Backlog Slog – Commander Keen

Back in the days of DOS, Apogee and id were Kings among game makers. In 1990, a fun and goofy game for a younger audience was released, titled Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons. Because this was a time where long titles were also King, and especially episodic freeware and shareware content was the easiest way to distribute and buy games.

I can’t entirely remember when I first played the game, but it was the 90s and I was very young. Probably 4 or so at the time. And it was that magic of just being given a CD with a compilation of games, scrolling through them and never being bored that was somehow magical. Among those games, was the story of a kid, his spaceship and a trip to Mars.

I remember playing not only this, but the entire series a lot at the time. And then one day, I put it down, never touched it again and that was that. Twenty years later and I’ve decided to myself, well, why not try again? Especially with the re-release on Steam meaning all the games, among other id classics, are available easier than ever. So I spent the money, downloaded it and set to work.

A little background, not that it’s needed because this is the early 90s when DOS games weren’t really known for their story. Commander Keen’s real name is Billy Blaze. He’s an average kid, left to his own devices in his backyard. What does he do? Immediately build his own spaceship out of old cans, sets off to Mars, and has some aliens steal all his space ship parts in an attempt to destroy him. Or something.

The reason why this game is such a big deal, besides being an early id title from John Carmack and John Romero, is that it was doing something never before seen on DOS. Carmack had developed an engine that would allow for side scrolling platform games, which was previously something thought exclusive to consoles. He quickly put this engine to work, initially developing a DOS version of Super Mario Bros. 3, which Nintendo knocked back, and the rest is history.

The game was released in three episodes which were… All pretty much the same thing. It was simpler times. It was easier to be entertained. But essentially you go from level to level, doing platforming things, moving left to right, jumping. That kind of thing. It’s also slow and awkward as hell because, again, DOS. Simpler times. The player can also get a pogo stick, which allows longer and higher jumps, and a ray gun, which allows… Ray gun things. Shooting, and the like.

It might not sound much, but as previously stated,it was revolutionary at the time and the start of an amazing career and business in id. It wasn’t long before the game was raking in $60k a month, when previously their games had only brought in an average of $7k. In short, this was a piece of gaming history in the making.

But does it stand up today? Not really. It’s absolutely still charming to look at but to play, it can get old fairly quickly for players who are used to something a little bit smoother. But perhaps as a nostalgia trip, or as a lesson in gaming history for you or your loved ones who you are forcing to sit through it and understand how games have evolved, it can still be entertaining. I think it’s always important to see where we’ve come from.

One last fun fact I will leave you with in this history lesson thinly disguised as a Backlog Slog because I was too lazy to get into anything sincerely on my backlog this week: Billy Blaze is actually BJ Blazkowicz’s grandson. With the idea being that BJ’s son moved to America, changed his last name, and had a kid who was named in honor of his grandfather. Doom Guy is also in this family tree, but a lot further down.

I think it’s all more fun when you know these games are all weirdly tied together like a more violent Pixar universe.

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