Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Commander Keen: Episode 2 (1990)

Name:Commander Keen in "Invasion of the Vorticons" - Episode Two: The Earth Explodes
Developer:Id Software
Time:2 hours
Won:Yes (60W/56L)

The shareware episode of Commander Keen is a beloved classic, generally spoken of in pleasant tones. Nobody much talks about the episodes you had to pay for in contrast. One could simply argue that because the first episode was free so more people played it, which is true, but Apogee made a lot of bank on the series at the time. Surely someone should have something nice to say about the commercial episodes.

Firstly, a good deal of what I have to say is the same as in the original you should probably read that entry if you haven't already. Why is this its own entry instead of an addition to the original? Well, let's just say I think its a good idea for each game to have its own level category.

I think the background there is a Commander Genius issue, should be black
Continuing from the last game, Keen has gone to bed after returning home, and after he's sure his parents have fallen asleep, goes back to outer space to stop the vorticon mothership. A surprisingly similar setup would be used in Keen 5, which I remember more of. Straight down to the open ship layout of the map.
The first level starts the player off small, a simple level with one of the new enemies and a lot of points. The new enemy is some kind of red thing that sticks to whatever surface its on, it merely moves you as it walks into you. Its not even as powerful as the gray robots from last time, jumping doesn't even shoot you away from the thing. You an even walk on them.

But make no mistake, I think as I load up the second level, which may very well be one of your later ones, this gets hard. I say as I have to deal with a flying robot tank and a horde of vorticons at every turn. Except that the flying robot is easy to predict and the horde of vorticons now die in one shot. What gives? Well, I dunno about the former, but the later is explained in-game as a combination of these vorticons being posher, no, not a joke, and Keen using a better weapon. I forgot to mention, but Keen scavenges his weapons from Martian/vorticon forces throughout the first trilogy, its in the second trilogy he builds his own.

Now the only issue with vorticons is that they jump, which depending on their location isn't much of a problem. While the robots look and sound menacing, they constantly move in one direction even as they unload their designated four shots. As a result, the first few levels I played were considerably easier than later levels.

I know what they were trying to create, but the elites just look silly

The first sign this isn't all going to be a simple points hunt is when I enter a level that doesn't seem like it has a path forward. So I walk around the points, trying not to get the little red guys out. Then I realize two things, point items prevent them from moving, and you can use them to climb to places you couldn't otherwise. That's genuinely clever, I wasn't expecting that kind of puzzle here. Id isn't generally the kind of company to exploit their engine like that.

Then I encounter two new enemies, a small blue thing that runs around. The wiki tells me these are vorticon youths. They don't hurt you, but they are annoying. Then we have the elite vorticons. These take the place of the regular vorticons from last time, but these shoot at you and only take 3 shots to kill. The vorticons here are guarding devices that are about to take out important Earth monuments. And they put the guy you have to take out in a really annoying place. I couldn't do anything to him.

So I think to myself maybe there's something I can do here to get past this guy. Firstly, I notice some interesting things regarding enemy behavior. Firstly, the youth tells to find himself outside the boundaries of the level if you leave him to his own devices. Not sure if that's an issue with the original game or the port. Secondly, sometimes the flying robot here stops facing a wall. Thirdly, if you shoot the elite vorticons, they stop jumping around. That last factor is very much a problem, because it prevents you from attacking it. Really, this is the first time having an extended view has done me wrong. Finally, enemies can shoot each other. I'm sure this was a factor in the original, but here its very noticeable.

This is actually the first time one of these levels has given me difficulty, simply because of how long it takes to set up this confrontation and the constant losses. I even take the chance to beat two other levels. Eventually I win, but it doesn't feel like I did it right, since I just run past the elite vorticon. This is the start of a theme going on with my victories in this game.

Then we come to the armory, a level that allows extensive exploitation of the way the game's engine works. See, whenever you die, you're spit out to the map screen, and everything in that level is reset. In most levels, this bears no thinking about, you could get enough points to farm lives, but that'd be an incredibly tedious process and you might very well run out of ammo. In the armory here, you can very easily farm enough points for another live, and get enough ammo to make up for the high number of enemies you face here. Its not even a question of getting to the level exit, the game just plops it in the upper right. But actually trying to seriously play through this level feels like cheating.

There's also a vorticon elder who functions like the statues in the last game. This one tells me that vorticons don't jump in the dark. I guess the intent with the switch from a few levels back was to help me solve this, but one of the few flaws in Commander Genius is that things go completely dark and thus its more dangerous for you to try it this way.

