A keen commander shows the gentler side of id Software

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, episode 1, opening screen (source)

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.

The green ones - they're Voricons, just in case you were wondering.  I don't recall what's up with the lollipops... (source)
The green ones – they’re the Vorticons. And I don’t recall what’s up with the lollipops… (source)

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.

Yes, an ice level. Yes, it was as awful as any ice level. (source)
Yes, an ice level. Yes, it was as awful as any ice level. (source)

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.


  1. I never played this game, but it is interesting to see what games companies made early on, with this being the same company that made “Doom”. Very different games, I imagine. It reminds me of how I found out that the awesome company that makes the “Ratchet and Clank” games also made the original “Spyro” games, and I found out that my beloved “Illusion of Gaia” was made by Enix, one of the companies that later became Square Enix. And this positively dreadful “Porky Pig” game was made by the same company who later made the wonderful game “Vexx”. I find such things to be quite interesting, the different kinds of games companies make over the years.

    By the way, why are Martians always green? And why is it always Mars? Why not get marooned on Mercury for once?


    • Mercury is much maligned, isn’t it? I imagine its too-close proximity to the sun has something to do with it, but still — imagine the amazing sunrise! I don’t know where the idea of green aliens on Mars originated, but the notion works well in Commander Keen. For some reason, I can’t picture an 8 year old in a football helmet fighting little red aliens on Mercury. But that’s just me.

      The evolution of companies and their games is really interesting. All great things have to start somewhere, right? I’m not entirely sure how id Software made the leap from little green aliens to blood-spewing demons, but apparently it was the right thing for them to do. Also, I had no idea that any of the Looney Toons characters had their own video games! I know they’ve had some success in resurrected forms, but they really belong in the first half of the 20th century.


  2. Definitely always wanted to try this, both because it’s interesting as an early id game and it’s cool to see how platformers played differently on the PC. Didn’t know it was on Steam, will keep an eye out for it during the next sale.


    • Would love to know what you think if you get a chance to play it. For a young platformer, it played really well, had a fun story, and stood its own among PC games.


  3. Honestly, I think the main reason that I enjoyed Commander Keen was that it was for PC. Our family literally didn’t own a console until the Xbox 360, and by that point I was in college. But we had Chip’s Challenge, this one Magic School Bus Space Game, and Commander Keen.


    • I’ve not heard of Chip’s Challenge, but I remember the Magic School Bus – my friends had one of those games, and we used to play it at her house. At a certain point, I was playing PC games way more than console games, mainly because we just had so many more PC games to play. Plus, it was a great way to escape from my siblings — no multiplayer!


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