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PAX09 Special Report: A Console Love-in

The Penny Arcade Expo was held last weekend in Seattle. What's a washed-up gamer with no reflexes do? Watch the gamers, and consider the past and future.

There's something bittersweet in playing old console games.  On the one hand, it's a warm fuzzy dose of nostalgia, of a happy time before jobs and bill-paying came to the fore in life.  But it's also sad, because it's little more than reliving past glories and oh my god don't you have a real life you basement-dwelling cretin. But how about playing old console games at a gaming convention?  If you don't know a Penny Arcade Expo from an E3 or a GDC then let me first give you a quick tour.

The real foundation of PAX, the one that gives it legitimacy, is the exhibition hall.  The exhibition hall is a gently glowing shard of E3 housed in a warehouse like some unknown alien artifact.  It's designed to drum up enthusiasm for the newest games.  Composed of walk-in commerical advertisements, each company typically walls-off their little patch of floor to focus one's attention on their own games rather than their neighbor's.  But since these newest games also get the most coverage in magazines, websites, and other such outlets, there's little point in me hawking the exhibition hall here.  Just know that it's pretty, it's loud, and it closes at five.

"The PAX Ten" is the highlight of PAX.  It embodies the concept that Great Art should be rewarded and recognized.  Ten hand-picked indie games are granted special promotion, not unlike the exhibition hall's booths, courtesy of PAX.  Last year, at PAX08, The Ten were on the exhibition floor itself in a double-wide booth, and could have been mistaken for a single company's offerings if you didn't notice the banners hanging from the high ceiling, or question the beanbag-covered floor and complete lack of enclosing walls.  This year they were set apart, at the entrance to the exhibition hall.

Several semi-formal lectures are held in closed rooms throughout the day.  Though there's always been enough people to fill them, I believe the majority of attendees are only somewhat interested.  This is a gamer's convention, not a developer's.  It's not the GDC.  Of great interest to particular attendees are the various tournaments:  Street Fighter, Soul Caliber, Super Smash Bros, RockBand, and Guitar Hero, and that's just the console set.  There's also a Handhelds Area or two, which is little more than the convention center's odder nooks and crannies tiled with a few dozen beanbags, gamers draped across them like spilled cats.  Elsewhere we find the whole 'nother world of tabletop role-playing, Magic: The Gathering (with or without a tournament), and the bring-your-own-PC room in which spectators are not allowed.

Finally is the love-in called the Console Freeplay room.  Rows of long tables with console, TV, and chairs ready and waiting for anyone to plop down comprise the console freeplay room.  PAX provides a "library" from which attendees can check out games.  It of course has multiple copies of newer games, but it also has some surprising older games, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Tournament Fighter, which has likely dropped from the consciousness of everyone on planet Earth save for two guys who competed for over an hour at PAX09.  I spent approximately seven hours straight in this room, excepting two bathroom breaks and four trips to the water fountain, and left, at one in the morning, only due to a severe lack of food.  (It's open until 3 AM.)  I spent the majority of the time, not playing games, but watching others play games.  This is what I saw.

The games that got the most love in this room were SFIV (with one large setup), Soul Caliber, BlazBlue, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Super Smash Bros (usually Brawl), Guitar Hero, Rockband, Gears of War 2, Prototype, and some mech game with the largest, most complicated light-up controllers I've ever seen outside an arcade.  Stations along the wall were usually dedicated to one game in particular.  The right-hand wall had mostly frenetic titles:  Geometry Wars, Ikaruga, a racer with three dedicated monitors, several copies of Castle Crashers, and, in Everyday Shooter's place, Braid.  The small forward wall had "softer" titles:  Flower, eden, LocoRoco, and, in Braid's place, Everyday Shooter.  Spread throughout I saw a few sessions of Puzzle Fighter, Bomberman, Mirror's Edge, King of Fighters, the new Punch-Out, UFC, Zelda: Wind Waker, and Peggle.  I wondered why the PAX Ten couldn't be here as well.  If PAX would like to raise the profile of those games, then setting them up in a room open all night would certainly help.

More interesting I think were the older titles that people chose to play:  GoldenEye, Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros 1 & 3, Bubble Bobble, TMNT, a couple of older Street Fighters, the original Zelda & Metroid, and an impromptu Mortal Kombat tournament.  Last year, the console freeplay room was split into many small rooms, and I believe that was the reason there were many more single-player games played last year.  This year, having one huge room for the console freeplay greatly improved the mood of us players.  More multiplayer games were seen on the consoles, especially the older ones, and the atmosphere was that of a popular arcade.  People were very friendly at attempting to get others to try whatever game was in front of them.  There was much shaking of hands, especially in front of the fighting games.  And unlike online play, we sincerely complimented each other afterward on a good game.

Any of us can play old console games alone at home, but to play them effectively alone at a convention that you paid good money to enter seems like blasphemy.  But this year had a critical mass of gamers in a single room, and the constant churn and mingling ensured we were never alone, even when playing solo.  I happened upon a player of the original Zelda just as he entered Ganon's room, so applauded him upon saving the princess for no other reason than I believe he deserved it.  Unlike the arcades of old, we could sit comfortably, walk on carpet, and hear each other talk.  The only thing the console freeplay room lacked was refreshments ...and permanence. 



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