Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (1991)

Name:Commander Keen in Keen Dreams
Genre:Side-Scroller Shooter
Time:1 hour 5 minutes
Won:Yes (70W/60L)

Keen Dreams is the weird entry in the series. It doesn't obey most of the rules and conventions of the series. Instead of some small scale space opera Saturday morning cartoon, Keen Dreams is a fever dream. It also represents one of the last games Id made for Softdisk, making it one of the two titles to not be published by Apogee. This is because Id technically made the original trilogy using Softdisk's resources, and this was one of the ways Id paid back that debt. Id took this time to build up what would become the general design for the second trilogy...with a few alterations, of course.

Wait, rubber cement? That sounds like a bad material to make your spaceship out of...

Taking place after the first trilogy, Keen has defeated The Grand Intellect and now is facing his worst mission yet; his mother's mashed potatoes. Yeah, he and his mother are arguing about this, and he's sent to his room. The takeaway is supposed to be "Keen hates vegetables", but I'm really just getting from this "Mrs. Blaze can't make mashed potatoes". In my experience potatoes don't really fall under the same umbrella as broccoli. The kind of people who hate mashed potatoes are not the kind of people who hate broccoli.

As he falls asleep, he's brought into a strange world with sentient potatoes, wielding spears and wearing helmets. They say he's now a slave of King Boobus Tuber and he fries them with his Vorticon Hyperpistol. Then a young boy rushes up and says asks Keen to save all the children kidnapped by King Tuber. Keen accepts and the nightmare begins. It's a strange premise, which, if the story of the series mattered much, would leave many questions.

Using flower power against a tator trooper.

Dreams's premise is thus very simple, kill King Boobus Tuber. How do you do that? Find some bombs, as many as you can. You're going to need it, because Keen's regular weapon is a weak and ineffective arcing weapon, called Flower Power, each shot transforms whatever it hits into a flower for a few seconds before turning back. This doesn't work like a typical blaster either, the flower power flies in an arc, bouncing off any walls and after landing remains wherever it landed for a few seconds before disappearing. This, combined with the strange designs of the enemies makes the whole thing a fever dream.

Outside of the first level the game is very nonlinear, you could go directly to the boss were it not for that little snag involving the bombs. Can't enter his chamber until you have 12. What makes all this weird is that because not all levels have the bombs, some places feel quite unnecessary.

Keen mostly controls well. Being used to the later 3 Keens instead of this one is kind of ruining the game. This basically plays like those would, except instead of having a pogo stick, Keen just throws the flower power. It's a bit awkward playing a Keen game without a pogo stick, especially after the awfulness that was Dynowarz. Keen's jumping feels...wrong somehow. So the biggest improvement is now Keen can shoot up, which I wouldn't have thought to do if I didn't get incredibly frustrated in The Melon Mines. And for the first time, the game now allows you to save mid-level. This is much appreciated as the game goes on.

Keen also gains the ability to go up and down poles. Down is faster than up, but you can speed things along by rapidly jumping and holding up. This was told to you in the manual of Keen 4, so it's hardly a secret, but it's not explained anywhere in this game. You can also shoot up and down. There are now keys, generic keys. All in all, the controls aren't terrible, but still feels somewhat alien to the later games. It's not primitive like the originals, just strange.

There are a few other strange pieces of the game. For instance, there's now Adlib sound, but no music. This, and I suspect an issue I have with Catacomb 3D, is that Softdisk has a strict size limit, one floppy disk or about 640k kb. This explains the rather small size of the game along with that. One little fun fact about this is that were Id's plans successful, there would be an actual song with lyrics. Just an ode telling Keen to eat his vegetables, but interesting nonetheless for the sheer balls it would take to do something like that on a floppy disk. Then we have the menus, which are strange and something I can't say I've seen before or since. It practically feels like some bizarre OS GUI.

The enemies are where this whole fever dream thing come full force, because most look like some sort of demon tormenting a child about his vegetables. They feel unsettling, perhaps that's just memories from what I played it as a child. I'm surprised nobody tried to write some mediocre creepypasta about these guys, it feels like the kind of thing that would inspire someone with more time than sense. Hey, someone wrote a creepypasta about Skittles for some strange reason!

