A game can be an interesting representation of its generation without being beautiful, timeless, and artistically ageless. Released on the EU's PSone in April 1996, GEX was loud, brash, and in-your-face, but so were films like Point Break and ska-punk bands such as Assorted Jelly Beans during the 1990s. Sadly, it's debatable if Crystal Dynamics' GEX has managed to remain as retrospectively cool. With its title stylised as GEX in full capital letters, even the name of this game feels like its shouting for attention. It's a good job it's a single player 2D platforming title, because this mascot may not want to share the limelight with another central character.
PSone GEX is the video game equivalent of Poochie the cartoon dog with attitude from The Simpsons; Gregg Tavares, a programmer on GEX, has explained that the early conception of Gecko X was driven by marketing. In hindsight the character design feels like blatant targeting of a supposed PSone Generation X youth audience. Unfortunately, the annals of time have unkindly remembered GEX as being one of gaming's crummier mascots, as he's often included in unflattering lists besides Bug!, Bubsy, Boogerman, and Zool.
It would be a disservice to GEX if history didn't acknowledge that his crassness was partially self-referential, though, as he reflects an obsession with late-20th century film and TV culture. Despite being a loud-mouthed nineties punk, GEX doesn't have the attention span to be a real surfer like Johnny Utah, brah, so he channel surfs instead. His favourite songs are probably Black Flag's TV Party and Sicko's Mike TV. Living vicariously through the idiot box is ultimately GEX's undoing as he's dragged into the 20 core levels and eight secret stages that form the media dimension by a spiky toothed cybernetic meanie. In this instance Rez is a megalomaniac overlord end-game boss, not an on-rails PlayStation 2 rhythm shooter.
Released on PSone a year after the 3DO version, the first GEX game in the series was an early example of 32-bit console technology, so the graphics were impressive for a best-selling Panasonic 3DO pack-in game; the bullet points of 450 frames of animation and hand-rendered backgrounds were still a valid sales pitch for GEX's conversion to the PSone. However, while it was arguably more technically advanced than the time-honoured 2D presentation of titles like Rayman and Mickey's Wild Adventure – both side-scrolling games are directly comparable to GEX as they were released during the EU PSone's first year, within the same seven month launch window – the titles with more traditional visuals have aged more gracefully.
There are highlights in GEX's art and audio work, but the graphics, soundtrack, and voice dialogue all have inconsistencies where the quality level dips, despite being created by a talented team. The presentation of the garish title screen's TV static and font looks tacky, plus the same can be said for washed out backgrounds in levels like Pow! in world two's New Toonland. This second world also has a dreary chequerboard effect for its Twin Towers stage. There's some minor slowdown in the first world's Disco Inferno, and the indoor environments have a drabber appearance than the outdoor settings. This includes murky underground caves and temples in later worlds, like Jungle Isle's Congo Chaos and Kung Fuville's Fish Bait.
Yet, there's value in experiencing the first title as it's the only side-scrolling PSone GEX game, and there is plenty to appreciate in its art style. Lyle Hall, credited as producer and character concept creator of GEX, has explained that there were challenges to designing a 2D game during an era when new hardware expectations awakened a demand for cutting-edge 3D console graphics. It's worth playing through to later stages, because Kung Fuville's Sumo City has an appealing Oriental landscape. Also, the tune and thick forests in Jungle Isle's Feeding Frenzy are an interesting comparison point with SNES Donkey Kong Country, as it had the same November 1994 release date as 3DO GEX.
The visuals in PSone GEX look superior when they become intensified on the PlayStation Vita's smaller screen, rather than viewing it on a television via the original PlayStation or the PlayStation 3. Just like in MediEvil, the early moonlit night-time setting of GEX's opening Cemetery world is also perfect for a quick session for any retro gamers who're looking for a spookily atmospheric PSone game environment for Hallowe'en. Understandably, the side-scrolling gameplay design of GEX has not aged in how you navigate through the levels, in the way that the camera and frustrating third-person controls detrimentally wore-out MediEvil.
Similarly, the Cemetery map and stage music warble with ghostly tunes that could be played by Lurch's harpsichord in The Addams Family, and combined with the speedy paced Cemetery boss music for Spin-n-Puke these are some of the best compositions in GEX's soundtrack by Greg Weber and Steve Henifin. The whistles and bamboo flutes of the Kung Fuville's levels convey an Eastern Asian setting, and its map music has a nod to the song Turning Japanese by The Vapors. The funky bass and tribal calls of the Jungle Isle stages warrant another flattering comparison to the tropical sounds in Donkey Kong Country and Crash Bandicoot.
Unfortunately, the audio is inconsistent like the visuals, so while the Jungle Isle map music uses a coinciding style, its repetitive chant-like whoops manage to grate on your ears. The fuzz guitar riffs and rasping sounds of the New Toonland stages combine with their bland visuals to make it one of the least enjoyable worlds. Worst of all is the title screen music with horrible hair metal guitar solos, which mean that GEX's soundtrack mixes earache alongside well-themed tunes.
These all combine to make the presentation in GEX an acquired taste, and most divisive of all is the voice work by comedian Dana Gould. His delivery of popular culture references are completely apt to the theming of each world around a film or television genre, and it's a clever use of dialogue to reference Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine in the Cemetery level, Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle on the Jungle Isle map, and even the 1974 film Chinatown during the Kung Fuville sections. You can't help but laugh when GEX calls out for Adrian by mimicking Rocky after receiving a knockout blow. The boss battles involve the funniest quips as GEX compares Spin-n-Puke to his ex-girlfriends, and teases the Jungle Gym boss for looking like a character from The Empire Strikes Back, as he tells this enemy it's only mad because it feels lonely.
