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Retro let's play! December 2023: Commander Keen series (1991)

Discussion in 'Retro & Arcade' started by BuuBox, Dec 1, 2023.

  1. BuuBox

    BuuBox Member

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    Retro let's play! December 2023: Commander Keen series (1991)

    To find out what this is and why we're doing it, click here.
    To nominate for a month, click here.

    Continuing the theme from last month, my game of the month for December is Commander Keen. First released in 1991, it is another classic 90s shareware title that triggers lots of nostalgic feelings and its creation is quite an interesting story. It's a side-scrolling platformer with some nice elements such as the pogo stick mechanism.

    Developed by Ideas from the Deep, the precursor to id Software
    Published by Apogee Software, now 3D Realms

    According to Wikipedia, the game's success caused designer Tom Hall, programmers John Carmack and John Romero, and artist Adrian Carmack to found id Software.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commander_Keen

    How to play?

    I found it a little confusing to work out the sequencing of the six games when researching this post, but it's as follows:

    GoG has the 'Commander Keen Complete Pack' which includes:
    Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons (episodes 1, 2 and 3)
    Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy (episodes 4 and 5)
    https://www.gog.com/en/game/commander_keen_complete_pack

    11143-commander-keen-invasion-of-the-vorticons-dos-front-cover.jpg 4847730-commander-keen-invasion-of-the-vorticons-dos-back-cover.jpg

    3803765-commander-keen-goodbye-galaxy-dos-front-cover.jpg 6899051-commander-keen-goodbye-galaxy-dos-back-cover.jpg

    There are also:
    Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (episode 3.5, in between episodes 3 and 4)
    Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter (episode 6)
    Which don't appear to be commercially available, but are on myabandonware.

    4405011-commander-keen-keen-dreams-dos-front-cover.jpg 4404814-commander-keen-keen-dreams-dos-back-cover.jpg

    28048-commander-keen-aliens-ate-my-babysitter-dos-front-cover.jpg 3934432-commander-keen-aliens-ate-my-babysitter-dos-back-cover.jpg

    Play episode 3.5 in your browser: https://archive.org/details/msdos_Commander_Keen_-_Keen_Dreams_1993
    Play episode 4 in your browser: https://archive.org/details/CommanderKeenGoodbyeGalaxy
    Play episode 6 in your browser: https://archive.org/details/msdos_Commander_Keen_6_-_Aliens_Ate_My_Baby_Sitter_1991

    Note the first 3 episodes only have PC speaker sound support. Episode 3.5 introduced Adlib and SoundBlaster support.

    I like the varying simplicity of the box art (pictures thanks to MobyGames) and chuckled at the "Makes an IBM outshine an Amiga!" on the front of the UK edition of Invasion of the Vorticons.

    To me, episode 4 is the quintessential Commander Keen (noting I don't really enjoy PC speaker sound). I never really played this on release much so am using this as an opportunity to finally play though at least one of the episodes. Like last month's Jill of the Jungle, it seems to play much better on a gamepad (the pogo stick mechanism in particular).

    Untitled.png

    I have been reading Shareware Heros by Richard Moss at the same time as writing this, and it included a chapter on Apogee and the Apogee model of game shareware (that is, have three episodes of a game and release the first one as shareware). I've enjoyed the read!
    That obviously worked out very well for all parties involved, and they would go on to create some fantastic genre defining games.

    In a bit of a time machine moment, Apogee Entertainment recently relaunched as a indie software publisher - with Scott Miller back at the helm.

    Logos.png
     
  2. CRTified

    CRTified Member

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    Gonna be real interesting to have a proper go at this and see how kind the passing of time has been to these games. I haven't truly played a Keen game since the mid 1990s - when I spent many hours playing through at least 4-6 and Dreams - and have gained so much more context of the wider gaming world since then.

    I suspect they might hold up quite well.

    Back then, always wished they went full VGA.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2023
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  3. badmofo

    badmofo Member

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    This is one of the games that comes to mind when I think about my 486 SX33 - the SMS killer that rocked my world when it appeared in '93.

    #4 is the one I played the most too - I still fire it up from time to time these days but it can be quite frustrating at times, so I haven't made it all the way through in years. I love the graphics and sound though; everything about it feels well done - the menu system, gamepad support, config options, and of course paddle wars.

    There's a great description of its development in Masters of Doom - that's a great read in general I think.

