Video Game: Commander Keen
Let's see here... if I manage to complete my epic planet-spanning mission in four hours or so, I'll be back home just in time for supper.
A series of video games developed at the turn of the 90s, one of the first to be successful at replicating the side-scrolling action of the NES Super Mario Bros.
games in MS-DOS
(more on that down below). The cartoon-style platformers are notable for their pioneering use of EGA graphics and shareware distribution, and because they were some of the first games by id Software
(which went on to develop blockbusters like Doom
). Although developed by id, most of the Commander Keen games were published by Apogee Software, an already established MS-DOS shareware game publisher.
Billy Blaze is an 8-year-old boy genius who has constructed a spaceship in his backyard from old soup cans and other household objects, called The Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket. When his parents are out and the babysitter falls asleep, he dons his brother's Packers helmet and becomes Commander Keen, Defender of Earth.
The games' development began while the team that would become id Software worked at Softdisk, creating small, rushed games as a special division called Gamer's Edge
. John Carmack had perfected a technique for displaying smooth scrolling graphics on the PC, once thought to be possible only on consoles. Using this code, Carmack and Tom Hall took the protagonist from one of coworker John Romero's games, Dangerous Dave
, stuck the character in a recreation of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3
, and called it Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement
. The demo was put on a disk labeled "Run Me" and left on Romero's desk as a practical joke. He was glued to the "prank" for hours, and knew they could make a game of their own with Carmack's code. Tom Hall suggested a game about an 8-year-old kid who saves the universe, shareware publisher Apogee told them they would distribute it, and the rest is history.
The series comprises several installments:
- Marooned On Mars (1990): The first part of the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. While exploring Mars, Keen discovers that the Vorticons have stolen four key components from his ship, and must journey across the landscape to several cities to retrieve his equipment. Featured the first appearance of Keen's signature pogo stick.
- The Earth Explodes (1990): Keen makes it back to Earth, only to discover that the Vorticon mothership is in orbit, and is planning to fire on eight key cities across the planet. Keen must board the ship to disable each of the eight X-14 Tantalus Ray cannons before they fire. The game featured a Darker and Edgier aesthetic; everything attacked Keen immediately, and there were many more pitfalls and dangerous objects to avoid.
- Keen Must Die!! (1990): The final part of the Vorticon trilogy. After disabling the Vorticon mothership, Keen travels to their home planet in search of the mysterious force that had directed them to Earth. The game featured various Vorticon cities and establishments, and allowed players to learn the Galactic alphabet (a heavily-advertised feature that allowed players to go back to the previous installments and decipher various signs in the levels).
- Keen Dreams (1991): A Gaiden Game published by Softdisk, where Keen has a dream in which he sets out to fight Boobus Tuber, the vegetable king. The game's canon status is unknown - most fans consider it to have taken place between episodes 3 and 4. The game featured several features unique to the series, including a lack of Keen's pogo stick, and vegetables being thrown as weapons.
- Secret of the Oracle (1991): The first part of the Goodbye, Galaxy! two-parter. After finishing a new sublight radio, Keen discovers a plot by a new alien race, the Shikadi, to take over the galaxy. He travels to the planet Gnosticus IV to consult the Keepers of the Oracle (an ancient alien race), but discovers they have been captured, and sets out to rescue them. The game featured much larger levels and a wide assortment of enemies, as well as new game mechanics and minigames.
- The Armageddon Machine (1991): The final part of Goodbye, Galaxy! Keen lands on a massive space station called the Omegamatic, manned by the Shikadi, and sets out to deactivate the machine and save the galaxy.
- Aliens Ate My Babysitter! (1992): Keen's babysitter Molly is kidnapped by an alien race named the Bloogs, and he must rescue her by fighting his way through the planet Fribbulus Xax. The game was published by FormGen and resold by Apogee.
- Commander Keen (2001): A Game Boy Color title published by Activision.
Though Aliens Ate My Babysitter!
claimed that a third trilogy titled The Universe Is Toast!
would be released in Christmas of 1992 (via its ending credits), it never saw the light of day. Id moved on to bigger and better things, and eventually declared the series dead. However, Tom Hall (no longer with id) has promised to continue Keen's story if he can acquire the rights. Additionally, a Fan Sequel The Universe Is Toast!
trilogy has been released, made from heavily modded versions of episodes 4-6. Fan reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.
Tom Hall has announced a Game Maker
titled Worlds of Wander
, which will include a Spiritual Successor
game to Commander Keen
titled Secret Spaceship Club
. Its Kickstarter campaign failed; however, Tom has said the team intends to work on it in their spare time anyway.
This game series has examples of:
- Acme Products: Acme blueprints in Earth Explodes and Secret of the Oracle.
