Have You Played… Commander Keen?

commanderkeen

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

The year: 1994. Me: a teenage goth who had never seen anything more amazing than the chainsaws and demons hellscape of Doom.

Imagine, then, my reaction when I found that the people who made Doom hadn’t been forging dark arts made of infernal code since they first discovered computers. They had made a series of games about a kid who builds a space rocket in his back garden and then bounces around on a pogo stick collecting soda. His name is Commander Keen.

Commander Keen was different to Doom in every way. It was cute rather than aggressive and violent, and it belonged to a long lineage of vaguely abstract character-led platformers rather than pushing into bold new territories. Sure, Doom wasn’t the first of its kind but it felt like a shot of something powerful, dangerous and unprecedented.

At least that’s how I saw it.

I came to Commander Keen after buying Doom, in a quest to play everything that my new favourite developers had ever made. I didn’t finish a single one of the four games in the series, always finding myself lost and confused in a level mid-way through the adventure. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Looking back, I’m amazed that I wasn’t immediately repulsed by the childishness of the setting and the crude bleeps and bloops that my Soundblaster started to fart out whenever I used that bloody pogo stick. But I wasn’t. Commander Keen was OK with me.

So much so that I still want to finish them all one day, truth be told. They’re frustratingly floaty and the level design is sometimes drab, but there’s something in them – some spark of greatness.

All that said, I thought it was great that Keen showed up in Doom 2, somewhat worse for wear. Even if I enjoyed collecting soda on Mars, I was still edgy as heck.

41 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I liked that you could play pong (I think it was pong) on his wristband thinger, in one of the games.

    I don’t know why. It was just a neat addition for no reason.

    • gambl0r says:

      It was pong! In Goodbye Galaxy, I think. One of my favorite games as a kid.

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  2. RedViv says:

    Still waiting for that reboot to bridge New [whatever] Wolf and DOOM. Let BJ the 2nd have a go at… Something Stranger Things, meets Last Starfighter, that sort of setting. Maybe.

    • Scripten says:

      Funny bit of trivia. The main characters of Commander Keen and Wolfenstein have the same last name, so the whole “They’re related!” thing has at least some traction. Not that it matters at all, but it’s a neat fact.

      • Stropp says:

        Huh. I never picked up on that. Very cool.

        Actually, could they be the same person?

        Billy => BJ?

      • Infinitron says:

        I believe it’s canon in the id games that Commander Keen is the Wolfenstein guy’s grandson. Keen’s father is Arthur Blazkowicz/Blaze, a talk show host who anglicized his name.

        • RedViv says:

          Yep. And Keen’s… son or grandson in turn is BJ Blaze/Blazkowicz III., saviour of Earth, mankind, Predator Unchained, Walker of Hell, Slayer of Doom, etc.

  3. Scripten says:

    So I really don’t have the words to express how big Commander Keen was to me as a kid. I think the closest thing to say would be that he was my Mario, except in a world where kids of my generation who liked Mario didn’t know anyone else who had heard of him and certainly couldn’t find a single bit of merchandise from the games.

    They really are all very charming and fun to play. The physics can be very floaty in the earlier ones, but the two episodes that came out at the very end of the platformer craze, both part of Goodbye Galaxy, were a lot better on that front. Besides the improved physics, better graphics and sound, and a more fleshed-out world to explore, they made strides to give the games a unique aesthetic that set them apart.

    It all felt like a Saturday morning cartoon, even moreso than stuff like Jazz Jackrabbit.

    • icarussc says:

      I feel the same way. Other shareware came and went for me (no money for games), but I played that thing literally backwards and forwards until I knew it all. One of the few moments in my life that I would describe as actually mind-blowing was when, by dint of sheer experimentation, I discovered the secret to those inchworms that crawled around the floor of that one level in Goodbye Galaxy. So very, very much fun.

    • Spider Jerusalem says:

      Same for me. Never had a console of any kind, but my dad had a computer for work so anything on a floppy disk (which had stopped being floppy at that point, natch) or, eventually, a demo disc from everyone’s favorite cheery RPS fanzine was absolutely my Mario, or Sonic, or Zelda, etc. Ended up being mostly Commander Keen, Earthworm Jim and Claw.

