Billy Blaze, eight-year-old genius, working diligently in his backyard clubhouse, has created an interstellar starship from old soup cans, rubber cement and plastic tubing. While his folks are out on the town and the babysitter has fallen asleep, Billy travels into his backyard workshop, dons his brother's football helmet, and transforms into...
Commander Keen - Defender Of Earth!
In his ship, the Bean-With-Bacon Megarocket, Keen dispenses Galactic Justice with an iron hand!
So begins the adventures of Commander Keen, one of the greatest computer game hits created by ID Software. Combining early Buck Rogers-esque stories and environments with many modern sci-fi elements (and tossing in a tongue-in-cheek comedy style that allows the game to have appeal to a wide variety of players), this game series has produced eight episodes1 over the years.
Staying one step ahead of most other major video game producers at nearly every step, the games are still played by a loyal community of fans today. Though the early games may appear quaint when compared to today's standards, we should remind ourselves that there is well over a decade between the advent of modern computer graphics and most of the other games in the series.
The Invasion Of The Vorticons Trilogy
The Invasion Of The Vorticons serves as a suitable introduction to the young space hero. The first of these three games was released as shareware and is still available as such at various locations online, while the other two can still be purchased from some vendors.
Episode I: Marooned On Mars provides a task for Commander Keen that seems challenging enough2. The Vorticons from the distant planet of Vorticon VI have apparently learned of Commander Keen, and have decided to destroy him for some as yet unknown purpose. While Keen is taking a quick trip to Mars just for the fun of it, the Vorticons arrive and steal four vital parts from his spaceship: a joystick, a car battery, a vacuum cleaner and Everclear from Billy's dad's drinks cabinet3. Each part was taken by a Vorticon to some location on the planet. Keen's task is, of course, to retrieve the four parts and take them to his megarocket, battling the Vorticons if he has to, and repairing his ship so that he can return home before his parents do. On the way, Keen encounters Yorps4, Gargs5, Martian robots6, and, of course, Vorticons7. Unlike the games that are to follow, Keen needs to find a pogo stick and some charges for his raygun before he can use either of them.
Episode II: The Earth Explodes occurs just after episode I ends. After Keen manages to repair his ship he quickly heads to Earth, only to find a Vorticon Mothership looming above, ready to destroy the planet. Stopping home just long enough to prevent his parents from suspecting anything unusual8, Keen charges up his megarocket once again so that he can sneak on board the mothership and destroy the eight Tantalus Rays that are aimed at Earth. While each individual ray carries enough destructive energy to destroy the planet, they are specifically aimed at eight different cities: London, Cairo, Sydney, New York, Paris, Rome, Moscow and Washington DC. Fortunately for Keen, he searched the last Vorticon that he battled with and found a more powerful ray-blaster capable of shooting down a standard Vorticon with a single shot (unlike the four shots he had to use before). Unfortunately, however, the Vorticon Mothership is home to more than just the Grunts that he faced on Mars: this ship houses the Vorticon Elite, specially-trained Vorticons that carry their own ray blasters and guard the more secure areas of the ship (such as the Tantalus Ray chambers). Each of the Vorticon Elite takes three shots to destroy, so defeating them is not an easy task considering that they can jump and run faster than the normal Vorticons9. Other inhabitants of the ship include Vorticon Babies (who aren't lethal but can still wear Keen down so much that he needs to sit for a quick break), Vorticon Elders (older Vorticons who lived before the current government and are eager to give Keen important information if he can locate them) and robots (some non-lethal robots who simply walk and can act as a mobile block and others who are deadly to the touch and fire four quick laser blasts from their gun whenever they feel like it). Keen has to tread carefully in this game, for if he dies so does everyone else on Earth10. This episode also reveals an interesting piece of information regarding The Grand Intellect, the Vorticons' evil ruler, for those who search the levels thoroughly.
