Gex is like Erntedankfest in Zoey Handley’s garage
When Limited Run Games announced that Gex would return to modern gaming platforms, I decided to revisit the lizard’s debut adventure. I had no idea what I was getting into.
For the uninitiated, Gex is a mascot platformer released by Crystal Dynamics in 1995. It was originally developed for the 3DO console, a wildly expensive piece of hardware that, adjusted for inflation, cost around half a month’s rent in New York City. Naturally, this is how I first played Gex. Being in elementary school at the time, the only 3DO games that really appealed to me were Gex and Soccer Kid. All I remember about Soccer Kid is that there’s an enemy that says “get awf my laaaaaand,” which I found funny.
Meanwhile, I always internalized Gex as an underrated platformer. I even revisisted it in my late teens, where I also remember liking Gex. For this reason, I thought I had a pretty good handle on this lizard’s first adventure.
Of course, the internet has since morphed Gex into a bizarre meme format. While people still revere their Spyros and Crash Bandicoots, Gex might as well be the representation of all your Bubsys and Awesome Possums. You know, mascot platformers that solely existed as products of their time. While I understood the jokes, I’ve always wanted to stick up for Gex. As one of eight people who ever played a 3DO, I needed to tell these whipper-snappers that this is, in fact, a good game. Because I know it’s a good game. It’s a good game, right?
Well, I stand before you today as someone who fell down the Gex rabbit hole. I am no longer here to tell you that Gex is a good game. Because after getting the full Gex experience, I can never look at this gecko the same way again.
A tail as old as time
Gex begins with a brief cinematic showing the titular character watching some TV. After he indiscriminately eats a fly that flies in front of his face, Gex is sucked right into the screen. See, apparently that fly was a… something created by the villain Rez. So by eating it, Gex is sucked into the Media Dimension. In other words, Persona 4 is just a Gex ripoff.
There’s more to the story, but we’ll get to that later. Oh boy will we get to that later.
The ensuing 2D platforming adventure tasks Gex with collecting remotes across five TV inspired worlds as Gex spits out a stream of 90s pop-culture references loosely related to them. These are connected by a world map that a young Tim may have generously likened to Super Mario World, which could have influenced my childhood memories. I’m not here to psychoanalyze myself when I’ve still got the entirety of Gex in front of me, but it is worth noting that it did look impressive at the time.
I also must reiterate that I played this on a 3DO, and it’d be a few months until I saw a PlayStation. All I knew is that I liked Gex more than Soccer Kid.
More ambitious than organizing a wine and cheese party with Eric Van Allen
To be completely sincere for a second, Gex still impresses me on several fronts. For a mascot platformer, you can tell Crystal Dynamics had some legitimately great ideas they wanted to see realized.
First off, Gex himself features a creative moveset. You have your standard jump and tail-whip attack, as well as a dedicated tongue-whip button to grab and subsequently use items. Additionally, by pressing down on the D-Pad while midair, Gex can perform a DuckTales-style attack to bounce off enemies. Gex’s signature feature, however, is his ability to climb almost any wall or roof in the game. Just jump toward any applicable surface, and Gex will stick right on.
I like this, since it utilizies the fact that Gex is, you know, a gecko. It also lets the level design feature hidden areas to uncover and secrets that take advantage of Gex’s abilities. For example, you’ll encounter a few narrow passageways that the lizard can’t fit in. However, since Gex clings to a surface when climbing, you can follow specific wall-climbing paths to get through these spacess. I’m not saying it’s genius, but it is unique to Gex.
I also genuinely like the theming here. Basing levels around movie genres still feels relatively novel to this day. Additionally, there’s some nice graphical variety even within each world. You’ll see many different enemy types, occasionally strutting some impressive animation.
Plus, I’ll go on record and say that I like Dana Gould’s voice work as Gex. While the jokes themselves are… what they are… the delivery always feels on point. And considering the quality of video game voice work in 1995, Gex packs a surprising amount of personality. Remember, when Gex was released, people thought this lizard was genuinely funny. Electronics Gaming Monthly gave Gex Game of the Month, and that was the magazine I trusted most at the time!