- Amazing Technicolor Population: Due to EGA graphic limitations, all humans are completely white-skinned. As in WHITE-white. Princess Lindsey is also black (a realistic dark-skinned shade, as opposed to #000000), if human-featured fairies can be considered human.
- Apocalypse How: Earth Explodes has the villains of the first episode position a planetary destruction ship in orbit over Earth. If you screw up, you get to activate it. Guess what happens.
- Armless Biped: several of the aliens, including the Yorp and Gargs in the first game.
- Badass Grandpa / Badass Family: According to the Wolfenstein 3D hint manual, William Blazkowicz has a grandson by the name of B. Blaze. Furthermore, the Cyberdemon encountered at the end of Doom is missing an arm and a leg. The same ones that William cut off the oddly-familiar Harbinger in Wolfenstein RPG. You know, the demon who vowed revenge on William's descendants? Might Doomguy be Billy's decendant? In any case, even without Doomguy, Billy Blaze has a pretty badass family.
- Batman Can Breathe in Space: Commander Keen and the Vorticon Guards have no problem breathing on the surface of Mars.
- Big Eater: Nearly all of the items are candy, food or soda. Keen sure loves his junk food.
- Bilingual Bonus: Though in this case, the language is a "space cypher" used throughout the games.
- Blackout Basement: In episode 2 Keen can switch off (and back on) the lights in some levels. This is helpful; "A wise Vorticon never jumps in the dark. In fact, even unwise Vorticons will not jump in darkness."
- Bond Villain Stupidity: Lampshaded. Keen is surprised that the Gnostic Elders weren't killed instead of just being kidnapped. The council page immediately handwaves this by telling him that the elders are immortal. (Which also excuses for preventing the player accidentally - or not so accidentally - killing them.)
- Bonus Dungeon: Most games have several levels that are not required to be completed. For some, the means of accessing the level are secret and the difficulty level is significantly higher.
- Boss in Mook Clothing: Plenty of them, especially in earlier episodes: The Vorticon that guards the last ship part in the first episode, the Vorticon Elite in each of the Tantalus Ray levels of the second episode, the Vortimoms and Vortininjas in the third episode, and the Shikadis and their dog pets in the fifth episode.
- Bound and Gagged: Molly
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The reason Keen doesn't like Mortimer McMire one bit is because the latter (a) taunted him, (b) gave him a wedgie, and (c) tried to destroy the Earth.
- Brutal Bonus Level: All of the secret levels are on the difficult side, as are most of the optional levels in Earth Explodes.
- The Bully: Mortimer, who enjoyed giving Billy swirlies.
- Canon Discontinuity: Tom Hall's stance on the 2001 Game Boy Color game.
- Circling Birdies: In games 4-6, any enemy stunned by Keen will have them. If you don't see any Circling Birdies, that means the stunning will eventually wear off.
- Continuity Nod: Billy Blaze's full name is William Joseph Blazkowicz II, after his grandfather, who you probably know better as "B.J.".
- Cool Starship: The Bean-With-Bacon Megarocket. It's made of soup cans and runs on Everclear. Admit it, you want one.
- Cypher Language: The Standard Galactic Alphabet
- Damsel in Distress: Molly in Aliens Ate My Babysitter.
- Earth-Shattering Kaboom: The threat in just about all the games.
- Every 10,000 Points: Or, rather, every 20000 points (in games 1-3) or every 10000* 2n points (in games 4-6.)
- Evil Counterpart: Mortimer McMire, Keen's arch-nemesis, who constantly taunts Keen for having an IQ that's 1 point lower. He also looks quite similar, wearing a black helmet instead of a yellow one.
- Fan Sequel: While there have been several fan-made games and mods, one specific trilogy has been really well received and adopted as the unofficial "The Universe is Toast!" trilogy: The Keys of Krodacia, Dead in the Desert and Battle of the Brains, three mods of Keen 4-6 with new maps, enemies, and items.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: In the Paris Tantalus level in episode 2, there is a section with colored platforms that spell out - in SGA letters - a certain expletive. However, it's actually misspelled "fucl" (intentionally, as explained by Tom Hall on his blog). This has become something of a Memetic Mutation in the Keen community, with "fucl" (rhymes with "buckle") being a popular swear word on the forums.
- The Goomba: Yorps in Commander Keen Episode 1, which can't damage you themselves. The only way they can kill you is to push you into something dangerous. A similarly harmless enemy in Episode 2, the Scrubs, can actually be helpful as they can be ridden upon to access areas you otherwise couldn't. (they can climb up walls). And the Bounders in episode IV serve a similar purpose.
- Hint System: In the Game Boy version, arrows appear in the background to give players hints about the surroundings (because the screen is otherwise too small to see whether or not you can make a Leap of Faith).
