PAX has come and gone, leaving behind nothing but memories and aching feet. To play every videogame demoed at PAX is impossible—there are simply too many and the lines too long for anyone to make an exhaustive list—but many of the games I did get the opportunity to play stuck a long lasting smile on my face.
It is not hard to see the game booths at PAX as an underdog story, with smaller independent developers butting heads with 30-foot tall monoliths from publishers with recognizable names and a dozen demo stations across the aisle. Some of those heavily advertised, big-budget games were among the best I played last weekend, but after sifting through the glitz and hype, I found myself enamored with games from smaller companies with smaller marketing budgets, games I maybe wouldn’t have heard of if I wasn’t directly confronted with their existence on the PAX show floor.
After careful consideration, here are the ten games I felt shined the brightest at PAX 2015.
Although Super Mario Maker is only a few days away, no small part of Nintendo’s booth at PAX was dedicated to the upcoming title. In the twenty minute demo, a Nintendo representative tried to guide me through making my first level, two screens stacked vertically while Super Mario Bros. 3 Bowser stomped down bricks trying to make a path for Mario. The level was made in five minutes, but the tweaking and play testing took another fifteen until I finally felt it was as perfect as I could get it. While it is not the easiest game to demo in a show floor environment, I finally got to create the level I have had in my head for twenty-five years, and that alone is rather impressive.
Tucked away in a small corner near an escalator, Necrosoft’s Gunsport was not something that should be ignored. Presenting as a cyber-dystopian take on volleyball, Gunsport asks two-to-four players to blast a ball back and forth into each other’s goals. This is accomplished by taking aim at the ball and shooting it with a gun, with each team having different types of guns to use, resulting in surprisingly hectic action and lots of last-minute saves. The levels varied enough that each arena felt totally different from the last and really made me change up how I was playing the game. I only got to play in the two-player mode with one of the developers, but it seems like four-player is where this game would really excel.
Featured prominently at Nintendo’s indie booth, Runbow always had a small crowd gathered around the demo unit. Through a nightmarish combination of Wii remotes, Classic Controllers, Pro controllers, and the Wii U gamepad, nine people race against each other in a side-scroller that begs more comparisons to Super Smash Bros. than anything else. Aiding that comparison is the exhaustive character roster, featuring a range of characters spanning Shovel Knight and Azure Striker Gunvolt to deeper cuts like Unity-chan , the Unity game engine’s Japanese mascot. I was unsure about Runbow before playing it, and I still have some concerns about long term depth, but it is undoubtedly a barn burner for parties of people who can identify the main characters of Guacamelee.
Just Cause 2 was somewhat of a slow burn in terms of reception. A few people were wild about its sandbox gameplay, but for the most part, it seemed to only get mentioned when particularly outlandish mods became popular. Just Cause 3 is taking that torch of madness and running with it, building the game from the ground up to match its reputation. While the demo I played was short, it was already very clear how significant the improvements were to Rico’s mobility with the grappling hook. I never had to think about how to scale something—as long as I could see it, I could make my way to the top somehow. There is more to how Just Cause 3 will end up than just the grappling hook, but if they got that part right, I don’t worry too much about the rest.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse came out in 2014 to very little fanfare, despite it being one of the best platformers on either Nintendo system. The Kickstarted successor, Half-Genie Hero, looks to carry on that legacy with hopefully a bit more attention this time. The new game is the first in the series to feature high-definition sprites, which look great, but work especially well in conjunction with the hand-painted backgrounds. Shantae uses her magic to transform into different animals to traverse levels, letting her navigate the different environments when the situation demands it, though level design was not particularly complicated. It will be hard for Half-Genie Hero to overthrow its predecessor, but the demo made me confident it was going to make an honest try.
