Christmas, 1999. My gifts were just what I wanted.
One was a game I had looked forward to for months. I braved my family’s dinner, and chat, and the interminable parades they watched, hoping I could get the TV for myself and play my new gift. Finally, it was my chance. I sat, cross-legged, by the Christmas tree and gripped the controller as the Playstation started up. I basked in the television’s glow as the first level loaded up. Why, it was even Christmas themed! Could this game be a more fitting gift? I was overjoyed to be playing…Gex 3!?
Looking back, I have no idea why I desired a game so…mediocre. 1999’s Gex 3 was the last installment in a moderately popular and rarely loved series. The first Gex was a simple 2D platformer that debuted in 1994 on the 3DO console; Gex became the 3DO’s mascot. The sequel came four years later, long after the 3DO’s unmourned demise. That game took the titular gecko into three dimensions for the first time; it also recycled the same levels over and over and looked extraordinarily cheap, so those were possibly three dimensions too many.
These were games of limited charms. There were many platformers in the late 90s, and far too many were identical: wrestle with an awkward camera as you jump around, collecting hundreds of useless items. The best platformers were clever: Banjo-Kazooie, Rayman, Spyro the Dragon, Jumping Flash, and a select few others all had creative level design that made all the collecting worthwhile. No such luck in the Gex series, where you grab remotes to unlock further levels; gather 100 flies to find an additional remote (a mission stolen from Super Mario 64’s ‘collect 100 coins’ quests); and find coins and paws, whose functions are more obscure. Gex 3 asks nothing more of you than to walk over objects so you can unlock new levels in which you can walk over yet more objects.
Gex 3 still looks relatively nice today, especially compared to its simplistic predecessors, but that wasn’t why I – or anyone else – wanted it. Gex’s true selling point was its humor.
Gex’s humor is firmly based in lazy pop culture references. Gex is voiced by Dana Gould in the United States, and Cat from Red Dwarf in the UK. The jokes are just as bad on either side of the pond. Each level has a television theme – gangsters, superheroes, anime, and so on. In the Christmas level, the game offers up such wisecracks as Gex saying “Herbie, I want to be a dentist!” in a funny voice, or “My name is Jack Gexington, from Halloweentown!” in a different funny voice. Dancing candy canes prompt him to make a comment about sticking tongues to metal poles. Some gags are timely – when Gex jumps on a snowboard at the end of the level, he bemoans that there’s “another snowboarding game”. How many today remember the days when mediocre snowboarding games were everywhere? There is no satirical twist to most of the jokes; Gex asks you to laugh at the mere act of quoting a movie, as if it’s the most hilarious thing in the world to know lines from old Christmas specials.
The level itself is devoid of interesting sight gags, because anything funny is repeated ad nauseam. The first level’s big centerpiece is an evil Santa Claus. He throws a present at you; Gex chucks it back at him. “You’re on the list!” he cries. Repeat twice more. Everything in Gex, and other games of its ilk, is drawn out. Once, Mario would encounter certain boxes containing multiple coins, requiring multiple jumps to get them all; imagine if every box had multiple coins and you have a good approximation of the Gex experience. Every penguin, box and enemy must be hit three or four times to gather every fly; the level’s twisted elves require two or three hits to die. Anything can and will be drawn out by the developers if it means you can trumpet “20 hours of gameplay!” on the back of the box.
Why did nine-year old me make Gex 3 such an important part of his Christmas? I had never played any of the previous games. Gex 3 was the best-selling game in the franchise, yet it was still only a minor success, and critical reaction was decidedly mixed. I could have asked for any number of better games, yet I asked for this one. Perhaps it’s best to leave my puzzling childhood affection for Gex 3 as just that – the affection of a child, delighting in the snowy world of Gex on Christmas Day.
- One curiously primitive aspect of Gex 3 – every time you find a remote, you’re kicked out of the level. Sure, Super Mario 64 did this too – but Gex 3 is no Super Mario 64, and it gets grating to run through the same areas.
- Another odd element, seemingly designed to waste time: Gex 3’s mechanics are mostly copied from Gex 2, yet Gex 3 has a tutorial and Gex 2 doesn’t. And the tutorial is required if you want every remote.
- A sign of what gaming was like in ’99 – Gex 3 comes with several demos, in a day when discs carrying dozens of demos were common and eminently disposable. Now, few companies even bother with demos. One demo is of a game that’s near-great, Soul Reaver (which runs on the Gex 3 engine); the others are the obscure, voodoo-themed action game Akuji the Heartless and Warzone 2100, an awkward attempt at a console RTS. All three are rather bloody and extremely M-rated; odd matches for a game as juvenile as Gex.