Who wants to go on a trip down memory lane? A wild, crazy journey way back into the earliest years of computer gaming. Back to a time when the PC Master Race still had homework and bedtimes. Back to a time when an eight-year-old boy genius saved the galaxy and helped start one of the most famous game development companies of all time. Yep, it’s time to talk about Commander Keen!
Don’t worry if you didn’t get that spark of recognition when you read the name. Not a lot of people do. Commander Keen was a series of very early PC games that you either played or missed altogether, with the latter being even more likely if you were raised on a Sega or a Nintendo. But whether you knew about it or not, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen or experienced part of its legacy, as it’s success prompted creator Tom Hall, programmers John Carmack and John Romero, and artist Adrian Carmack (no relation) to quit their jobs with other development companies and found id Software. Now that’s a name you should know!
id Software would go on to produce many groundbreaking games, not least of which was DOOM, create entire genres, conventions, a language, and introduce gaming, not just on PC but everywhere, to a whole new realm of possibilities. For this retrospective, though, I’m going to be looking at their very first games, trying to remember the joy and excitement kid-me got from playing them and see if it is still as potent now as it was then.
So don your Green Bay Packers helmet, grab your raygun and pogo stick, and let’s do this!
The year is 1990 and John Carmack, then working at Softdisk, had finally cracked the code on a little something called “adaptive tile refresh.” It was a technique he had been developing to recreate on a PC that same smooth side-scrolling gameplay common to home consoles of the era. Up until that point, PC games were single screen affairs, with you controlling what is seen on-screen by moving to the edges of the available space upon which a new screen would be loaded. But not anymore!
Suitably impressed with the final result, John set his sights on much bigger targets, working with Tom Hall to create a fully functioning demo port of a level from Super Mario Bros., with the plumber, powerups, Koopas and all, and, hoping they wouldn’t get sued for copyright infringement, sent it to Nintendo to see if they were interested. Unfortunately, at the time, Nintendo had no interest in developing for PC, choosing to keep their properties on their own hardware, ultimately passing on the concept.
As disappointing as it was, this turned out to be only a minor setback. Bringing on coworker John Romero and later Adrian Carmack, they quietly formed a secret group inside Softdisk named Ideas from the Deep (which would later evolve into id Software) and began work on their own project; working after hours and even ‘borrowing’ Softdisk computers on weekends, even taking them from the company offices to another location to do so. The guys didn’t want to put their jobs in jeopardy if Softdisk found out, because development companies at the time were fiercely protective of their talent, doing everything they could to stop them from leaving or being poached by other companies.
And funnily enough, that’s exactly what happened.
Scott Miller from Apogee Games (now better known as 3D Realms) had played one of John Romero’s games produced while at Softdisk and made inroads with the team, offering them a lucrative deal to produce games for Apogee, and it just so happened the team had a game pretty much good to go.
“Commander Keen in Invasion Of The Vorticons” was released on December 14, 1990 and was an instant hit. The first game in what would later become a series was split into three episodes released in Apogee’s shareware format, titled “Episode One: Marooned On Mars” followed by “Episode Two: The Earth Explodes” and “Episode Three: Keen Must Die!”
For those of you who didn’t live through the early days of floppy disks and 486s, shareware was a method of game distribution where you got the first episode free to play and share with friends (hence the name) but subsequent episodes had to be purchased, although to be honest, once one of you purchased those later episodes, you could basically share those too. Because of that, it was around this time that the earliest forms of software protection, serial keys and the beginnings of DRM can be traced.
Looking back to kid me, though, I never even knew there were other episodes in Commander Keen until years later. I actually played the fourth entry in the series before I ever played the second or third! I never bothered looking through the extra menu options for ordering details (by fax, no less!) or anything like that.
Nope. I just played the game. A lot. And what a game it was!
You play as eight-year-old boy genius Billy Blaze, who has secretly built a spaceship out of old tin cans, rubber cement and plastic tubing named the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket. One night while his parents are out and the babysitter is asleep, he puts on his older brother’s football helmet, and with his trusty raygun, blasts off to Mars to explore as his heroic alter ego, Commander Keen!
While there, a race of aliens not native to Mars, the Vorticons, steal parts from Keen’s ship and he must travel through the various levels and retrieve them, so he can fly back home and be in bed before his parents get home.
Keen’s adventures will find you exploring a colourful 2D platform world of sneaky traps, mazes, puzzles and challenges. Baddies are all over the levels, such as the Gargs, two-eyed green monsters who rush at you when they see you; the Vorticons, who look a little like dogs walking upright in coloured jumpsuits, as well as a few different robots they brought along. My personal favourite, though, are the Yorps; cute little dudes with one eye and a big buck tooth who aren’t baddies, but can still bump you into traps and cause you to lose a life. The style of the game held a lot of the same feel as that very early demo port of Super Mario Bros. 3, sharing the same platforming style, with collectable cans of Pepsi, hamburgers, candy bars and lollipops standing in for coins.
