Things to Do

Everything You Need to Know About ZapCon 2019 in Mesa

Benjamin Leatherman
A pair of women playing pinball at ZapCon in 2017.
It takes some serious juice to run ZapCon each year. It’s to be expected, considering the classic arcade and pinball convention at the Mesa Convention Center features hundreds of games, all of which, you know, have to be plugged in to play. And while ZapCon co-founder Wes Cleveland won't cite the exact amount that organizers have to pay, he says it's considerable.

“The power we need is crazy,” Cleveland says. “It's one of our highest expenses.”

Good thing more than 2,500 people turn out for the annual event to get their hands on an enormous array of pinball machines and arcade games, many of which are of a vintage and throwback variety.

Such will be the case during ZapCon 2019, which takes place on Saturday, May 4, and Sunday, May 5, at the Mesa Convention Center.

If you used to kick it at local arcades back in the day or just dig playing vintage video and pinball games, it's definitely an event worth checking out – if for no other reason than the nostalgia factor. And Cleveland says that’s definitely one of the draws of old-school games.

“It takes us back to our childhood, when arcades were the most amazing places in the world,” he says. “I get a kick out of seeing the younger generations getting into it. I suppose they like knowing the history of gaming.”

There’s also a certain allure to playing pinball, which has only gotten bigger in recent years.

“It's more fun than a classic arcade game because there's random elements to it,” Cleveland says. “Like [with] Pac-Man or Donkey Kong you can memorize patterns, rinse and repeat. With pinball the ball's always coming from different angles, flippers might be slightly worn out, the playfield might be dirty ... all of which affect gameplay. It's never quite the same thing twice.”

Cleveland says that ZapCon, which originally launched back in 2013, has gotten larger each year because of pinball’s recent resurgence, as well as word of mouth about the event.

“I think the more people learn about us, the more they want to get involved, and we welcome them with open arms,” he says. “[It] doesn't hurt that pinball and retro gaming is pretty hip these days.”

If you’d like to learn more about this year’s ZapCon, check out the following guide to the event, which features everything you might want to know.

When and where is ZapCon 2019?

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 4, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, at the Mesa Convention Center, 263 North Center Street.

How much is it to attend?

Admission is $30 for Saturday, $20 for Sunday, or $40 for the weekend. Each option is available for purchase via the ZapCon website.

Are there age limits?

Nope. It's a family-friendly event and everyone is welcome. Children ages 3 to 12 can get in for $15 on Saturday, $10 on Sunday, or $20 for the entire event. It’s free for kids 3 and under.

How do I get there?

The best way is to take U.S. Highway 60 or Loop 202 East freeways to the Country Club Drive exit. From there, drive either north or south, respectively, to Second Street in downtown Mesa and then head east. Light rail is also an option, as there’s a station located three blocks south of the convention center. It's $2 for a one-way trip, $4 for an all-day pass.

Where can I park?

Anywhere in the Mesa Convention Center’s enormous lot. It’s completely free and the earlier you arrive, the closer you can park to the main building.

What’s the food and drink situation like?

Cleveland says local food trucks will be parked outside the main building throughout the weekend. A variety of cafes, restaurants, brewpubs, and coffeehouses are within a short walking distance from the convention center. However, forget about bringing your food or drink into the main room. Most of the owners of the games at ZapCon would prefer if you kept any greasy eats or spillable liquids far away from their vintage machines at all times.

click to enlarge This is what ZapCon looks like. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
This is what ZapCon looks like.
Benjamin Leatherman

What games will be there?

Per the ZapCon website, 160-plus arcade titles and more than 110 pinball machines will be available for play in the convention center’s main room. There will be a mix of well-known favorites (Ms. Pac-Man, Robotron, Q*bert, Arkanoid), of course, as well as harder-to-find stuff like Panic Park and Chiller. Cleveland says there will also be rarities and custom-made games at the event.

“There's a pair of women who made a custom pinball machine themed on the old Disney movie The Black Hole. It's pretty incredible,” he says. “There's a guy bringing a Cinematronics prototype game ... I'm excited to see it.” Pioneering arcade game Computer Space, which dates back to 1971, and a prototype version of Cue Ball Wizard will also be at ZapCon. (A full list of games can be found on the ZapCon website.)

