PAX AUS 2019: Confessions of PAX Newbie

So I finally managed to get down to Melbourne for PAX AUS, for a weekend filled with games, gaming culture, killer sheep and plenty of good-spirited competition.

Each year since PAX AUS was a thing, I’d wanted to make it down to Melbourne to have a look around, but various factors (usually known as “real world problems intervening”) meant that it just didn’t work out.

Until this year, that is. With full disclosure in mind, the PAX AUS organisers sent me a media pass, which helped with some of the costs, and my Vertical Hold co-host Adam Turner offered me a sofa to sleep on, which helped with even more of the costs!

Now, if you’re reading this you’re probably aware of what PAX AUS actually is, but for the less informed, it’s a multi-day gaming conference/exhibition, filled with new and upcoming games, panels around gaming culture, more cosplayers than you can swing a foam sword at and thousands upon thousands of generally very friendly, patient and excited gamers. My kind of people, really.

Again, that ain’t news. So what did I think?

Well, like most big conferences, you really have to choose what kind of PAX you’re going to have, because it’s essentially impossible to do everything.

If you’re into gaming panels — and there were plenty of those — you dedicate your time to that. If boardgaming is your thing, there’s plenty of space, supplied games and friendly folk willing to roll a die or flip a card along with you. If cosplay is your jam, you’ll be amongst plenty of like-minded folk. I saw some amazing, creative, funny and smart cosplays wandering around, and again, everyone seemed pretty respectful of their personal space, and they were likewise pretty careful with their props and the space of others.

There were plenty of AAA titles to line up to play if you wanted an early go on some of this year’s biggest games too.

I was only there for a day, and basically… I did none of that stuff.

Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great that folks could line up to play games such as Pokemon Sword & Shield. But I had to make my choices as to how I was going to carefully spend my own time.

So what did I do?

Lots of classic gaming

Yeah, I know, you’re shocked beyond words that I might have an interest in retro gaming. The classic gaming area at PAX AUS has been running for a number of years now, helped out by folks such as AusRetrogamer, Weird & Retro, Press Play on Tape, Bartronica.. and I’m undoubtedly forgetting plenty of other fine folk who helped make it all happen too. Please don’t throw unwanted N-Gages at me.

What was great here was not only the chance to get hands-on with a few systems I’d never actually used — I can no longer claim to have never played a Jaguar game, for example — but also to catch up and chat with a whole bunch of folks who I’d chatted with only over social media.

I finally got to meet Alex “Austretrogamer” Boz, for example. He’s a great guy online — and even nicer in person!

All the best people are called Alex.
(Picture credit : MsAusRetrogamer)

Equally, there were games to play and competitions to win. Which I didn’t but I had fun playing Downfall on an Atari Jaguar, and some rather taxing Super Mario World levels too!

Ausdroid’s Jason Murray was much better at Downfall than I was. But then the actual event winner scored something like 10x the score of everyone else. He was AMAZING.
Me, not *totally* sucking at Super Mario World. Although I’m kicking myself I didn’t do better.
(Picture credit: Blahjedi)
Not going to lie. I still want a Vectrex.
Equally, though, I’ll probably never own one unless I take out a second mortgage. Sigh.
Gamers of a certain age will have a certain Commodore ad theme stuck in their heads right now. If they’re keeping up, that is…
Mouse Puzzle! Police Jump!
(Actually, these are games I’ve never played for a system I’ve never used. Very cool to see, though.)
I have absolute confidence that if my better half got near this machine, she’d set a high score that would beat all comers, and then some.
If I have one teensy-tiny complaint, it’s that some of the pinball players (not the guy pictured, he’s just set dressing) were a little pushy about the pinball tables. A stark difference to elsewhere, but not something that’s the organiser’s fault anyway. Some people are just like that, I find.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the delights of retro gaming, however. I did a walkthrough video for Facebook a little later in the day:

It’s not all AAA games

But it wasn’t all retro gaming all day for me. With Vertical Hold to produce, I also wanted to sample some of the more locally-produced gaming fare on offer, so I headed over to the PAX Rising area to check out some local games action.

But before I do note on that very good work, I was also super impressed with some of the disability supports on show all through PAX 2019. Not just the chillout areas, but also the general attitude of every single attendee I saw towards folks who might find an event like that more tricky than most. I saw more than a few folks in wheelchairs, and they were all given the space they needed (at least while I was looking) to get around without hindrance, or without the complaining that you sometimes see when people have to move out of the way. Great stuff!

Of course, we also produced a podcast, which you should totally subscribe to, as well as listening to below:

A huge thanks again to Alex Walker from Kotaku Australia, Fergus Halliday from PC World Australia and Nic Healey from ABC Radio for taking time out of their busy schedules to join us live from the show floor!

Now, if you’re curious about some of the games mentioned in the show, I did take a few snaps. Especially of those crucial cat-themed games…

Part cute-animal-simulator, part resource gathering sim, mostly cult-of-killer-sheep game Sacrificial Lamb shows a lot of promise… although it won’t be for everybody.
The part of my brain that loves a bad pun can’t decide if “Chuck Meowris” as a game title is brilliant or painful. It’s probably both.
NekoGrams is an adorable cat-themed puzzle game with sliding pillows and shifting cat types. It’s also pretty challenging!
Zunius is somewhat akin to Sega's classic Fantasy Zone, but it's Fantasy Zone after a particularly bad hangover (and I mean that in a nice way!)
Zunius is somewhat akin to Sega’s classic Fantasy Zone, but it’s Fantasy Zone after a particularly bad hangover (and I mean that in a nice way!)
A game in which you’re a cat — and you can select its colouration — collecting things, Unfamiliar is gentle and relaxing. I didn’t buy a copy on the show floor, and now I’m kicking myself for not doing so.
Unpacking is a game about… well, it’s about unpacking. It’s a really interesting concept that I (sadly) didn’t quite get the time to line up to experience myself!
Lethal Lawns: A fight to the death for small change… with the smell of freshly-cut grass. This isn’t a new game — it’s already out — but playing it arcade-style was a lot of fun.

I had some great discussions with developers about their plans and hopes, and I walked away quite impressed with the optimism present in the local games development scene. I by no means imagine that it’s easy — it’s a hard slog no doubt — but with new platforms to publish on and a range of game ideas that flipped from the standard to the right-out-there-what-did-I-just-play-give-me-MORE, it felt like the local games development scene was in good hands.

Closing thoughts

I had a heck of a time, even if my feet are paying for it right now. It wasn’t just the chance to play games, or indeed see upcoming titles. I could easily have spent the entire day watching panel discussions and debates, or checking out the astonishing cosplay ideas on display.

No, ultimately it was the fun of playing games surrounded by many, many likeminded people. This may have been my first PAX AUS, but it won’t be my last.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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