Saturday 11 September 2010

Commander Keen 5: The Armageddon Machine

It frightens me that in this day and age there are still people out there who claim to be "gamers" that haven't played Commander Keen. To these people: what the hell is wrong with you?

Back in the day, Commander Keen was by far one of the best games on the planet... and other planets for that matter. Having since ventured onto the internet it now ranks in my books as not only being a great set of platformers, but also some of the finest examples of 16-colour EGA graphics ever known to man. No game before nor afterwards has topped the Commander Keen series (especially the latter half) while working with these limitations. As I've said before, it did such a good job that it took my nearly ten years for me to realise its palette was 1/16th the size of later DOS platformers.

There are six games in the Commander Keen series (not including the Game Boy Color game or Keen Dreams). The first three belong to the "Invasion of the Vorticons" series. The fourth and fifth game belong to the "Goodbye Galaxy" series, and the sixth is a stand-alone title. You can buy them all through services such as Steam for a fairly cheap price. They all need to run in DOSBox and were all made between 1990 and 1992.

But if you do your research or were around in the days before Steam, you'll realise the package isn't quite as fair as it makes out to be. Commander Keen was distributed by Apogee, and Apogee were big fans of the shareware license. Typically this meant that a game was split into numerous "volumes" or "episodes", where the first episode in the series can be copied and distributed by anyone for free, while the others need to be paid for.

So in the case of Invasion of the Vorticons, chapter 1 (Marooned on Mars) is a completely free game. You cannot be charged for it. Chapters 2 and 3 however need to be bought. Goodbye Galaxy which came a year later with a new take on things, made you pay for its second episode (Keen 5) while letting you distribute its first episode (Keen 4) as much as you want. Keen 6 dropped the shareware license stuff and simply opted for a free three-level demo.

Basically it meant that at the time you could build up a pretty hefty selection of computer games without paying anything. What made things more entertaining is that Commander Keen 4 is probably the best in the series, and is completely free to this day.

Keen 5 however, is not (unless you know where to look). Subtitled "The Armageddon Machine", the game takes place right after where Keen 4 left off. For that reason I'm not going to bother telling you the story because I'd be here all day discussing a different game. Keen V is apparently id Software's favorite episode, and was actually the last good game to be made to carry the Commander Keen name (yes, 6 was finished before 5).

But it's not my favourite episode. Still a great game of course, but the entire volume takes place on a space station engineered by the Shikadi, the Omegamatic... and that means lots of levels that look more-or-less the same. Whereas it makes a couple of improvements over Keen 4, the fact it doesn't vary its levels much and is a much more linear experience means I tend to rank it below Keens 4 and 6. The secret level is great though.

By purchasing Keen 5 you're assumed to have played and finished Keen 4, which means gameplay as a whole is a bit more challenging. Armed with his Neural Stunner and Pogo Stick, Commander Keen is tasked with shutting down the space station to save the universe. It's generally brilliant on all fronts, using an oblique perspective at all times and having a very light hatred and fun approach to the ordeal. Oh and because you "stun" enemies, it's considered a non-violent game.

When I was young I had to rely solely on the PC Speaker for sound effects within Commander Keen. The improvements Adlib-compatible sound cards could bring to the table in Keen 4 and 6 were amazing, but not so much in Keen 5 for some reason. Some of the tracks, to me, seem out of place. It's nothing really to complain about but I don't think it has an edge over other games in the series (though it obviously wipes the floor with the first three episodes which don't even have music).

And this is Keen 5's big problem. It's not just the music, but the whole package just seems to be less grand than the freely available Keen 4 and the equally priced Keen 6. Now granted, in this day and age we're not talking about a lot of money, but I almost feel it should be the other way around, with Keen 4 being the worthwhile purchase and Keen 5 being the taster. And the same applies to many shareware titles by Apogee - it's sometimes really difficult to notice exactly what the second, third and sometimes even forth volumes are actually offering that you don't have already.

But I guess it's a case of having to be there at the time. There are no pre-1991 DOS games that look nicer than the two Goodbye Galaxy games, and very few EGA platformers made since. So what if the fifth volume has you venture through numerous levels that look mostly the same - it was only Keen 4 and 6 that broke the trend at the time.

But enough of my blabbing, go play a Commander Keen game and stop coming up with excuses as to why DOSBox isn't worth touching. Even today these games hold up as being some of the best platformers ever created... just a shame I suppose that id Software are committed to producing first person shooters for the rest of eternity.

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