Commander Keen 5 title screen
|Developer(s)||id Software (DOS)
David A. Palmer Productions (GBC)
|Publisher(s)||Apogee Software (DOS)
Softdisk (Keen Dreams)
|Programmer(s)||John D. Carmack|
|Release date(s)||1990 (1–3)
1991 (Keen Dreams)
2007 (Steam rerelease)
|Rating(s)||ESRB: E (GBC)
OFLC: G (Goodbye Galaxy!)
OFLC: G8+ (GBC)
Commander Keen is a series of video games developed by id Software in the early 1990s. The series focuses on the adventures of Billy Blaze, an 8-year old boy who travels through space and assumes the identity "Commander Keen". The series was successful at replicating the side-scrolling action of the Nintendo Entertainment System Super Mario Bros. games in DOS. The cartoon-style platform games 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 and Quake). The games were also exciting to the PC gaming community of the time because of John D. Carmack's smooth-scrolling graphics engine. Although developed by id, most of the Commander Keen games were published by Apogee Software, an already established DOS shareware game publisher. Tom Hall is Commander Keen's designer and the creator of its universe.
Seven official Commander Keen games were released for the PC under MS-DOS. They are divided in mini-series, and are considered "episodes" of the full series. Under the Apogee version of the shareware model (the "Apogee Model"), the first episode of a series was usually available as shareware. The eighth game in the series is available exclusively for the Game Boy Color.
Billy Blaze is an eight-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.
In the first game, Keen is exploring on Mars when aliens steal four spaceship components that he must get back. The aliens are the Vorticons, a fierce dog-humanoid race that had an outpost on Mars. Keen travels through different Martian cities, and eventually recovers all the missing parts. However, when Keen gets back to Earth, he finds the Vorticon mothership looming over the planet, with its cannons ready to attack. In the second game, Keen infiltrates the mothership and has to disable each of the Tantalus Rays targeting different Earth cities. During this adventure, Keen learns that the Vorticons used to be a peaceful race, but were enslaved by the mysterious Grand Intellect.
After disabling the cannons, Keen travels to the Vorticon homeplanet, Vorticon VI. In the third game, Keen has to face the Vorticon masses in their cities, all ready to kill Keen. After fighting through many levels of Vorticon-infested cities and military installations, Keen arrives at the lair of the Grand Intellect. There he discovers that the leader of the Vorticons is actually his school rival Mortimer McMire (whose IQ is a single point higher than Keen's). In the final level, Keen has to disable the "Mangling Machine", a large apparatus with many crushing parts controlled by Mortimer. Keen eventually defeats Mortimer and frees the Vorticons.
Unbeknownst to Keen, the Mortimer he had defeated was only an android duplicate. The real Mortimer goes on to lead the Shikadi, a race of energy beings who name him the Gannalech. In episodes 4 and 5, he attempts to destroy the galaxy with the Shikadi Omegamatic, but Keen stumbles on a radio message mentioning the Shikadi plans. In the fourth game, he travels to Gnosticus IV, to learn more about the Shikadi from the Oracle. However, when he gets there he discovers that the guardians of the Oracle have been captured by the Shikadi, and are imprisoned in the Shadowlands of the planet. Keen travels through dangerous forests, caves, and islands, and is finally able to rescue all of them. The guardians activate the Oracle, which tells Keen about the Omegamatic being near completion, and reveals the location of the station, in the Korath system.
In the fifth episode, Keen travels to Korath III and enters the Omegamatic to destroy its core, the Quantum Explosion Dynamo, and stop the destruction of the galaxy. After avoiding several defense systems, Keen is able to reach and destroy the device. There he learns that Mortimer was the Gannalech, and his intention to destroy the universe is revealed. In the sixth and final episode, Mortimer has Keen's babysitter kidnapped by the Bloogs to distract him. After travelling to Fribbulus Xax, Keen explores the alien planet and saves Molly from being eaten.