  • Carrot Courier, these guys run around and jump over gaps and ledges. They don't harm you themselves, just pushing you around, but where they're running, there's sure to be a pit around.
  • Tator Troopers, slow ground enemies. They remain rooted on whatever piece of land they're on, walking towards you whenever they see you, and trying to stab you with their spear. Alone, not very troublesome, in numbers, good luck.
  • Melon Lips, they spit, what I guess is supposed to be seeds. Basically turrets, which normally I would have no issue with, except the aforementioned mechanics makes dealing with these guys annoying. You can't hurt them, but they always seem to be in an unshootable place anyway. I don't care for melons, myself, but I question why they're here in a game about vegetables. Not like they ran out of them, you still have brussel sprouts, turnips and bell peppers as members of vegetables people hate.
  • Tomatooths, jumping crazies. They jump around, trying to get you. Remember how I said your weapon arcs? It's not terribly annoying with the more ground based forces, but against these guys? Good luck.
  • Brocolash, like the Tator Troopers, but slightly faster. Instead of attacking you with a spear, they try to whack you with their head. Guess they're krogan brocolli...
  • Apels, these guys can climb up and down the poles. Not left and right, but this is the sort of thing that just doesn't happen. They're hostile, but because there's not much point in placing them somewhere poles are not, fairly obvious to spot and avoid.
  • Asparagusto, these guys just run. Because of the short screen view, unless you already know where one is, it's easy to get jumped.
  • Frenchy, french fries, these guys walk around and shoot at you. I might add these guys have the same reach you do, meaning you better come at them mostly level or you've had it. You know, come to think of it, why are french fries the villains in this game? What, does Mrs. Blaze suck at making french fries too?
  • Squasher, weird things, they don't leave the ground until they're sure they can jump onto you. They're not unbeatable, but they're much more cleverer than the rest of the enemies.
  • Sour Grapes, crushers, walk a certain distance from them and they fall down, before going back up. I find it amusing that in a game full of creepy enemy designs, the enemy grapes have nothing on the background grapes. What gives, Id? Also unhurtable.
  • Pea Pods, which are so rare I did not encounter the one that exists. Apparently it shoots little creatures at you, but is itself harmless.

In general the level design here really reminds me of Shadow Knights. There are a lot of levels here that are either outdoors and involve climbing up cliffs or inside a stone interior. It's not bad, but it really feels like the nadir of the team's not strictly block based games. I'm guessing what happened was this wasn't just both the testing ground for the general concept of the next Keen trilogy, but the entire game was some sort of test on what didn't quite work.

The Melon Mines are an interesting level. This is possibly the first level you'll play after the intro, at least space-wise. On the surface, it's a fairly easy level, albeit with some out of the way treasure, but this level has two trickier factors in it. The first, there are bombs here, and they're buried deep. You have to make a jump onto a moving minecart lest Keen lands on radioactive railings. This is followed by a wide hallway full of platforms, the blocking kind. Oh, and there are a ton of those tomato enemies. Which, in this tight space is kind of an annoying thing to deal with.

Spud City is a weird one. This was the first level I encountered the french fry enemies with any real frequency, and the game doesn't let up when it comes to these guys. I swear every single time these guys come up here it's done in such a way that you have no way to attack before Keen is already dead. It's a long walk, frought with these things. And that's to get to the end of the level. To get the bombs, you need to climb up one particular flying insect that looks different than the others, then do perilous platforming above the area you probably narrowly made it through.

Rhubarb Rapids, I would be remiss in not talking about one of the more annoying bomb locations. Outside of being one of those outdoor levels with waterfalls and precarious cliffs to jump on, apparently Id loved this kind of level, it's not bad. If you just walk to the exit. There's a Squasher to avoid, but that's not much trouble. But if you want those bombs, you have to jump down a cliff to get a key and then return through a jump you can just barely make. No wonder little Morpheus never had the patience to beat this game, platforming hell in addition to annoying combat. Then it's a labyrinth where you better have figured out you can shoot on poles or you're going to have an exceptionally bad time.

These things practically look like they're about to say, "Who, me?"
Grape Grove, full of sour grapes. This is one of those annoying levels. The grapes come in pairs, which you think would be difficult, but it feels more like padding. Depending on the height, it might not even be a problem, you can just walk past. When you're forced to exploit the ability of the grapes to drop, however, is when things get tedious. Because you have to be ever very close to getting hit by the grape or actually in danger of being hit. So when there are two you have to activate the first one, rush past it as it climbs back up, then activate the second. Did I mention these make a crying sound each time they activate? Thankfully the bombs on this level are basically just above the exit.