They can't even reach this area!
In-between attempts at beating that level I take on a different one. Its a curious design, because you have a downstairs area where the only possible threat to you is from a monster from above falling on you; And an upstairs area where there's close to a dozen vorticons and robots. All for a very low point reward. At the end there's another machine which is guarded by a half dozen elites. This would undoubtedly be a fraught battle if I wasn't given enough space to jump over them. Its not like you get points for killing them, its just for bragging rights. This becomes a consistent theme throughout the later parts of this episode.
The game tries to recapture the magic of the first game's maze, to some mild success. I wouldn't have anything to talk about if it weren't for a vorticon elder telling me about the Grand Intellect, which is apparently an Earth creature that somehow got brainwashed to lead the vorticon fleets. I'm not sure what exactly is going on with this plot, this isn't the kind of game I would expect to reveal a true twist, but it implies I should try to stop the brainwashing somehow and not kill it.

Optional areas continue to be the game's real source of difficulty. Its strange. This final armory level was a nice, big maze that felt equal to the one in the original, and yet it was completely pointless. By this time I already had more shots than my screen could display, so it wasn't like I needed the ammo. The biggest source of ammo was in a hard to escape from room on the right, which you need to travel across multiple moving platforms to reach. And I just couldn't get away from it. Meaning despite my skill at the game, there's still something missing.

Friendly fire seems to work on Doom rules, they'll never hit each other
And then this level happens. Yeah, that's 5 elite vorticons in front of a death ray and thus the exit. No way for them to get out of my way. Once again this is only a problem down to my use of extended game resolution. In proper resolution, you just walk around to the back of the area they're in, shoot the machine, and hopefully get out of the level without incident.
All those red glowing tiles and the ones with electrical current? You can't touch those
The final level. Yes, this is as difficult as this looks. Its very much possible, but because of the quirk the game has involving Keen's jumping, you can't really dodge laser attacks. Meaning trying to dodge is a terrible experience. Tedious, but possible is the motto of the level. Trick some enemy to stay outside of your reach so you have a chance to shoot them. Carefully jump around so you don't fall or land in some electric device. Exploit the AI of some enemy. I don't feel like I won this level as much as I got lucky.
Aren't these guys sentient?
Anyway, after this, we get an ending cutscene in which Keen now has a pet Yorp and muses about his plans to deal with the vorticons on their home world of Vorticon VI.

Same as Keen 1. 1/10

The game gets a lot of mileage out of what amounts to four enemies. Using them generally in clever ways. But there are still only four enemies. 4/10

In a sense, the little red robots are very much something that works with you rather than against you. The times they worked against me were honestly as much as the times in other games where real, proper allies also would have. So, kudos. 1/10

Up until that last level, while I didn't have anything bad to say about the game, I did feel like the game was just kind of there. The last level felt like an exercise in tedium that puts a damper on the whole thing, and I played in a sourceport that made things easier. Playing the original engine would have been a nightmare. 3/10

Player Agency:
Same as Keen 1. 6/10

You get a few switches you can press throughout the game, using the pogo stick button. Few of them do anything interesting though. 1/10

For the first half, things were fine, but having to replay some of these levels felt tedious, like work. I wasn't replaying these levels becaues I genuinely got caught, but because the game needed to be longer. 1/10

Mostly same as before, but those elite vorticons look silly. 2/10

I feel more confused than interested in the twist that someone else is guiding the vorticons, but don't really have strong feelings about it one way or another. 1/10

About the same as last time. 1/10

That's 21.

While Keen's debut game sort of felt like more than something I could rate fairly here, this one was very much one of those DOS games that bore you to tears as you try to play it. This was not a game that should make you repeat levels as much as you'll probably have to. And musing to the future, that's very much on-point with a lot of shareware DOS titles from this era. The sad thing is that even with this padding it didn't take me that long to finish this.

I just realized I didn't check reviews for the last title. That's okay, since its what started off the PC platformer trend you more or less know what you're going to get out of it. And now looking at reviews there doesn't seem to be much depth here. And for the most part, people paint this with the same brush that they would the original. If you're a PC gamer this is the best game ever, if you're a console gamer this is undignified trash. Otherwise my assessment isn't too far from everyone else's thoughts.

In the meantime, I really want to take a break between this episode and the third. Episode 3 is where most of my reservations about this trilogy come from and I want to be nice and ready for it.

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