William Joseph "Billy Blaze" Blazkowicz II, a.k.a. "Commander Keen" or "Keen", is the main character of the games, and the player's alter ego. Keen is an eight-year-old boy genius purported to have an IQ of 314 (a reference to π). Keen is the grandson of William Joseph "B.J." Blazkowicz (the Allied war hero of Wolfenstein 3D). Keen's parents are Arthur Kenneth Blazkowicz, a television talk show personality in Milwaukee, and Susan Elizabeth McMichaels. Keen's father changed his last name to Blaze for show biz. Keen has one older brother and one possibly younger sister, names unknown. During Keen's first adventure in Mars, one of the friendlier martian aliens, a green critter with an eye on a stalk (called a Yorp) sneaked into his spaceship and came along home. Keen adopted him and named him Spot.
The main antagonist of the series is Mortimer McMire, Keen's arch-rival at school. Mortimer is an evil eight-year-old genius, and has an IQ of 315, as opposed to Keen's 314. In episode 3, it is revealed that McMire was somewhat of a bully towards Keen, beating him up and giving him swirlies because of the latter's lower IQ. McMire wears a black football helmet. Mortimer's older sister, Molly, is Keen's babysitter.
Mortimer's main goal is to destroy all beings of lesser intelligence (i.e. the entire galaxy). In the first game series, Mortimer enslaves the Vorticons, a once peaceful alien race, and attempts to use them to destroy Earth. In the second game series, Mortimer convinced the Shikadi, a race of energy beings, to destroy the galaxy. Mortimer's next plan was to destroy the entire universe, but as the trilogy called The Universe is Toast was never created, his plans were left on indefinite hiatus. However, Mortimer had another couple of appearances: he is responsible for Keen's babysitter's abduction in episode 6 of the series, and in the Game Boy Color release of Commander Keen, Mortimer is responsible for another alien race attempting to rule the galaxy.
John D. Carmack, a game programmer at Softdisk, discovered a trick that would allow smooth-scrolling graphics in PC games, but only with the 16-color EGA graphics card. Carmack and his Softdisk colleague Tom Hall kept the technology from Softdisk and used their own time to put together a clone of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, except for the hero, which they replaced with Dangerous Dave, a character from John Romero's games for Softdisk. They called their creation Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement. After Romero saw their demo in action, he and Jay Wilbur, project chief at Softdisk, suggested that they finish the Mario clone. The team then created a perfect PC port of Super Mario Bros. 3 in a week and approached Nintendo with their creation, who declined to enter the PC market at that time, but did congratulate the team for their efforts.
John Romero was later contacted by Scott Miller of Apogee, who, after seeing some of id's work, advanced the team $2,000 for the development of Commander Keen, starting a profitable business relationship that would last until id Software self-published Doom.
The first trilogy, Invasion of the Vorticons, was completed in three months. After developing it the team left Softdisk to form id Software. However, the developers of id had a contract with Softdisk requiring them to write several more games, one of which became Keen Dreams. Keen Dreams is sometimes referred to as "Keen 3.5", "Keen 7", or the "Lost Episode", as it was never distributed by Apogee.
The sequel to Invasion of the Vorticons was supposed to be another trilogy. Episode 6 (Aliens Ate my Babysitter!) was originally planned to be part of it, along with episodes 4 and 5 (which ended up together as Goodbye Galaxy!), but was later changed into a stand-alone commercial episode. Episode 6 was actually developed before episode 5.
In Invasion of the Vorticons, the player can walk left and right on the screen, and jump to get on higher platforms. Some of these are semi-solid and can be jumped through from below. In the first game the player finds a pogo stick, which he can use for a continuous jump. This makes Keen harder to control, but allows the player to jump twice as high if he presses the jump button at the right moment. Keen keeps the pogo stick for the rest of the series.
The player will find an alien ray gun, which he can use to fire slow moving projectiles straight left or right to kill enemies. Some enemies die after one shot, some after more, and others are impervious to the ray gun. Unlike similar platform games like Bio Menace, the hero does not have a health bar. If Keen touches an enemy, he immediately loses a life. Enemies include Martians (in episode 1), and Vorticon or Vorticon-related creatures (in all three episodes). See Vorticon for details on most of the enemies. There are also several hazards in the games that will kill the player when touched, such as fire and acid.
