option. It's a little difficult to endorse a batting cage that isn't connected to a giant waterpark or a pirate-themed miniature golf course, but remember that you won't have to compete with the lazy river for the maintenance guy.

Camelback Ranch Stadium

Glendale's Camelback Ranch is one of the newest spring training facilities in the Cactus League, as it opened in 2009. It's perhaps the most beautiful spring training complex in the Valley, including walking trails, an orange grove, and a lake stocked with fish. We think the stadium itself is the most aesthetically pleasing in all of baseball, with desert colors found everywhere and a rusty-looking metal construction that's unlike any baseball stadium you've ever seen. There's just one huge drawback — it's the spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. No worries, it's also home to the Chicago White Sox — so there's a way to avoid seeing the most hated baseball club in Arizona. If you're going to catch a spring training game, this is definitely the place to go.

Arizona Grand Resort

There's a lot to not like about Arizona Grand. It isn't 7,200 yards long. It sits next to a freeway. You have to use plastic balls on the practice range. But then there's the 18th hole. You make the walk uphill from 17, having spent an undue amount of time whacking your ball out of the sandy desert landscape that makes up the back nine. Your fatigue from the front nine — a minefield of rolling hills and giant water hazards — is catching up with you. But then there's the 18th hole. Par 3, 202 yards, with Camelback Mountain and the entire city of Phoenix in all its sun-baked glory in the distance. You hit your ball, misjudge the 30-yard difference in altitude between you and the hole, overshoot it to an embarrassing degree. You check your scorecard, think about how much you hate this course. But then there's the 18th hole, and you can't wait to get out there again.

It's summer, and when it's summer, it's very, very hot outside, and when it's very, very hot outside, the last thing you want to do is smack around a tiny white ball in stuffy golf attire. So you show up to the course in a T-shirt and sandals, and when you get to the fourth hole, you take those off, too. Don't worry; this is Shalimar, where the grass isn't so green and the sand traps are rock-solid, but where you also can get nine holes on a cart for less than $20, and on a hot summer day, you'll have all 4,800 yards of public golf course to yourself. Well, you might have to share it with the Hipster Duck, a maverick with a mohawk who likes to hang around hole nine. But don't worry; he's cool.

When the summer heat starts to cook every single body in Phoenix, an inborn signal goes off, much like the internal clock in geese that tells them to fly south to avoid the cold of winter. The easiest place to run away for the day is Flagstaff, but for a true break from the heat, your final destination shouldn't be the city proper. Head a little farther northwest into the Coconino National Forest to find Lava River Cave, a unique natural formation created when a volcano erupted some 700,000 years ago. As you head underground, be prepared for the overwhelming desire to bundle up underneath a cozy sweatshirt. The temperature in the caves is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, making them the perfect place to escape from the oppressive Sonoran Desert heat. This mile-long tubular cave is surrounded on all sides by hardened lava flows, so the surface is slick, bumpy, and totally unlike anything else you've ever set foot on. Wear comfy shoes, bring a jacket, and make sure to have a bright flashlight — better yet, one headlamp per person.

Don't be scared — it's just Mexico. Sure, Americans do sometimes die in Nogales, but that happens in Phoenix, too. And if an American tourist ever was murdered doing what we often do — that is, park at the Burger King on the Arizona side ($4 for all day), walk over, eat something, buy something, and walk back — we've never heard of it. According to a New York Times article from last year, Mexican authorities claim something like that has never happened. We believe it. Fact is, the odds are overwhelming that you'll simply have a wonderful time for a few hours. It's Souvenir Heaven: charming tin pieces, colorful wrestling masks, the belt-and-boot boutiques with warm leather smells. Treat yourself to authentic Mexican baked goods or lunch at the 40-year-old La Roca restaurant. Fear not the taco stands, either — way tastier than you'd expect. We've even been known to employ the services of a local barber, just so we can start our tourism story for the scaredy-cats back home with something about a Mexican holding a straight razor to our throat. People who never go to Mexico won't expect the happy ending.

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