    Great writeup thanks BuuBox :thumbup:
     
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  4. baronbaldric

    baronbaldric Member

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    After playing console platformers my kid self thought this game was rough. Also my edgy self was baffled about why japanese games had robots, monsters, and ninjas and here we had to deal with cute kids, snails and candy.

    Later though I played adventure island and understood that point is pretty much moot and it’s all about the gameplay and how the entire presentation comes together.

    These days I do appreciate commander keen for what it is and am looking forward to play it with expanded knowledge about the history and with less stress about presentation due to reduced (unfortunately not eliminated) edginess and cringe.
     
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  5. FIREWIRE1394

    FIREWIRE1394 Member

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    Great game choice once again. Great write up once again.:thumbup:

    I too am keen to see how they're holding up. I would have last played one in 1998 or 1999, but never played anything after episode 3. Hope to find some time this month for classic games but it's not looking good, this has been an eye opening reminder that I should finish the keen games because they were enjoyable back then but I probably never played more because the allure of new games in the late 90's was too much. (And new games coming out in the late 90's were fucking amazing)

    When the forum has moved onto Jazz Jackrabbit (just a guess) next month, I'll hopefully have more time for keen.
     
  6. CRTified

    CRTified Member

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    I *loved* Jazz at the time, but find it a little underwhelming now. Still impressive, especially technically, but the gameplay gamut is kinda, I don't know, simple I guess, considering (to name one prominent example of genre-leading gameplay) the SNES's Super Mario World had been out for around 4 years at that point. Jazz just does not grab me much to play any more. Perhaps this is some kind of heresy?? :D if so I apologise.

    With Keen, on the other hand, certain aspects such as its big explore-y levels and its 3rd-button action (i.e. the pogo stick) arguably give the base gameplay a bit more depth or variety, despite the older graphical and sound standards.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2023
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  7. Vanne

    Vanne Member

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    Beaut write up Buubox, not a fan at all of apogee or Keen or the jazz games, they were way behind on what was available at the time on the Amiga/snes , I do however recognize their importance in establishing the peecee as a game platform, not just a business machine. I do love your write up though, that was great, and let me reminisce back to the days my mates were playing this. I’ll boot it up in a browser and have a wee go. :)
     
  8. CRTified

    CRTified Member

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    I played a few levels of number 4 yesterday. My impressions 30 years after last playing it -

    Early days yet but it seems like a genuinely good game with its own feel. As mentioned earlier, the 3 action buttons and the big levels make it a lot of fun. There is a certain highly-competent straightforwardness about these Apogee / id / &co games of the late 80s and early 90s, once you look past the arguably janky (from the POV of console and Amiga users, etc) DOS graphics and sound. They are simply fun to play, with a gentle learning curve, and ample depth. All the non-game stuff like the menus, save system, etc is very well done, good UX was always a strength of these guys.

    The music, I'm not sure, the jury is out. It's not bad by any means. Tracks are by the iconic Bobby Prince afaik, but some years before his-and-id softwares huge Doom boom. I am only a few levels in so perhaps some good tracks are coming up. But, again AFAIK, people reminiscing about Keen games don't tend to be naming too many music tracks as their highlight. It seems to do the job.

    The controls, ... the controls. I am playing on a retro machine. Going back to keyboard, with right hand on arrow keys, and left hand on Ctrl-Alt-Space, is not one of the kinder parts of DOS nostalgia. Like others have said, it will be much better with a gamepad. I will set up a modern gamepad to run on the retro machine, as a recent PicoGUS update gave the ability to use some models e.g. DS4, in DOS.

    I will probably finish 4, then see about the rest. The background graphics remind me of Dangerous Dave 2 (for obvious reasons) and I wouldn't mind playing that again too.
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2023
  9. OP
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    BuuBox

    BuuBox Member

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    Thanks for the kind words. :)

    It is interesting comparing Commander Keen type titles to SNES (and even Amiga) releases.

    I see these shareware releases as more hobbyist products than a commercial product, even for the Apogee and Epic MegaGames releases (at least the earlier ones).
    The development time for the original three episodes of Commander Keen being a few months of after hours and weekend work.
    I would think just about any SNES release would have had much longer development times with dedicated teams and bigger budgets.

    From Wolfenstein 3D it was a bit different, having more dedicated resources.

