Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Commander Keen: Episode 3 (1990)

Name:Commander Keen in "Invasion of the Vorticons" Episode 3: Keen Must Die!
Developer:Id Software
Time:1 hour 30 minutes
Won:Yes (62W/57L)

I've been dreading this episode. I've already played most full versions of shareware games I enjoyed back in the day. Those from Apogee and Epic MegaGames to more obscure ones like Traffic Department 2192. I probably couldn't tell you very specific things about them, but from this point in time I could tell you what I remember liking about them. Except this one. I don't remember this one. I played it, and it went in one ear and out the other. But I do remember an internet friend who was going through these games saying the level design in this was spectacularly bad.

Last time we left off, Keen saved the Earth from the Vorticon ship's death rays. After once again returning home, he sets out to the Vorticon's homeworld, to ensure it doesn't happen again. Its funny, basically the only real threat to humanity in this game's story is Keen's bedtime. As Keen arrives, the Vorticon's Grand Intellect issues an order, Keen must die. I'll get to the overworld later.

I wonder why no parent groups ever went after Id for this...

Now if you saw the previews in Episode 1, you know by now that Keen goes through some Vorticon homes in this episode. That means a lot of them. Time to take out some Vorticon grannies. Not a joke, and they're the toughest enemy early on. They aren't fast and don't jump around, but they shoot. Sometimes, and they take four shots to kill. That means this first level has a tight grip on ammo. Also, in addition to the regular Vorticons and the Vorticon children, you have these small things that run away that you can jump on. Rounding out the enemy roster are these green dudes, whose attack can go through walls I think. They're easy.

Its kind of weird, the game Id made with the biggest grasp on realism is a game taking place on an alien world. Nice little houses, underground bunkers full of rooms. It kind of feels wrong in a regular platformer. I also encounter ninja Vorticons. However, because the game gives me a shield I don't discover how hard it is to fight them until later. Yeah, there's a shield now. They're not that hard unless they get the drop on you, since they don't jump around that much and have no range attack. Honestly, these early levels feel deceptively easy for the impression I've been given of the game. After the first few levels I just don't have problems with ammo anymore.
I guess if I need this later I can always come back here.

Apparently the big advertised feature of the game was that you could learn the Galactic Standard Alphabet and decipher messages you found in the first two episodes. As such there are things like this around. I think a lot of games later on referenced this, but its not something I find interesting enough to care about. I do find it amusing that Kill Keen is important enough to be written in a classroom. This is definitely no Saturday morning cartoon.

The first real troublesome level is this one. A deceptive level. Starts off innocently enough, a single Vorticon and some children bouncing around. Then you get presented with two paths. Despite appearances these don't lead to the end. The lower path is just full of Vorticon grannies who will have long killed their children by the time you reach them. Your reward for killing a half dozen enemies? A paltry amount of ammo! I should explain, compared to the last episode where you got more ammo by picking up weapons, here you can also get single shots of ammo from these weird purple power-ups. You can also shoot enemy shots.

The real path is just through a mazey apartment building. Some sections seem like a real challenge to get through, while others depend slightly on luck of the draw. A glitch, one I suspect added in by Commander Genius, causes the grannies to sometimes get stuck in an attacking state, meaning that if you touch them, you're killed, and you can't hurt them. Which is a problem since their presence blocks further passage in such cases.

Then we have this one, an endurance level through and through. Its only saving grace is that you won't run out of ammo and its optional. I suspect most people never finished this level. You are presented here with three holes in the ground, each one further down than the last. This isn't a one-way trip, you can get out of the first one, and the other two have one-way doors that lead there. You need to go to that first hole anyway, because there's a key down there. The problem is this requires more precision than the game is capable of doing. You are expected to be able to jump over death tiles where the place you jump from and the place you land on are one tile wide. It feels dangerous even if I rarely fell.

But that's just the first part of the problem. Next, you have to climb up an area full of turrets. Its only really annoying at the beginning, where platforms keep getting in your way. Platforms don't kill you if you're under them, but jumping up to them doesn't work and instead you have to hope that when they crush you, you're placed on top of them. Then there are some Vorticon children above some water. As I haven't mentioned it since they appeared last time, they knock you out, a process which causes Keen to jump up. There are moving platforms here.

