In this episode of Commander Keen, Keen boards the looming Vorticon Mothership, which is getting ready to blow up the Earth! The Earth does not actually explode, as the title indicates. Regardless of whether the Earth explodes or not, Commander Keen Episode II: The Earth Explodes is a pretty cool name for a game. Keen actually has a tough decision to make here – if the Earth explodes, then he doesn’t have to go to school in the morning. He does the right thing though and decides that he should save the Earth. In this game, Keen explores the Vortican Mothership and has to destroy all the Tantalus Rays, whatever they are.

This time round, Keen has handily found a Vorticon Hyper Pistol to substitute his raygun from the previous game. He also dons his classic pogo stick right from the beginning of the game. The platforming is much the same as in Episode I, but the level designs are much more mechanical and industrial looking, which makes perfect sense seeing as you’re on a spaceship. There’s some new mechanics, albeit they’re not terribly exciting. You can interact with buttons and levers now. Pressing ‘button 2’ activates a switch/lever and causes something to happen, such extending a bridge or switching the lights off. Or you know, literally blowing up the entire Earth.

This is a total beginner’s trap; when you find one of the Tantalus Rays, there’s a lever on them. ‘Button 2’ activates your pogo stick under normal circumstances, but when you’re stood next to a button or lever, it activates that instead. You need to pogo up to reach and shoot the Tantalus Ray. So what happens is you go to pogo up and instead, Keen pulls the lever. “Oops.”, Keen says, as he activates a machine that blows up his home planet. At least he didn’t have to go to school.

Moving on – switching the lights off is a bit of a strange mechanic. It makes the level very dark and it’s more difficult to see. It also makes the pause menu black. The pause menu has black text. So you can’t read the menu with the lights off. It turns out the changes are not just visual though, Vorticons do not jump in the dark for some reason. There’s a couple of Elder Vorticons hidden in levels that drop a bit of lore for you; one of these tells you that a wise Vorticon will not jump in the dark (an unwise Vorticon also does not jump in the dark, he notes). It sure does help to prevent them jumping, anyway! There’s also a little puzzle that involves switching the lights on and off later, which is a great touch!

If you find the other Elder Vorticon, they fill you in on some lore that totally changes the feel of the whole game. After blasting your way through a bunch of evil Vorticons, he tells you that the mastermind behind all of this is not from Vorticon VI, he is from Earth and he controls the Vorticons using mind-belts. “They are not evil, please do not shoot them”, he says. Damn.

“They are not evil, please do not shoot them”, after Keen finished murdering a load of Vorticons

To beat the game this time, we need to destroy all the aforementioned Tantalus Rays, which I assume are some sort of big laser cannons pointed at various landmarks on Earth. There’s one pointed at London, Cairo, New York, Sydney, Paris, Moscow, Rome and Washington DC. To destroy these, Keen must enter a level containing one of the cannons and he just has to shoot his Vorticon Hyper Pistol at it.

The Tantalus Rays are guarded by Vorticon commanders who are tough enemies with Hyper Pistols of their own. You usually meet them in an enclosed space so they’re difficult to avoid, but I didn’t have too many problems with them. If you can turn the lights off before meeting them, they’re a lot less fearsome as they tend to just get stuck in a hole unable to escape.

Lights out

The other enemies through the game are regular old Vorticons wearing yellow jump suits. These guys are big and scary looking, but one shot from the Hyper Pistol takes them out, so they’re pushovers compared to the last game. There’s also some zippy enemies who run around jumping like crazy; these guys are terrifying when you first see them, but once you get attacked by one you realise they’re not a big deal because they just knock Keen over and stun him for a moment.

Some of these levels go absolutely overboard with the amount of Vorticon commanders. As soon as there’s more than one, they’re really tricky to deal with. They’ll be jumping all over the place and shooting at you like there’s no tomorrow. The strategy I used was to gather them up and guide them away from where I needed to go.

There’s no secret levels in this game, which I think is a shame, but there’s still the odd bit of lore from the Elder Vorticons. I’m also finding this game tougher than Episode I, but I’ve never played this game before and I’ve played Episode I a bunch, so it makes sense that I’d find it harder since I’m unfamiliar with it. That said, the last level in this game is really, really difficult with some super tricky platforming. I must admit, I died so many times I eventually cheated a little with God Mode because I got fed up of repeating the same sections over and over. There’s a ton of gameplay in this game compared to last – I counted the levels and there’s only one more than the last game, but they’re all really large, fleshed out levels that you can explore as much or as little as you like, so it feels like there’s a lot more content.

At the end of the game when Keen is back on Earth, it has snowed and our hero Billy Blaze gets to have the day off as he hoped, and he doesn’t have to allow the Earth to be blown up, fantastic! We also see that he got to keep a pet Yorp from his time on Mars in the last game! He makes plans to head off to the planet Vorticon VI on his snow day, which I’ll be visiting when I cover Episode III!