Best Gaming Event 2014 | ZapCon | People & Places | Phoenix

For pinball and vintage arcade fiends, ZapCon is a little like Christmas. Except better. Why? Well, for starters, it's a weekend-long convention dedicated to throwback gaming. For the second year in a row, ZapCon rounded up long-lost titles and covetable consoles for a weekend of button-mashing and joystick-wielding. With a lounge dedicated to the Atari console, super-rare games such as Turkey Shoot, and classics like Zaxxon, there were plenty of reasons to geek out over the event. The many tournaments, movie screenings, and prevailing sense of giddiness? That was the bow on top.

Talk is cheap. But Talking Stick? Well that all depends on your relationship with lady luck. Located on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation, this high-end hotel and casino is always humming with the sounds of slot machines, spilling poker chips and shouts suggest how each gambler's night is going. While many casino experiences can be defined with the words denial and depressing, Talking Stick manages to stay fresh, young, and surprisingly fun for a place that can make or break your personal piggy bank. With 24/7 access to more than 800 themed slot machines, over 50 tables for games like blackjack and Casino War, and the largest poker room in the state, getting your game on has never been so easy.

It was another banner year for Phoenix's premier comics convention. Phoenix Comicon hit a new record number of attendees. The grand total? That'd be 77,818. Yup, nearly 80,000 people turned up at the 'con's 2014 edition. We'd say a large part of that is thanks to the event's superb people-watching, a boatload of celebrity appearances, and the chance to connect with fellow geeks. A few of our favorite costumes spotted were a Benedict Cumberbatch-style Sherlock Holmes, Strongbad, and Dark Helmet. But just as entertaining were the many nerd-centric celebs in attendance — including John Barrowman of Doctor Who and Arrow fame, the cast of the 1960s Batman TV show (Julie Newmar!), and Chris Claremont, who's responsible for some of the most iconic X-Men storylines of all time. We'll stop geeking out now.

Presented by local ufology think tank Open Minds, the UFO Congress at Fort McDowell is a massive five-day event, incorporating movie screenings, lectures, and entertainment, all centered on the idea that we are not alone. Though the congress is primarily concerned with extraterrestrials, its guests are treated to information on all sorts of paranormal concerns, including bigfoots, ghosts, interdimensional portals — you name it — and someone at the UFO Congress probably wants to talk to you about it. Bringing in big names like Coast to Coast AM's George Noory and Travel Channel host Aaron Sagers, the conference appeals to the speculative nature of ufology, but hard science about microbial extraterrestrial life from former NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover demonstrates that not everyone there is concerned with "little green men." You won't encounter more interesting people — anywhere in the Valley.

Every year, Modern Phoenix's home tour makes us see our Valley with new eyes. Organized by Alison King, the event opens buildings and homes that reveal elements of Phoenix's Midcentury Modern architecture that we wouldn't otherwise see. This year, for instance, the self-guided event took us through the consistently top-ranked Arcadia neighborhood, which stretches from Phoenix and into Scottsdale. Of particular note were residences designed by Al Beadle, one of which was undergoing massive renovation (that looked really promising), and one of the two homes ever designed by Paolo Soleri. Also eye-catching was a gem of a complex called Mockingbird Condominiums, located in Arcadia's garden apartment district.

No longer a neighborhood nicknamed with light derision, Arcadia Lite is owning it. Really — with signs, a neighborhood association and everything. Everything, that is, except the markedly higher home prices of the more established Arcadia proper, which lies to the west. In Arcadia Lite, you'll find homes built between the 1920s and 1950s with prices ranging from the mid-$200,000s on the low end and $500,000 on the higher side. Reasonable prices (compared to Arcadia's multimillion-dollar estates) along with restaurants, great shopping, large grassy lawns, and sprawling ranch homes all add up to home sweet home. Here we come.

Go back 20 years and you'd find only two reasons to visit downtown Phoenix: courtside seats and courthouse appearances. But now, thanks to an influx of academic organizations, arts and culture events, and local business, this urban forget-me-not is in full bloom. Hence the gentrification of historic Central Phoenix neighborhoods like Woodland, Roosevelt, and Coronado.

For homeowners who want to stay ahead of the real estate curve, there's no better buy than a house in the Garfield Historic District. This collection of early-20th-century cottages, bungalows, and period revival homes features houses being sold for as little as $60,000. Will it need a little TLC? Sure. But within walking distance to downtown hubs like Welcome Diner, Space 55 Theatre, Alwun House, and Roosevelt Row, these modest manors make for good investments.

Don't be fooled by the child-friendly nature of this fun-filled art installation at Scottsdale Public Library: Camp Dreamtree was not just for kids. Created by husband-and-wife artists Roy Wasson Valle and Koryn Woodward Wassoon, Camp Dreamtree was an interactive piece that allowed visitors to earn achievements by completing special tasks in each of the exhibition's four dreamhouses. The dreamhouses themselves were impressive, life-size wooden tent structures surrounded by plush trees that looked like they came straight from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. With a colorful mural encompassing the space, Valle and Wasson created a universe apart. This fantastical world offered all of the excitement of summer camp without the mosquito bites.

It's not every day we give a Best of Phoenix award to the Arizona Republic, but it's not every day the Republic does something as out-of-the-box as Arizona Storytellers, a program that has been in place for several years and has reached scores of people who otherwise may not ever have gotten familiar with the art of storytelling. With South Mountain Community College's Liz Warren acting as a coach, the Republic's Megan Finnerty has created a traveling event that allows real people to tell real stories, and in doing so has touched a lot of hearts. A new collaboration with Phoenix's local NPR affiliate, KJZZ, will reach even more people. This is a story worth telling, an award worth giving.

For FilmBar, it's all in the name. You've got your movies. You've got a bar. But the specific selections are what keep us coming back to the indie theater — with craft beers and a slate of films programmed by Valley cinema mainstay Andrea Beesley. This year, the indie theater got in on the World Cup action, continued to spotlight Arizona filmmakers with a monthly showcase of local, original flicks, and movie screening series with themes like teen flick and summertime superhero. And all that's in addition to supplying downtown with nightlife action by way of local DJs spinning on the weekly.

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