PAX West: A Newcomer’s Experience

I first heard about gaming conventions in the summer of 2016. For E3 of that year Nintendo dropped the trailer for their much-anticipated game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and set up a floor booth for people to try the game out. The company went all out for this display. They constructed a massive statue of Link aiming a bow against an imposing Guardian robot. The room was illuminated by the glow of dozens of TVs showcasing the open world gameplay. I watched that trailer countless times, and I watched every journalist’s coverage of the show floor that I could, including IGN, GameXplain, and and Nintendo’s own Treehouse show.

With each passing summer I looked forward to the news hurricane and gaming community festival that was E3. It was like Comic Con crossed with Disneyland.

Nintendo never does anything less than spectacular for these kinds of shows.

When I learned that PAX West was basically like an E3 Jr. that takes place in my own backyard of Seattle, I told myself, “I need to be there.” I know that announcements don’t happen at PAX, but it still has game demos and community gathering. I made plans to attend in 2020, but, well… you know what happened to all of our plans in 2020. Reluctantly I hung up my aspirations of attending PAX West until it was safer to do so.

And this year I did it! I only attended for Sunday, but it was a stellar Sunday.

Am I entering a PAX booth, or the Splatlands?

My partner and I started PAX West by heading to the Nintendo booth. And I was not disappointed by the Big N’s elaborate display for Splatoon 3. That corner of the convention turned into a desert landscape with a large splashing inkling to get your attention. We got a Nintendo version of a FastPass beforehand, which allowed us play two rounds of 4v4 Turf War right away. We won both rounds. While I enjoyed the game’s Testfire Splatfest from the week prior, the game shines even brighter when you have in-person feedback and communication. We finished our time at Nintendo’s booth by getting photos with the new idol personalities. It was the best way to start to the day.

Yeah, you can say we’re ready for Splatoon 3.

The middle of the day was dedicated entirely to indie games. We headed over to the Wholesome Games panel where developers and content creators alike discussed the rise of cozy games and how, in this hectic time that we live in, they speak to us as gamers now more than ever before. It was indeed a wholesome panel.

Mina the Hollower was the #1 game I had to take a look at, and it didn’t disappoint.

Then we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to play as many indie games as possible. I waited about 45 minutes to play a demo of Yacht Club Games’ newest endeavor Mina the Hollower. I thought Yacht Club was going to be giving Game Boy Zelda games the Hollow Knight treatment, but it seems that they are mixing in some strong Dark Souls sauce as well. I tried to get a small sample of Devolver Digital’s Gunbrella, but the line was too long and people took their sweet time playing through it.

Devolver Digital embraced this movie theater vibe, and it had everything save the overpriced popcorn.

That brings me to one of my annoyances about this convention. I respected Nintendo’s way of giving us two matches and then making us move on. It was short, it kept people moving, and if you wanted more, you could go back. I don’t understand why Devolver Digital allowed people to play demos for half an hour. All I needed was 5 to 10 minutes to know if I’d like the game or not on the floor. It was almost as if people were going to try and beat the game right then and there.

Being able to just walk up to a game and chat with its developer was my #1 favorite part of PAX.

The second thing that bothered me was just how loud and bright everything was. You can hear the crowds of people, sounds from the games, and the loudspeakers of the esports announcers across the convention hall. By 3:00 pm I was experiencing some serious sensory overload. I had to go take a break in one of the quiet lounges for a bit just to get my bearings again. If you go, be aware that it can get a bit overwhelming. Pace yourself and take your time.

I came home with a lot of business cards.

Okay, back to indie games. By far my favorite part of the convention was being able to talk to the indie developers as I played their games. I loved asking them questions about their inspiration and offering comments about the details I could see. Out of all the games that I tried, these seven stood out to me the most:

  1. Swordship – a fast-paced action / racing hybrid that I can’t wait to try out for real.
  2. It’s A Wrap! – a delightful puzzle platformer all about making movies, and the U.I. replicates video editing software.
  3. No Place for Bravery – a Norse-inspired Action game that gives me strong Hyper Light Drifter vibes.
  4. Astro Duel 2 – the devs pitched the game as “Smash Bros. meets Asteroids” and it’s just as fun as that sounds. It’s a delightful party game with solid game feel.
  5. Exophobia – think Metroid Prime crossed with Doom.
  6. Sail Forth – an absolutely beautiful boat sailing game. Think Sable but on the ocean.
  7. Terra Nil – a relaxing anti-city management game where you reclaim sustainable land for nature instead of industrializing it.

Seeing all of these quality booths made me realize something: the bar is being raised for indie games. Some of the games had noticeable issues, but they were overall highly polished vertical slices, even the ones from solo developers. Given how crowded the indie scene is, it makes sense to me. You can’t have anything less than a polished build of your game in order to truly stand out.

That steering wheel actually has Joy-Cons attached to it. You can play Sail Forth with traditional controls or with motion controls.

The day ended with a delightful panel of video game devs simulating the development of a game in 1 hour by making a game from scratch right in front of our eyes, complete with last-minute changes suggested by the audience. It was hectic, and the game was pretty broken – the background glitched out until it disappeared entirely. It was both an entertaining and an educational microcosm of what game development is like.

And I even got some StreetPasses as the cherry on top of an already excellent day!

Of course, I took my 3DS with me and got quite a decent lineup of StreetPasses! Who says the 3DS is dead?

Overall, I highly recommend PAX. Though if I were to try it again, I’d tell myself to try not to cram everything into one day and take my time.

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