The final section, by contrast, is relatively easy, just some regular Vorticons, red balls and a new enemy. The red balls I haven't mentioned before because they just bounce around, and slightly move you whenever they touch you. You can't shoot them, and they haven't really been notable. The new enemy, on the other hand, functions like the Vorticon children, except it kills you. At this point its just an endurance level.

I hate this level. I hate it. Here's how it works, you have to go across several sections, each of which the game can, entirely at random, just decide you lost. And that's just a cherry on top of an already difficult sundae. Increasing the game size might have made some previous levels impossible, but here its impossible otherwise. Even if you were to finish it, you'd basically just be save scumming your way through it. The day I tried to finish it my patience was completely gone, and since it was an optional level, I just left it.
I hate this level. Its awful. This is just the starting area. The blue things kill you if you touch them, while the gun and the lamps all shoot laser blasts. One might make the usual comparison to I Wanna Be the Guy, or some other infamously hard game, but those are all designed around those games being hard. Keen is a random platformer which suddenly has insanely difficult levels which seem to revolve around split second timing in an engine that is quite clearly not designed for what the developers are trying to do.

At first I prepare myself for another slog, even if I know I'll give it up later. But no. Its a straight shot. Instead most of the area is blocked off by two doors. Huh. Well, there's no consequence to me for not exploring. There are a lot of these green guys on this level, which are called Meeps. They shoot through walls, but are otherwise harmless. I say that and they're so dense down in the lower sections that I couldn't get past them to the second exit.

Meanwhile, somehow a level absolutely filled with ninjas is not the hardest level. Far from it, I breeze through it. It works weirdly, because sections that would normally force you to restart, since the ninjas are trapped in some area or another, are passable because this level is also generous with ankhs. What the heck is this difficulty curve? Even discounting the wild difference in levels, this game is weird.
The map to this game is bizarre. You have a dozen teleports, which link up in confusing and strange ways. And outside of that, its possible to just miss large swaths of the game. Being generous, five levels are necessary to win the game, possibly as little as four. However, the game has one thing I do like, the secret level requires you to pay attention. There's this dinosaur swimming across all the oceans, and you have to climb on it to get to the secret level. Its tricky to get the location and timing right, and you need to press the jump key to ride it. Savescumming is practically encouraged, because missing it means you have to wait a while.

The secret level is basically just a points and ammo grab in a nice little, mostly safe, cave. Unfortunately, since this is the second to last level, by the time you've gotten here points and ammo are basically pointless. Its a nice thought though.
There is some awkwardness in how this game is depicted at higher resolutions
The final boss, or the Grand Intellect the game has been hyping up, is Keen's rival and bully, Mortimer, who has an IQ of 315 compared to Keen's 314. Or at least this is an android duplicate. Its a simple boss fight, shoot each of the glowing spark things and the robot dies. At least in theory. Obviously, touching any of the moving parts hurt you, and those green things shoot at you, plus the top two platforms have laser guns trained on them. But that's not that bad. No, what's bad is that this level seems to easily glitch, making it unwinnable.
There's so much wrong with this picture
Eventually I win, Keen saves the day, freeing the Vorticons from mental enslavement by Mortimer. The Vorticons that Keen didn't kill thank him for saving them, and Keen gets an award and the game ends.

Same as Keen 1. 1/10

More or less the same concepts as last time, with a few slight variations around. 4/10


This just feels poorly balanced. So much of the stuff here that's difficult to beat is made entirely optional, while by the end of it I had enough ammo for anything. I wasn't even trying to exploit anything, the game just feels poorly thought out. 2/10

Player Agency:
Same as Keen 1. 6/10

Back to just doors that disappear when you have the key. 0/10

The setting is nice, and while the action has issues, feels nice. 3/10

I think the levels look somewhat better. Not great or anything, but they're better looking than the previous two Keens. 3/10

Its intriguing to see a bunch of dialog screens pop up when you enter a level. Well, the first time. Mostly just what you'd expect. 2/10

Same as Keen 1. 1/10

That's 22...somehow.

A disappointing end to the trilogy. Some of these levels I genuinely hated. That said, I guess in comparison to the second episode, there are parts I enjoyed. Keen 2 just felt boring in a lot of places, while Keen 3 has parts I really hate and parts I like. In a way, this game is clever, because you don't ever have to interact with the bad parts of the game. Outside of people who genuinely like the bizarre difficulty of it.

There will be some delay before Keen 4, as that's where Id's first FPSes come in.

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