We had skipped PAX West (formerly PAX Prime) last year, and missed it terribly, so deciding how to spend our 2018 Labor Day weekend was a no-brainer. As usual, the whole process of obtaining the tickets was a white-knuckle affair—most especially and unexpectedly a few days before the show, when one of our PAX friends’ passes got lost in the mail. Fortunately, he was able to get things sorted out, and after a week of preparations on our end (including taking care of our own little emergency involving a pet sitting cancellation), we all met up in Seattle. This even included one of our group who had decided to skip PAX, but wanted to be in town nonetheless. PAX was here!
The following four days were packed with panels, games, and some delicious food, including some from longtime favorites Juicy Cafe and MOD Pizza. Downtown Seattle’s Rock Bottom Grill, our regular post-show spot, had since closed, but the Gordon Biersch in a nearby mall was a decent substitute; it was also the location of the first post-PAX Cheap Ass Gamer meetup that I organized seven years ago.
This past Saturday, we drove down to Santa Clara for this year’s California Extreme, a celebration of classic arcade gaming featuring dozens of video game cabinets, pinball tables, and other amusements brought in by private collectors. There’s an entry fee—we paid $40 a head at the door—but afterward, all of the games are free to play. In addition, CA Extreme features a few panels, evening concerts, and a handful of vendors selling everything from old console games to pinball machine parts.
The range of arcade games, spread across two conference rooms in a hotel adjacent to a convention center, was truly impressive, spanning many decades. There were pinball tables from at least as far back as the late 1950’s up through Stern showing off their newest heavy metal-themed machine, Iron Maiden. Some shooting gallery and other mechanical machines looked even older, and would’ve been right at home in the Musée Mécanique. The newest, and oddest, non-video game at the show was a fully playable Pong-themed coffee table.
On that note, as far as video games went, most eras and genres were represented in one form or another, though the heaviest focus was on 80s titles. Amongst others, there were sections devoted to vector games, Pac-Man and its spinoffs, Japanese rhythm games (including a handful of recent titles), and cocktail cabinets. Throughout the afternoon, with the odd break every so often, we bounced between these rooms and a small console freeplay area upstairs.
It’s the day before we leave for Seattle for yet another awesome late summer weekend at PAX Prime and, as usual, what this means still hasn’t completely sunk in yet. Part of this is likely due to poor sleep and being kept busy with various things, mainly the chores and errands that always have to be done pre-PAX. However, this will likely change on PAX Eve, as it typically does.
In the meantime, I’ve been finishing up a few games and such. First off was the most frustrating Tropico 5 DLC I’ve yet encountered: “The Supercomputer”. The mission included here starts you off in the next-to-the-last era with the regular, bare-bones starting buildings—which is fine. What isn’t fine is the strict time limit to reach the next era, plus the expensive building and maintenance requirements involved. I had a lot of trouble balancing these tasks with keeping my economy from imploding and making sure all the citizens were happy. Eventually, I got through it on my regular difficulty settings, but it took at least a dozen restarts until I found the magic formula.
Next up were an unusual pair of portable games: one was a Game Freak game that didn’t have “Pokemon” in the title, and the other was a non-Game Freak game that did. That first one was HarmoKnight, a downloadable 3DS rhythm game which I beat yesterday. It had been on my radar for quite awhile, and I finally picked it up in the form of a Club Nintendo reward. It was an enjoyable mix of platformer and rhythm game, though some of the harder levels made me wonder if I’m still cut out for this sort of thing. I guess I’ll find out for sure sometime after Hatsune Miku: Project mirai DX gets here next month via Play-Asia.
The non-Game Freak Pokemon game was Pokemon Conquest, which I’d started the day before HarmoKnight and beat today. Aside from some random rounds of Pokemon Stadium at a friend’s place back in the day, it’s the first and only Pokemon spinoff that I’ve played. It also happens to be one with an unusual lineage: made by Tecmo Koei, Pokemon Conquest is a strategy RPG crossover between the Pokemon franchise and the extremely niche Nobunaga’s Ambition. It’s a game that, when it was first unveiled, I thought was never, ever going to be released in the US, but somehow, Nintendo made it happen. I’m kind of glad they did, though; the setting is strange, but it’s a pretty decent all-ages SRPG that happens to feature Pokemon.
Now that I’m through those, I should probably get back to Picross DS, which has continually overwhelmed me with its massive amount of content. Fortunately, I don’t have many more puzzles left to go (I think), and then I don’t plan to play anything else this series for awhile, not even after Picross 3D 2 comes out here (at least, I hope it comes out here). However, part of me also wants to start up a proper Game Freak-made Pokemon again with Pokemon X. This is the last Pokemon game I need to play in order to consider myself caught up with the series; as much as I love Hoenn, I’ve no plans to play Omega Ruby or Alpha Sapphire. Also, after X, I will have played a game in every major Pokemon setting except for the first generation’s, though I suppose I can always check out Kanto in SoulSilver‘s postgame if I really want. I’m still not 100% sure I should be playing a new main-series Pokemon game less than a year after beating SoulSilver, but hopefully it won’t wear me out on the franchise too much.
