In the late 1980s/early 1990s, had you rummaged through our cases and drawers full of floppy disks, you would have found a bunch of Shareware disks — they contained partial levels of games that were released free to the public. Shareware games had limited functionality and you usually didn’t know just how much of a level was available until suddenly in the middle of an awesome alien headshot, the game stopped and an ad popped up telling you to buy the rest of the game — dammit! That sucked. But much like today’s game demos, Shareware games were supposed to get you interested enough in a game to buy the full copy. In our house, that extra purchasing usually didn’t happen. But, it generally didn’t need to because of our relatives with computer connections who would happily send along tons of PC games as Christmas/birthday presents. Sometime we only got Shareware disks, and sometimes we got those AND the full games. The latter was the case with Commander Keen (1990).
Commander Keen, a side-scrolling, platform, adventure game with “cute,” little green aliens was, believe it or not, the work of id Software and published by Apogee. Yep, you heard right: id Software — that wondrous company that would later wrought DOOM upon the gaming world, started out a little more family-friendly. Commander Keen was an episodic series and we had gotten Invasion of the Voritcons (episode 1 as Shareware, then all episodes 1-3 on a regular disk). In the game, “Keen” was actually a kid named Billy who assumed his secret identity one night after his babysitter fell asleep. He fashioned a spaceship for himself out of household objects, put on a football helmet, and somehow, in a way only acceptable in video games and SyFy movies, made his way to Mars as the determined commander. It was on Mars that he first met the Vorticons, who proceeded to steal his ship parts. So the object of the first episode (“Marooned on Mars”) was to get them back. The second episode (“The Earth Explodes”) brought Keen back to Earth to save it from the invading Vorticons. And in the third episode (“Keen Must Die!”), Keen faced the Vorticons on their home planet.
You can play a little bit of Commander Keen here, and yeah, I know, it doesn’t look like much. But I cannot tell you how many hours of supposed homework time I sunk into this game. It played very similarly to the original Duke Nukem, using the directional keys and spacebar to find your way round, jump, and shoot. If anything in this game made me grind my teeth it was jumping. Judging gaps was tough and Keen was just as slippery as Mario it seemed when it came to staying stable on ledges. But there were plenty of things to find, lots of secrets in the levels to keep one busy, and enough humor in the story to keep it from being boring. Commander Keen was challenging without being overly difficult, and it was plenty addictive.
Looking back, Commander Keen had all the trappings of an old-school PC game but few indications of what id became best known for. But it was still a breakthrough game of PC gaming. It was id’s first major success. It brought the smooth side scrolling action of Super Mario Bros. to the PC, something that hadn’t really been done successfully before. Several sequels were produced (which I completed ignored because of DOOM and other deviations) and the name Commander Keen was committed to many a gamers’ memory. Even today I just noticed you can buy some of the Commander Keen episodes from Steam. Simple, clean, well produced — Commander Keen might just represent the most fun one could have as an 8-year-old with a homemade spaceship.