PAX '09

Anyone who read gaming magazines growing up is likely aware of video game trade shows.  Many of us learned of the biggest expo of them all: E3, from publications like EGM.  Sadly, very few of us were ever able to attend the massive show full of scantily clad booth babes, hot new games, and numerous surprises, since that event was strictly intended for those who worked in the video game industry.  As E3 died down, gamers began to yearn for a show of their own.  In 2007, their dream finally came true.

Two years ago, an expo based in the Pacific Northwest called PAX was born.  This show was open not only to industry types, but to the general public as well.  Journalists were still allowed to cover games, but your average gamer was also allowed to play all the titles on display.

PAX quickly became a hit among gamers, and soon, it grew to a behemoth rivaling the E3 of old.  Last year during my first PAX experience, the number of attendees nearly doubled in size from 30,000 to 60,000 people.  It filled four floors of the massive Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle.  This year’s PAX was even more impressive.

Convention Center

I’m not sure how many people attended PAX this year, but PAX 2009 was the first time the event sold out, and it had spread to the Washington State Convention Center’s 6th floor like an unstoppable plague.  Clearly PAX 2009 was bigger, but was it better?  You’ll have to read on to find out.




When I first arrived at PAX ’09 thirty minutes ahead of time, I was treated to a massive line outside that rivaled those found at Disneyland.  Like most people, lines aren’t my thing, but I toughed it out.  Fifty minutes later when I was finally admitted into the complex, I headed for the Gametrailers panel, but I realized that I was too late, so I scrapped that plan and headed for the fourth floor, which was home to numerous unreleased titles.

PAX crowd

Huge lines had already formed around titles like Halo 3: ODST and Diablo III, so I looked for games with the shortest lines I could find.  I soon came across a title that has received mixed reactions from various video game publications: New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

I waited in line for ten minutes or so, then I finally got to try my hand at the title.  Well, I thought I was going to be playing New Super Mario Bros., but the Nintendo rep handed me a controller for a different Wii, so I couldn’t move poor Luigi. 

I had to watch the green plumber get mauled by vicious thwomps for ten minutes until the Nintendo rep came back and realized that he had made a mistake.  Before then, I was told to put on a wrist strap even though no waggle was involved and I wasn’t playing.


I finally got to play during the next ten minute session with three other players.  Now that I could actually control my character, I made it my mission to obtain the most coins and put the other players to shame.  Normally, I’m not so competitive, but I had to give myself some reason to play.

You may be thinking, “Why would someone need a reason to play Mario?  Come on, it’s Mario!”  Well, I’m sorry to say, but this is the first Mario I was actually disappointed with (excluding  titles such as Mario is Missing and Mario Baseball).  It’s not that New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a bad game, but it just felt uninspired.  Mario games often feel whimsical, but this one didn’t at all.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Maybe it was the slow pace with four characters on screen, or its regurgitation of New Super Mario Bros.’ material, but nothing about this game felt original.  Sure, there were a couple new power-ups, (a propeller, which launches you into the air and a penguin suit), but I just wasn’t feeling this Mario.  I’ll probably still play New Super Mario Bros. when it comes out, but in the meantime, I’m getting down on my hands and knees begging the Regginator to make it available on WiiWare.

Clearly, New Super Mario Bros. was disappointing, but I had some fun with the next title on my list.  What was this game?  It was none other than Shane “Man God” Bettenhausen’s baby, Muramasa.  For those of you who don’t know, Muramasa is Odin Sphere developer, VanillaWare’s latest release. 

Ignition Entertainment had eight screens for playing Muramasa, so I got in line, and immediately picked up the controller once the person in front of me got bored.  Before playing, I was able to witness Muramasa’s beautiful 2D visuals and animation in action, and they impressed even though I’d already watched a number of videos online.


Once I actually got to play, I felt that the gameplay was enjoyable as well.  To move, players simply use the analog stick on the Nunchuk, and they can hack at their foes by pressing the A button.  The A button performs regular attacks and B allows players to use special moves.  These moves can be used together to create combos, which are important for Muramasa’s higher difficulty settings.

I’m a little concerned that Muramasa might become repetitive, since it mainly uses two buttons, but at least it eliminates many of the tedious gameplay elements found in Odin Sphere.  It also helps that there’s no slowdown.

