Updated date:

“Commander Keen:” A Trip Down Memory Lane

Jennifer Wilber is a teacher and writer. She holds a B.A. in English and an Associate's in Computer Game Design. She is a life-long gamer.

Commander Keen: A Trip Down Memory Lane

Commander Keen: A Trip Down Memory Lane

Commander Keen: A PC Classic

Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy is one of the first computer games I remember playing, at about four years old, so it was a pleasant and very unexpected surprise to browse the Nintendo eShop’s new releases and find that one of the Commander Keen games was rereleased for Nintendo Switch. Though Commander Keen in Keen Dreams isn’t the game in the series I have the fondest memories of, it was still an instant-purchase for me.

The original MS-DOS Commander Keen games were first released in 1990-1991, with a final stand-alone title released for Gameboy Color in 2001, so most younger gamers are likely unaware of this classic series and its history. Here is a recap of the series and its history thus far.

Title Screen for Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons, episode 1 Marooned on Mars

Title Screen for Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons, episode 1 Marooned on Mars

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons

The first game in this side-scrolling platformer series was Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons, released in 1990 for MS-DOS. This game is divided into three episodes called "Marooned on Mars," "The Earth Explodes," and "Keen Must Die!" The first episode was released for free through a shareware model. It was developed by a team consisting of programmers John Carmack and John Romero, designer Tom Hall, artist Adrian Carmack, and manager Jay Wilbur. It was published by Apogee Software.

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons an eight-year-old child genius named Billy Blaze, who takes on the alter ego of a superhero called Commander Keen, as he retrieves the stolen parts of his spaceship from the cities of Mars, stops an alien mothership from destroying landmarks on Earth, and hunts down the alien leader, the Grand Intellect, on the alien home planet. All three episodes in this release feature Commander Keen running, jumping, and shooting through various levels while fighting against aliens, robots, and other enemies.

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons is currently available in several compilation collections, including the Commander Keen Complete Pack on Steam, which includes episodes 1-5 for $4.99.

Title screen for Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (screenshot from Nintendo Switch version).

Title screen for Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (screenshot from Nintendo Switch version).

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams was the second Commander Keen title and was released in 1991. Unlike the previous title in the series, Keen Dreams featured a single stand-alone episode, and is sometimes referred to as episode 3.5, as it was released between the original game featuring episode 1-3, and Goodbye, Galaxy, which featured episodes 4 and 5. Keen Dreams was developed for MS-DOS by id Software, which had been founded by the creators of the first game in the series, and was published by Softdisk.

This episode in the Commander Keen series stands outside of the general continuity of the series as a "dream" episode, in which Billy/Commander Keen finds himself in a land ruled by malevolent vegetables wreaking havoc via a device called the “Dream Machine.” This game serves as a prototype to test ideas that the team wanted to use in future games, including a more advanced art style, parallax scrolling, and some gameplay changes.

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams was also ported to the Nintendo Switch. The Nintendo Switch port was released on February 7th, 2019, and is available to download from the Nintendo Switch eShop for $9.99.

Title screen for Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy.

Title screen for Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy.

Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy!

The second main-series game in the series, Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy! was released for MS-DOS on December 15, 1991. This release consists of episodes four and five of the series, "Secret of the Oracle" and "The Armageddon Machine." Goodbye, Galaxy! was developed by id Software and published by Apogee Software. Like the first trilogy of episodes, "Secret of the Oracle" was released for free, while the second episode was available to purchase. This game includes a more polished version of the graphical upgrades created for Keen Dreams, plus other revisions and additions to the gameplay.

This is the iteration of Commander Keen that I played the most as a child. This game begins with Billy building a faster-than-light communications radio, which he uses to intercept a message from an evil race of aliens who are planning on destroying the Galaxy. He puts on his helmet to transform himself into Commander Keen and takes of in his homemade spaceship to defend the galaxy. He arrives on the alien planet in an overworld area known as the Shadowlands. Near the end of the first episode, Commander Keen finds out that the aliens are building an Armageddon Machine.

