Commander Keen was a 1990 DOS platformer developed by id software. Id are a little bit more famous for making Doom than Commander Keen, but in the early 90s, Commander Keen was a pretty big deal. Keen was released as a shareware game; it came in three parts and the first part was free. The idea was that if you liked the game, you could order episodes II or III, or both. I wasn’t even born when the game was originally released, but my dad used to download lots of these shareware DOS games for me when I was very young and I have a huge amount of nostalgia for them.
The original Keen series, Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons, starts with Episode I: Marooned on Mars. The game has a surprisingly well developed story. I’ve never actually read any of the story until I decided to write this post. Commander Keen is the codename for young boy genius Billy Blaze. He travels to Mars using his ship made from household items; tin cans, rubber cement and his dad’s bottle of Everclear for fuel. Whilst exploring the mountains of Mars the evil Vorticons steal some vital parts for his ship and he now has to hunt them down by exploring all the levels. There’s also some additional details about the political situation on Mars and the developers really tried to explain everything here. It also includes some humorous clickbait with Keen saying “You won’t believe what happens in Episode 3!”. It’s a nice touch to have such an in depth story, especially as you can just start the game and totally ignore it, so lots of people won’t even read it!
I’m going to check out all the episodes, but in the past I’ve only played episode I (and episode IV, a.k.a. the free ones) so the other episodes won’t have the same feelings of nostalgia clouding my judgement. The game is still supported with episodes I-V available on Steam for only £2.99. There are two other episodes – Keen Dreams and Aliens Ate My Babysitter – which you can find as abandonware.
The game has a top down overworld, so you can choose what levels to do in what order. There are some mandatory and some you never have to beat, but I like to do all of them. The levels are all 2d platforming. The platforming in this game is pretty great, with some really neat jump physics. It is a bit strange by today’s standards because the jump isn’t immediately responsive, there’s a small delay before Keen actually jumps, but the range of heights you can get out of a jump makes it hugely versatile. You can hop just a couple of pixels high, take a long but low jump, or jump full height.
In one of the early levels you can pick up the pogo stick. Apparently the inhabitants of Mars collect kids toys from Earth (not a joke, it actually says that in the story) and so there’s a real explanation for a pogo stick being up on a shrine. You can use the pogo stick to get some extra height to your jumps. You don’t actually need the pogo stick throughout almost the entire game (it is definitely easier to have the higher jump height, though), but there is one single jump in the final level that requires it. The developers obviously thought someone might try and do a no-pogo run and put a pogo stick hidden in the final level. Keen also has a raygun to shoot enemies which you will need to collect ammo for. The ammo is actually pretty stingy, so don’t be wasting it.
There’s a nice bit of lore scattered throughout the game – there’s many optional little hut levels which contains robots/statues of the enemies which send you transmissions giving you little hints. I’m guessing I don’t need to keep a post on a 30 year old game spoiler free, so it tells you that there’s hidden platforms which you only see the top left corner of, it hints at how to get to the hidden level, it says its a shame you cannot read the Standard Galactic Alphabet and there’s one transmission that says something like “GAAARRGG!!” – a message from some of the savages who live on Mars.
On the subject of the Standard Galactic Alphabet – this game has its own language! There’s nothing particularly useful to decipher though, most of the signs just say things like “die” near some deadly enemies or other such things. As far as I know there isn’t a way to find out how to translate the alphabet in game, so I’m not sure how people were generally expected to decipher it.
On with the goal of the game anyway – in 4 of the levels there are VorticOns; they’re these large bipedal blue dog-like creatures and they are quite scary when you actually end up faced with them. Keen can only take one hit and they can take 4 from your raygun. You can also just completely ignore them, but their movement is very random so that’s quite scary to do as well. Once you’ve successfully defeated (or ignored them) then you may collect the item needed for your rocket ship and move on.
There’s a secret level as well which you access from a super tucked away and difficult to get to part of another level. It’s mostly a bonus level, you can get quite a lot of points which gets you extra lives but if you’re making liberal use of save games, it doesn’t really matter. I like to do a 100% run regardless, so I always make a visit to the secret level. If you do the bare minimum you can get through the game only beating 6 levels.
There’s one thing about this game that seems very strange today – there’s no music. None at all. It’s a very eerie experience running through the levels only hearing the sounds of Keen’s feet walking around.
I had a great time playing again anyway. I was impressed with how well the platforming worked, even though there is quite a lack of variety as far as platforming goes, and some of the level design felt a bit strange. I beat every level and it’s not terribly challenging, so it’s good for a casual play through and there’s a few interesting secrets to work out along the way!