The level design itself usually found Keen starting on the left with an exit somewhere far off on the right. However, the developers also threw in a lot of verticality, having tricky jumping puzzles and collectables leading you up or down, away from the expected left to right movement, often into secret rewards or fun surprises. This was even more the case when Keen aquires his signature pogo stick in the second level allowing even higher jumps and riskier leaps to explore levels further. You see, this was back when the idea of game design was still very new. We climb the high things in levels now because we expect there to be something worthwhile at the top. In 1990, they had to teach you to climb.
After learning all the things you need to know and retrieving all the missing parts of his ship, you get Keen zooming back to Earth only to discover a Vorticon mothership (shaped like a big space dog no less) hovering above his defenceless little planet. Not having time to deal with them right then, Keen returns home and gets in bed just as his parents come in to check on him… and discover that he has brought one of the Yorps back with him. Showing some of the most incredible parenting in history, Keen’s parents accept the existence of extra-terrestrial life with a quick “Aw Mom, can’t I keep him?” from their son and that ends that. As they go to sleep, Keen hops back out of bed, back into his rocket and zooms off to confront the Vorticons. Episode One ends and Episode Two, “The Earth Explodes” begins… providing you bought it, of course.
And for the longest time, that was my whole experience with Commander Keen. That was the only Keen game I played because it was the only one I had. My mum wouldn’t let me touch her fax machine, let alone buy games from strange people in another country! I finally got a chance to play Episode Two and three much later, after having already played the very different and updated brilliance of “Commander Keen in Secret Of The Oracle,” the fourth main entry in the series.
Episode Two and Three play almost identically to Episode One. Aboard the Vorticon mothership, Keen must locate and deactivate the Tantalus death-rays targeting various major cities, such as New York, Paris, London and so on. The most notable changes in this episode from the previous is that you begin with your pogo stick, your raygun is now a more powerful Vorticon Hyper-Pistol, and collectable point items have different appearances to suit their more alien origins. All which served as a very simple form of progression from one game to the next. The difficulty also cranks up a bit more from Keen’s outing on Mars, with the mostly new robotic or Vorticon baddies having less predictable behaviours and being a lot harder to take down, or in some cases needing to be avoided entirely.
The story also takes a step forward, more than just the shareware teaser at the end of episode One. Episode Two has you meet a Vorticon elder who informs you that the Vorticons aren’t actually evil, just being controlled by someone called the Grand Intellect. This makes you feel really bad if you’ve been mindlessly blasting the jumping jumpsuit dog squad up until now. However, who is this shadowy villain behind it all? You don’t find out until the next episode, “Keen Must Die!” which finds Keen travelling to Vorticon VI.
In this episode, the game changes items once again and instead of collecting parts or deactivating death-rays, you only have to complete particular levels to access more of Vorticon VI. Despite what you learned about the Grand Intellect controlling the population, you continue your Vorticon murder-spree through apartments and schools across the planet (I wish I were joking) until you reach the final encounter with the shadowy mastermind, who turns out to be Billy Blaze’s schoolyard rival, another eight-year-old genius named Mortimer McMire. After a very complicated and difficult battle with him in his giant Mangling Machine, his rule over the Vorticons is broken, he is presumed dead, and the third episode of the first game comes to an end.
One more thing before that end, though. For anyone who started playing Keen from the first episode, you would have noticed the signs all over the levels, usually around doors or rayguns, formed of some alien letters. You can even see some in one or two of these screenshots. That is actually the Standard Galactic Alphabet, a fun way the developers found to write secret messages in-game, informing you of basic tips, secrets and other messages. Quite often collectable items formed SGA letters that just said “hi.” I only mention it here, after talking about all three episode because it was only in episode three that a translation was finally provided. Meaning all those who had played this far could go back through the previous levels and episodes and decode all the messages. A very fun way to add replayability to an otherwise singular playthrough. Or alternatively, people who never played the second and third episodes (like me) would never know what they meant and be forever stumped, even in later games.
Happily, the SGA has found life beyond its appearance in Commander Keen, being used in many games from many other developers to write secret messages, as a respectful nod to both Keen and the guys from id Software. It’s one of the most enduring parts of the Keen legacy.
