Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender (1992)

Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender (1992), designed by Matt Gruson and Frank Frazier, developed by MPS Labs, published by MicroProse

MicroProse was a company that is mostly remembered because of their simulation and strategy games. Not only did MicroProse publish many combat flight simulators, but strategy series like Civilization and UFO are also still ongoing today, albeit under new management. But there was money on other genres besides strategy and simulation in the 1980s to 1990s. Back then, the top money makers were adventure games. So understandably MicroProse stuck their fingers on that pie s well.

Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender is the first of the three point 'n' click titles MicroProse developed and published. This rather mediocre adventure is a half-baked attempt at mixing games like Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry in order to make something of titillating sci-fi adventure. It doesn't really succeed in either task very well.

The titular good for nothing hero Rex Nebular is a galactic bounty hunter, who's sent to a mysterious planet to retrieve a valuable vase. Palms sweaty from a potential payday of 75k, he heads out, only to find himself being shot down by a vessel guarding the planet. So now he has two problems, three if you count the vessels patrolling the space around the planet: find the vase and find a ship so you can get out.

It doesn't take long for Rex to find out, that the planet he has crashed on is solely habituated by women, who won the gender war decades ago. As the males were eradicated, the women have been forced to use the titular Gender Bending machine in order to be able to procreate. This also means that Rex has to bend his own gender if he wants to achieve the goals, as some locations in the game can be accessed only by women whereas the old male city is game only for men.

You would assume a game where a supposedly womanizing main character is turned into a woman would have a tonne of jokes revolving around the fact that he has to turn himself into a woman. While it is commendable that the writers didn't go for the low hanging fruit of slapping in all the most obvious jokes about breasts and penises, this aspect ripe of low brow humour is peculiarly absent in a game that isn't shy of slapping in low brow humour.  Perhaps it was that the developers didn't dare to go the full mile in the potential fright of angering people because of more raunchier sex jokes and just decided to steer away from them at least what comes to Rex turning into a woman.

Then again, the jokes revolving around sci-fi elements of the story don't work any better, as the game is, as a whole, very lazily written. I don't rightly know if the game was originally meant to a comedy title. Maybe it did start out as something more serious, but then someone decided that the whole premises sounded more like a comedy and they did that instead.

The graphics try to bring out this comedic aspect a bit more because nothing spells out comedy more than a spaceship with a coal burner in the engine room and a fireplace at the cockpit. But again, a good deal of the rooms are pretty void of any actual humour, consisting of relatively boring jungle scapes and b-sci-fi buildings. Space Quest IV Rex Nebular definitely is not.

Just to mention something of the music and sound effects, they both are at worst horrible. I don't know if there's something wrong with the sound drivers of the engine MicroProse used, but a lot of the music sounds more like a deranged cacophony meant to distract you from the game. And I don't think it is a DosBox problem, as I recall disliking the music of the game even back in the day I played it on a real Dos machine.

The best part of the game is the engine MicroProse used. It's a pretty good point 'n' click affair, with multiple verb interface you can use to interact with the world. It seems like something they copied from Lucasfilm games and that isn't a bad thing at all and you can even modify its functionality to a degree from the setup options of the game.

As an adventure game, Rex Nebular is not the most difficult game around. The most difficult puzzles are difficult because they need some amount of pixel hunting, not because they are actually difficult. You can die in the game, but each death will undo to a moment before you make you bad decision, which is actually pretty nice.

From a technical and design point of view, Rex Nebular could have been a pretty good game, but there are problems in the other areas of it, which prevent that from happening. It is a shame, as I did want to like it, but, like the fabled some people say, if wishes were ponies, then everyone would have one.