Virtually Overlooked: Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon

Wii Fit has brought the idea of video games as health aids into the spotlight, as millions of people line up to pay $90 or more for a game that tells us to run in place in front of the TV. On a more academic level, the Games for Health conference explored the utility of video games for health-related education.

One presentation from the University of California Santa Barbara's Cynthia Bates cited Raya Systems' 1994 SNES game, Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon, as an example of "virtual reality for phobias," a game that offers "vivid examples of why they shouldn't smoke and the benefits of not smoking." It's not an effective example, but that's certainly what it tries to do.

Rex Ronan, developed by Sculptured Software and published by Raya Systems (the company behind Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus) teaches kids that smoking is dangerous and harmful because it fills your amorphous insides with grey sludge, forcing a tiny doctor in a purple jumpsuit to put himself in danger of robot attack as he cleans the sludge with a laser.

The setup for the game: a tobacco executive named Jake Blackburn mysteriously develops cancer, and the only way to save him is for surgeon Rex Ronan to shrink down and go into his body to clean it manually (lesson #1: tobacco companies offer excellent health insurance programs). The company, afraid that Blackburn will tell the world that smoking is unhealthy, dispatches hundreds of tiny robots to stop Ronan from curing Blackburn. They could just kill him the regular way, but that would be diabolical.

Starting with the mouth, Ronan walks through Blackburn's body, lasering gunk and fighting robots. The first gunk to be lased is, amazingly, plaque. Billions of dollars worth of research is used to shrink a human down to near-microscopic size and outfit him with futuristic beam weapons, and he risks death to perform the work of a hook. Damn good health insurance. Later you destroy precancerous cells in the lungs, fatty deposits in the heart, and ... nicotine addiction out of the brain.

A few times in every level, Rex will encounter a "smart bomb," which presents a true/false statement about the health detriments caused by smoking. Basically, if it's positive ("Smoking makes your breath smell great!"), it's false. If it's true, picking up the smart bomb will destroy all onscreen enemies.

Between these stages are rail-shooter-style stages occurring in the lungs, trachea, and arteries in which Rex must avoid and shoot phlegm and fatty deposits (respectively) as he travels further into the body.

The problem with Rex Ronan isn't so much the content -- the specifics of smoking's effects on the body are pretty disgusting no matter how you learn them -- it's the game. Rex Ronan plays like any other licensed SNES action-platformer, which are, of course, only tolerable if you enjoy the license. In this game, the license is not smoking.

Virtually Overlooked is a weekly feature that spotlights games that aren't yet on the Virtual Console, but should be. JC Fletcher is an experimental blogger who can increase in size gradually over the course of his life. Want more Virtually Overlooked? Check out the first year!