    • Ben King says:

      I am also in this pool of people for whom commander keen has a central role in their childhood’s foundational experiences of video games. Goodbye Galaxy (Ep 4) was loaded on an office computer at the university my Dad worked at so when we’d visit him after pre-school let out occasionally if the office manager was out we could bounce around on the pogo stick blasting slugs with stun blasters and getting hopped up on sweets. A few years later we were lucky enough to have an ibm ps2 with a B&W display at home and were soon playing Aliens Ate my Babysitter (Ep 6) collecting “vivas” for lives. Oddly this was also my first encounter with a primitive form of game DRM. Launching KEEN6.exe required you to correctly name a randomly chosen in-game enemy npc which were only described in a printed game manual. I occasionally had childhood dreams populated by the cartoon denizens of Keen. I loved it. I played through keen 4 a few years ago just for nostalgia’s sake. The underwater level with the Dope fish still is a pain, but I clapped like a maniac when I found the Dope fish graffiti in Deus Ex HR:-)

      • Ben King says:

        “Acting Commander Keen” I caught that too and it made my day:-)

  4. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    I never got into it because of the jump. But the clone-ish “Secret Agent”? I loved that one.

    • Krob says:

      Keen, along with Secret Agent, Monster Bash, Arctic Adventure, Duke Nukem (1) and Gods (which has already been covered here) were my goto platformer games back in the 386 days..
      I always wanted to play Bio Menace, but that kept on crashing within a few seconds of playing..

      They do hold up fine in dosbox though!
      I also discovered Dangerous Dave in the haunted mansion way too late. I highly recommend playing that one too (if you can handle insta-death-replay-the-whole-level gameplay)

    • Premium User Badge

      ComicSansMS says:

      +1 For Secret Agent.

      I played most of the Apogee sharewares as a kid, as they were about the cheapest way to get a decent gaming experience on the PC back in the days. Only picked up the full versions years later, only to find out that in many cases the initial free episodes were actually the best part of most of the games.

  5. Stropp says:

    Yep. First PC game I ever played. Found it in one of those shareware packs in a computer store (iirc) and installed it on my 386. Played it all the way through (unlike so many games since.) Damn I hated those blue kangaroo things.

    After this I hunted down the sequels, and then discovered and played through the original Duke Nukems.

  6. CMaster says:

    Loved some Keen back when I genuinley was a child. Keen 4 is still a genuinley good platformer (as are 5 and 6 I guess) but it’s probably the highlight of the series. Keen Dreams (aka Keen 3.5) is also prety good. The original trilogy is a touch ropey though, proper early platformer stuff, on about the same level as the original Duke Nukem games.

  7. Turkey says:

    I was a console kid until about 95, so I didn’t play the Apogee/Id/3DRealms platformers until way after they came out. I dunno, PC platformers just struck me as clumsy versions of the Japanese stuff I was used to.

    I did like Secret Agent, though.

  8. Premium User Badge

    RaveTurned says:

    I never played this. I just wasn’t Keen.

  9. Inu says:

    The one with the giant fish that would go after you underwater. Scared the crap out of me every time.

  10. fuggles says:

    You mean captain keen?

  11. Konservenknilch says:

    I started with the first one, but I really adored Goodbye Galaxy. Also the first game I ever played with a soundblaster. What a revelation!

  12. Biscuitry says:

    There was a cute little nod to this series in Subnautica. The Second Officer of the starship that gets blown up in the intro is called Keen.

  13. peterako1989 says:

    If I have played it? Hell yes! Childhood game. One of the earliest I can remember as a todler.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    Those games were great, especially Goodbye Galaxy. The first three were a lot of fun as well if a bit less refined mechanically. Keen Dreams was also fun. I never finished the fourth because it was too damn hard but I got pretty far as I recall.

  15. Premium User Badge

    syllopsium says:

    Great games. Think I finished the first five games (including 3.5). It really is due a reboot.. A technical revelation due to the smooth scrolling, too.

    DOOM wasn’t really a technical advance in terms of display (Ultima Underworld came out before and had curved walls), however DOOM was faster, included mods, and co-op.

  16. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I used to play these on our school computers in elementary and then later when we got our own PC. I remember playing though one or two of them all the way except I did it using god mode.

  17. andycheese says:

    In 94 one of my school chums gave me a floppy disk copy of Keen Dreams: over which he’d waxed lyrical for ages. Being in a console-induced coma at the time, I found Keen, graphically at least, compared poorly with Mario/Sonic. ‘Graphics’, as any child of the era knows, were the be all and end all. After one brief play session the Commander was consigned to the re-writeable disk bin and life moved on… From the comments above though, it sounds like I may have missed out!

    • Scripten says:

      Keen Dreams was probably the worst of the series, unfortunately. Try looking around for Goodbye Galaxy. It’s shareware and you might be able to get it to work in DOSbox.