- Homage: The style of the opening credits for Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy, is the same as that used in Terminator, with the letters scrolling and overlapping in the background and eventually zooming out to reveal what they say.
- Idle Animation: Keen takes out a book to read and, in one level, moons the audience.
- Improbably High IQ: And how, exactly, do you measure an IQ as high as 315. And how does anyone on Earth have an IQ of 314?
- Infinite 1-Ups:
- Commander Keen 2: The Earth Explodes has a rather egregious example in the Paris Tantalus level, where if you know how, you can get enough points to get more than one life each try, which can theoretically lead to infinite lives, not to mention infinite points. At least one level in 3 allows for the same abuse.
- In Marooned on Mars, not only does the secret level allow this, but, since getting to it involves using a teleporter inside another level, you can loot the latter level, teleport out, make your way back on the world map, and repeat, allowing you to gain infinite lives (and ammo) without having to suicide
- The secret level in Commander Keen 5: The Armageddon Machine contains enough Vitalin to gain two lives at the very start. Die, repeat...
- Insufferable Genius: Doesn't get much more insufferable than trying to kill everyone who is less intelligent than you.
- Interchangeable Antimatter Keys: Only in Keen Dreams. In all the others, only ONE key will unlock a specific door.
- Invincible Minor Minion: Every game had at least one. And some of them had invincible major minions as well.
- Jump Physics: Keen is able to jump insanely high on his pogo stick. In Keen 4, he gains the ability to pull himself up a ledge, which he previously couldn't.
- Law of 100: Rain Drops in 4, Vitalin in 5, and Viva in 6.
- Lightning Bruiser: The Gargs once they start chasing you. Seeing them jump chasms can be extremely disconcerting.
- Meaningless Lives: At least in 4-6, where the game save feature is essentially a built-in save-state system, and death sends you back to the start of the levels - meaning that Save Scumming is a way of life, which makes the lives useless.
- Mini-Dungeon: The Sand Yego castle in the fourth game. It's modeled after the pyramid levels, but it's shorter and less complex, and it can be skipped.
- Mobile Shrubbery: Commander Keen IV: The Secret of the Oracle has enemies that hide under boulders (much like the Toy Story 2 traffic cones). They're harmless (and well camouflaged) when stationary, but deadly when moving. And they can jump at you as if they're riding pogo sticks!
- Mooks but No Bosses: Only three levels in the entire series have bosses: The final level in Episode 3 (Mortimer McMire on his Mangling Machine), Episode 5 (Shikadi Master), and Keen Dreams (Boobus Tubber). That said, there are various Boss in Mook Clothing enemies in the series, as noted above.
- Nintendo Hard: The military installation levels in episode 3 (Fort Cavort, Fort Vorticon, Fort Vorta Bella, Fort Vox, and Cape Canavorta) are among the most difficult levels in the entire series. They're all optional, however.
- No Ending: Beating The Armageddon Machine gives you a message saying "See you Christmas '92 when Commander Keen returns to battle for the universe! It'll be the biggest Keen ever!" Sadly, this grand finale was never made, and aside from a few fan-made Game Mods, the series still ends on a cliffhanger.
- Non Standard Game Over: In the second game, there are Tantalus Ray Cannons you must destroy in order to save Earth. There are eight of them, but if you press a switch on the side of any of them, a Tantalus Ray shot will destroy the planet and your game is over instantly.
- Not Quite Dead: The Arachnut and Blue Birds from Keen IV can be temporarily stunned if you shoot them with your ray gun, but never permanently killed. (Or permanently stunned. After all, the way other enemies "die" in the episodes IV - VI leaves them with stars going around their heads.) The first time you see them suddenly spring back to life is disconcerting, to say the least. (Incidentally, the gun you use in IV - VI is officially called a "neural stunner"; the background story to IV has Keen use it on his parents, so it's definitely a Stun Gun.)
- The same goes for the Volte-face from Armageddon Machine.
- Also, in Keen Dreams, none of the enemies, except for Boobus Tuber, can be permanently killed. Keen can only temporarily turn them into flowers with the help of special bombs. On the other hand, if you flower-ize them when they're right next to a bottomless pit, they may fall off...
- Omnicidal Maniac: Mortimer McMire. It's not that he wants to kill everybody, he just thinks that nobody dumber than him deserves to live. Of course, he's the smartest being in the universe...
- One-Hit-Point Wonder
- Orphaned Series: Although these games are a fairly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon if you're not busy, they were discontinued before a satisfactory conclusion could be reached, and a number of copyright hand-changes have made an official conclusion more or less defunct.
- Punny Name: The Sand Yego level in Secret of the Oracle, a pun on the city of San Diego.
