Friday, January 20, 2023

Commander Keen: Episode 1 (1990)

Name:Commander Keen in "Invasion of the Vorticons" - Episode 1: Marooned on Mars
Developer:Id Software
Time:1 hour
Won:Yes (59W/56L)

If PC gaming ever had a mascot, it would be Keen. Despite having only 4 or 7 (depending on how you consider the episodes) games over a short period of time, Keen shifted the landscape of PC platformers from slow and annoying fair to something rivaling console titles. Its arguable that every platformer on PC owes something to this game, and its certainly true in the '90s and '00s.

The story of how this came to be is pretty well worn, and I'm not going to say anything new. While working for Softdisk, the boys at Id made a fancy, smooth, side-scrolling engine that they sent to Nintendo. In their only act of mercy, Nintendo doesn't sue the hell out of them, and just tells them to knock it off. Scott Miller of Apogee calls them up asking for a game, and the rest is history.

The story of the game is fairly simple. A child genius dons his football helmet and becomes Commander Keen, savior of the universe! Using a spaceship he cobbled together from household goods (mother isn't going to miss her vaccum cleaner) he goes to Mars. While he goes off exploring, the Vorticons have stolen key parts of his ship and he has to get them back together.

I'm playing this in the Commander Genius sourceport, akin to Zdoom, for the Keen games...and Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure. This is nice, but to a certain degree breaking intended parts of the original game if you want it to. Its buttery smooth, at least as much as the game will allow, and my viewport is completely ideal. I'm sure there'll be chants of heresy, but I've beaten this twice, I don't mind making my third a little fancier. The sequel episodes...are interesting, and we'll get to those when we get to those.

The game takes place in two sections, an overmap, in which the player moves around and selects his stage. By activating Keen's spaceship, he can see what he needs to find. Also, the one issue I have is here, in which the border is overwrited by the item sprites. Entering a stage is as simple as pressing the jump button near a settlement. There's some non-linearity as the map opens up. Some areas are required because they're in the way, others are required because they have important items, but others are optional, and only serve to offer up points and ammo.

Keen is controlled with the arrows for movement, the ctrl key for jump, the alt key for pogo stick, and space for shoot. Okay, its space for shoot in sourceports, originally, you had to press ctrl and alt together. This is a problem for modern games which are run in OSes that dislike you pressing the ctrl and alt keys. You can redesignate any key, of course, but that's what I'm used to, so that's what I'm going to use.
The first map is a pretty good intro to the game. It gives you some time to get used to Keen's unusual jumping physics, because you kind of have to work to find yourself against a real threat. Pressing jump doesn't jump, not right away. You get a delay. Its deceptively realistic. You get very little air control, but if you time things right you can pull off jumps others might think of as impossible. Keen, however, cannot jump down, so any climbs are one-way. But as long as you're walking on a floor that has a missing tile, you can climb back down. Enemies work the same way, for good and ill. Trust me, Id knows how to be annoying here.
You don't get your gun right away, you need to find ammo for it. Its simple rules, left or right only. Enemies here are basically non-entities, these simple green guys can be jumped on, stunning them and they only push you. They don't kill you like most other enemies. You have to be in a bad spot for them to be a threat to you, be it pushing you into a deathtrap or a pit. Shooting them, as I've done, is a bit of an overreaction. Later enemies will eat up shots from this thing. Other items are basically points, outside of the odd key.
Each level is exited via a convention door marked by an exit sign. This is the basic loop of the game, avoid touching enemies, don't fall down and get points just in case. Simple, but effective.
There are also these short mini-levels, where you get messages and items.
The second level I reached introduces quite a few of the game's more annoying enemies. Firstly, the gray robot. These guys slide along platforms, and unlike most others, they don't jump or fall off the platform. They're annoying to get past, but an effective hazard.
We also get these guys, the bigger version of the little green guys. They can kill you, but they can't jump. Getting on the same floor as them causes them to rush towards you. They're mostly ineffective, usually when they guard something important you can easily dodge them, when they guard something like points, well, you don't really need those.
Then we have these guys. These barons of Mars. These are the vorticons, and they're a pain. They take four shots to disable, jump around like maniacs and aren't even bothered by locked doors. I actually died and came back to this level later because of this guy. You really have to motor when they approach, and they guard the exits to a lot of levels. The most effective method of dealing with them is to simply never fight them at all. Because they walk around and have a decent jump height, most barriers keeping them in aren't very effective. As long as you aren't in a location they'll walk to, you can simply stay on the same screen as them and wait for them to leave.