Squash Swamp. No, I didn't edit that screenshot. The game really does that to you. This level wouldn't be worth talking about if it weren't for that, on account of how mundane it is afterwards. Even the bombs are just guarded by two asparagus you can figure out are there quite easily. Then you just sort of walk over to the exit.

Interesting, that gargoyle there is an appearing and disappearing platform, something I don't think I've talked about in a game before, sadly, it's not very important here.

With that, I completed all the levels except the final castle. Which is divided into two parts. The first is a large tower climb. It's pretty good, but I do have to complain that despite seeming non-linear, you have to go pretty much over the entire map, some parts twice, because you need two keys, the only such level in the game, and one of those keys is above a steep drop to the start of the level. Hope you didn't box in all the tators there on the first floor. You better not forget both of those keys too, because the exit path is just brutal.

Eyes like an old potato grows roots, apparently.

The King himself is a terrifying creature who is capable of great leaps, chasing you all across the final level. You could be in for a truly horrifying fight, or you could just spam bombs at him when he first enters the room because you can actually do that. Assuming you have enough bombs to do that. Despite finishing all the levels I somehow only had 18, guess some levels had 6 bombs as opposed to only 3. This is the only level you can use the bombs, so no being clever and using one on a particularly annoying enemy.

I find the end of this paragraph funny, if you die or wait around long enough, Keen falls asleep anyway, such a bizarre thing.

Continuing what I said earlier, Keen Dreams feels weird and low-effort. I don't necessarily think the game is quite bad, but I struggle to think of a way to improve it without radically changing what it is. On one hand this is a fever dream in which psychotic vegetables try to kill Keen. On the other, it's a bog standard platformer with a few neat levels.

I find the difficulty curious, because outside of the gotchas the game is really quite subdued. It's either putting things to 10 or being quite standard. It's just enough to make completing the game something of an accomplishment, but not difficult for that to really make the game harder to play through than a little over an hour, apparently.

I dislike the flower power weapon on every level, from how it's aimed to how it functions to the stupid looking thing it turns enemies into. The bombs aren't too dissimilar, beyond that whole killing the final boss thing. 0/10

The variety is nice, but it feels like more than a few are just slight variations on each other. 4/10


Ups and downs aside, it works. Beneath the recycled Shadow Knights sections, I can see the Keen I really loved beneath the surface, waiting to bubble up. And even then, recycled Shadow Knights isn't the worst design choice in the world. 5/10

Player Agency:
Despite the weirdness of the not quite Keen control scheme, I mostly like this. My biggest issue is that I couldn't look down. I don't know if that's because of my keyboard not quite translating to Dosbox these days or if the game genuinely lacks one. I particularly like how I can shoot up and down, an oasis in a desert of games that don't let you do that. 6/10

Doors, I guess. 1/10

This game is weird, befitting a game with dream in the title. I'm guessing this all is Adrian Carmack expressing his disgust at working on Keen as best he can, which would have worked if the game wasn't so subdued the rest of the time. 4/10

It looks nice, but sometimes the backgrounds are extremely low effort. Ah, just green blocking my path, or endless stones that look the same behind Keen. I could have sworn some of these textures were reused in other Id games, either before or after. 5/10

It works, fever dreams are weird. 1/10

Decent, but not notable. 2/10

That's 28.

Somehow that's higher than the original trilogy. I guess that's right, but whereas the first three are an awkward attempt at trying to make a genre work on PC, Keen Dreams is just broken in places it shouldn't be broken. I guess the awkward weapon doesn't truly negate what Dreams does right.

The next game may not be covered for a little bit. I've got some personal issues going on which consume more than the usual amount of spare time and these issues affect how well I can write the rest of the time. It hasn't been a very pleasant month and this one doesn't look to be much better. I may just try to get to the end of Star Fighter 3000, which I already have some idea of how I'm going to talk about, and all that really remains is to play some of it. I want to do something for the fifth anniversary of this blog. Failing that, I think it might be interesting to jump ahead a bit and play the mod based off the unproduced sequel to this game, Commander Keen Meets the Meats.

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