Finally, I suppose I should explain the “picks” part of this post’s title. For some time, I wrote annual “Gaming Roundup” posts where I listed everything I played in a given year and some brief impressions. Unfortunately, these posts took a lot of work to compile and I slacked off on them after the 2011 edition. I decided a little while ago that I’m going to bring back year-end wrapups, but do them differently: this time, I’m only going to talk about my top ten favorite games that I played this year, and maybe a few others that left strong enough impressions. Recently, I went through the games I beat so far this year and put together a preliminary list, and it’ll probably be rewritten a few times before 2015 bows out. I can’t say this has been a fantastic year, gaming-wise, though there have been a few really great games that I’ve played. Of course, there will be more about said games, and others, around the end of the year.
Out of all the games Shigeru Miyamoto has created, Pikmin is far and away my favorite. I’ve put countless hours into Shiggy’s creations over the decades, from Donkey Kong to Wii Fit, but none has captivated me quite so much as his intimate tale of a diminutive spaceman and the even tinier creatures who aid him during a crisis. It is visually and aurally charming, not to mention a brilliantly designed example of how to do real-time strategy on a console, but it’s also much, much more.
Pikmin is something which is, even now, extremely rare amongst big-budget titles: a narrative game about a normal grown adult. The main character, Captain Olimar, is on an alien planet not because he’s been sent there to fight a war, nor is he chasing adventure or purpose. He’s there by accident. He’s a run-of-the-mill businessman, in the middle of traveling, who crash-lands in unfamiliar territory and spends the rest of the game calmly trying to repair his ride and get home to his worried wife and kid. There are no princesses or kingdoms to save; the only thing which needs rescuing is himself. Despite the fantastical universe he resides in, he’s as familiar as most any commuter you may see on the train in the morning. In this way, Pikmin is about the trials and mundanities of adulthood as much as many other games are examinations of adolescence. It’s shockingly refreshing, and Olimar has since become one of those rare game characters with whom I can truly identify.
Actually, I have to take something back—part of that “fantastical universe” of Olimar’s is almost as ordinary as he himself is, but in a different way. While the planet Olimar lands on is new and interesting to him, its identity soon becomes apparent to the player. As evidenced by the litter that Olimar encounters during his crisis, this strange new world is our own. Sure, the flowers are giant numbered pellets surrounded by petals, the creatures include two-legged speckled bugs and bird-beaked burrowing snakes, and the Pikmin themselves are plant/animal hybrids that could exist nowhere else but a Nintendo game, but there’s no mistaking it. Olimar is on Earth, and he is the size of an insect upon it.
The presence of the Pikmin and other weird living things, combined with the familiarity of Olimar’s situation and the random man-made flotsam, is perhaps meant to make us think about the nature we too often take for granted and our relationship to it. Study real-life plants and animals closely, and you’ll notice a wondrous, vibrant world, perhaps one similar to that which Olimar sees. Even at the current rate of extinction, new species are still being discovered; with that in mind, the birds and bugs of Pikmin don’t seem all that farfetched. The primary-colored Pikmin are clearly inspired by ants, insects which famously work together in groups and come in a wide variety of types. Scenes of them flocking around any given object are entertaining in the same way as watching ants carry a piece of food that’s much larger than they are.
This mix of the unusual and the ordinary naturally extends to the gameplay. As I said earlier, Pikmin is a real-time strategy game. The RTS genre is traditionally relegated to the PC, due to the need for precise controls, such as with a mouse, to organize and command units. Pikmin takes the RTS concept and simplifies things, with just three types of units (red, yellow, and blue Pikmin) and a total limit of one hundred individuals that can be controlled in the field at any time. The defense stats of these units is indicated, Super Mario Bros.-style, by physical appearance, and the best of these can be most easily cultivated by letting them “grow” in the ground for a longer period of time. In any other situation, this would not be a problem, but Olimar has only thirty days to find the same number of parts for his spaceship before his life-support system dies. Thus, time is Olimar’s largest, most ominous opponent, moreso than the massive creatures that attempt to eat the Pikmin along the way. Success in this game is determined by your command of the Pikmin, and how well they can fight off threats and navigate territory both while searching for and carrying back Olimar’s precious parts. Pikmin can be challenging at times, filled with all manner of clever obstacles and terrain, but it is also quite manageable, with a perfectly-tuned learning curve. It helps that the Wii’s “New Play Control!” port is a dream to play with its remote and nunchuck setup (unfortunately, there is no GameCube controller support in this release, so I could not compare the original control scheme to the new one).