      • ansionnach says:

        Good suggestion. There’s probably a site that has each of the shareware games packaged up with DOSBox so there’s nothing for you to do. I could provide config files and instructions either so there’s a minimal amount of work to do.

        Even though episode 4 had the newer graphics engine, I preferred the movement in the original engine. Episode 1 is also shareware. Playing it may be more of a shock to somebody for whom 8088 means nothing.

  18. ansionnach says:

    I played all the main ones at some point but only finished the first shareware game. Of shareware platformers I think I enjoyed Duke Nukem the most (episodes 1-3). Duke Nukem 2 was awful. Secret Agent had woeful collision detection, which made it frustrating. It was fun, though. Only had the shareware version. Crystal Caves may have been a better game but I didn’t enjoy it as much. Collision detection was also poor. Again, I only had the shareware episode.

    Would have always counted more than four Keen games as each episode came as a separate set of files with an executable numbered 1 to 6. Then there was Keen Dreams, which I don’t think I played. That’s seven, not counting the Gameboy Colour game, which perhaps even fewer played. I suppose the four games are episodes 1-3 (the first of which was shareware, 4+5 (again, the first was shareware, 6 and Keen Dreams.

  19. Spacewalk says:

    I still do from time to time. Last year I found a wonderful program called Commander Genius that lets you play the games on a variety of operating systems and does extra stuff multiplayer being the most interesting.

  20. Furius says:

    Keen Dreams had those scary grapes that shrieked when they fell on you right? I remember I wanted my “friend” to go home one day when while we were playing, so I didn’t warn him about them, and he jumped out of his chair when he walked under one ;-)

  21. April March says:

    I actually did! I had Goodbye Galaxy on one of those demo discs that had ten bazillion games in it; I remember it was one of the most memorable, which is telling since the disc also had ROTT, Jazz Jackrabbit and Heretic. I never finished it because I couldn’t save; I don’t know if it was a limitation of the shareware, because I was running it from the CD instead of installing, or if I just couldn’t figure out how to save (I couldn’t speak English back then – I couldn’t figure out how to run a game I’d installed, either).

    I remember finishing the “mirage” level in the desert; using the swimming gear you get from it to save one of the wise men underwater (dopefish lives!); and, somehow, managing to get to the super secret temple that required getting all the snakes in a level together (but not getting very far in it – it was very very difficult).

    I actually bought it on Steam and I can reasonably say I’m playing through it, though as I play I realize that there are even more things that I forgot (I’m pretty sure I knew how to enter the Pits of Dispair through another level, so you’d start at a raised door) and that as bad at games as I was as a child, I’m even worse now.

  22. Glacious says:

    I have indeed, quite a lot in fact. My brothers and I played the shareware episodes 1 – Invasion of the Vorticons (I think), 4 – Goodbye Galaxy and Keen Dreams on the family 386. A friend had some of the others, but I only played them a little. I have many fond memories of all of it. One standout is of the single eyebstalk aliens in the first game, one of which Keen would keep as a pet at the end. They didn’t hurt you, although they could bump you of the edge of platforms. Once I realised they were harmless, I felt so bad zapping them (that cry of pain!) I settled for jumping on them instead if they were in the way (that funny dizzy sound effect!)

    Keen also gave me my greatest gaming achievement for a long time – maybe even to this day – finishing the Pyramid of the Forbidden in Goodbye Galaxy on hardest difficulty.

    I was not aware of the Keen references in the games mentioned thus far, but will keep an eye out from now on. I did however get a kick out of the poster for “How to Catch Dopefish” in a bookstore in Alan Wake.

  23. Josh W says:

    I remember being very bad at this game, but I appreciated getting lots of room to explore, so that I could at least fail to complete a variety of different levels, sort of a similar advantage to random start in roguelikes. After a while though, I was forced to come back to things I was not able to completely, with quite a bit of hopping off seats in frustration and seeing if an adult or other sibling could do sections instead.

  24. Halk says:

    CK parts 1 to 3 were rather primitive and ugly, I never played them very far.

    But parts 4 to 6 were amazing. Excellent platformers that can even still compete with modern games. Better than the SNES platformers in some ways. What still amazes me is how they used EGA graphics, but used them so well that you never really noticed the lack of colors in the palette. There are may VGA games that still look good today (many point and click adventures for example), but CK in my opinion is the only EGA game that still looks good today.

    There are fan-made parts 7 to 9 which are heavily modded versions of parts 4 to 6. They are so well-made that they are indistinguishable from the originals in quality.