Episode III: Keen Must Die! occurs on the morning after the events of episode II when Commander Keen returns to Earth after destroying the Vorticon Mothership and sending it limping back to its home world, Vorticon VI. Upon learning that it is a snow day and that school is not in session, Keen decides to travel to Vorticon VI to unravel the mystery of The Grand Intellect. However, he arrives to find that The Grand Intellect has instructed every Vorticon on the planet regardless of age, gender or occupation to destroy Commander Keen at all costs! The standard Vorticon Grunts that were featured in the first two games are still present, as are the Vorticon Babies. However, Keen must also contend with the other residents of the planet such as the Meeps (jovial aliens who may be the worst singers in the Galaxy), Foobs (extremely easily-frightened aliens), the VortiNinjas (the most feared and heavily-trained fighters in the Galaxy, capable of jumping higher, further, and more accurately than other Vorticons, and taking four shots to destroy11), and Vorticon Women (who are non-lethal at direct contact, but can breathe fire and can not be destroyed by any less than five shots12. The game concludes when Commander Keen faces The Grand Intellect in his tower in a battle between Keen's single gun and The Grand Intellect's massive Mangling Machine13!
Episode 3.5, as some people refer to it, is a game that is entirely unrelated to the rest of the series 14. The story behind this game is an odd one: Billy, having recently returned from Vorticon VI, is eating dinner with his parents, but refuses to eat his vegetables. After muttering an unheard remark, he is sent to bed without dessert. Shortly afterwards, he wakes up to an unpleasant surprise: he and his bed have been transported to the top of a hill, where he finds himself confronted by two potatoes wearing helmets and carrying bayonets. He quickly learns that the evil ruler of vegetables, Boobus Tuber, is in possession of a device called The Dream Machine. This machine allows him to kidnap children while they sleep and force them to be his slave labourers. Quickly escaping from the guards, Keen begins searching the land of Tuberia15 to find a way to vanquish King Boobus Tuber and his hordes of bloodthirsty vegetables, destroy The Dream Machine and free all of the children from slavery.
The gameplay in Keen Dreams is different than in any other Commander Keen game. It's worth noticing that this was the first Keen game to introduce the use of poles that Keen could climb up or slide down. However, this game also refused to allow Keen to use either his Vorticon Blaster16 or his pogo stick17. Wearing his pyjamas and helmet, Keen instead battles the vegetables by finding things to throw at them. Most of the vegetables can be temporarily stunned by tossing a 'Flower Power' device at them18. However, when it comes to Boobus Tuber, Keen will have to use the few bombs that he has found scattered around Tuberia, hoping that he has enough firepower to stop the giant potato.
The Goodbye, Galaxy! series was Commander Keen's second series of games. The creators had wanted to do another trilogy simply because trilogies tend to sell better than two game sets. However, they were only able to do a two-game series. These games offered much better graphics than the first series, allowing for animated backgrounds and more lively monsters, something that some Nintendo games were still grappling with.
Episode IV: Secret Of The Oracle hurtles Keen into his next dazzling adventure. While listening to a photachyon transceiver that he had just invented in his backyard clubhouse, Keen manages to pick up a strange message that informs him of a race of aliens named The Shikadi who intend to destroy the Milky Way and remake it in the name of some entity called The Ganelech! Keen can't pick up any more information that would help him determine just where The Shikadi are or how they intend to destroy the Galaxy. Sensing the urgency, Keen rushes to his megarocket19 in order to fly to the planet Gnosticus IV where several Elders who owe Keen a favour20 guard an Oracle capable of informing Keen of the Shikadi's current whereabouts. However, once he reaches Gnosticus IV he learns that the Shikadi have beaten him there, kidnapped the Gnosticene Elders, and taken them to The Shadow Lands, a very dangerous part of the planet inhabited by dangerous creatures such as poisonous slugs (who are both deadly to the touch, and leave a trail of deadly slime), Berkeloids (creatures made of fire that can hurl blazing balls of fire at Keen if he comes too close), Arachnuts (insane crab-like creatures with two mouths that can't ever be truly rendered unconscious through Keen's neural stunner), Dopefish (the second-dumbest creatures in the Universe, whose only thoughts are 'swim, swim, hungry, swim, swim, hungry...') and others! There are also harmless creatures such as Princess Lindsey (an occasional giver of hints), Inch Worms (who, if you don't tread lightly will soon be afoot), Bounders (red bouncing balls that seem to consist of joy and happiness, even when you stand on them to reach higher places) and, of course, the Gnosticene Ancients (eight of whom have been transported to some of the more dangerous levels around the Shadow Lands). This game features a return to the Gun and Pogo Stick, and introduces music to the levels, courtesy of composer Bobby Prince. For those who choose to wait a bit before resuming the main game, they may play Paddle-War! on Keen's wristwatch, a game that is actually little more than Pong tilted 90 degrees21.