I wonder if EGM’s writers ever bothered to revisit this game, and if they had the same spiral into madness that will detail below.
Worse than playing a water level with a Roll n’ Rocker
Unfortunately, Gex suffered from development hell. That’s a story too long to cover here, but you can read the archived words of lead programmer Gregg Tavares here. Playing Gex today, the cracks in its development become extremely apparent.
The absolute killing blow to Gex is its controls. By default, Gex has a fairly slow walk speed, but he can run by holding the shoulder button. The problem here is that Gex feels floaty by default, and running gives Gex momentum that makes precision platforming way too difficult. And sure enough, Gex requires precision platforming more often than not. This requires a lot of awkward rocking of the D-Pad to pull off jumps, or just eating hits and hoping that you’ll find healing items later.
Considering the game showers you with restoratives and extra lives, I think the developers were actually aware of this issue. By the time I finished the first world, I had north of 30 lives. By the second world, I hit 99. Even with a lot of deaths, my reserves were comically inflated. It’s a bandage for sure, but not a solution. As a disclaimer, this recent playthrough was on the PlayStation version of the game. Even me, one of three people who ever had a 3DO in their house, was not about to use that version to grab footage.
Additionally, you can occasionally control Gex’s jump height by holding the Up button on the D-Pad. This might not sound like a big deal, but remember that Gex’s bounce attack requires holding the Down button. This makes some jumps exceedingly awkward to pull off, requiring me to weirdly rock my thumb at exact moments that legitimately kind of hurt to do. I have no idea why they didn’t take a page from Mario’s book and control jump height with, you know, the jump button.
Then you get into some wildly inconsistent level design. Sure, the first horror-themed world feels great. It’s even got a banger of a level theme that oscillates between sounding atmospheric and kind of rocking out. It is truly the YYZ of campy Halloween music. But the level design starts getting straight up hateful at certain points, with virtually the entire final world existing as an exercise in frustration. Considering the final boss theme is a seven-second loop, I strongly got the feeling that the team just ran out of time and energy with Gex.
You’ll find other major issues here, of course. The large sprites relative to the small resolution leads to a few too many leaps of faith, for example. But honestly, the quality of Gex’s gameplay is not what shocked me the most about this revisit.
Oh no, the thing that shook me to the core was Gex’s story.
You’re not ready for the Gex lore
Honestly, even if I could safely tell you Gex was a masterpiece platformer, I’m not sure anyone would care. The internet knows Gex because he endlessly spits out terribly unfunny pop-culture references with few actual punchlines. With this in mind, I started having certain suspicions about Gex as a character, which made me wonder if maybe the instruction manual housed any backstory that wasn’t conveyed by the approximately two-minutes of in-game cinematics.
Six pages. Six pages of Gex lore were in here. They changed everything.
Here’s the deal. Prior to the events in Gex, the titular lizard was apparently well-adjusted. He was the oldest of “three-and-a-half” kids and the son of a NASA researcher. However, his “carefree upper-middle-class life” abruptly came to a halt when his dad died in a freak NASA accident. So unable to confront both the tragedy and the infighting that enveloped his family, Gex decided to completely disassociate and lose himself watching TV.
Don’t worry, the story doesn’t stop there. Gex’s now-single mother apparently tried to get her son away from the TV to no success, so completely out of options, she moves the entire family from Hawaii to California. Yet even this does not shake Gex’s TV addiction. In fact, even when Gex’s mom helps introduce him to their next-door neighbor to help Gex make a fresh start, he refuses the opportunity outright. Because he explains, and I quote, “the last time he had gone outside, his dad blew up.”
This culminates in Gex’s mother removing the TV from the house outright, which triggers a complete breakdown. Gex loses his mind, tells his mother he’ll never see her again, and then leaves. As the instruction manual says, “the one thing in his life that had meaning was gone.”
