Platform, Action, Adventure
December 14, 1990 (Episode 1: Marooned on Mars)
I once read an article where a professor of game design (Christopher Totten) introduced the concept of “Nintendo Power moments.” These are the bits of a game that a classic issue of Nintendo Power would point out in a level guide. In other words, they’re particularly tricky or otherwise memorable moments.
The Commander Keen games concern themselves with this concept most of all. You’ll find tons of Nintendo Power moments in all five episodes present in Steam’s Commander Keen Complete Pack—that’s Episode 1: Marooned on Mars, Episode 2: The Earth Explodes, Episode 3: Keen Must Die!, Episode 4: The Secret of the Oracle, and Episode 5: The Armageddon Machine. That’s two complete series: the first three make up Invasion of the Vorticons, while Episodes 4 and 5 form Goodbye, Galaxy!
That’s all well and good, but these games focus on memorable moments to the exclusion of pacing and progression. Levels become a hodgepodge of really cool scenarios.
Before I move on, I should mention that I’m focusing on Goodbye, Galaxy! in this review. Invasion of the Vorticons has similar design sensibilities, and everything here still applies to it, but Goodbye, Galaxy! is more focused and refined.
Anyway, in the Keen games, those Nintendo Power moments are the products of two things: a flimsy player character and simple but effective enemy AI.
Keen himself dies in one hit. Even if he steps in something as innocuous as alien slug feces, he’s a goner.
He does have a gun for self defense, but it has limited ammo, and there’s always a delay between him drawing the gun and actually firing it.
His pogo stick—activated and deactivated with a single button press—is also a mixed blessing. While the pogo lets Keen jump higher, it also reduces the control you have over his momentum. Normal jumps are more precise. I should note that Keen’s jumps hold a lot more momentum in
the original trilogy, Invasion of the Vorticons, making control much more difficult.
And the bad guys won’t go easy on Keen, either. Enemies are often aware of your presence and react to it (in Goodbye, Galaxy!, anyway; not so much in Invasion of the Vorticons). Large gray robots charge Keen upon sighting him, while little rocks take a more tactical approach and only bound after Keen when his back is turned to them.
The combination of fearsome foes and not-so-fearsome Keen makes the experience a tense one. And, much like a good survival horror, most of the fun is in the tension. If you want to make progress in Keen, you’ll have to take things slowly and look before you leap.
You might die quite a bit, but the tension is relieved in one of two ways: 1) when you kill the enemy and successfully move on in the level, or 2) when Keen dies and falls offscreen with a funny sound effect while clutching his gut.
In that sense, the aesthetic approach here serves as a quirky counterpoint to the gameplay. Enemies look absolutely goofy. Pictured above is the Dopefish, a gigantic fish that swallows Keen in one bite. In principle, he’s a terrifying enemy, but he’d hardly frighten anyone based on looks alone.
Bobby Prince’s soundtrack lends a hand as well, providing tunes that range from upbeat to downright strange. For instance, when Keen heads in to unlock the elevator of the Armageddon Machine, he’s accompanied by a pleasantly funky tune known as Make it Tighter. If you only know Mr. Prince from his work on the Doom games, you’re in for quite a surprise. Unfortunately, the original three episodes are without music, though they do take advantage of the good ol’ PC speaker for sound effects.
The encounters themselves are strewn throughout sizable maze levels. You’ll have to collect colored key cards to open doors and move on to the exit, which involves a decent amount of backtracking. Luckily, enemies never respawn, even when you leave a room, so backtracking is a relief. Going forward through an area is an uphill battle of taking out tough enemies, but going back, you’ll only find dead guys. It does a nice job of breaking up the action.
The mazes themselves range in quality, but there’s always some theme to navigating them. One particularly memorable level is an ice cave in Episode 4, which you explore like a pendulum. The stage is shaped like a U. First, you start at the bottom, then you go up and explore the right half of the U. From there, you go back down, then up to explore the left half of the U. You’ll swing between halves of the U until you collect the final key card. No other stage is quite like it, since Keen’s mazes find a good variety of structures.
