Videogames exist in a sort of weird plateau in the modern era. Speaking broadly, games these days aren’t that different from games five years ago, and it’s mostly just an evolution of user interface and following different trends. Sure, if you’re really into them you can appreciate the differences between Assassins Creeds 3 and 4, but a casual observer can be forgiven for thinking they’re basically the same game. It’s even easier to look at games in terms of their attempts to cash in on styles of games – the military shooters, the racers, the sporters, etcetera – rather than on their actual gaps in time.
Let’s look back then to a period when a style of game was a thing. We’re not going to look at the leader of a trend, we’re going to look at one of the most blatant followers.
Let’s talk about Gex.
The Ontology Of Gex
The first thing to mention is that Gex is a pretty competent game. I know that sounds like faint praise, but it says a lot that Gex never really annoyed or frustrated me except in its size. I only found myself checking out of Gex when I realised I just had so much more of it and there wasn’t a great promise of interesting novelty coming forwards.
Gex is what we call a mascot platformer, a game mostly about a central character who’s meant to be easily branded and well-attached to players. The most typical Mascot Platformer you’ll hear referenced is Sonic the Hedgehog, who is outlined in contrast with the rest of those games, a rundown that usually includes two or three out of Awesome Possum, Bubsy, Sparkster, Klonoa, Havoc the Seal, Cool Coyote, Aero the Acro-Bat, Monty Mole, Croc, Mappy, Crash Bandicoot, Banjo-Kazooie, Zero the Squirrel, Radical Rex, Willy the Wombat, Jazz Jackrabbit, Titus the Fox, Ristar, Glover, Spyro The Dragon or Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, and if you’re guessing I got that list from the internet, you’re right, because I wasn’t a console kid. The point is, these are games that operate around a single character, tend to be a simple platformer, rarely focus on heavy failure states or exploration and are usually designed to be approachable and spectacular – lots of cool things to look at, characters that are visually distinct on screen, and maybe a catchphrase or an attitude you could use to hook kids in on the advertising.
Gex was developed by Crystal Dynamics and was literally made to be a mascot for their company, something they could make a game about as they made major progress to show off the kinds of games they could make, showing that they didn’t want to tie their success to their history of FMV games featuring renowned Christian lying bigot and dork Kirk Cameron.
You play Gex, a gecko. Gex loves television. Love love loves television. Gex has a huge stack of VHS movies in his collection and he watches them and quotes them and is inspired by them – and this makes Gex a target for Media Dimension’s evil Emperor Rez, who pulls Gex into his television and drags him away to be his mascot, and therefore take over the world. Gex escapes his prison by stealing hidden remote controls, and defeats Emperor Rez, and escapes the media dimension.
It’s a Mascot Platformer about Being A Mascot in soulless media landscapes, which would be pretty meta-aware if it was intentional (and I kind of don’t think it is).
Anyway, as far as gameplay goes, Gex is pretty neat! The engine clearly can’t handle much in the way of fast movement, so instead the game has lots of big sprites and spaces, and lets Gex climb walls and leap high up into non-obvious spots. It isn’t a masterpiece of tight movement or responsive controls, and it isn’t a high-speed dashathon like your Sonic the Hedgehogs or cute and endearing to the degree of something like Croc, but it’s pretty decent!
Gex is a rare thing in the era of the mascot platformer, in that unlike most of them he has a personality. Sure, he’s an obnoxious twerp, but it’s still a character when you juxtapose it with the ciphers like Awesome Possum, Bubsy, Sparkster, Klonoa, Havoc the Seal, Cool Coyote, Aero the Acro-Bat, Monty Mole, Banjo-Kazooie, Croc, Mappy, Crash Bandicoot, Zero the Squirrel, Radical Rex, Willy the Wombat, Jazz Jackrabbit, Titus the Fox, Ristar, Glover, Spyro The Dragon or Ty the Tasmanian Tiger. Now none of these characters were really shooting for anything but a marketing hook, it wasn’t like they informed much of their games by being what they were.
But you remember that backstory about Gex being a dude who liked TV?
He liked TV because it was his coping mechanism for his father’s death in a rocket launch at NASA.
Yeah, like, what?
And that’s not the only detail in the Gex canon: Gex originally lived in Hawaii, where his dad worked for NASA and died in a rocket accident, but when he and his family – including siblings – moved to California after the accident, his mother got rid of the TV because she saw Gex’s behaviour as unhealthy. And his response to that was to leave home and live on the streets, until such time as an uncle died and left him money – which he used to buy the biggest TV and movie collection ever, and grieved his father’s loss there, in that way.
That is some heavy stuff to drop in an opening cinematic.
The whole premise of Gex is weirdly adult like that – Gex cares about television as a way to connect to a time in his life when he wasn’t traumatised about his dad, and he bought an opulent mansion for television after being homeless. What makes this even more hecked up is it’s not a Gex The Gecko Who’s In A World Of Anthropomorphic Animals – Gex is a gecko, and his family are also geckos, but the astronauts taking his dad to space? All full-size humans! He’s detached and tells jokes all the time, even when he’s hurt? It’s because it’s his coping mechanism and he’s still grieving!
In the end, Gex is a weird mascot platformer in that they actually let him have a personality, and then they wrote a universe to justify and explain that personality as something more than an obnoxious habit. It’s an odd bit of backwards writing.
Gex is available on GoG.
Get it if:
- You like mascot platformers and you want one that isn’t actively bad
- You want a game with low system requirements to play on a netbook that has a lot of levels
Avoid it if:
- You want a game that can topple the more long-lasting mascot platformer franchises