Commander Keen

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Let's see here... if I manage to complete my epic planet-spanning mission in four hours or so, I'll be back home just in time for supper.

A series of video games developed at the turn of the 90s, one of the first to be successful at replicating the side-scrolling action of the NES Super Mario Bros. games in MS-DOS (more on that down below). The cartoon-style platformers are notable for their pioneering use of EGA graphics and shareware distribution, and because they were some of the first games by Id Software (which went on to develop blockbusters like Doom and Quake). Although developed by id, most of the Commander Keen games were published by Apogee Software, an already established MS-DOS shareware game publisher.

Billy Blaze is an 8-year-old boy genius who has constructed a spaceship in his backyard from old soup cans and other household objects, called The Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket. When his parents are out and the babysitter falls asleep, he dons his brother's Packers helmet and becomes Commander Keen, Defender of Earth.

The games' development began while the team that would become id Software worked at Softdisk, creating small, rushed games as a special division called Gamer's Edge. John Carmack had perfected a technique for displaying smooth scrolling graphics on the PC, once thought to be possible only on consoles. Using this code, Carmack and Tom Hall took the protagonist from one of coworker John Romero's games, Dangerous Dave, stuck the character in a recreation of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, and called it Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement. The demo was put on a disk labeled "Run Me" and left on Romero's desk as a practical joke. He was glued to the "prank" for hours, and knew they could make a game of their own with Carmack's code. Tom Hall suggested a game about an 8-year-old kid who saves the universe, shareware publisher Apogee told them they would distribute it, and the rest is history.

The series comprises several installments:

  • Marooned On Mars (1990): The first part of the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. While exploring Mars, Keen discovers that the Vorticon have stolen four key components from his ship, and must journey across the landscape to several cities to retrieve his equipment. Featured the first appearance of Keen's signature pogo stick.
  • The Earth Explodes (1990): Keen makes it back to Earth, only to discover that the Vorticon mothership is in orbit, and is planning to fire on eight key cities across the planet. Keen must board the ship to disable each of the eight X-14 Tantalus Ray cannons before they fire. The game featured a Darker and Edgier aesthetic; everything attacked Keen immediately, and there were many more pitfalls and dangerous objects to avoid.
  • Keen Must Die!! (1990): The final part of the Vorticon trilogy. After disabling the Vorticon mothership, Keen travels to their home planet in search of the mysterious force that had directed them to Earth. The game featured various Vorticon cities and establishments, and allowed players to learn the Vorticon alphabet (a heavily-advertised feature that allowed players to go back to the previous installments and decipher various signs in the levels).
  • Keen Dreams (1991): A Gaiden Game published by Softdisk, where Keen has a dream in which he sets out to fight Boobus Tuber, the vegetable king. The game's canon status is unknown - most fans consider it to have taken place between episodes 3 and 4. The game featured several features unique to the series, including a lack of Keen's pogo stick, and vegetables being thrown as weapons.
  • Secret of the Oracle (1991): The first part of the Goodbye, Galaxy! two-parter. After finishing a new sublight radio, Keen discovers a plot by a new alien race, the Shikadi, to take over the galaxy. He travels to the planet Gnosticus IV to consult the Keepers of the Oracle (an ancient alien race), but discovers they have been captured, and sets out to rescue them. The game featured much larger levels and a wide assortment of enemies, as well as new game mechanics and minigames.
  • The Armageddon Machine (1991): The final part of Goodbye, Galaxy! Keen lands on a massive space station called the Omegamatic, manned by the Shikadi, and sets out to deactivate the machine and save the galaxy.
  • Aliens Ate My Babysitter! (1992): Keen's babysitter Molly is kidnapped by an alien race named the Bloogs, and he must rescue her by fighting his way through the planet Fribbulus Xax. The game was published by FormGen and distributed by Apogee.
  • Commander Keen (2001): A Game Boy Color title published by Activision.

Though Aliens Ate My Babysitter! claimed that a third trilogy titled The Universe Is Toast! would be released in Christmas of 1992 (via its ending credits), it never saw the light of day. Id moved on to bigger and better things, and eventually declared the series dead. However, Tom Hall (no longer with id) has promised to continue Keen's story if he can acquire the rights. Additionally, a Fan Sequel The Universe Is Toast! trilogy has been released, made from heavily modded versions of episodes 4-6. Fan reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Unlike the recently announced Keen game from Bethesda Softworks.[context?]

