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These were the best games we played at PAX West 2023: Mario, Persona, and more

The fan-focused Penny Arcade Expo came back to its Pacific Northwest roots for PAX West, and Digital Trends was there to bring you the latest and greatest from the show floor. As always, there was something for just about everyone, including a revival of a long-dormant space ship franchise, terrifying animatronics in VR, and a brand new way to continue the adventures of Persona 5’s Phantom Thieves.

Over the course of the fun weekend, we played the most portable way to hunt monsters, explored a deeply unsettling take on Windows 95, and joined in a grand celebration of all things Nintendo. Here are just seven of the best games we saw and played at this year’s PAX West, a list that showcases a diverse flood of titles that are just around the corner.

Desktop Explorer

A desktop similar to an old windows or apple machine has several apps open, including a dark and creepy adventure game in Desktop Explorer.
Crocodile Company

I had to travel off the main show floor to the Seattle Indie Expo to find this potential hidden gem, but it was worth it. In Desktop Explorer, you have been bequeathed an old computer by your uncle, who unexpectedly passed away while working on an adventure game. It’s presented from a pseudo-mid-’90s, Windows desktop-like interface as you play his text-based adventure while simultaneously exploring the computer’s file structure for information to help your progress. There’s a creepy undertone to it all, and cracking open the secrets of the computer gives the game strong digital escape room vibes. The planned release date is the fourth quarter of 2024, but there’s a demo on Steam if you want to start exploring Desktop Explorer sooner rather than later.

Big Boy Boxing

A large cartoonish figure in a white shirt holds stands in a boxing ring, brandishing a shovel towards the player in Big Boy Boxing.
Justin Koreis / Digital Trends

Combine the classic video game boxing of Super Punch-Out!! with the over-the-top zaniness of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and you’ll have something along the lines of Big Boy Boxing. It’s just you and a wonderfully expressive pixel-art foe in the ring, duking it out to see who comes out on top. The PAX demo we played had us fighting a scrawny dweeb who went full hulk when we knocked off his helmet, a girl with a giant mallet who would be at home in a Looney Tunes short, and what seemed an awful lot like a bunch of kids in the a trench coat. The matches were brutally difficult, requiring that you learn each fighter’s tells and how to perfectly time dodges and counters, which made it all the more rewarding to knock each of them out.

Persona 5 Tactica

All the Phanton Thieives pose goether in front of a stylized town in Persona 5 Tactica.
Atlus West

Adapting a turn based RPG to an XCOM-style tactics game is an interesting direction to take Persona 5 in, and from what we saw of Persona 5 Tactica at PAX West, it works really well. Characters take turns moving to and from cover, attacking with their guns or personas as they go. A slick and simple interface makes it easy to know how far Joker, Mona, and their new friend, Erina, can move and attack. Bonus rewards for finishing fights in a certain number of turns are really motivating for planning the most efficient routes to victory, while critical hits, status effects, and All Out Attacks in the form of “Triple Threats” kept things feeling very Persona. If you’re a fan of the series, or just of tactics games, you’ll want to keep an eye on Persona 5 Tactica when it launches on November 17.

Lunar Lander Beyond

A cartoonish space ship blasts off towards a massive floating statue in Lunar Lander Beyond.
Atari

Atari, the grandfather of the video game industry, had a decent-sized booth at PAX West, along with a solid mix of titles. Days of Doom mixes roguelite elements with grid-based tactical elements, while qomp2 puts you in control of the ball from Pong as you try to escape a series of trap-filled mazes with a simple two-button control scheme. But it was Lunar Lander Beyond that really stood out to me. It reimagines the classic arcade game where you have to carefully manage the thrust and vector of a small ship to fly through certain points, gather money used for ship upgrades, and land safely. I saw glimpses of an intriguing story mode, upgrades, and a stress system that caused the pilot to have a mental breakdown midflight, leading to hallucinations of disembodied eyes, and not a small number of pink elephants. It looks like a wildly creative take, and one worth keeping an eye on when it releases next year.

Five Nights at Freddy’s: Help Wanted 2

A creepy elevator from Five Nights at Freddy's: Help Wanted 2, with a poster of Circus Baby eating ice cream.
PlayStation

Fans of the Five Nights at Freddy’s series are as ravenous for games and lore, so it was no surprise that there was a line wrapped around the booth to see the next release in the franchise. I donned the PlayStation VR2 headset and stepped into the shoes of Freddy’s newest employee; my job was to reset a series of breakers by holding levers as they reset. The sharp visuals had me in a dark and foreboding mechanical room. Occasional flashes of light would illuminate the tower figure of Freddy himself, though he had a Jason Voorhees habit of disappearing any time I lost sight of him, before returning closer and closer, ready to rip me apart digitally. A small megaphone could be activated, playing back the voice of another character ordering him to return to his post. Managing the levers while watching for Freddy and timing the megaphone was stressful in just the right way, and this looks like it could be one of the best horror games on the new VR platform when it releases in December.

Monster Hunter Now

Monster Hunter Now being played horizontally.
Niantic

I’m not usually the biggest mobile game fan, but an hour spent playing Monster Hunter Now might be enough to rethink that. Niantic, best-known for Pokémon Go, is at the helm of this ultraportable edition of the long-running series, and that’s readily apparent from the overworld map. You walk around in real life, encountering monsters in the wild, and picking up resources at gathering points, largely at notable landmarks. Tapping a monster lets you start a solo battle or open things up to allow groups of up to four to hunt. The combat itself is a solid facsimile of the console version, requiring perfectly timed dodges and different strategies across the various weapons types to use them efficiently. I sat with a group of friends in a bar, chatting, drinking, and hunting, and honestly having a great time. Each fight has a countdown of 75 seconds, which forces you to be aggressive while keeping things bite-sized. The loop of hunting, harvesting parts, upgrading gear, and then hunting stronger monsters felt as compelling as ever, and it was hard to peel ourselves away when our time was up. The September 14 release date has potential to signal the start of Niantic’s next big hit, so keep your eyes peeled.

Super Mario Wonder

Mario is a spike ball in Super Mario Bros. Wonder.
Nintendo

This year, Nintendo Live ran as a sort of companion convention alongside PAX West. The event took over an entire wing of the Seattle Convention Center, with massive sections dedicated to Splatoon 3, The Legend of  Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, and Pokémon big and small. The costumed mascots, photo ops, and live musical performances made it almost feel like a compact, traveling version of the Super Nintendo World theme park. It was there that we got our hands on Super Mario Bros Wonder once again. I approached it a little differently, though, going for more of an aggressive speed run. The fast, smooth platforming shined as I blew through the first few levels. There was a fair amount of challenge in some places, especially in an underground cavern. Activating a Wonder Seed literally brought the ceiling down, and we had to find breakable areas in the fall to avoid getting crush, somewhat akin to the chase sequence from Quick Man’s Stage in Mega Man. The lack of collision between players stood out as a subtle but impactful differentiator from something like the New Super Mario Bros series. 

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Justin Koreis
Justin is a freelance writer with a lifelong love of video games and technology. He loves writing about games, especially…
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