After the crazy and mostly unexpected success of the first games, Softdisk was aware that something was going on and confronted the team behind Keen, who revealed all they had been doing. After some negotiations, most of the crew left the company, and, on the 1st of February 1991, transformed Ideas from the Deep into the company it would always be known as, id Software. This wasn’t just a spur of the moment thing either, it seems, as all throughout the Keen episodes, items were arranged in letters spelling ID, which you can see as a compact version of their original name and a precursor to id Software.
Part of the team’s agreement in their split from Softdisk to prevent further action (for using and removing company resources for personal projects, amoung other things) involved the team providing Softdisk with a game every two months for their own services and during id Software’s first year, a whole new look at Commander Keen was born.
Mostly developed as a prototype to test new ideas, “Commander Keen in Keen Dreams” was released by Softdisk sometime in 1991 and was a bold step forward visually for the series. On the technical front, the game had undergone significant improvements, now boasting a much wider colour range, improved sounds and sound card support, a pseudo 3D perspective to the platforming and parallax scrolling allowing backgrounds and foregrounds to move separate of each other. Game improvements included a HUD to display ammo, points and lives, poles to climb and doors to enter that took Keen to other parts of the levels as well as single frame or simply animated cutscene screens. Keen himself also went through an overhaul, equipped with all new sprites, attack and interaction poses, and idle animations.
However, while the style of the game blazed forward, the story took a very strange turn. As its title suggests, this game took place in Keen’s dreams and lacked any connections to previous games, instead pitting Keen against an evil potato king named (try not to laugh)… Boobus Tuber, who had enslaved other dreaming kids in a Dream Machine for… reasons. Keen, still wearing his brother’s football helmet but without his pogo stick and raygun, and wearing pyjamas instead of his usual shirt, jeans and sneakers combo, would face off against anthropomorphic vegetables and throw flower power pellets at them that temporarily turned them into sunflowers, allowing Keen to pass by.
It definitely seems like the boys at id Software kept their best ideas to themselves, as other than the new and radically improved style and Keen featuring in it, this game offered nothing to continue the story that had preceded it or to connect it to games that came after. Add to that Softdisk’s method of release requiring a subscription, this confusing game went mostly unknown to Keen fans for a long time, even being referred to as the “lost episode” by some and “Episode Three-Point-Five” by others, though it is technically Episode Four.
What was not confusing, though, was the next entry in the main Keen story, “Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy!,” released by Apogee on December 15, 1991, in two parts, “Episode Four: Secret Of The Oracle” and “Episode Five: The Armageddon Machine.” Originally intended to be a sequel trilogy, somewhere in development, the sixth episode was split off to be released as a standalone game, “Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter!” and the remaining two became a pair.
This is where kid me came back into the picture. I never saw “Keen Dreams” until years later, so naturally, I attributed all the brand new and amazing changes to this fantastic Keen game. I mean it just blew me away. I’d already played other games available at the time, like “Monkey Island” from LucasArts, so I knew what games were capable of graphically, but to see that level of awesome applied to my old friend and adventuring buddy Billy Blaze, well I was just speechless. I played that game day in, day out. I collected every item, found every secret, got ridiculously high scores in Paddle War (a version of Pong you could play from the main menu) and played through multiple times on the different difficulty settings, which added more baddies to the game. I even went so far as to recreate the sprites and in-game art as best as I could in MS Paint to stage my own little copy-paste stories
In the real story, though, we rejoin Billy as he is working in his backyard clubhouse building an intergalactic radio, with the Yorp he brought back from Mars in a doghouse outside, now named Spot. Just as Billy intercepts a garbled signal from a race called the Shikadi, who announce their plans to blow up the galaxy, his parents come over to bring him in for dinner. Billy stuns them with his new neural stunner gun (guilt-free nonviolence after all that unknowing Vorticon slaughter!), dons his brother’s Packers helmet again to become Commander Keen and blasts off to confront this new threat.
Travelling to the Shadowlands of Gnosticus IV where Episode Four takes place, avoiding the local wildlife and rescuing the Keepers of the Oracle, Keen learns about the Shikadi and how the “Gannalech” is giving them orders. Later, in Episode Five, he journeys to the titular Armageddon Machine being constructed above Korath III, dodging and surviving all the lasers, traps and robots inside it in order to disable the station and save the galaxy from imminent destruction.
Ultimately, Keen discovers that his nemesis from the last game, Mortimer McMire, is not dead and is actually behind the plot to destroy the galaxy, acting as “Gannalech” which is how the Shikadi pronounce Grand Intellect. A very fun plot point for people who had played the previous games to discover. A plot point which was sadly completely lost on me, because all this was revealed in a coded SGA note Keen finds in the Armageddon Machine control room that spells out the whole plot and Mortimer’s involvement, a note I could not decode because, at the time, I had never played Episode Three and found the cypher!