Gex keeps going
So after this point, Gex lives a miserable, meaningless existence of trying to make ends meet on his own. Even forced into the outside world, he misses his “TV friends”. This changes when Gex’s uncle also kicks the bucket, but this doesn’t trigger another mental breakdown. You see, Gex’s uncle was comically rich, so his death now means the family has money beyond their wildest dreams.
For the rest of Gex’s family, this inheritance is a new lease on life that lets them live lavishly and outright buy Australia. However, Gex himself decides to use his share of the cash to move back to Hawaii. His plan? He would buy a huge house and “spend the rest of his life watching all his old TV friends.”
Infinite wealth winds up just being an enabler for Gex’s escapism.
So that brings us to where Gex the game begins. Rez, the villain inside the media dimension, apparently captures Gex because he wants to make him the mascot of the Media Dimension. Rez doesn’t want to destroy the world. Gex doesn’t need to save the world. He just watches so much TV to avoid confronting the trauma of his father’s death that it literally consumes him.
This is weirder than playing Omori in an abandoned Toys “R” Us
So, okay, holy shit, where do I even start?
I started this journey wondering if Gex was ever intended to be funny or aspirational. I thought maybe I’d get a few lines to make jokes about, but now making fun of Gex feels wrong. Gex tells the story of a massively depressed person who quite literally cannot cope with reality without the escapism of media. He feels so lethargic that he can’t even bother to get up and make himself a meal. Rez traps him simply by waving a snack in his face.
Through this lens, the fact that Gex speaks almost exclusively through TV references becomes borderline terrifying. Even when Gex takes damage, half the time he reacts with a nonchalant quote like “I only cry at weddings”. He’s so detached from the human condition that he doesn’t feel pain itself. After all, the refusal of pain is why Gex is here to begin with.
I get you probably think I’m reading too hard into this. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to connect the symbolism of TV being Gex’s crutch to cope with life and the thing literally trying to kill him. Even at the end of the game, when Gex escapes the Media Dimension, he doesn’t even leave his seat. Instead, he says “I wonder what’s on HBO” and continues to watch the screen. There is no self-awareness. No growth. Just resignation. Gex is a tragedy.
So congratulations Gex, you’ve made it on the list of the saddest mascots of the ’90s. You can take your spot right under Klonoa’s throne at number one.
I do want to reiterate that I only grew up with the first Gex game. Its sequels, which did not debut on a prohibitively expensive piece of hardware, never entered my home. While I obviously didn’t read the instruction manual until now, this is the story I had at launch. Gex didn’t have to have six pages of tragic backstory with awkward asides sprinkled throughout, but that’s what the developers decided to include. Let me know in the comments if Gex ever confronts the pain of losing his father in the sequels.
Also, just now writing this, I must point out the irony that the plot of Gex, a game intended to introduce a Sonic-style mascot, involves him literally trying to not become a mascot. But my god, if I spend anymore time thinking deeply about Gex I think my head will explode.
So overall, replaying Gex was a surreal experience. I’m left with a lot of admiration for the developers, who clearly wanted to make something special in Gex. I also feel like I destroyed this happy memory of Gex being an underrated classic by realizing just how janky the game feels today. There were a lot of parts I did enjoy. At its best, I could briefly see glimpses of a game that could, theoretically, compete with a Sonic or Mario. But the execution needed a much more deft hand, which clearly wasn’t going to happen with its troubled development.
In other words, when Limited Run Games releases Gex Trilogy, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying it for this game. Not without some crucial tweaks at any rate, and even then, I’d remind you that you could just as easily buy Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Series. But on the other hand, confronting Gex was important in its own way. Sometimes we compartmentalize memories in ways that are harmful to us, and holding Gex on a theoretical 7/10 pedestal could have misled someone down the line. So while this replay was not necessarily a pleasant experience, it was an important one. Unlike Gex, I was able to confront my past.
So thank you, Gex, for being the cautionary tale that I never knew I needed. I’m not saying that Gex needs a gritty reboot where he accepts that he can’t run from his trauma forever. But if such a thing did exist, it could be even better than tap water at Jerry Garcia’s.