Episode V: The Armegeddon Machine begins shortly after Episode Four's end with Keen hurtling through the Galaxy to find the Shikadi! According to the Oracle, they were building a gigantic Armegeddon Machine called The Omegamatic that, if detonated, would be capable of destroying the entire Milky Way Galaxy. Keen, upon reaching his destination, is able to sneak in through the Ion Ventillation System where he begins his quest through the machine in an attempt to destroy it. He soon finds his progress blocked by a lift that will only open if four guardian machines are destroyed: The Brownian Motion Inducer22, the Neutrino Burst Injector, the Energy Flow Systems and the Regulation Control Centre. Destroying these machines will lead him to the top floor of the Omegamatic where the detonation device, the QED23, awaits, daring Keen to destroy it if he can figure out how. Along the way, of course, Keen has to grapple with a wide variety of enemies that want nothing more than to see him dead, such as Sparky (a robot that performs basic guard duty and is willing to charge at Keen if he sees him), Robo-Red (an indestructible guard robot with a blaster who likes to shoot first and ask questions later), Sphereful (a plasma orb with crystal spikes orbiting it that slowly tracks Keen down) and Lil' Ampton (a normally harmless menial droid, but he can easily push Keen to his doom, or kill him if he gets onto the same pole as Keen). The Shikadi are also present, of course. The majority of the Shikadi are energy beings who make travelling on the poles a problem, but they've also brought along Shockshunds (three-legged energy dogs whose bark is literally worse than their bite) and Shikadi Masters (very dangerous energy beings who possess the ability to teleport around and hurl energy spheres at Commander Keen). Should Keen succeed in destroying the Omegamatic, he will come across a note in the Standard Galactic Alphabet24 that, if he could only translate it, would make the intentions of the Shikadi much clearer ...
Aliens Ate My Babysitter!
Episode VI: Aliens Ate My Babysitter! begins when Billy Blaze discovers that his babysitter, Molly McMire, has been kidnapped by the Bloogs of Fribbulous Xax and are planning to make a meal out of her25. Knowing that his parents will never believe that aliens came all the way to Earth purely in order to eat his babysitter, Billy once again puts on the football helmet, warms up his Bean-With-Bacon Megarocket and sets a course for Fribbulous Xax to rescue her.
One interesting note about this game is that it was actually created before Episode V: The Armageddon Machine and as such feels a bit unusual continuity-wise. By now, Keen should have remembered to translate the mysterious note that he found in the OmegaMatic, yet he is still surprised when he hears the surprise ending that this game has in store for him! It's possible that Spot, his pet Yorp26, ate the note upon returning, though this isn't ever really stated or explained. People will also note that when this game ends, it claims that the next series of games, The Universe Is Toast!, will be out be Christmas in the year 1992. However, it wasn't until much later that any more games in the series were produced.
The Universe Is Toast! Or is it....