Deep inside the Microsoft booth, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst commanded a line of bewildered fans that were still slowly coming to grips with the fact that the hotly anticipated sequel existed. A semi-prequel, semi-reboot to the original Mirror’s Edge, Catalyst does not fall far from its predecessor’s tree. There is an instant familiarity when you take control of Faith, as Catalyst chooses to excise the last game’s flaws to create a tighter product without the weighty baggage that subverted the original’s point. The familiarity plays to the game’s strengths and the ever-looming fear that you are merely running toward a pointless gunfight is thankfully permanently removed for the sequel. If the worst thing anyone can say about Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is that it plays similarly to what many people think is one of the best games of the last generation, I do not think anyone will be disappointed.
Two stools with two PlayStation 4 controllers beckoned onlookers to sit down and try Enter the Gungeon from Dodge Roll Games. Combining a top-down shooter with dungeon crawling, the opening merely asks you the type of gun and character you would like to start off with and then throws you headlong into dungeon-diving action. I immediately got the same sense of innovative design that I got from Rogue Legacy years prior, providing equal parts skill-based action with deliberately crafted and procedurally-generated rooms. There were some slight readability issues where I could not immediately tell whether enemies were behind cover in the heat of the moment, but I imagine that will become more obvious with experience. Enter the Gungeon has all the makings of a title that will catch fire through positive word of mouth once it is released and in players’ hands in 2016.
It seems like only yesterday that I previewed Street Fighter IV with a mixture of excitement and dread, doubtful that Capcom still understood how to make great fighting games. Years later, there remains nothing but excitement for Street Fighter V and I am more than happy to reconfirm that feeling after multiple rounds at Capcom’s booth. I enjoyed playing it so much that it is one of the few videogames I went back to play repeatedly each day, braving the lines and the chances of getting embarrassed by professional players. Street Fighter V changes focus a bit, lowering the necessary experience threshold to focus on different play styles. The “rushdown” approach, where players are encouraged to get up in their opponent’s face, is paramount, making the game feel fast and frantic in a way that I found incredibly appealing. Special move execution has been significantly streamlined, lessening the difficulty of performing moves and placing more emphasis on the mind games inherent to using them. There are still a lot of question marks in Street Fighter V’s roster, but the base game is solid and fun, and might be finally charting the holy middle ground of accessible and deep.
I have dedicated no small part of my life to active enjoyment of 1993’s Mega Man X. When I stumbled upon Batterystaple Games’ rather unsubtly titled 20XX, I instantly fell in love. This co-op side-scroller inspired by Mega Man X lets you take control of a female protagonist (who looks like the child of Mega Man and Metroid’s Samus Aran) or a robot that resembles X’s mentor, Zero. I dashed around levels and defeated bosses to find powers that changed each play through, which will incentivize players to replay multiple times. The levels themselves were well-designed, with even certain platform arrangements bearing strong resemblance to the SNES classic, but the level art was on the bland side in the demo. Still, I felt ten years old again playing this game, and capturing that feeling so expertly is no easy task. Despite having never heard of it before PAX, 20XX is now one of my most anticipated games and I cannot wait to get my hands on the final version.
With a line hovering around three hours of waiting, Dark Souls 3 was one of the bigger deals at PAX 2015. After 2014’s Dark Souls 2, a great game that still felt a little off from other titles in the series, eyes have been on the third game to deliver what its predecessor seemingly could not. Dark Souls 3 does this by choosing to be eclectic—instead of reinventing the wheel, it merely picks from the previous’ games greatest hits while cutting the fat bit-by-bit. This new game combines Bloodborne’s mobility with the character customization and defensive options that previous Souls games boasted. Additionally, new weapon arts allow you to change your fighting style on the fly, presenting the player with lots of different strategies to try (and more ways to mess up) when fighting stubborn enemies. It is too early to say it is a return to the incredibly high standards the series has always held, but I went from feeling somewhat burned out on the Souls games to having to be repeatedly told to leave my demo station.
Imran Khan is an Atlanta-based writer that tweets @imranzomg.