Developed by British company Divide By Zero, The Gene Machine was their final title before they disbanded. Although they had released four titles during their tenure with point-and-click adventures, most of them were lacking. The Innocent Until Caught series, had some funny ideas, but were hamstrung but inconsistent writing and an extremely unlikeable protagonist, and The Orion Conspiracy tried and totally failed to achieve much of anything. After a bit of floundering, The Gene Machine refines everything about their previous games and results in a hilarious, sadly forgotten little title.
The hero, if one could call him that, is Sir Featherstonehaugh (pronounced “Fanshaw”, he insists), an arrogant explorer and self-proclaimed man of science. After returning back to England from a prolonged trip overseas, he is tracked down by a large talking cat. Proclaiming to have escaped from the clutches of the ruthless Doctor Dinsey, the cat-man-thing warns of his creation at the hands of a terrible device called the Gene Machine. Using this monstrosity, Dinsey seeks to create an army of terrible hybrids to take over the world, and the cat believes that Fanshaw is the man for the job. He isn’t, really, because he doesn’t give a toss about the fate of humanity, but he does care about fame and fortune, so he takes on the adventure in hopes to establish a name for himself.
Of course, simply setting off into adventure isn’t as simple as it sounds, so Fanshaw has to trick some foolish investors into believing his expedition has any scientific value. Somewhere along the line, he gets sidetracked on a trip to the moon, a journey undertaken solely to determine whether it is made of cheese. After returning to terra firma, Fanshaw is able to contract a boat and set off for Dinsey Island, only to end up as the prisoner of the fearsome Captain Nemotode, discover the sunken city of Atlantis, fend off pirates working on collusion with Kingpeace, Fanshaw’s biggest enemy, and finally face off against Dr. Dinsey and his terrible creations.
Fanshaw is accompanied by his manservant Mossup, who acts as little more than a butt monkey. Their relationship is similar to the one between the main characters in the popular British sitcom Blackadder – like Rowan Atkinson’s titular character, Fanshaw is a braggart who relishes his position among high society, while Mossup, like Tony Robinson’s Baldrick, is quite content with his place on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and graciously accepts any verbal punishment Fanshaw bestows upon him. The relationship works, because Fanshaw is an arrogant twit who’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, and he routinely makes himself look like a fool without even realizing it. Though unlike Blackadder, his silly plans actually work – they need to, or else the game wouldn’t actually progress.
For the most part, the Victorian era has traditionally been depicted as rather stodgy – when not dwelling on Jane Austen novels, it’s concentrating on Sherlock Holmes. The Gene Machine is much, much sillier, with a plot that takes bits and pieces from various Jules Verne and H. G. Wells novels, including 20,000 Leagues Under of the Sea, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and From Earth to the Moon, amongst other literary classics and historical figures. For example, you’ll meet a fidgety chap named Jonathan T. Ripper, and you can casually suggest that yes, the world is completely deserving of being cleansed of sin. It basically does for classical English literature what Simon the Sorcerer did for fairy tales, with much the same level of wit and class.
Beyond the ill-conceived trip to the moon, one of the funniest moments of the game occurs when Fanshaw attempts to speak like a commoner and puts on the worst Cockney accent imaginable. He also makes some goofy attempts to flim-flam some cash out of some rich, ignorant business. For a different puzzle, Fanshaw must steal the engagement ring from his fiancee in order to barter for another item, an act that’s only acceptable because she’s an even more hilariously terrible person than he is. Most of the dialogue is punchy and quite funny, and it’s carried by the excellent voice acting. Fanshaw has just the right amount of pompousness that he can sell his act as a snobby jerk while still being likeable, and it’s enough to make this overlooked game well worth playing.