The understated soundtrack is standard-quality Nintendo fare, but as for the graphics, they are Pikmin‘s most prominent weakness, as, despite their novel designs, they haven’t aged as gracefully as the rest of the game. Pikmin was originally released in 2001 and it shows, thanks to now-dated texturing and lighting, and simplistic character models. However, please don’t let this put you off on playing this masterpiece. It is one of the greatest and most unique video games of its kind, and also one of the best Nintendo has ever made. It is a surprisingly deceptive game, in a good way: approachable and wholesome enough for kids, but with a story and protagonist which are more relatable to adults. It speaks to its audience about nature and its relationship with humanity, without passing judgment on anyone or anything, leaving the player to reach their own conclusions about the world and its inhabitants. Most importantly, it is mature, in the truest sense of the word, than most other games which claim that adjective for themselves.
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I wasn’t excited for E3 this year. Of the games I knew that were coming out, there wasn’t much that I absolutely needed to see more of, and my anticipation for the as-yet-unannounced was low. It turns out that I was right to skip the Microsoft and Sony press conference streams, as there was practically nothing of interest to me in the liveblogs that I read (well, there wasHalo 4, but I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers for it at the moment). The following day, I caved and watched Nintendo’s presser, but found it to be sorely lacking.
After several days’ worth of coverage, only one new game piqued my interest, and that was “Project P-100”, a crowd management action title, directed by Platinum Games’ Hideki Kamiya, that seems to have gotten barely any attention from the press at all. This game is similar to his earlier Viewtiful Joe in its Super Sentai aesthetic, and the basic concept of controlling a crowd that turns into weapons to beat giant villains is pretty awesome. The one thing about this game that came as a disappointment was that it is for WiiU, a system I don’t have any interest in getting. Other than that, and a welcome reminder that the 3DS Paper Mario exists and is on its way, there wasn’t anything for me.
In the meantime, I’ve been continuing on with my main personal goal for 2012: reducing my backlog as much as possible. April is the current record-holder month with seven games beaten, including one (Soul Nomad & the World Eaters) that took me nearly 45 hours, and the two Pinky:st DS titles that I reviewed in my previous post. Some highlights these past few months include the DS remake of Dragon Quest VI, massively moe and just plain charming doujin shop sim/dungeon crawler Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, bare-bones browser-based JRPG Parameters, fantastic expansion pack Tropico 4: Modern Times, and Pokemon White Version, which I’ve written about before and was top-notch all around.
There was also Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, played co-op with my Halo-detractor husband. We had a good time, playing the game with the new graphics and old soundtrack, though I have some quibbles regarding the former. The new maps are brightly lit compared to the original versions, which, along with the whole co-op thing, made the game’s scariest moment a bit less so. Also, some of the new character models were lacking, especially Sergeant Johnson and 343 Guilty Spark. More than anything, I’m now cautiously optimistic about Halo 4.
I also played a couple of platformers, namely The Legendary Starfy on DS and Ratchet & Clank for PS2. Starfy was a decent game with a lot of character, but it was also much wordier than I expected, with more cutscenes than is average for a platformer. Ratchet is not as good as its first-party brethren Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and Sly Cooper & the Thievius Raccoonus and also has some irritating bugs. However, the weapon/gadget system at its heart is well thought-out, and the storytelling, which is similar in tone to Jak and Sly, is enjoyable enough.
There have been a smattering of others, including the two Izuna games, mystery dungeons with an emphasis on humor and fanservice, and, on the negative side, vague endings that lack so much as a credit roll or “The End” text before dumping the player into Postgame Territory. I also beat the puzzle game RUSH and attempted to play EDGE, but the bad controls and mediocre design of the latter led me to quit. Finally, over the weekend I played through Breath of Death VII, a parody RPG that resembles an early Dragon Quest and contains jokes and references that range from the silly to the sillier; despite some design quirks, it’s well worth a play if you love the genre.
That’s it for what I’ve beaten these past few months. As for what I’m actively playing right now, I’m approaching the end of “The Journey”, aka the main game in Persona 3 FES. This RPG has been unlike most others I’ve ever played, in a good way, and I hope to write about it at length later on. I’m also playing Dance Dance Revolution again (SuperNOVA 2, specifically); after a long ordeal, a couple of new, working pads arrived yesterday.
Once I wrap up “The Journey”, I plan to put Persona 3 FES aside for awhile before taking on the bonus episode “The Answer”. Right now, I’m considering starting de Blob 2 and/or Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 as my next game (or games). As usual, we’ll see.