After playing this artsy title for ten minutes, I headed over to Ignition’s booth to see if Shane Bettenhausen of EGM fame was there.  Sure enough, he was.  Shane had developed more of a salesman-like tone (it’s hard not to when you’re proud of your products), but it was still fun to talk to him about his time at EGM and Ignition’s upcoming products (supposedly, a few big surprises are coming next year).


Once I was done chatting it up with this EGM legend, I headed to Mega64’s show.  Attending Ron Gilbert’s keynote would have been fun, but I was more excited about getting the scoop on Mega64’s upcoming Version 3 DVD (and possible Blu-ray).

Last year’s Mega64 event was worth attending for the Parappa the Rapper skit, but it was fairly disorganized.  Thankfully, this year’s was much better.

The Mega64 crew: Rocco, Derrick, Garret, and a shirtless Sean initiated the event by leaping around the stage dancing, but once things got started, everyone was in for a treat.  We were soon shown two unreleased skits: Punch-Out!! and Mirror’s Edge.  Both were quite funny, as were the rejected ads and IGN videos they showed.  After this, there was the token PAX Q&A session, but this time, the questions were actually interesting.


After the Mega64 event, I headed back to the show floor to check out some other games.  I didn’t want to wait in Halo 3: ODST, Left 4 Dead 2, and Starcraft II’s horrendous lines, so I decided to gather my impressions by viewing other players’ experiences.

The first of those games I viewed, Halo 3: ODST made me wonder if Bungie’s time as an influential game developer had expired.  I loved the first three Halo games (although three felt like a Hi-Res version of two), but ODST looked like Halo 3 with a slightly different character and new lighting effects. 

The graphics differed little from those found in Halo 3, and the gameplay looked like it had barely changed.  Sure, there was now a zooming pistol and a mode where you could fight waves of enemies (similar to Gears of War 2’s Horde mode), but not enough had changed to justify ODST’s full retail price.

Likewise, I found Left 4 Dead 2 underwhelming.  Even though I felt that the original Left 4 Dead was overrated, it still provided for some fun multiplayer co-op.  I suspect that L4D2 will provide players with a similar experience, but I just wasn’t feeling it.  Sure, there are now a couple new weapons (such as a katana), but the outdated visuals and regurgitated enemies don’t impress.  I’ll likely be waiting for this one to hit the bargain bins, or maybe I’ll just pass over it entirely and wait for Half-Life 3’s inevitable release.


One of the games I was most excited about on the show floor–Starcraft II, once again had long lines.  Last year, my girlfriend wouldn’t allow me to wait more than ten minutes for Starcraft II, so sadly, I had to wait another year.  Even though I attended PAX by myself this time, I couldn’t bring myself to wait more than an hour, since there was so much to do there, so I was forced to watch from the sidelines once again.

So far, it’s difficult to tell how differently Starcraft II plays from the original without actually having a hands-on experience, but it looks like it’s progressing rather nicely.  The new units look fun to control, and I’m interested in seeing how balanced they are in the final product.  If it’s good enough, perhaps I’ll go to Korea and become a professional Starcraft player (assuming my career as an NBA player doesn’t take off).

Before heading to my next event, I ran into the Giantbomb crew.  I talked to Brad Shoemaker for a bit, then proceeded to meet some of the folks at the 1UP booth.  There, I met Tina and Mike.  We talked briefly, then they mentioned the 1UP meet-up, which I planned on going to.


After I was done meeting with 1UP and Giantbomb, I decided to check out Twisted Pixel’s new game.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have actual gameplay footage, but the CG video revealed some sort of superhero game.  I wasn’t able to extract any more details from the team famous for ‘Splosion Man, but it was nice to meet some of the people who developed the title.

While in that area, I also met Dan Paladin–the artist of Castle Crashers.  He hooked me up with an autograph/illustration, and then I bought a Castle Crashers figurine.  After that, I checked out The Behemoth’s new game, which had changed little from the footage shown several months ago.

Castle Crashers

After viewing The Behemoth’s third game, I checked out the live taping of CO-OP.  I’d only watched the show a few times, but it was great seeing these passionate gamers in person.  It was fun listening to them discuss the Dreamcast and its most influential titles even though only a few of them were able to make it due to flight issues.

After CO-OP, I waited around for Listen UP LIVE.  Even though I’m not a regular listener, it was well worth the wait.  It was fun listening to John Davison, Shane Bettenhausen, and Garnett Lee discuss games.  There were a few other speakers whose names I can’t recall, but they all kept us entertained even though it was late in the evening.

