Before Rage, Quake, Doom and Wolfenstein, there was COMMANDER KEEN. That’s right, from id Software, the same studio which pioneered one of the most prolific, controversial and bloody genres (the first person shooter), and gave us characters like the nameless Marine from Doom and BJ Blazkowicz, came Billy Blaze – the eight year old genius who created an interstellar spaceship (the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket) from old soup cans, rubber cement and plastic tubing, and who lives a double life as Commander Keen: the Defender of Earth, dispensing galactic justice with an iron fist!
I love these games. These were amongst the first that I ever played (and which prompted me to learn how to navigate the DOS operating system on my dad’s 486). They are simply great fun, and looking at them now, clearly influenced what I think games should be about. These know they are games and the emphasis throughout is squarely on fun: the visuals are vibrant; the gameplay is challenging; the cast of creatures are eccentric.These included friendly, one-eyed Martian Yorps, Scottish aliens, and the timid Foobs that are so scared that if you touch them they pop like a balloon.Then there were Meeps – a jovial race of aliens who sing so badly the sound is lethal – Mad Mushrooms and the meme inspiring Dopefish). There are points to collect (or, often as not, to die trying to collect) in order to get on the high-score board, and a secret language (I spent a day learning how to read it, then annoyed my family for years by writing their birthday cards in Standard Galactic Alphabet). The levels are tied together on a non-linear world map; and there are secret areas, reachable by strange and unusual means (the Loch Ness Monster, for one) and fun cheat codes. The stories read like they could have strolled out of a Calvin & Hobbes ‘Spaceman Spiff’ comic; there are rayguns, and, my personal favourite, the Martian’s Holy Pogo Stick. Also, episodes 4 and 5 feature a game within a game – the addictive Paddle War, accessible from the main menu (which is Commander Keen’s super futuristic wristwatch computer).
Games today like to make a big song and dance about how difficult they are (something which seems to have been a feature ever since Dark Souls came along). Don’t let the Commander Keen series’ appearance as simple side-scrolling platformers fool you: they are as tough as nails and in terms of game design, gameplay and difficulty, Cuphead is a logical evolution of these games. The Keen games feature limited lives, no health bars (one hit is all it takes), lethal traps (ranging from spike pits to dart throwers) and a raft of denizens ranging from those that would simply push you around (and often into traps), to invincible monsters which would inexorably hunt you down.
I distinctly remember feeling a huge sense of satisfaction and achievement when I managed to beat the final boss at the end of Keen Must Die! Also, each episode has at least one memorable level which will sear itself into your memory (whether it’s that dratted maze from Episode I or the wishing well filled with evil Sprites, floating mines and hungry Dopefish from Episode IV).
Though you mightn’t guess it at first glance, Commander Keen also showcased John Carmack’s flair for graphical innovation (for which he would later become famous), featuring the first smooth side-scrolling graphics which had the ability to scroll both forward and back in levels. id initially tried to sell the technology to Nintendo but were turned down (so now you know why the screen can only move in one direction in the early Mario games).
Considering that Doom, Wolfenstein and Quake are all enjoying revivals, one can only hope that Keen will be resurrected too, but until then, all episodes of Invasion of the Vorticans, and Goodbye Galaxy are available on Steam for a mere $5 USD. There’s hours of genuinely great, old-school fun here. ■