Wednesday 15 September 2010

Commander Keen (GBC)

Yeah I'm running low on ideas.

A younger, more naive me had this game bought for me as a Birthday present not too long after it was released. Feeling that my eleven-year-old self was smarter than Nintendo's hardware manufacturing and marketing divisions, I had come to the conclusion that this would run on my Game Boy Pocket. It didn't. But it did run on my Game Boy Advance when I picked one of those up in the coming months.

At the time I had no understanding about how the world worked when it came to video games. Having grown up with a Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast, I was always open to new things (unlike your die-hard Nintendo fans who have been trained over twenty five years to buy nothing that wasn't designed by Shigeru Miyamoto), but I still followed a couple of franchises to the end of the earth. One was Sonic the Hedgehog (which is really hard to follow these days) and the other was Commander Keen. Because don't forget, at this point I was always hopeful that id Software would produce some sequels. I had no clue they were innovating the FPS genre.

This Game Boy Color game was... interesting. It's difficult to know exactly what to think, because at that age you just assumed the same people who worked on the series in 1991 were working on it in 2001. It actually has nothing to do with id Software at all, other than having an id Software-branded character starring in it. A David A. Palmer Productions game published by Activision, the game saw several mediocre reviews and nobody has since given a damn about it. Tom Hall, the man behind Commander Keen's creation, doesn't consider it canon either. It failed to impress and didn't bring in much cash, and has since been swept under the rug like all those other bits of shovelware.

But is it all that bad for completely abandoning the gameplay found in the DOS games and deciding to come up with a brand new plot that doesn't actually relate to those DOS games at all? Well... not entirely. The game is no-where near as good, but Game Boy limitations were always due to push things back a little. If you look past the fact it has Commander Keen's face attached to it you might be pleasantly surprised. Maybe.

Commander Keen on the GBC is unfortunately a very bog standard Game Boy Color title. A series once known for innovating the DOS world manages to do nothing groundbreaking here and actually seems to get a few basic things wrong. Without Tom Hall the GBC game reverts to recycling ideas and content while at the same time aiming for the "GBC crowd". It's a basic Commander Keen vs. Mortimer McMire (the main antagonist of the series. Think Dexter's Labratory but in space.) scenario, except unlike in previous titles there's no attempt to hide the fact McMire is responsible for everything.

The major complaint about Commander Keen on the Game Boy Color is the frankly unneeded gameplay changes. Aside from the lack of buttons, I can't for the life of me understand why the gameplay rules seen in Keens 4 through 6 couldn't be applied in this Game Boy Color game. I grant you, oblique perspective graphics may have eaten a lot of VRAM space, but other than that there's very little that needed to be changed for a good game to be born. It just needed more than sixteen colours and music tracks that lasted more than 30 seconds at best.

For whatever stupid reason David A. Palmer decided that simply shooting an enemy wasn't good enough. Now you need to use your pogo stick on them when they're down. As the Game Boy Color only has two face buttons (not including start/select), the Pogo stick is now initiated by holding down before jumping. The shoot-pogo method allows you to take out a number of enemies but it's not a good idea for the GBC.

Game Boy Color platformers have one very important restriction that needs to be constantly acknowledged when designing a game - the screen resolution. At 160x144 pixels (compared to the DOS games' 320x200), lots of scrolling is involved if the sprites are big, and that's not good. Keen is known for reaching high places on his pogo stick, but the pogo stick will always scroll the screen vertically because of this increased jump height. It means it's more difficult to judge where you'll be landing than in the DOS games, and so there should be less reliance on the instrument to please the user.

Except as it's now used to get rid of enemies, the pogo stick is drawn out twice as much. In fact, you might as well forget about your regular jump - it's fairly useless because you can't grab onto ledges anymore. There are far too many small platforms for you to not land on, and because the levels aren't a simple linear left-to right (or right-to-left) ordeal, the user is punished by death not because of poor gameplay skill, but because of poor level design.

Another problem is it's sometimes difficult to determine which background pieces are dangerous. Foreground tiles like to overlap the layer of which Keen and the enemies are operating on, and there are many occasions where you can't physically see what's going on. These tiles sometimes have spikes on them, but they'll not hurt you because they're on a different layer. It's silly. Look at the above screenshot for example - a giant yellow pole (which I assume is a tree trunk) covers up that enemy. It helps make the screenshot look a bit more varied but it has no practical use than to get in the way. On the plus side (I guess) you will respawn right next to where you died, so it's not a case of having to redo an entire level.

Though you don't have the same level of freedom over the overworld as you did in the DOS games, Commander Keen GBC gives you the opportunity to explore three planets, "Drodiccus Prime", a mechanical themed world, "Shikadi" which is loosely based on Gnosticus IV from Keen 4 and steals most of its enemies, and "Fribbulus Xax", which is the homeworld of the Bloogs featured in Commander Keen 6. As you can see, the game isn't filled with new ideas in regards to settings, but they do receive a bit of a makeover as the GBC has more colours to work with. Oh and don't worry, some Keen 5 enemies are stolen too to make up for the lack of Omegamatic.

Some other changes have a go at staining the game too. Keen cannot fire his weapon constantly - you have to wait until the projectile goes off screen. Like in Space Invaders... that game made in 1978. Again, no benefits. Keen also seems to have a huge problem with poles nowadays - he will always travel upwards or downwards and you can't stop and fire. The levels are made longer by the use of teleporters and key cards, but unlike in previous games it really does seem like they were added to lengthen gameplay, not enhance it.

Music wise I'm prepared to say there's been a bit of an improvement, if not just because the Game Boy Color allows longer tracks to be played. Though none of the tracks played in Keen GBC are "memorable", they're not bad by any means.

Generally Commander Keen on the GBC is considered to be a bad Commander Keen game, and I partially agree because the GBC isn't a system that could do the series justice. It looks and sounds nice (which is to be expected - it was a very late GBC game) but it makes too many unnecessary changes and is always hindered by the small screen size. Had they waited a few months and gave the Game Boy Advance some love, we might have had something special, but alas, 'twas not the case.

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