Items found in the levels include:
The second episode introduces moving platforms which can transport Keen, and switches which usually extend bridges over gaps in the floor. Some switches are light switches which can be used to turn off the light, making some enemies afraid to jump. The third game includes a power-up in the form of an ankh which acts as a temporary god mode.
While travelling between levels, Keen is viewed from above on a map; this is the only place where the player can save the game. Some of the levels are optional and can be skipped. Episodes 1 and 3 contain a secret level which is not easily accessible.
In this game Keen does not have his pogo stick, so he cannot jump as high anymore. However, he can duck, and drop down from the semi-solid platforms if the player presses the jump key while ducking. An addition to the platforms are firemen's poles, which the player can use to climb to higher platforms, and even jump up on them if he times the jumps right. This and further episodes use a slanted 3D look for the levels.
Instead of the ray gun, Keen is armed with "Flower Power", small pellets he can collect and throw left, right, straight up, or, when falling, straight down. The pellets are used up if they hit an enemy, but if Keen does not hit anything, he can retrieve and re-use the pellet if he is quick enough. Enemies that are hit are not killed, but turned into a big, stunned flower for several seconds, the actual time varying with the difficultly level. All enemies are based on fruit or vegetables, such as: Tomatooth, Broccolash, and Frenchy; whereas the collectible score items are sweets.
Keen Dreams introduces three difficulty levels. Another improvement is that the player can now save anywhere and at any time.
In Goodbye Galaxy! and Aliens Ate My Babysitter!, all the improvements from Keen Dreams are kept, except for the "Flower Power". In these episodes the player can look up and down by pressing the corresponding movement keys for a short while. This effectively scrolls the screen up or down. Keen also has his pogo stick again. If Keen narrowly misses a jump, he can grab onto the edges of most platforms, and climb up. The slanted 3D look of the levels is used to add hidden passages in the ceiling and right-side walls. Keen can also enter doorways leading to other zones, if the player stands in front of the doorway and presses the up key.
Keen uses a Neural Stunner as a weapon, which he can fire in 4 directions, and has a faster rate of fire. It renders enemies unconscious instead of killing them. This stun does not wear off for most enemies, yet some enemies are only momentarily paralyzed by it, and it does not work on a few enemies. In episode 4, the enemies are mostly based on animals or nature; in episode 5, they are mostly robots and electrical creatures. In episode 6, the enemies are invented and alien-like.
The levels are filled with many types of items:
Episode 5 has keycards that are needed to open the final doors in some levels. Episode 6 features very large switches Keen needs to either jump on, or headbutt to use.
The level maps feature obstacles which can be overcome with items retrieved, or actions performed, in the regular levels. Episodes 4 through 6 contain a secret level, and in order to find it the player has to thoroughly explore optional parts of the game world.
The games also include a minigame called Paddle War, a clone of Pong, programmed into Keen's Wrist Computer, which functions as the main menu. (The minigame, although titled differently, can be found in Catacomb 3D as well.)
An important part of Keen games is their humor and cartoon-like atmosphere. Humorous references can be found in the characters, enemies, items, back story, locations, levels, signs, and animations. Tom Hall has stated that many elements of the games were inspired by Chuck Jones's Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century. This can be seen directly at least in two references to the Acme Corporation from Looney Tunes: in the world-map for episode two, which is the blueprints of the Vorticon Mothership, there is a small sign in the Standard Galactic Alphabet (see section below) that says "Blueprint — Acme". Also, at the end of episode four, the Oracle has the sign "Acme Oracle" written on it in the same alphabet.
Some other humorous references include the following:
The Standard Galactic Alphabet, also known as SGA, is the writing system used to depict Omnispeak, the alien language of choice in the galaxy in the Commander Keen fictional universe. The player usually first discovers the alphabet in the first Commander Keen game, Marooned on Mars, where Keen telepathically hears an alien inside a shrine say: "It is too bad you cannot understand the Standard Galactic Alphabet, human".