The thing is, there’s nothing holding the clever enemy encounters and the clever mazes together. As you move from one enemy to the next, you won’t find any sensible progression. The foes keep you busy while you blunder about each level, but they don’t stand together in any way (aside from the fact that they’re in the same level).
The image above shows one of my favorite encounters from all of the Keen games. Robo Red, the enemy pictured, is a giant invincible death machine, and this is one of the coolest encounters with him, since there’s no easy way around him—you have to jump over him, just skimming his head. Despite how well I remember the encounter, when I went back to get this screenshot, I couldn’t remember what level it was in. While no two enemy encounters are the same, they also feel indistinct in the sense that they don’t seem to belong to any level in particular.
In part, this is because the games play it conservatively with their elements. Within any given episode, from level to level, you’ll see the same enemies time and time again. In general, I’m a fan of this, since it lets the levels explore the subtleties of each enemy. Even though you see the same enemies pop up in each level, each encounter is unique by way of either the combination of enemies, the use of terrain, or both. It is a double-edged sword, though, in that it’s harder to make unique levels. Some games can pull it off; Commander Keen doesn’t.
That said, I like that you can save at any point you want inside the levels of Goodbye, Galaxy! Since levels are sequences of unrelated encounters, it only makes sense that you can save between each encounter. Granted, this lowers the tension considerably, so my only advice is to be careful not to save too often.
On the other hand, Invasion of the Vorticons only lets you save on the world map. Aside from Episode 3, this setup isn’t as frustrating as you’d expect, since the levels are short enough.
Speaking of the world map, Keen games often let you go to any stage you like right off the bat. In order to clear an episode, you typically have to clear certain levels, but more often than not, you’ll be able to play those levels in any order you like. This cements the feeling that there’s no sense of progression; it doesn’t matter what order you play the levels, so long as you play them all.
Luckily, progression between episodes works much better than the progression inside each level.
The original trilogy, Invasion of the Vorticons, has a typical progression. Episode 1 keeps things simple, Episode 2 introduces some nifty puzzle elements and rougher enemies, and 3 is the longest and most intense of them all. Unfortunately, Episode 3 is also a little frustrating with its long levels. It’s also possible to enter a no-win situation in some levels.
The second trilogy is more interesting in terms of progression. While Goodbye, Galaxy! is supposed to be its own two-episode series, it works well as a trilogy with Episode 6, Aliens Ate My Babysitter, which is unfortunately not included in Steam’s Complete Pack.
Episode 4 has a big world map to explore, complete with some light adventure elements. Also, even though Episode 4’s enemies put up a fight, they don’t compare to Episode 5’s. Episode 5 is hard and fast, featuring ruthless enemies, fewer levels, and no adventure elements. You’re also shuttled forward to a certain extent, since you often need to complete levels in a set order.
Episode 6 serves as a denouement, with an open world map and adventure elements to rival Episode 4, as well as easier enemies than Episode 5’s. Episode 5 is the intense and gooey center of the trilogy, while Episode 4 is the setup and Episode 6 is the cooldown.
I’d call the Keen games a compelling experience, even if all the parts don’t fit together perfectly. At the very least, you’ll get some scary enemy encounters in some thoughtfully-structured mazes.
Keen and his enemies are a perfect match for each other; enemy AI in the latter episodes is often effective, even if it’s simple. Even in the earlier episodes, enemies do a good job of killing
In the latter episodes, mazes are great at sticking to a navigational theme.
The graphics and music of Goodbye, Galaxy! are really charming.
Being able to save at any point you like in Episodes 4 and 5 makes
them accessible regardless of your platforming skill.
Even though individual enemy encounters are well-considered, there’s no sense of continuity from one encounter to the next.
Some of the puzzles can be too obtuse, especially in Invasion of the Vorticons.
Two Keen games are missing from the Complete Pack: Keen Dreams and aliens Ate My Babysitter.
Commander Keen saw seven releases in its short lifespan, not counting the Game Boy Color game. Which episode is your favorite?