Dana Gould is synonymous with the memories of fans of GEX, especially for American gamers who played all three GEX games, just as retro enthusiasts will forever associate David Hayter with Snake. It's too easy to declare that the voice work is unfunny – there are definite moments that result in chuckles – but the trouble is that GEX's bratty big-mouth is non-stop and incessant. If Crystal Dynamics' had toned down the constant regularity of the quips then gamers may not be tempted to turn off the voice of the comedian in the options menu just to receive a little bit of respite during their gaming session.
In their review in the April 1996 issue of Computer and Video Games magazine, Paul Davies described PSone GEX as "faster paced than Rayman, and busier than Clockwork Knight, although not nearly so inventive as either of those two". GEX features tried-and-tested 2D platforming gameplay, and it feels instinctive to constantly hold the run button to leap larger distances, while tail whipping foes, and using a tail bounce to spring from blocks and the heads of enemies to reach taller platforms. Applying GEX's tongue lash to eat power-up bugs grants abilities like red, yellow, and blue fireflies, allowing GEX to spit out fire, electricity, or ice ball projectiles. A grasshopper power-up results in higher and longer jumps, centipedes erupt an overdrive move, while caterpillars cause invincibility. If you're low on health, GEX can whack the bug ball power-ups with his tail whip instead of gobbling them up with a tongue lash, which fills part of his hit paw health meter.
GEX's movement slides around the environment, and he can stick to walls and crawl along ceilings with his suction cup paws – more like Mega Drive Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin rather than the ninja gymnastics in Strider or NES Ninja Gaiden. The greatest innovation is that GEX can also crawl on the background plane on some levels, although adapting to a control system where GEX sticks to multiple surfaces can take some adjustment. There's variety in levels like Rock it! where GEX clings to spaceships while wisecracking about Elton John's Rocket Man, although it's not as exciting as a similar set-piece in SNES Contra III: The Alien Wars. The warp door portal maze layout of Twin Towers is not fun, or a-maze-ing, and neither is a difficulty curve that can feel unbalanced. For example, later worlds like Jungle Isle and Kung Fuville have first levels that are easier than the opening of the game in the Cemetery, but then the difficulty level quickly spikes upwards. GEX receives cheap hits often, illustrations of this are in world four's Fish Bait and Chop Chop, due to trampolines placed below spikes, water that turns toxic when it's coloured green, and instant death lava.
Boss battles are memorable for their sense of humour, but there's unevenness in the challenge that they present as Toxic Turtle at the end of world four is easy to defeat using simple tail bounces, while the previous world three Jungle Gym boss is a more satisfying test of combining your platforming and background crawling skills up a long vertical climb. Defeating bosses rewards you with a password, since the game doesn't include a save progress option, although it's advisable to keep returning to an easy stage like Tomato Soup, because GEX can grab a video tape that grants a new password every time. A Polaroid camera takes a snapshot as a mid-level checkpoint, but with three hits GEX loses a life, and three lives results in game over, so there's no harm in using a 99 unlimited lives cheat code if you ever get stuck.
The way the game forces the player to find a TV remote to unlock the next level is frustrating, and feels counterproductive to your progression, since surely reaching the exit TV at the end of a level should open the next stage without making exploration obligatory. You can easily spend over seven hours just beating the 20 main levels in the five core worlds to reach Rez's Lair on your first play-through, and many more hours will be spent exploring warp doorways in stages, and unlocking the extra eight levels in the Planet X secret world.
Interestingly for Naughty Dog fans, there's an incentive to discover the Free Fall, Saucer Section, The Project, and Head to Head secret levels, because they were designed by Evan Wells while he was studying at Stanford. Evan already had experience on ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron, and he was also part of Stanford's gymnastics team, when working on GEX became an extended summer job. This is just one of GEX's developer stories, another is programmer Gregg Tavares' recollection of the hidden end game sequence resulting from hard working staff putting in 12 to 16 hour days. GEX had an overall development period that almost reached two years. At £3.99 for PS Vita, PSP, and PS3, it has a low-end PSone pricing point on the PlayStation Store for anyone considering an impulse purchase.
At the very least, GEX is a compelling caricature of a stereotype from nineties Generation X youth culture. Just like with Sir Daniel Fortesque, it would be fun to see a PSone star like GEX resurrected to discover how a contemporary audience reacts to him, and if there's any modern mileage in this brash anthropomorphic mascot. Phil Elliott from the Square Enix Collective has stated in 2015 that the publisher is interested in discovering what a talented developer could achieve with its older IPs, like GEX and the PSone game Fear Effect from 1999. You never know, you may hear GEX wisecracking as he slithers onto the PlayStation 4 sometime in the future.
In the context of a 1996 EU release date it seemed obvious that GEX was trying to slink his way amongst an elite group of successful platforming mascots like Mario and Sonic, by articulating a market research impersonation of 1990s youth culture. The hard working Crystal Dynamics development team were cleverer than that, though, because GEX's first game is self-referential as he side-scrolls through persistent themes, and holds up a mirror to an obsession with television and film media in his suction cup paws. The trouble is that the gameplay balance, visuals, and audio work are not consistent in quality. Cheesy puns are compulsory when discussing GEX, so while this game's five main worlds and one secret Planet X area are enjoyable, they're not GEX-cellent. It's a shame that the quote heavy and funny voice work is so incessant that it becomes irritating, because history remembers a loud-mouth more than a capable 2D platformer.