- Commander Keen was an iconic side-scroller franchise developed by id Software in 1990
- It’s PC gaming’s Super Mario Bros., except you also had a ray gun and a pogo stick
- You can get the first couple of games on Steam, but to get the “whole” pack you’ll need to buy it on GoG. Note that there are two games missing from the pack.
- Compared to today’s side-scrollers, the controls are horrendously loose and there are cheesy, frustrating elements all over the place
- It was $1.99 on sale. That’s a cheap price to play a piece of gaming history. Or is it?
Despite being born in the NES era of video gaming, I never had a Nintendo, a Super Nintendo, or a Sega Genesis. I was a PC gamer through-and-through with the sole exception of a Game Boy that I’d hustled from some kid.
And while Commander Keen was not one of the first PC games that I played, it is one that I tend to remember pretty fondly. Thanks to a situation where my brother aka Computer Genius managed to score Keen and Captain Comic after helping a Montgomery Ward [department store like Sears] sales guy copy some files, I was able to put in dozens of hours into what was the most advanced PC side-scroller at the time.
More recently, I went through the Commander Keen Complete Pack (Steam/GoG, $4.99) and found it to be to be more of a slog than a blast. The controls are incredibly sluggish, there are a ton of “cheesy” elements (the kinds of things that you’d find in an arcade game designed to chew through your quarters), and some areas are just an exercise in frustration. When you pit it against nearly any side-scroller released in the past 25 years, it loses handedly.
And yet, it still might be worth getting. On sale.
Since this is a pack of five Keen games (for one low price!), I decided to do things a bit differently and write a short blurb about each game separately.
Commander Keen 1: Marooned on Mars
The side-scroller that started it all. Released in 1990 shortly after the offical launch of the Super SNES console, Marooned on Mars ended up being a massive success for id Software and set the stage for future PC platformers.
While it’s got a lot of sentimental value for me, most players will find the first Commander Keen to be a short-lived, paint-by-numbers romp. You could finish this game in twenty minutes if you were so inclined thanks to only seven relatively short levels (+ one secret level).
There are no real surprises in this game. You’ve got a trusty raygun that can kill anything in one shot, and a pogo stick that’ll let you reach higher places outside of your regular jump. The platforming in this game is pretty basic, and the loose controls take a bit of getting used to.
Keen 1 served as a sort of “demo” version, since the game was released under the Shareware model: basically, the first episode was always free but subsequent episodes would cost x.
Commander Keen 2: The Earth Explodes
Second in the trilogy, The Earth Explodes greatly expands the number of levels (16) and also ups the difficulty considerably. It also introduces some new bad guys, chief of which is an evil dog-looking Vorticon dude that jumps around, shoots lasers, and generally makes your life miserable. He’s joined by these tiny, really fast creatures that bounce around the screen, stunning you for around 3 seconds if you’re unlucky enough to get in their way (also note that you can be stunned over and over, especially in some rooms where they just dropped a whole bunch of these guys. Great joke, very funny, right?).
This is also where the first trilogy starts taking a turn for the worse. Part of it is the introduction of random elements, like the behavior of the dog guards, and part of it is the frustrating level design. These are games where you can’t look up, look down, or even duck, and there are too many times that you’ll just have to take a leap of faith, hoping that the designers didn’t decide to put some spikes below you.
I’m reminded of this one level where, if you pick up all of the soda cans in the beginning (soda cans = points = extra lives), you can’t get to a keycard later on and you have to restart.
Did I also mention that there’s a switch in each of the major levels where activating it causes the ship to fire a laser at a famous Earth city, causing a game over?
Commander Keen 3: Keen Must Die!
As you venture deeper into the Keen universe, the further you descend into madness. Keen Must Die! is, without a doubt, the most potentially rage-inducing game in the original trilogy, and yet the entire game is just one elaborate troll. There are something like sixteen levels, but you only need to complete three or four levels to finish the game. That’s right, 75% of the levels are optional. And even the worst of the required levels can be bypassed with a 20-second shortcut.
And so Keen Must Die! ends up being a wacky conundrum for the player: how far do you go before the game destroys your sanity?
The only other notable aspect of Keen 3 is the final boss fight, which is a showdown with your nemesis Mortimer sitting inside of a giant robot. Oh, and maybe the new evil dog-ninjas, who are super fast, super tanky, and can jump huge distances. I thought a well-placed pogo stomp to the head would dispatch these helmetless bad guys, but it turns out landing on one kills you instead. Go figure.
Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle
The second batch of Keen games came after the release of Keen Dreams (3.5), where the entire game was overhauled and made “friendlier” for players. No longer do you have that annoying lag on jumps, or accidentally shoot your pistol when you just wanted to pogo. You can look up and down. You can duck. Hell, you can even select your difficulty (Easy, Normal, and Hard) and play some pointless paddle ball game.
Levels here are a bit more consistent in terms of length – you won’t have “extreme” levels like Fort Dodo or whatever in Keen 3. The actual game is pretty long, with somewhere around 18 levels, and some interesting variety – for example, you’ll find an underwater level here.
I don’t have a lot to say about the fourth game, despite playing it back in the ’90s and again this time around.
Commander Keen 5: The Armegeddon Machine
The final game of the series, The Armageddon Machine, picks up where Keen 4 leaves off. You land on a ship that stands ready to blow up the solar system, and must go through a set of levels to unlock the security door that leads to the Gravitational Damping Hub and Quantum Explosion Dynamo. And while most of the game is pretty fair, these last two levels are a giant pain in the *booper*.
I need to mention something about the last level: you only have a limited number of tries to blow up the machine, and if you fail, you get to go through the hella long level all over again. Good times.
The real question here is: is the Commander Keen Complete Pack actually worth buying?
And this is a tough one, because as good as the games seemed back in 1989-91, they’re pretty disappointing now. If you played these games way back and liked them but never got around to finishing any or all, they might be worth your time. There is one somewhat large caveat though: while this is supposed to be the “complete pack” of Keen games, there are two games missing: Keen Dreams and Aliens Ate My Babysitter.
While the first Keen is fairly straightforward, the second and third games of the original trilogy feel more akin to pulling teeth then a fun romp. They’re punishing experiences, and decidedly less fun than the rest. Games four and five are by far the most modern and “playable” but even then levels will sometimes wildly vary in terms of overall difficulty. You can, however, change the games’ difficulty level in the options menu.
For better or worse, one thing that hasn’t changed in Keen over the years is the fact that you die in one hit. There are no life bars and no mushrooms, and generally touching enemies instantly kills you. To even the playing field, the games are filled with items that give you points or extra lives, but it’s super frustrating to have to repeat levels over and over.
So you either play the games at a snail’s pace, carefully looking around and assessing any dangers before proceeding, or you jump in, guns blasting, only to get killed when you inadvertently pogo jump onto a bouncing mushroom head.