PAX East 2010: A (Very Belated) Look Back

The last weekend in March was a very exciting time to be a fan of all things gaming in Boston, as the Penny Arcade Expo took over Hynes Convention Center for three glorious days.  I couldn’t possibly sum up what PAX means better than geek icon Wil Wheaton did during his keynote speech, so I’ll simply direct you to it (links are provided at the end of each part for the next):

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the convention until very late on Friday night, but it was still amazing to see nearly 60,000 gamers gathered together and being friendly to one another.  Here are a few of the things I did manage to catch, though:

  • Mike (Gabe) Krahulik and Jerry (Tycho) Holkins finally settled the age-old question “who would win in an arm-wrestling match between you two?” at a Q & A panel.  Mike won, but both were pretty sore afterward.  Mike was heard to exclaim “oh man, that’s my drawing arm!”
  • At the “I have a game idea” panel, which was essentially Game Designer Idol, the best idea of the bunch (in my opinion) was one for a Lady Gaga videogame, in the style of the old Sega Genesis Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker game.  PVP”s Scott Kurtz, the lead judge, asked “how do you plan to do the gameplay? No, you know what? it doesn’t matter.  This thing’s gonna be a million seller no matter WHAT.”
    Presumably she would fight off bad guys (always men) with her Disco Stick, and each level would be modeled after one of her music videos (mansion, subway, sci-fi bath house, women’s prison.)  And unlike the old Genesis Moonwalker game, she’d change costumes at least once per level.
  • I was able to go to the second PAX concert, where I had the pleasure of seeing Paul & Storm and Jonathan Coulton perform live.  I had seen Coulton once before at a tiny bar in Brooklyn, but the atmosphere was completely different.  Hearing thousands of gamers do their best zombie impersonations during “RE: Your Brains” was both incredible and slightly terrifying.  Paul & Storm were a very pleasant surprise: Their stage act is a combination of singing and stand-up the likes of which I haven’t seen since the Smothers Brothers.  Their stuff is incredibly geeky (otherwise what would they be doing at PAX?) but also fun without being inaccessible to mainstream audiences.  The crowd picked up a running gag of going “awwwwwww” nearly every time one of them finished a sentence, which went from funny to annoying and back to funny (as repetition in comedy often does.)  Finally, to cap off the night, Jonathan Coulton invited Paul & Storm and the rhythm section of Metroid Metal (a band that I didn’t get to see, but fully support based on their premise alone) and formed a musical juggernaut known as Coultron.  Yes.

PAX isn’t just about panels and concerts, though.  There are games too!  I was able to view and/or play a pretty interesting selection of upcoming major and indie video games at the exhibition hall.  These included:

  • Rooms (HudsonSoft) – An interesting puzzle game for the Nintendo Wii and DS that takes a point-and-click adventure setup and drops it into a slide puzzle.  The result is a rather interesting game experience where you have to both slide the pieces of the room into the proper combination AND make sure your character can travel from piece to piece and ultimately reach the goal.  If you like slide puzzle games or point-and-click adventures, Rooms is definitely worth a try.
  • Shank (Klei / EA) – I continue to love the downloadable game business model, in large part because it has allowed for a resurgence of 2-D games at even more affordable prices than in their heyday.  Shank is a strikingly polished-looking cartoony run-&-gun shooter in the vein of such venerable giants as Contra and Metal Slug.  It boasts a few key differences beyond its incredible graphics and art design, though, such as a fluid melee-to-ranged-and-back combat system that feels reminiscent of Devil May Cry.  It looks like a lot of fun, and its design is unique and personality-filled enough to make it stand out among its ever-growing competition (Alien Hominid and  The Dishwasher as well as the Contra and Metal Slug franchises.)
  • Monday Night Combat (Uber Entertainment) – First there was Smash TV, a top-down arcade shooter that took place in a futuristic stadium where competitors fought off waves of bad guys with high-powered weapons for cash and prizes.  Then there was The Grid, a third-person arcade shooter that took place in a futuristic stadium where competitors fought off each other and some bad guys with high-powered weapons for cash and prizes.  Now, Uber Entertainment is bringing us Monday Night Combat, a third-person downloadable shooter that combines traditional shooter elements with capture-the-flag/tower defense gameplay and takes place in a futuristic stadium where competitors fight off each other and waves of bad guys with high-powered weapons for cash and prizes.  The concept may not be new, but it sure as hell is fun to play.  MNC also does quite a few things that its predecessors did not, such as player progression mechanics so your character can get stronger over time, a Team Fortress-esque class-based system that adds to gameplay variety and helps cater to multiple styles of play, and new gameplay modes besides shoot-until-everything-stops-moving.  The graphics are impressive for a downloadable title, and the overall production value looks impressive.  I expect this game to be a big hit on XBox Live Arcade this year (and not just because The Grid never got a home console port of its own.) 
  • Slam Bolt Scrappers (Fire Hose) – Indie games are very often hit-or-miss, with most falling squarely in the “miss” category.  For every Braid or The Dishwasher, there are thousands of other entirely forgettable entries.  Thankfully, Slam Bolt Scrappers stands head and shoulders above its competition and looks poised to make the leap from great indie game to just plain great game.  In SBS, you play as some sort of flying creature (angel or demon) and your mission is to build a better tower of blocks than your opponents’.  The gameplay is a cross between Tetris and Super Smash Brothers, where you must divide your time and attention between building up your own tower of blocks and smacking the living daylights out of your opponents so they cannot build theirs.  Like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, these two gameplay mechanics are great tastes that taste great together.  It’s a wonder nobody’s ever done anything like this before (other than Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo, which combined Puyo Pop gameplay with Street Fighter characters in a less clever manner.)  If Nintendo had some sense, they’d scoop up Fire Hose Games entirely and incorporate everything about Slam Bolt Scrappers into the next  Smash Brothers game.  Hopefully they won’t, though, because this underdog indie powerhouse is already phenomenal and full of its own unique personality.
  • Charlie Murder (Ska Studios) – The indie studio that created the hit XBLA game The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and is currently putting the finishing touches on The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile knocks another classic genre out of the park with their latest game, Charlie Murder.  Its gameplay is a throwback to the classic 2-D brawlers of the 16-bit era, such as Final Fight and Streets of Rage, but with a few updated elements.  Up to 4 players can take control of the members of Charlie Murder, a struggling rock band who runs into more than their share of trouble.  The band members each have distinct looks, personas and gameplay elements, and the visual style is reminiscent of flash-based 2-D games such as Alien Hominid.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to discern much more than that from the display, as I did not get a chance to actually play the game.  It’ll be out this year, though, so it’s certainly worth a look.

That’s pretty much everything awesome that I took in at PAX East 2010.  I did also pick up two albums by the incredible game-rock band The Protomen, but I’ll be talking about those in greater detail in my next Operation Backlog Slog post.  Until then, enjoy the game (whichever you choose to play!)

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