- Puzzle Boss: The Vorticon guarding the everclear in 1. As you're told by a Yorpish oracle, "You cannot kill the Vorticon Commander directly." The solution is to shoot a cable, dropping a giant slab of stone on the Vorticon commander.
- Ranked by I.Q.: Mortimer McMire brags that his IQ is 315, one point higher than our hero (which is 314 in tribute to Pi).
- Sequel Escalation: The Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy had Keen fighting to save the Earth. In Goodbye Galaxy, he saved the galaxy. The third trilogy, had it ever been made, would have had him up against a plot to destroy the entire universe.
- Shout-Out: Several, the most notable ones being To Serve Man, Wolfenstein 3D (which still had to be produced) and The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (the Dopefish is the second dumbest creature in the universe, after all...)
- The Social Darwinist: Mortimer McMire. He thinks everybody dumber than him (which is everybody in the universe) deserves to die.
- Spikes Of Doom
- Stealth Pun: In order to get to a secret level in Episode 4, one must collect 12 worms together. This creates a giant foot that transports you. The fact that these must be "inch" worms is mentioned only in the help file, which even goes so far to say "Watch where you step or they'll be afoot!"
- Also the level-entry texts in the same episode; "Keen disappears into Miragia", "Keen backs into the Pyramid of the Moons", etc.
- Strange Secret Entrance: The aptly-named "Pyramid of the Forbidden" in episode 4, reached by going into the basement of the "Pyramid of the Moons" and coercing twelve inch-worms to come together, at which point they form a giant foot which transports Keen.
- Stun Gun: Your weapon in Episodes 4 through 6. Most enemies stay "stunned" forever, though—or at least until after you exit the level.
- Super Drowning Skills: In episode 4, you can't swim on the world map until you get the scuba gear (even though you stay above water). And in episode 3, pools of plain water kill you on contact.
- Temporary Platform
- To Serve Man: Given a coded Shout-Out in episode 6.
- Unreliable Narrator: If you read the story from the help file, you can come to the conclusion that the whole "adventure" is just in Billy's head - he's just playing in the garage and backyard.
- Unwinnable by Design:
- Subverted in Episode 3: Keen Must Die! The "Impossible Maze of the Caves of Oblivion" before the final level is just that; if you face the challenge head-on and collect all the keycards hidden in the maze cave, you'll find that the level exit is right behind a gate of spikes with no way to get through them. What you're supposed to do instead is pogo up and over the mountain to a secret exit that's out in the open with no instant-death traps barring your way.
- It's possible to make Keen Dreams unwinnable if you complete every level in the game but don't collect at least 12 Boobus Bombs (the minimum number required to defeat Boobus Tuber). The game won't even let you enter the final level. Hope you have an earlier save...
- In Episode 4's Pyramid of the Gnosticene Ancients, you have to make sure you reach the key gem needed to exit the level before the item-stealing monster does.note
- Unwinnable by Mistake:
- Due to level design goofs or glitches, in some cases it's possible to leave a level without having achieved the objective. For instance, in the "Cave of the Descendants" in episode 4, there's a door with no floor on the other side, so you fall if you walk through. Due to a glitch, you can, if you're fast enough, go back through the door before you fall, whereupon you instantly win the level. But now you can't rescue the elder from that level.
- On Episode 1, it is possible to exit the Vorticon Fortress level without collecting the Everclear (one of the 4 items needed to complete the game) by jumping over the Vorticon to reach the exit.
- If you play episode 5 on Easy difficulty, it's impossible to break the fuse in the secret level, and hence get the alternate ending; depending on which edition of the game you have, either it crashes as soon as you enter the secret level, or the fuse is simply unbreakable.
- Keen 6 is notorious for its glitches, some more serious than others. However, as this playthrough by Reed Wulf demonstrates, it is possible for a crucial item (blue key) to drop through the killer trap and off the map in the last level, making the game unwinnable by... malice?
- Visual Pun: If Keen stands on one of the crescent moon symbols in the Pyramid of the Moons, and left idle, his first Idle Animation is to moon the viewer. In episodes 4-6, the doors are opened by using the matching colour gemstone — key stones.
- The Walls Have Eyes: 6 has a few eyes on the background of some stages, and the final stage involves a part where you have to use giant eyes hanging from the roof by their optic nerves as platforms.
- Wingdinglish: The Standard Galactic Alphabet. A standard substitution cypher, you can look at the conversion table here.
- Writing Around Trademarks: The game originally started as a Super Mario Bros. clone for PCs. id tried to get Nintendo to distribute it, but they weren't interested, so they used the engine to create an original game.
- Your Princess Is in Another Castle: The janitor at the end of the Pyramid of the Forbidden.