In the second episode, Commander Keen travels to this Armageddon Machine, where he must destroy the machine’s subsystems. He eventually learns that the mastermind behind the entire thing was none other than his school rival Mortimer McMire.

As with Invasion of the Vorticons, Goodbye, Galaxy! is currently available in several compilation collections, including the Commander Keen Complete Pack on Steam, which includes episodes 1-5 for $4.99.

Box art for Commander Keen in Aliens Ate my Babysitter

Box art for Commander Keen in Aliens Ate my Babysitter

Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter

Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter is the final Commander Keen game developed by id Software. It was released in December 1991 for MS-DOS. Aliens Ate My Babysitter was originally planned to be the third episode of Goodbye, Galaxy and sixth episode overall, but it was changed before development began to be a stand-alone game published by FormGen. This game features a modified engine from Goodbye, Galaxy,

Though it is numbered as episode six in the series, it doesn’t clearly take place after the final episode of Goodbye, Galaxy. This episode can be seen as a stand-alone episode, or as taking place at an earlier point in the series. The story begins with Billy working on his wrist computer when his babysitter, Molly McMire, calls him inside for dinner. He heads inside, only to discover that aliens have taken Molly and plan to eat her. Commander Keen travels through space to rescue Molly, who he finds was kidnapped by his arch nemesis and Molly’s little brother, Mortimer McMire.

Screenshot from the Gameboy Color reboot of Commander Keen.

Screenshot from the Gameboy Color reboot of Commander Keen.

Commander Keen (Gameboy Color)

In 2001, a reboot of Commander Keen for Gameboy Color was released. It was developed by David A. Palmer Productions and published by Activision with the permission of id Software, but none of the original developers helped to create this title. Id Software did retain editorial control over this release, however. John Carmack and id had the idea for a Game Boy Color Commander Keen game and approached Activision to create it.

This game begins with Billy preparing to eat his breakfast cereal and watch TV when the screen goes to static. A sub-space anomaly mysteriously appears in the Earth's core and is disrupting life all across the planet. He puts on his helmet to become Commander Keen, and goes off to save the Earth to find that enemies for previous games, as well as new enemies, have joined forces with his rival Mortimer McMire to destroy the Earth.

There are three different worlds to choose from at the start the game, and you "save" your progress via passwords, as with many other GBC games. One major difference between this title and the MS-DOS games in the series is that your gun has unlimited ammo, rather needing to be reloaded with found ammunition.

Fan-made concept box art for Commander Keen in The Universe is Toast! for Nintendo DS. Note: This game was originally meant to be released on PC.

Fan-made concept box art for Commander Keen in The Universe is Toast! for Nintendo DS. Note: This game was originally meant to be released on PC.

Cancelled Game: Commander Keen in The Universe is Toast!

Another trilogy of episodes to follow episode 6 was planned for release December 1992, entitled Commander Keen in the Universe is Toast!, but this game was never developed. The project was cancelled after the success of id Software's Wolfenstein 3D and development focus on Doom, which the company determined were more productive projects. Two members of the original id team, John Romero and Tom Hall, have expressed interest in continuing the series, but id Software refuses to release the intellectual property rights back to the creators.

In The Universe is Toast!, Commander Keen was meant to stop the destruction of the entire universe and take on his old arch-nemesis Mortimer McMire.

A screenshot from Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy.

A screenshot from Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy.

The Future of the Series

Though Tom Hall and John Romero have expressed a desire to continue the series, the current intellectual rights holders, id Software, and its parent company Zenimax are uninterested in continuing the series, as well as unwilling to relinquish their rights to the IP back to the original creators of the series.

Commander Keen developer Tom Hall recent reported on a reddit thread about recently released the Nintendo Switch version of Commander Keen in Keen Dreams that he would love to make a new Commander Keen game, but is unable to because he doesn’t currently have the rights to the IP. While Hall reports that he has attempted to make a deal with id Software and Zenimax to create a new Commander Keen title, neither company has been responsive to his requests. According to Hall "[e]very letter to them has gotten a form letter response." It doesn’t appear that there is much hope for a future for Commander Keen.

© 2019 Jennifer Wilber