In reality, it is a simple substitution cipher created by Tom Hall for the Commander Keen series. Originally for Keen 1 he drew some graphics for Exit signs which he made look a bit more alien by changing the ordinary Latin letters a bit. After that he added other signs saying "hi" and "this is neat" (near rayguns), and he ended up creating conversions for the other letters of the Latin alphabet for the signs to resemble writings in an alien language. Because the texts are still in English, however, it is not an artificial script.
Besides the 26 letters, SGA uses spaces for its interword separation, and in some instances uses a ·—· symbol as a full stop. In the Keen 1 level in which most players obtain the pogo stick, a short horizontal dash above a long one appears on either side of the word "POGO", perhaps as quotation marks. No other known punctuation exists. There is also no capitalization, and numbers are absent.
Players of the Keen series that spent the necessary time could figure out SGA by looking at the many signs throughout the games. While the original Keen only has fifteen letters displayed anywhere (A, B, C, D, E, H, I, K, L, N, O, S, T, X and Y), later games have more. Keen 3 is particularly helpful, since it has a relatively large number of signs with both SGA and Roman letters.
Also in Keen 3 a sign with the complete SGA can be found in the secret level, similar to the Rosetta Stone. Another alphabet sign can be found in Keen 6 in the Blooglab Space Station level. Knowing the complete alphabet is necessary for the player to decipher a letter which explains part of the storyline at the end of Keen 5.
In addition to printed signs within levels, the SGA was found in level design features. There is a curse word hidden at the beginning of Keen 2's "Paris" level, spelled in SGA. The misspelled word "FUCL" is made of yellow platforms inside a field of red platforms.
Joe Siegler later wrote a secret message that said "Dopefish lives" in the walls of a Rise of the Triad level. The story goes that during Rise of the Triad development, one of Tom Hall's instructions to the level editors was not to "write words in the levels with the walls". Joe asked about SGA, and that idea was approved, hence the "Dopefish Lives" message in SGA in one of his Rise of the Triad levels.
SGA has not had much other official use after that, but Tom Hall invented a syllabary to create a more complex "alien" language used in Ion Storm's Anachronox. After that, id Software created a simple substitution cipher very similar to SGA for the Strogg race in Quake 4.
Invasion of the Vorticons, Goodbye, Galaxy!, and Aliens Ate My Babysitter! were reviewed in 1993 in Dragon #197 by Sandy Petersen in the first "Eye of the Monitor" column. Petersen gave the Commander Keen series 4 out of 5 stars.
A number of fan-made Commander Keen games have been created, mostly using Klik & Play, Click & Create, Game Maker and similar game construction software. The Public Commander Keen Forum has a forum devoted to the announcement and discussion of these unofficial Keen games.
CloneKeen is a game engine recreation that requires the original datafiles, and supports episodes 1 through 3. It was programmed on and off by Caitlin Shaw since 2003, and finally released on October 18, 2005. It is available for GP2X, Linux, Windows and Dreamcast. It was also ported to the PlayStation Portable in February 2006, the Nintendo DS in October 2008 and the Wii in November 2008.
In the years since the release in early 2002 of utilities to modify the levels and graphics in the original Keen series, more than fifty mods have been made. Most of these have Commander Keen as the protagonist, but some use the Commander Keen engine to develop an entirely new game. Probably the most thorough of these efforts is Commander Keen 7: The Keys of Krodacia by Ceilick, a mod of episode 4 of the series, and Commander Keen 8: Dead in the Desert by Ceilick, a mod of episode 6 of the series. The tools and utilities used to modify the games, as well as a body of accumulated knowledge of the Keen code, are still being updated and improved.
|Developer(s)||David A. Palmer|
|Release date||May 30, 2001|
|Age rating(s)||ESRB: E|
|Platform(s)||Game Boy Color|
|Credits | Soundtrack | Codes | Walkthrough|
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