One of my biggest regrets of PAX East 2010 was not taking very many pictures, especially of the cosplayers. Fortunately, and with the help of a few people at deviantART, I managed to find photos of many of my favorites. This time around, I did not want to repeat this mistake.
To start things out, here’s my favorite cosplay of the show, which I had teased in earlier posts: Gordon Freeman from Half-Life. Despite its simplicity (not to mention the somewhat slapdash application of the Black Mesa patch), it succeeds in two important areas: the cosplayer’s resemblance to the original character, and their creative approach. This Gordon went around PAX all weekend carrying a large display that humorously promoted Black Mesa; titled “Black Mesa Community Outreach and Hiring”, it included a special message from Dr. Breen, a list of civilian projects that involved upstanding partners such as Umbrella Corporation and Abstergo, a partially redacted hiring notice, and a section about famed curtain manufacturer Aperture Science. Overall, an inspired and funny cosplay.
Other cosplayers I saw over the weekend included Princess Zelda and Link, whom I sat next to during the marketing panel; a four-person Mortal Kombat II team consisting of Smoke, Scorpion, Reptile, and Sub-Zero; a White Mage, a Black Mage, and Aeris; two of Quote from Cave Story (the second of which is pictured here); and a Draenei from World of WarCraft.
Aside from the expected video game cosplays, there were a few distintively non-game ones. For example, over the weekend I saw The Tick and Arthur, as well as the Bimbettes from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (pictured). Crossplay, or cross-dressing cosplay, was also present at the show. There was a female Quote (the first Quote I had seen), a male Chell, and most memorably, a male Misty, shown here.
Of course, there were a few people dressed in costume who were not cosplayers, but actually on the job. Aside from the Halo: Reach characters at Halo Fest (see Part Three), there was a female Shepard at the Mass Effect 3 booth and a Plants vs. Zombies group made up of Disco Zombie and his backup dancers.
Still, even though I had managed to take many more photos this time around, there were some cosplays that I missed out on. Aside from those I’ve already shown and/or mentioned, I also saw Cirno (Touhou series); Bayonetta; an Enforcer dressed as Chun-Li; a yellow and black Heartless and other Kingdom Hearts series characters; Vanille (FFXIII); Frank West (Dead Rising) in boxers and a Servbot head; Catherine and one or two Vincents (Catherine); Princess Peach; at least a couple of Marios, another Link, and a Dark Link; and what I believe may have been an Alchemist from Torchlight. There were others besides, but I can’t think of them all right now.
Cosplay aside, there are several other, smaller things to mention about the weekend. As at PAX East, the longer lines were made more interesting by the Cookie Brigade and what entertainment the Enforcers had on hand. Across the street from the Paramount Theater (aka the “Main Theater”), a tank was parked in a vacant lot as a part of the promotion for World of Tanks. The Paramount itself is gorgeous inside, with high ceilings, fancy gilded detailing, and an overall feeling of grandeur.
We didn’t spend any time in the Queue Room this go round—save for a brief trip in and out to get the official swag bags, we didn’t have to. At this PAX, they experimented with letting people queue up wherever they wanted before the doors opened; this approach, while not perfect, worked out okay.
While in line, we would sometimes chat with people; at the Friday concert, it was with a couple who we had been in line with earlier that day. I also managed to meet up with some fellow Cheap Ass Gamers during PAX, and we all went out to dinner at a nearby Gordon Biersch on the Sunday night after the final round of the Omegathon (and a brief Child of Eden session in the Console Freeplay room), where the topics of discussion included cars and corpses, import figures, multiplayer gaming, and CAG itself.
What else is left to mention? We hit up the Gameworks across the street the night before PAX started and checked out (but didn’t play) the wide variety of arcade machines there, including some recent Japanese imports, such as a motion-activated rhythm game by Konami (not sure if it’s a Bemani game, technically) and a ride-on version of Initial D Version 3. On the first day of the show, I noticed a shrinkwrapped Jim Darkmagic portrait prominently displayed at the official PAX/Penny Arcade store. One of the stores in the Expo Hall (which I wish I could remember the name of) had these cool Portal 2 rubber keychains that I have not seen since. Another store sold anime merchandise, many of which were bootlegs. In the Tabletop areas, one of the card games really stood out from the rest: the anime-styled, maid-heavy Tanto Cuore. And, as you may have heard elsewhere, PAX scalping was taken to a whole new level with the presence of counterfeit passes.
So, in conclusion, it was an incredibly fun weekend, and we’re looking forward to doing it again next year. To all the people who made this event so awesome: thank you. Finally, if your cosplay is posted here, please let me know! I’d love to give you credit.
ETA (09/10/11): Cosplay credits! Please help me add to the list if possible.
– “Community Outreach” Gordon Freeman: Peter Jung
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