It’s 1990, you sit in awe as your family are setting up their brand new Pentium 2 computer with a gigantic 15” screen, “Vanilla Ice” just hit #1 on the Australian charts with “Ice, Ice Baby” and you hear passionate ramblings from your grandfather about “Operation Desert Shield”. But none of it matters as you game upon what will undoubtedly absorb many of your childhood hours in the months to come. You boot up your new power plant to reveal Windows 3.0, and a new game suitable for your pre-teen years, Commander Keen!
In Commander Keen you play as Billy Blaze, an 8-year-old genius with a knack for building space ships out of old soup cans, rubber cement and plastic tubing. While his parents are out on the town he decides that against all odds, he will have some fun, by equipping his brother’s football helmet and transforming into the 90’s pre-pubescent superhero, Commander Keen. He jumps into his spaceship,”Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket”, and travels around the galaxy beating up all kinds of slugs, bugs and thugs.
Now, in a time where 2D console scrollers were huge, and beeping and booping sufficed as a sound effect, this game quite happily scooted along, forming a happy medium to the DOS based PC systems. The cartoon-style platform games used cutting edge EGA graphics and the oh-so-historical “Shareware” for distribution. The Commander Keen series were some of the first games by ID Software, leading onto some cult favourites, including the legendary Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake.
The series was established with Invasion of the Vorticons (1990). Keen could move left to right, jump up and down and even traverse some stunningly designed levels. As the player, you are required to help Keen find a pogo stick, and the parts to fix his busted ship while chomping on lollipops, soda, pizza and an array of junk food to add to your score. If you manage to rack up 20,000 points before you died from overeating, you are awarded an extra life. Simple, right? Not so much, as the skill cap needed to traverse some of these obstacles and not having a clear view of where you want to go sometimes can be exceedingly infuriating at times, however, upon completing the puzzle you are left with a lingering sense of satisfaction. This game was divided into 3 parts, being the Invasion of the Vorticons, The Earth Explodes and Keen Must Die! I won’t spoil anything here as game-play remains the same, however, you’re in for a treat.
After a year of playing, and begging Mum and Dad for a new game, Billy makes his triumphant return with Commander Keen: Keen Dreams. After refusing to eat his vegetables, Billy is sent to bed by his parents. He falls asleep, only to awaken in a bizarre vegetable kingdom, led by the evil potato king “Boobus Tuber”, who has a heinous plan to imprison other sleeping children there. In the dream world, our budding Commander does not have his trademark ray-gun and pogo stick, instead having to defend the universe using “Flower Power” seeds which turn his enemies into all kinds of roses and shrubbery for a short period of time. While Keen is lacking in the gun/pogo department, there are some interesting objects in the environment that help him traverse the levels, and come out the Universe’s #1 gardener. While the original controls are unchanged, there is the addition of ducking, yes that is right, he can now duck! Billy can also drop down through semi-solid platforms, some of which are equipped with firemen’s poles to help him manoeuver to higher or lower platforms with ease, and can even jump from pole to pole when timed correctly.
The use of a slanted 3D visual assisted in adding the bonus items and shortcuts that are contained within the walls and ceiling. In this episode, you’ll be looking for “Boobus Bombs”, in order to defeat the Vegetable King and return peace to the plant based world. One of the best additions to this episode was the addition of a score box toggle, so you could constantly monitor your score, available lives and ammo, instead of having to constantly mash the spacebar mid-run.
What’s that I hear? You want more? Well, it just so happens there was indeed more, with Commander Keen’s final showdown in Goodbye Galaxy! This was arguably the finest and most memorable of the Keen explorations. With the same slanted 3D look, bonus rooms, and passages everywhere, the chance to kill slugs that decided they would excrete acidic slime to kill you with made the game fun, challenging and one of the best games for re-play value in a while. The loss of Flower Power and the return of your handy dandy ray-gun and pogo stick made the game feel complete once again. This episode features HUGE levels and a decent variety of enemies and some modified game mechanics like disappearing mirage platforms. Your job is to find and rescue 8 ‘elders’ locked behind crystal activated gates, then going on to deactivate the Omegamatic space station in the next chapter. The dev team figured people still needed more to do in this game so they added a playable game of Paddle War, a clone of pong, programmed onto Keen’s wrist computer which can be accessed from the main menu.
As all great things have to come to an end, so did the chronicles of our favourite childhood hero Billy Blaze. Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter! was the final installment for our hero. After Keen’s babysitter, Molly, is abducted by the Bloogs Keen must navigate the galaxy once more to save her. All game-play aspects from this final chapter were unchanged from Goodbye Galaxy, but did provide a fitting end for our hero, and it capped off one epic series from our childhoods.
Commander Keen was always an evolving series, it started strong and ended even stronger. The game had a high skill cap but was also quite playable at all skill levels, all puzzles and levels were rewarding to finish and it really wasn’t hard to see why this game deserved the sequels. This was a building block for bigger and better game titles and filled the void needed for this kind of medium on the PC in the early 90s, in saying that, Steam has re-released this game for current age PCs so it has stood the test of time. Do yourself a favour, put on your old copy of “Home Alone”, get Jon Bon Jovi out of the dusty cassette case and put it on, jump into a bean bag with your laptop and experience something truly great.
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