Retrospection: Commander Keen
Back in the heady days of the early 1990s, John Romero, Tom Hall, and John Carmack got the idea in their heads to try to recreate Super Mario Bros. 3 in a PC environment. When the idea was eventually turned down by Nintendo, the three took the idea in a different direction, making their own side-scrolling platformer, a science fiction romp across alien worlds. Commander Keen was born.
For those of us who started down the road of non-portable gaming with a PC, Commander Keen was our Super Mario Bros. The series stars one Billy “Commander Keen” Blaze, an eight year old scientific prodigy who blasts around space in a homemade rocket with a jury-rigged raygun saving the galaxy one weird level at a time. Seven Keen games were made in the span of about two years and then no more, save a poorly conceived attempt at a revival on the Gameboy Color a decade later.
So Keen was lost to the ages and to memory, until being rereleased on Steam in 2007. But when it comes to platformers, there’s a lot to be seen in Commander Keen, and a lot to be taken away from it when it comes to looking forward in design of games in its genre.
GOODBYE GALAXY, HELLO FREEDOM
The three latter games in the Keen series, particularly the two in the “Goodbye, Galaxy” story (4 and 5) are the most telling of some of the forward-thinking aspects of the series. In preparation for this article I replayed Secret of the Oracle specifically, and something that really grabbed me about the game in retrospect is how open it is. When you compare it to the Mario games of its time, there’s a strong lack of forward structure to it that makes the game a lot less of a defined progression through levels. Aside from the first two levels and those locked behind the wetsuit, the levels in Secret of the Oracle can be approached in any order, and there’s no clear indication given by the game of even an intended order in which the player is meant to approach them.
For the time, this was huge. The Mario games of the era were still very much locked in a pure level progression, even though Super Mario World had begun to add some extra exits and branching paths into the equation. The idea of a game like this, a platformer without a strict level progression, existing in the year 1991 is enough to make my head spin. You finish the second level and you’re opened up to the entire world map to explore, with only cryptic hints and a few decoded signs to give you any pointers on what’s lying around the corner.
And the overworld itself isn’t the only thing with a peculiar structure. The game’s levels are highly vertically oriented in many cases, often requiring the player to ascend up into the air or descend through a series of caves in order to find all of the keys necessary to achieve the goal. Carmack’s eventual progression into Wolfenstein 3D and Doom is evident here; levels are not a simple left->right progression, and it creates a remarkable sense of verticality and size to the levels in two dimensions. An innovation that is key to this is the addition of a pogo stick, which Keen can use to jump even higher at the cost of much of his jumping precision and control. The pogo stick adds a choice element to the platforming, requiring the player to analyze whether the jump is doable without it, or if it is necessary to undertake the risk of using the pogo stick in order to reach new heights.
On top of that, the levels are filled with hidden stuff. I still remembered most of the secrets from when I was a kid, but I also remember scouring things back then for hidden items and powerups. There are entire levels hidden behind secrets only achievable by carefully studying hints in the instruction manual, for God’s sake.
Keen was an early testament to the power of nonlinearity in games of varying genres. While Nintendo was still making games about getting from 1-1 to 1-2, Carmack, Hall, and Romero knocked out a series of seven platformers in which the player decided what was the third level and what was fourth.
Of course, it does show its age at times. There’s a lot of wonky hitboxing issues and some really frustrating choices when it comes to certain platforming points that cause success to be contingent upon luck more than skill. The open endedness can be a bit of a double edged sword as well, as some levels are just there solely to be completed, and don’t contain the mission-critical Oracles that lead to victory once assembled. The problems are what they are, and most of them are just relics of that age.
Secret of the Oracle and the other Keen games are a charming premise founded on solid gameplay and some interesting open world exploration mechanics that are still relevant in modern games of today. What’s there in the package on Steam is more than just a time capsule back to a forgotten age of PC gaming; it’s a look at what innovation really meant and can still mean in games today.
The majority of the Commander Keen anthology can be bought on Steam for $5. Aliens Ate My Babysitter and Keen Dreams, however, are lost to time for the present.