Once Listen UP LIVE had ended, I briefly spoke with Jeremy Parish of Retronauts fame, and then called it a night.


The next day, I returned to PAX bright and early for a panel on developing Indie games.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever develop a game, but I was interested in learning about the processes used to develop these titles.  I found it interesting that the speaker recommended developing small titles in seven days, but after learning the methodology behind it, it all made sense.  Projects rarely make it to completion, so as with anything else, it’s important to make small, attainable goals.

After viewing this panel, I went to the G4 showing.  I’m not really a fan of the station (who can be with shows like Cops), but I’ve always appreciated Adam Sessler and his passion for video games.  It was fun listening to his impressions on various video games, and his commentary dispelled the rumors that G4 doesn’t care about the traditional gamer.  I was also surprised that Morgan actually seemed to know about games.  Before, I thought she just read from a script, but maybe she actually does play them.

Adam Sessler

Later in the day, I was planning to check out Bioware’s The Old Republic, but first, I headed back to the show floor to check out another upcoming title.  This time, I walked to Sony’s booth to play God of War 3.  Luckily, their booth was quite organized, and actually had time limits (unlike Left 4 Dead 2), so I was able to play God of War 3 after a measly thirty minute wait.

The first thing I noticed about this bloody title was its enhanced, HD visuals.  God of War 3 looked like a significant visual improvement over the previous two God of Wars, but unfortunately that was one of its only changes.


I loved nearly everything about the first two God of War titles, but God of War 3 feels like the exact same thing as its predecessor.  The visuals may be at a higher resolution, but the basic structure is the same–take a linear path through an environment, hack up a group of enemies with the same weapons from the previous two games, then whack a large monster until a quick time event begins. 

To be fair, this was only a ten minute gameplay session, so it’s likely that the final game will include new abilities and surprises.  Still, this was the first time I was disappointed by a title in this revered franchise.  Hopefully, the final version of God of War 3 will deliver.

God of War 3

After being disappointed by God of War 3, I attended a G4 autograph session.  My brother’s friend asked for an Adam Sessler autograph, so I stood in line even at the risk of missing The Old Republic live demo.  Unfortunately, I did miss the demo (I thought I would be able to make it the next day), but it was great meeting Adam, Morgan, and Blair.

Once the signing had ended, I went to a discussion with Hal Halpin (the president of the ECA) and Adam Sessler (an X-Play host).  Even though there was a dull Q&A session with the standard assortment of questions, they had an interesting discussion regarding political issues currently affecting games.  It was enough to tide me over until the live recording of an explosive podcast.

The Bombcast may have been late (and short), but the Giantbomb crew was up to their usual wacky antics.  They were accompanied by some ex-Gamespot writers and a Blizzard employee.  Giantbomb didn’t really engage in an in-depth discussion on video games, but they delivered humorous videos, an explanation of how they’re able to make money, and an eating contest.  I wouldn’t expect anything less from Jeff Gerstmann’s baby.


After the day’s final event had concluded, I was planning on attending the 1UP meet-up, but unfortunately, I came down with a bad fever in addition to a couple other illnesses, so I lounged about in my luxurious hotel room, complete with a 13-inch TV straight out of the ’70s. 

By the time I woke up, I’d only gotten two hours of sleep, so I canceled my Sunday plans of seeing the live Old Republic demonstration and Retronauts.  Instead, I got lost in Seattle and ended up in Chinatown, so I stopped at the local Asian food market, Uwajimaya, before the five hour drive home.

My impressions of PAX probably made it sound like a disappointing event, but still, I’d say it was worth attending.  If nothing else, it was fun speaking with game journalists and developers and seeing the variety of attendees.  The games may have been disappointing, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be fun–they just aren’t the innovative products I was hoping for.

Unlike some gamers, I’m not worried about the video game industry turning into something that strictly pumps out sequel.  There will always be some developers that are willing to innovate.  I think I’m not too interested in many upcoming titles at the moment, because I have an enormous backlog of innovative games that I’m still trying to get through.

At the next PAX, I’m hoping to see more than a deluge of sequels, but even if there’s only Left 4 Dead 3 or New Super Mario Bros. Wii Plus, I’ll probably still attend for that feeling you can only get at a live video game convention.