The rest of the mechanics merely add things. Keen gets another life every 20k points, which is slightly pointless in a game with a save system. Really soon in, possibly before you reach the second level, you can get a pogo stick, which about doubles Keen's jumping distance. Press the alt key and the pogo stick activates, causing Keen to jump continuous. If you jump as the stick touches down, you can get about double usual jumping range. Press the pogo stick again and it deactivates. Mastering this is key to mastering Keen's platforming. Or just speeding up navigation.

The last regular enemy in the game are these robot tanks. They're one of the more annoying enemies. Touching them isn't a problem, they just push you, but everything else is. They function a bit randomly and can't be killed. They shoot, then turn around, but when they shoot is quite random. This makes dealing with them in some situations pure luck.

That's more or less the lot for the light side of Mars. More hazards, like a tile you can walk over but not touch the bottom of. Level design is simple and doesn't offer a lot to talk about. Its a bit non-linear, but in the end, the level exit is somewhere on the right and you're going there. Doors you need to find a key for add a bit of back and forth, but its not as tedious as Catacomb was. This simplicity works, although you'd be hard pressed to remember the specific details of a certain level later on.
Then you travel to the dark side of Mars. The ice side. You know what that means, ice tiles. I can't say I've ever blogged about a game that contains those, but you probably know the drill. Ice tiles are slippery. And since one of the two ways of killing you is pushing you into deathtraps, the game naturally takes advantage of this. Ice tiles come in two varieties, ones that carry momentum and ones that simply remove your control until you leave them, either by falling off or jumping. One particular section I liked was when you had to deal with these in addition to gray robots dancing around. It was just for points and didn't truly get dangerous, but the thought counts.
There are also these cannon things, hazards rather than real enemies. They shoot a constant barrage of snowballs. The problem isn't these things as much as the noises they make, which quickly get on my nerves whenever they're on-screen. I don't remember how bad this was on PC speaker originally, but I'm sure it was horrendous. In theory its something you have to be careful of, but in practice I found I always got past the thing easily.

Then we have a giant maze. Unlike other levels of this nature, it works. It doesn't feel like a similar Wolfenstein 3D level would, annoying and tedious. This is down to the ability to actually see and deal with threats in such a way that I can actually react to them in time. Its that, combined with how surprising good the platforming feels, even with something as simple as climbing an area, that makes it work.

The final level does a very good job of being grand and then just feels disappointing. If you've kept more than a couple of shots before now, you can just travel to the final boss, a special vorticon, and shoot the block above his head. Then you walk past him to the ending. Even if you go through most of the level's content, its just a small amount of points with very little in the way of tricks impeding your progress.
Huh, I won in about an hour. I died a bunch and its not like I remembered what I played very well. Come to think of it, I definitely beat it the first time within a single afternoon too. Even within the realm of shareware, this feels...short.

A straight-forward ray gun. 1/10

A nice balance of enemies, ranging from mostly unimportant threats to terrifying foes. 5/10


None of the levels will stick out for very long in my mind, but they're fun, they're short, and in general they work well. 5/10

Player Agency:
Keen's movement is deceptive. At first he seems very clunky, but as you grow to use him more, you realize how much of a cleverly designed character he is. Commander Genius helped in sanding off the rough edges with visibility and not having to press multiple buttons to shoot. 6/10


Keen, above all else, has a very fun atmosphere. Its simple and effective. Its just a lot of fun to play and its short run time means failure never sets you too far back. 5/10

This game isn't very attractive, fitting the mental image many of us have of the EGA era as ugly. Its not distracting at least. Commander Genius improves this a little but not by a noticeable amount. 2/10

Simple, not terribly important, but provides enough reason for some levels to be optional. Not that you know these levels are optional in advance... 1/10

Some simple but effective PC speaker sounds brought down by some very annoying usage of them at times. 1/10

That's 26.

Befitting its more secondary status as a shooter, its done slightly worse than expected.

That was the first Keen episode, short but sweet. As a shareware title, perfect, priming you to want to play more of it. The question is, do the followup episodes work? We'll see.


  1. I remember playing this in the early 90s and not being impressed. I was much more impressed by Jill of the Jungle, Gods and Duke Nukem 1 which were released maybe 1 year later but which I played at the same time.

    1. That makes sense. Keen 1 more or less set the standard on the DOS platform, and later games had to live up to those standards. I think even at the time I thought that Keen 1 felt primitive compared to Keen 4 and Jill. Its something I've only learned to appreciate in retrospect, considering that PC side-scrollers feel like a bit of a wasteland before Keen hit the scene.