Rex Nebular And The Cosmic Gender Bender Review: Gender Confusion! In Space!

I first became aware of adult games in the early 80’s with console “greats” such as “Custer’s Revenge” and the Sierra-published “Soft Porn Adventure.”

Both of these games are…well, they’re not really games so much as they are crude depictions of sex writ large on the TV screen or the computer monitor. Part of the problem with both of these games is that they treat their women very badly. In Custer, the whole setup basically amounts to rape. In Soft Porn Adventure, the women exist purely so that the male protagonist of the game can “score” with them.

Of the two, only Soft Porn Adventure lived in on in any kind of form through the Leisure suit Larry games. [which have their own set of problems]

Larry is basically goofy and Al Lowe has said, on record, that the women are generally the winners in those games. But along the way there’s a lot of bad stereotyping and awkwardness, but they did sell.

And this, really, is how we get to Rex Nebular. Because Larry sold reasonable numbers and because it was pretty much a niche unto itself, I can kind of see how MIcroprose got from “those Larry games don’t sell too badly” to “hey, we could totally do that…!”

There was, really, also a case to be made for making an adventure game in that day and age, because King’s Quest was still selling reasonably.

To be fair to the graphics, they /can/ be visually arresting on rare occasions.  Here's a beautiful, undersea still.
Sometimes beautiful scenery.

So, naturally, Microprose set about putting together an engine and started working on a project, but somewhere along the way, Rex didn’t come out quite as planned.

The case can be made that they were shooting for a much less pg-style adventure, given the log-books that you get with the game. Most of these are diary-style entries that chronicle Rex’s day-to-day life as a star ship pilot – when he remembers to record logs, he veers off tangent and talks – a lot – about women that he has had racy interludes with.

This doesn’t really ever translate into the game properly. While there’s some smut to be had, most of it happens in the first half of the game, is pretty tame and all of it gets more-or-less abandoned by the time you hit the big, empty city of Machopolis.

While the world of Rex Nebular isn't /completely/ alien, sometimes, there will be moments of alien-ness.  Like this creature, kept in a cell against his will.
Sometimes scary monsters!

It’s almost like Rex is two games that had two different lead designers. The first designer totally wanted to make Larry, but do it in space. So while there isn’t much ribald humour, there’s just enough of that and just enough flesh to get you interested. [but then, really, given it’s “adult credentials” not enough to go all the way.]

The second designer must have furiously been taking notes from Larry 2, because his part of the game is sterile – a list of tasks to be completed with no real idea of why you’re doing any of the stuff that shows up snuggled up to those bullet points.

This, in fact, is a constant theme that spans Rex’s run-time. Very early on, you come across a lesbian cannibal who’s overweight and who wants to – in no uncertain terms – eat you. But almost every other lady you come into contact with is – while somewhat militant – at least good looking and has motives that make some amount of sense.

The very scant world building sort of fuels this sense that the women are making: about a hundred years ago on the planet, there was a war of the sexes. The women destroyed the men, but in doing so, they sealed their fate. They cannot, now, reproduce without the use of the gender bender [or hijacking males that happen to pass too closely by their planet.]

So, it’s very schizophrenic. This isn’t really helped by the score [a very murky, somewhat tumultuous drone that accompanies most of Rex’s journey – none of it is particularly memorable and none of it veers out of being audio sludge.] or the graphics.

Some of the graphics aren’t bad. There’s an under water sequence very early on that’s quite restful and well-done, but a lot of it just feels too murky in contrast with some other games of the era like Legend of Kyrandia, which is very nearly a gold standard in how to make crisp, colourful hand-painted pixel art.

Rex, taking flight in a stolen space ship.  This is sort of how I felt all the way through.  The game's pretty schizophrenic.  I just want a space ship, so I can get out of it :)
Get me out of this game!

All of this would be OK if I could just figure out who this was marketed towards, because playing it as an adult, I get so many mixed messages out of the game that I’m surprised it even made it out the door:

Is it for men? So that they can ogle pretty, pixelated ladies? Sure. There’s some of that in here.

Is it for women? There’s a lot of strong feminine roles here – while they’re kind of militant and while the setup is atrocious, it “almost makes sense” from an alien perspective [not a human one, mind you.]

Is it for transgender people? This one I have trouble with, because while it’s very easy to swap between male and female bodies in this game, everyone – the whole cast over – reports unease whenever it happens and that’s a pretty poor message to be sending.

Do I think it’s worth your time? It’s OK. The themes are interesting and adult and in different hands, this might have been a far more intriguing piece of work, but it never escapes attempting to be Larry in Space [it even hints at that at one point in a software store.] and it’s not especially good at that.

Moreover, it’s premise, while memorable, because we don’t see a lot of this style of thing in gaming – is wasted on a banal plot that goes nowhere until the last five minutes of the game. [You’re there to get a vase off the planet. The ensuing hi-jinks are more accident than design.]

All-in-all, my take on this one is, if you want to play it, buy it while it’s very cheap. My other take on it is, there are far more games that are infinitely better than this. If you’re stuck for an adventure game, sure. Put this in and while away the hours. But you could be playing “The Dig” or “King’s Quest 3: Redux” or…really, anything else.

I did a Let’s Play of Rex Nebular. You can watch that here.