This was meant to be a thrilling trilogy where Commander Keen faces his old rival The Grand Intellect in a battle for control of the entire Universe. The story sounded interesting, but even more impressive were the details about the game production. The game's creators had, quite some time before Nintendo came out with their first 64-bit system - way back when 3D graphics were still the cutting edge of technology - figured out how to make graphics that would still seem respectable by today's standards with an engine not unlike that of Mario 64. However, the company that held the rights to Commander Keen was not keen on allowing the next game to be made and the technology had been on the market for a few months by the time that they were willing to listen. This still didn't prevent Keen from making another appearance later on, however....
The Eighth Episode
Keen Kicks Butt is a title that some have given this game, though the box clearly says no more than 'Commander Keen'. What was so unusual about this game that meant it could get away with that simple of a title? Unlike the other Commander Keen games, this one was not released for a home computer. Instead, this game was created for the Gameboy Color, introducing new players to the character. This game feels like a 'stand alone' episode that can't truly be considered a continuation of the story that began in Marooned On Mars, switching around some of the game continuity. For one thing, The Omegamatic is now a 'legendary' device instead of one that was simply created by the Shikadi. Also, the Dopefish who are natives of Gnosticus IV in Secret Of The Oracle are now seen as inhabitants of Fribbulous Xax, the planet from Aliens Ate My Babysitter! However, aside from these minor inconsistencies, and the fact that enemies must now be shot and bounced on with a pogo stick before being truly defeated, this game manages to work along the same lines as the earlier games.
The plot is simple: three alien races that Keen has tangled with before have joined forces to destroy him: The Bloogs of Fribbulous Xax, The Shikadi27 and The Droiddicans of Droiddicus Prime28. Also present is Mortimer McMire, his arch-enemy with an IQ that is exactly one point higher than Commander Keen's.29 These three alien races, organised by McMire, have reactivated the Omegamatic, and taken the three components necessary for shutting it down to their respective bases! Keen must travel to their three worlds and confront The RoboBloog, The Droiddican Emperor, and The Shikadi Overlord for these three essential components.
Keen's world has always been fairly straightforward and easy for players to access. All of his games have taken place in a simple two-dimensional side-scrolling/platform-based environment30. In this aspect, it did not differ greatly from games such as Super Mario Brothers 3 for the Nintendo.
While the gameworld has nearly always stayed the same, the amazing graphical details for the background evolved over the course of the series. From the plain grey backgrounds of the original Trilogy, you'd never expect the intricate, animated backgrounds that games such as Episodes 5 and 6 offer.
The gameplay for the Commander Keen series is simple and has remained consistent throughout nearly the entire run of the series. In general, these games allowed the player to redefine which keys did what (for those players who, for some reason, found the initial controls to be too difficult to handle). The only real exceptions to the standard game play controls came with the Gameboy Color game, which sported a different interface than the common household computer, and Keen Dreams, where Keen lost his ray gun and pogo stick, relying instead on his ability to throw things.
The controls featured, for the most part, arrow keys to move Keen with, a button for jumping, a button for using Keen's pogostick, a button for shooting and a 'pause' button that would show a status screen with Keen's score, remaining lives, ammo, location, and quest status. In the first three games, the default for shooting was using the jump and pogo buttons simultaneously (the Ctrl and Alt keys, for those who didn't change them). However, in later games this was simply changed to a single key (the spacebar) as some found it difficult to hit two buttons simultaneously.
Sound and Music
The first three games were inferior to much of Nintendo's work at the time when it came to sound. Using only the PC Speaker to generate simple sound effects and brief snippets of music, the absence of any true music speaks for just how good the gameplay must be, as fans still came to play Keen's games.
An attempt was made to change this with Keen Dreams. Music and sound effects were planned and while the PC Speaker option was still available for people who wanted it, the soundcard could now be implemented with the game. However, time ran out for the game's composer, Bobby Prince, so only the sound effects could be implemented.