    I was more into SNES gaming at the time - I only even bought these sort of releases when the boxed full version was $10 in the local bargain store. Wish I'd kept a few... :lol:
     
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  10. Growth

    Growth Member

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    This was one of the first PC games I played, it's games like this, Cosmo, major striker, duke that make me collect the retro gear I do today.
     
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  11. Kafoopsy

    Kafoopsy Member

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    I played Commander Keen 4 a lot as a kid. Loved it. I remember finding the secret level accidentally one day. That was awesome too.
    There is a very active community that makes custom mods of Commander Keen. Loads of custom levels and entire custom episodes. Someone in that mod community has made the unofficial 'The Universe is Toast' trilogy of episodes 7, 8 and 9. They were a bit buggy when I played them last but they were good.
     
  12. bluebright

    bluebright Member

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    Keen dreams scared the crap out of me as a kid. Something about that episode was just so weird...also you couldn't kill anything, it all came back to life eventually!
     
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  13. CQGLHyperion

    CQGLHyperion Member

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    Commander Keen. Now that is a true throw back to my younger years.
    Captain Comic was another.
     
  14. OP
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    BuuBox

    BuuBox Member

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    It's funny, The Adventures of Captain Comic was actually my first choice for retro game of the month because it was so influential and the origin of many games.

    I played it a little, but found it a bit basic and settled on Commander Keen instead. I do like games with at least Adlib sound!

    Untitled.png

    I did enjoy that the planet is called Tambi (IBM AT backwards) since the game was developed for the PC AT. :leet:

    If anyone is keen to take a look: https://archive.org/details/msdos_The_Adventures_of_Captain_Comic_1988
     
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  15. Flamin Joe

    Flamin Joe Member

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    It's not just that, the PC was designed from the begining to be a business computer so the hardware being developed was just for that purpose. It was solely up to game developers whether big or small to work with the restrictions they had and find new ways to use the hardware outside of what it was developed for. While just a small developer themselves, Apogee did just that when John Carmack developed a side scrolling technique used in the Keen series later called Adaptive Tile Refresh which quite cleverly took advantage of some features introduced with EGA Graphics.

    The Amiga and especially the NES were designed from the ground up for their multimedia/gaming capabilities so you could argue developers had an "easier" time from the get go creating wonderful looking/sounding games. I know I'm extemely biased because I grew up in the IBM PC world (my first IBM PC being an XT compatible back in 1989 with EGA Graphics), but I marvel looking back at what the developers back then managed to do with a business PC, equally so with what has been done in more recent times on CGA no less with the 8088 MPH demo.

    I'm thankful to developers like Apogee that along with countless others pushed the boundaries of what these business PC's were capable of and helped get us to where we are today.

    Back in the day I actually played the Keen series before I did Captain Comic as it's just the order I managed to source them in. Playing Captain Comic after Keen (and the early Duke Nukem's I should add) really felt like a step backwards as I was just so spoilt with what Apogee produced, also the interface looked very dated although to be fair so did the original Duke Nukem to a degree. Probably was the very moment I became a graphics snob. :)
     
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  16. BurningFeetMan

    BurningFeetMan Member

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    Captain Comic was the bomb when I was a kid.

    I recall buying Commander Keen pack either on GoG or Steam a few years ago. After briefly playing, I recall being disappointed with how it had aged control-wise, and not really enjoying the experience that much.
     
  17. DonutKing

    DonutKing Member

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  18. luke o

    luke o Member

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    Love this series growing up... very essence of retro these days :) I don't feel old.
     
  19. simontifik

    simontifik Member

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    Some kids had Mario, some kids had Sonic, some of us had Billy Blaze! Fun fact: Billy Blaze is the grandson of BJ Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein and Doom Guy is a distant descendant of Billy.

    Loved these games as a kid. We somehow ended up with shareware versions of every episode of Commander Keen (maybe some piracy going on there). We used to get loads of shareware from SME Shareware in Mitcham, Vic. Anyone else remember this place? They were a 'shareware library', they'd regularly mail out a catalogue of what they had and would sell floppies with shareware on it. That's how I got my hands on all the Apogee games.
     
  20. mitty

    mitty Member

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    Love Keen. Probably one of my first PC gaming memories, along with Leisure Suit Larry and Roger Wilco (Can Leisure Suit Larry make a massive comeback please... the world needs more of him). I recently found an Xbox Game (I play it on Xbox One) called Neon Abyss which is very Keen like in it's graphics and monsters etc.

    Love these Retro threads.
     
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