Kid me didn’t really think much of it and just kept playing more Keen.
Following on from that pair of episodes was the release of “Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter!” also in December of 1991 – which as a standalone title did not fit Apogee’s shareware format, instead being released through FormGem. Stylized as Episode Six, this game deals with a mostly side plot to the impending galaxy destruction of the last games, not actually confirming whether it occurs before, during or after those games. Billy’s babysitter Molly has been kidnapped by the doofy looking green Bloogs of Fribbulus Xax, and as Commander Keen he must get her back before… well, before they eat her. Mortimer is once again discovered to be the mastermind behind the plot, convincing the Bloogs to kidnap Molly in exchange for a sandwich. Molly is also revealed to be his older sister, showing just how evil the younger McMire can be. After being rescued, Molly informs Keen that Mortimer doesn’t just want to blow up the galaxy, he wants to blow up the universe. A screen at the end of the game invites you to return as Keen and prevent that happening with the ultimate showdown in what would have been next game, “Commander Keen in The Universe Is Toast!” But that game never came.
Due to id Software having ridiculous success with the release of “Wolfenstein 3D”, and “DOOM” going immediately into development, the next game was sidelined and eventually cancelled entirely as the company grew and took on its now legendary status.
Commander Keen didn’t end there, though. Another enduring aspect of the Commander Keen legacy is that Billy Blaze himself has long since been connected to the protagonist of the “Wolfenstein” games. After his series of games, Billy Blaze was later identified in “The Official Hint Manual for Wolfenstein 3D” as William Joseph Blazkowicz II, the grandson of Wolfenstein’s William Joseph “BJ” Blazkowicz. Meaning Billy’s dad (who changed his last name to Blaze after the war) named his son in honor of his Nazi killing war hero father and got neural stunned for his troubles. Billy has even been linked, albeit thinly, to the protagonist of “DOOM” as well, with Doomguy possibly being a decendant of Billy, though that has become less and less likely with the most recent reboot. Although, personally, I love the idea of Commander Keen being related to a guy who rampaged through Hell not once, but twice!
In saying all of this, the most enduring part of Commander Keen’s legacy, as much as it pains me to say, has to be that damn Dopefish. Appearing in “Secret Of The Oracle” in the water level “The Well of Wishes” after Keen aquires the scuba gear, the Dopefish just floated around, minding its own stupid business until it saw you, where it would chase you at high speed and swallow you in one bite. If that wasn’t bad enough, he would then turn to the player directly, burp and pull a stupid face. And yet, that’s still not the worst of it. For reasons we mere mortals may never know, Dopefish has earned an even greater reputation than the character who’s game he came from, appearing as an easter egg in almost all id Software games and even sneaking into games from other developers. From scribbles of his stupid face on whiteboards or posters, to secret enemies, or even just with the words “DOPEFISH LIVES!” scrawled in graffiti on a wall, Dopefish has been loosely confirmed as appearing in over sixty games, in one form or another, with some even claiming that number as over one hundred. He is one of the most popular inside jokes in the video game industry. Don’t get me wrong, I do like him. I’ve even made my own art featuring him. I’m just still holding a grudge all these years for him eating me so many times.
Stupid fish aside, though, Commander Keen himself will always be more memorable to me. However, sadly, apart from a poorly received GameBoy Colour “sort-of-sequel” with very little input from id Software that I never played, and a fairly active fan community of modders and level makers, he has been absent from the video game scene for almost twenty-six years.
In 2013, Keen’s original creator, Tom Hall did attempt a Kickstarter for a spiritual successor to Commander Keen called “SECRET SPACESHIP CLUB” but it was unsuccessful and nothing more has been heard from it since.
The only other game that gives me a glimmer of hope is “Rad Rodgers” which was a successfully kickstarted game from earlier in 2016. Very similar to Keen, it is made in modern engines with a deliberate old school feel to it, on top of a story updated to suit the kids who are now adults that played the games it’s based on. I mean come on, Rad’s partner is voiced by Jon St. John, the voice of the king himself, Duke Nukem! That’s gotta count for some awesome points!
Commander Keen will always be one of my favourite game series of all time. A fun and entertaining romp through a weird universe full of silly aliens and over-the-top gameplay. Even if you never gave them a shot twenty-five years ago, the games hold up really well and are just as playable now as they were back then. The incredible differences before and after “Keen Dreams” show how much effort went into not only developing them in the first place, but then to also take that and push it even further at a time when PC gaming was very limited. Hats off to id Software and to Commander Keen, one of the most illustrious milestones in the history of PC gaming. There’s so much we would not have today if twenty-five years ago a bunch of guys hadn’t been so… keen… to break the rules.