Monday, July 6, 2009

Gex-PSX-Crystal Dynamics

Childhood favorites are always the hardest games to write about. I got Gex for the Sega Saturn back in 96, while a friend got it for the Playstation. I must have played through the game countless times, enough that I could almost remember every level in detail of Crystal Dynamic's little gem. However, like all things, coming back to it years later has brought the nostalgia crashing into the reality of the game. So is Gex as good as I remember, or is it just killing my TV?

The story of Gex is a bit convoluted. Most of is only revealed in the manual, and never mentioned inside the actual game. The manual discusses Gex's adolescence in Maui, Hawaii. Raised by his mother while his father worked his job at NASA, Gex lived a rather idealistic life, hanging with friends, surfing, and throwing poi parties. Until one day, his mother receives a phone call. Gex's father had been killed when the rocket he was to be piloting blew up the launch pad.

Rather than dealing with his problems like the rest of the family, our lizard friend bottled up his emotions and began to focus all of his attentions on the television. When Gex's addiction grew problematic, the family tried to intervene by moving to California and leaving the TV behind.

The loss of his TV caused Gex to run away from home. He lived on the streets for several months, until one day, his family found him again. Due to the death of his father, Gex, as well as the rest of his family, had inherited a massive fortune. With his share of the money, Gex bought a mansion back in Maui and a giant TV, where he wastes his days away. That is, until Rez pulled Gex into the Media Dimension. Now, Gex must destroy televisions in order to escape.

There's actually a slight bit of pathos to the story. More so than most heroes at the time, Gex had real issues and had taken refuge from them in a very humane way, especially considering he's a lizard. But not only that, there's a slight air of condemnation for the sedentary life that Gex is living. The player is constantly being reminded by Gex that he doesn't have a life and that the only way to escape the Media Dimension is to kill your TV.

Oddly enough, little of this makes it way into the actual game. Without reading the manual, the only thing that the player will know is that Rez has pulled Gex into the Media Dimension, and now he's got to escape. The interesting thing about this is that it grants an interesting story to the gamers that want it, while never forcing it down the throat of those that don't.

Regardless of the story, Gex remains the wisecracking hero that was so prevalent in the 90's. Unlike Bug though, Gex's jokes and banter serve as a way to strengthen the character and draw the player deeper into the game. This is in part because because Gex was voiced by the comedian Dana Gould, who was able to deliver the quips and commentary in a much more pleasing way.

The game is actually rather simple. The player must guide Gex through five themed worlds (A sixth is hidden), in his quest for freedom. Each world is made up of a small collection of levels and a boss battle, and new levels and worlds are opened up by finding the remotes that are hidden in each one.

Though the structure is simple, actually accomplishing the objectives in Gex can be a bit of a challenge. Near the end of the game, the jumps, traps, and enemies require more than just a little bit of finesse to bypass. Thankfully, Gex is quite talented in both combat and navigating terrain.

In combat, Gex has a standard tail attack that can defeat most enemies. The only problem is that getting so close to them leaves Gex vulnerable. As there is a bit of a delay between when an enemy is struck and when they no longer cause damage, this is not always the safest path. The tail bounce is a much safer decision if the player wishes to fight in close, as the bounce after landing on an enemy ensures that Gex is well out of harms way.

Additionally, Gex can eat special orbs that contain flies. These orbs grant the lizard several different special abilities. A red orb allows him to shoot fire. A dark blue orb allows him to shoot ice. A yellow orb lets him fire out a spread-shot of lightening. These orbs grant Gex with an almost unfair advantage over his enemies, but that power is lost if Gex takes damage.

These powers also stack. Eating three fire bugs gives Gex not only three extra slip-ups before the powers are gone, but also three extra hit points. Combine that with the orange orbs that increase Gex's maximum health for the duration of that life or level, and it becomes not uncommon for a skilled player to possess nine hit points at the end of some levels instead of three.

There are other orbs as well: an orb that increases Gex's speed for a time, one that increases his jumping abilities until he takes damage, one that creates a wind shield that protects Gex from damage, and simple ones that restore health or grant extra lives.

Early on the player will likely eat every orb they come across, hoarding as much power as they can, but later on the game becomes much more tricky. Sometimes all one wants is a health refill, but all that is available is a speed boost. Luckily, by attacking the orb rather than eating it, Gex is able to take that speed boost orb, or any orb, and turn it into health.

To move through levels easily, Gex can climb walls, ceilings, and certain backgrounds. When combined with his ability to tail bounce off of most enemies and several obstacles this grants Gex a freedom of movement that not many other platforming characters have.

Unfortunately, the game is neither that long nor that difficult. In my mind, I remember Gex as a lengthy and challenging platformer that defeated me forever. And in a sense it was.

Though few in number, most of the levels are actually rather long, and many have branching paths and up to four or five checkpoints to keep one from having to go back too far. The later levels are also rather challenging. Deaths can come suddenly from instant death pits or slowly from a simple onslaught of traps and enemies.

So what makes the game so easy? It gives out lives as if they are M&Ms. The first time I played through the game again, I reached Rez with 96 lives, and beat him with 82. Lives are gained so frequently, that despite the game offering a feeling of danger and tension, it never really matters much. In fact, many of the most difficult sections are proceeded by a checkpoint and several lives. It's not uncommon to gain lives by dying at certain points.

And other than Rez, the bosses are extremely easy, due to their patterned nature. Thankfully, they are at least interestingly varied. Ranging from superhero with super-gas to a snake-like monster that Gex must race up a mountain, each boss manages to remain unique. Even the battle with Rez boils down to simple patterns. Fortunately, Rez changes up so often and actually damaging him is so difficult that most players will lose a life or two to simple human error.

Musically, the game is nothing amazing. Each area has three music tracks: one for the world map, one for the levels, and one for the boss. Though a little banal, these tracks do manage to fit the theme and the B-movie vibe of the game very well. The sound effects are excellent, every attack carries a snap and auditory punch that makes the world sound alive. Gex's quips and the little bit of Rez's dialogue are well delivered, even if Gex does tend to repeat jokes extremely frequently. Some of the jokes have also become dated, but a good number are still funny today.

Gex is a fantastic game, but it's not without its faults. The controls are slightly slippery and the challenge is a bit uneven. It's also a little on the short side and predates memory cards. So it'd be a good idea to have some paper and a pen ready. However, if you can endure a couple over used jokes and are looking for a PSX or Saturn platformer, Gex will be sure to amuse until he escapes the Media Dimension.

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