Beyond that, a Console Lounge will be located in the Mesa Room with classic systems like the NES, Atari 2600, Sega Genesis, and Super Nintendo set up. Each will be outfitted with a stack of games to play and beanbag chairs and couches to sit on. There will also be various tabletop gaming sessions happening, courtesy of local shop Critical Hit.

Will there be tournaments and competitions?

Of course. They’ll take place throughout the weekend and will offer prizes ranging from cash to gaming items and swag. There will be pinball tournaments for men and women, as well as one sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association for both genders. Additional tourneys will be offered for kids or strictly for classic pinball games only.

Meanwhile, there will be tournaments for arcade games like NBA Jam, Tetris, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Marvel v. Capcom 2, and Killer Queen will be taking place. Local YouTube show This Old Arcade will present its annual “Random Fighters” competition on Saturday, which involves participants playing a collection of different fighting-oriented arcade games. Prizes include gift cards to local arcades and game stores. StarFighters Arcade will also host a "High Score Challenge" on Sunday.

ZapCon organizers recommend that anyone participating in tournaments should arrive early to register.

What else is happening at ZapCon?

Local video game-inspired bands like Fygar, Dratini on the Rocks, and NES cover act Minibosses will perform on Saturday night from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. in the Console Lounge. ZapCon attendees can also check out the Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator, a multiplayer co-op game re-creating the action of piloting a Star Trek-like spacecraft, including getting into battles.

Meanwhile, there will also be an escape room running at ZapCon that Cleveland says was designed by their staff and will be arcade-themed (natch). “Some of our crew are really into [escape rooms] and puzzles in general, so they thought an arcade-related one would be fun,” he says. “All I can say is it takes place in a late ‘70s arcade workshop.”

click to enlarge One of the many kids that attend ZapCon. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
One of the many kids that attend ZapCon.
Benjamin Leatherman

What’s the schedule for ZapCon?

It's going to be busy, quite frankly. Here's a complete rundown of what's happening and when each day of the con.

Saturday, May 4

9 a.m. – Doors open for ZapCon contributors and preregistrants.

10 a.m. – Doors officially open to the public. Qualifying rounds for the kids' and IFPA tournaments start and registration for the women’s tournament begins. The Escape Room and Artemis Bridge Simulator will both open while the tabletop gaming kicks off in the console lounge.

10:30 a.m. – The first qualifying round from the women’s pinball tournament gets going.

11 a.m. – NBA JAM tournament

2 p.m. – Tetris tournament

3 p.m. – Cyberball tournament

4 p.m. – The women’s pinball tournament’s second qualifying round and the kids’ tournament finals both start.

5 p.m. – Random Fighters tournament

6:30 p.m. – Fygar, Dratini on the Rocks, and Minibosses perform in the Console Lounge.

7:30 p.m. – Finals of the women's tournament.

11:30 p.m. – The IFPA tournament qualifying ends and door close.

Sunday, May 5

9 a.m. – Doors open for ZapCon contributors and pre-registrants. The finals for the IFPA “B” and Classics tournaments take place.

10 a.m. – Doors officially open to the public. StarFighters Arcade's High-Score Challenge begins. The Escape Room and Artemis Bridge Simulator will both open while the tabletop gaming kicks off in the console lounge.

11 a.m. – Street Fighter Alpha 3 tournament and finals for the IFPA “A” tournament.

Noon – Killer Queen tournament

2 p.m. – Marvel v. Capcom 2 tournament

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

What should I bring?

Limber wrists, comfortable shoes, nerdy clothing, a fully charged cell phone, a taste for nostalgia, and a case of Pac-Man fever.

What shouldn't I bring?

Quarters, duh. Also, if you have a tendency to "rage quit" after getting frustrated with challenging games, leave that at home, too. Again, a number of the machines at ZapCon are vintage or even antiques, and their owners would prefer it if you didn't slam your fists onto their property after you lose. You'll want to go easy on the joysticks and buttons, too.