Bobby Prince would return, however, for Keen's next three games. In Episode 4, Prince created whimsical music, tense music and relaxing music for Keen's levels, be they in forests, hidden caves or glass cities. Episode 6 had similarly executed music, providing catchy themes for the fans to enjoy while Keen manoeuvred through the homeworld of The Bloogs.
However, in Episode 531, Bobby Prince went above and beyond in the creation of several different (primarily Jazz and Blues oriented) themes for Keen's exploration of the OmegaMatic. Had The Universe Is Toast! been produced as planned, Bobby Prince would have surely surpassed even this work.
Points Of Interest
There are some generic features and running gags mentioned in the various games. These are generally explained fairly well within the games themselves, but the references on the Internet may confuse the outside observer.
The Standard Galactic Alphabet has been a Commander Keen staple ever since the first episode, appearing in every game except for Keen Dreams. The majority of the signs written within the series are written in this strange alphabet that may take some people time to decipher. For those who don't care to translate from what they know of the obvious signs32, Keen players who enjoy searching and exploring may enjoy finding the translations for the languages that are cleverly hidden away in Keen Must Die! and Aliens Ate My Babysitter! Others may cheat and look it up on the Internet, but where's the fun in that?
Secret Levels pop up frequently and appear in the majority of the Commander Keen games. There are secret levels hidden in Marooned On Mars, Keen Must Die!, The Secret Of The Oracle, The Armageddon Machine and Aliens Ate My Babysitter! for those who enjoy levels that offer lots of points (and generally somewhat greater challenges).
Sugar Stoopies is Commander Keen's favorite breakfast cereal. This comes up once in a while during the game's backstory and was even an item worth 2,000 points in The Armegeddon Machine.
The Dopefish has already been mentioned but bears mentioning again. Of all the referenced aspects of the Commander Keen series, this may be one of the most popular. The moronic buck-toothed expression of the monster, merged with its description as having thought patterns that only go 'swim, swim, hungry, swim, swim, hungry...', captured the interest of fans across the Internet, provoking a good amount of virtual shrines. The Dopefish continues to be the most recognisable facet of the entire Commander Keen franchise, making secret appearances in video games and TV shows from time to time. For a full listing of such cameos, and a bit more information on the fish of fame, head to The Well of Wishes @ dopefish.com.
The Impossible Pogo Trick was originally a fluke of the game's design that allowed Keen to go higher with his pogostick than originally intended. Once discovered, this trick was accepted by the game's programmers who even mentioned it as a form of 'special move' that Keen used. This move involves pressing the 'jump' button as Keen is bouncing on his pogostick, especially effective if Keen can hit the button before bouncing in the air even one time. This move is very useful for reaching those hard-to-reach treasures.
Bosses33 are existent in the Commander Keen games but generally not referred to as such. The Vorticons of the first game, Marooned On Mars, due to the fact that they only appeared at the ends of levels essential for completing the game, could be considered bosses, though the second game, The Earth Explodes, featured even more powerful foes more frequently who aren't considered bosses so much as they were considered to be dangerous. The third game, Keen Must Die!, really only had one boss at the very end, The Grand Intellect's Mangling Machine. Keen Dreams featured Boobus Tuber in a more traditional boss-like atmosphere but the games Secret Of The Oracle, The Armageddon Machine and Aliens Ate My Babysitter! don't have any to speak of at all. The Gameboy Color episode of Commander Keen featured three more traditional bosses: The RoboBloog, The Droiddican Emperor and The Shikadi Overlord. Aside from these last three and Boobus Tuber, few modern gamers would really refer to the other examples as true videogame bosses.
What else is there?
Commander Keen fans have had their own community on the Internet with websites ranging from messageboards to game walkthroughs to fanfiction and fan art archives. A popular pastime among many of the members of this community is to create new levels and/or mods34 of the previously existing games. At the moment the majority of these levels and mods are based around the first three games, though there have been some recent breakthroughs for episodes IV, V, and VI that may soon change that.