Tropes used in Commander Keen include:
  • Acme Products: Acme blueprints in The Earth Explodes and Secret of the Oracle.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: Due to EGA graphic limitations, all humans are completely white-skinned. As in WHITE-white. Princess Lindsey is also black (a realistic dark-skinned shade, as opposed to #000000), if human-featured fairies can be considered human.
  • Apocalypse How: The Earth Explodes has the villains of the first episode position a planetary destruction ship in orbit over Earth. If you screw up, you get to activate it. Guess what happens.
  • Badass Grandpa/Badass Family: According to the Wolfenstein 3D hint manual, William Blazkowicz has a grandson by the name of B. Blaze. Furthermore, the Cyberdemon encountered at the end of Doom is missing an arm and a leg. The same ones that William cut off. You know, the demon who vowed revenge on William's descendants? Might Doomguy be Billy's descendant? In any case, even without Doomguy, Billy Blaze has a pretty badass family.
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: Commander Keen and the Vorticon Guards have no problem breathing on the surface of Mars.
  • Big Eater: Nearly all of the items are candy, food or soda. Keen sure loves his junk food.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Though in this case, the language is a "space cypher" used throughout the games.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Lampshaded. Keen is surprised that the Gnostic Elders weren't killed instead of just being kidnapped. The council page immediately handwaves this by telling him that the elders are immortal (which also excuses for preventing the player accidentally - or not so accidentally - killing them).
  • Bonus Dungeon: Most games have several levels that are not required to be completed. For some, the means of accessing the level are secret and the difficulty level is significantly higher.
  • Bound and Gagged: Molly.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The reason Keen doesn't like Mortimer McMire one bit is because the latter (a) taunted him, (b) gave him a wedgie, and (c) tried to destroy the Earth.
  • Brutal Bonus Level: All of the secret levels are on the difficult side, as are most of the optional levels in The Earth Explodes.
  • The Bully: Mortimer, who enjoyed giving Billy swirlies.
  • Continuity Nod: Billy Blaze's full name is William Joseph Blazkowicz II, after his grandfather, who you probably know better as "B.J.".
  • Cool Starship: The Bean-With-Bacon Megarocket. It's made of soup cans and runs on vodkaEverclear. Admit it, you want one.
  • Cypher Language: The Standard Galactic Alphabet.
  • Damsel in Distress: Molly in Aliens Ate My Babysitter.
  • Doppelganger: Mortimer McMire. In the jungle level from Secret of the Oracle, if Keen looks down at a certain point, you can see his face rotating on a computer monitor. It looks just like Keen's sprite, only with a black helmet and shirt.
  • Earthshattering Kaboom: The threat in just about all the games.
    • And in The Earth Explodes, you can activate it yourself. Which ends your game, obviously.
  • Easter Egg:
    • While not one in the Commander Keen series, the Dopefish in Secret of the Oracle has since evolved into this, making secret cameos in unrelated games, from 1994's Wacky Wheels to 2011's Deus Ex Human Revolution.
    • Other Keen-related items have shown up in other games as well:
      • The teddy bear from Marooned on Mars is a point item (exact same sprite, even) in Secret Agent.
      • Keen's helmet in a couple of slime pools in Crystal Caves. The story mentions "Yorp herding" and the name "B. Blaze" appears in the high scores as well.
      • Keen is mentioned in one level of the original Duke Nukem.
      • "Keen Commander" is a rank in Guild Wars.
      • Several hanged Keens appear at the exit of the super-secret level of Doom II. You have to kill them to exit the level.
      • Keen is a hostage in episode 2 of Bio Menace. A later level features a giant Yorp in the background and has a hidden developer's room with several items from Keen and other Apogee games.
      • A message in Epic's early game Jill of the Jungle states that "B. Blaze" is retiring from computer games because he "can't compete with those cool Epic heros [sic]".
      • Commander Keen's name is in the high score list for Monuments of Mars, which also features a Garg-like enemy.
      • A secret in the second episode of Paganitzu features a Yorp wearing Al's hat. Al is meanwhile talking about a strange dream he had about Commander Keen which sounds suspiciously like an ad for the game...
    • In one level of Secret of the Oracle, some pipework forms a swastika (a reference to the then-forthcoming Wolfenstein 3D, although the swastika is actually the mirror-image of a Nazi swastika) and other pipework below it spells out the name of John Romero. In another level, pipework spells out the name of Tom Hall.
  • Every Ten Thousand Points: Or, rather, every 20000 points (in games 1-3) or every 10000* 2n points (in games 4-6).
  • Evil Counterpart: Mortimer McMire, Keen's arch-nemesis, who constantly taunts Keen for having an IQ that's 1 point lower.
  • Fan Sequel: While there have been several fan-made games and mods, one specific trilogy has been really well received and adopted as the unofficial "The Universe is Toast!" trilogy: The Keys of Krodacia, Dead in the Desert and Battle of the Brains, three mods of Keen 4-6 with new maps, enemies, and items.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: In the Paris Tantalus level in The Earth Explodes, there is a section with colored platforms that spell out - in SGA letters - a certain expletive. However, it's actually misspelled "fucl" (whether this misspelling is intentional or not is still unknown). This has become something of a Memetic Mutation in the Keen community, with "fucl" (rhymes with "buckle") being a popular swear word on the forums. It's actually intentional, as explained by Tom Hall on his blog.
  • The Goomba: Yorps in Marooned on Mars, which can't damage you themselves. The only way they can kill you is to push you into something dangerous. A similarly harmless enemy in The Earth Explodes, the Scrubs, can actually be helpful as they can be ridden upon to access areas you otherwise couldn't. (they can climb up walls). And the Bounders in Keen Dreams serve a similar purpose.
  • Hint System: In the Game Boy version, arrows appear in the background to give players hints about the surroundings (because the screen is otherwise too small to see whether or not you can make a Leap of Faith).
  • Idle Animation: Keen takes out a book to read and, in one level, moons the audience.
  • Improbably High IQ: And how, exactly, do you measure an IQ as high as 315. And how does anyone on Earth have an IQ of 314?
  • Infinite 1-Ups: The Earth Explodes has a rather Egregious example in the Paris Tantalus level, where if you know how, you can get enough points to get more than one life each try, which can theoretically lead to infinite lives, not to mention infinite points. At least one level in Keen Must Die! allows for the same abuse.
    • In Marooned on Mars, not only does the secret level allow this, but, since getting to it involves using a teleporter inside another level, you can loot the latter level, teleport out, make your way back on the world map, and repeat, allowing you to gain infinite lives (and ammo) without having to suicide
    • The secret level in The Armageddon Machine contains enough Vitalin to gain two lives at the very start. Die, repeat...
  • Interchangeable Antimatter Keys: Only in Keen Dreams. In all the others, only ONE key will unlock a specific door.
  • Invincible Minor Minion: Every game had at least one. And some of them had invincible major minions as well.
  • Jump Physics: Mostly played straight, but Subverted in Keen Dreams, where you could jump into the edge of a platform, grab on, and pull yourself up.
  • Kid Hero
  • Law of One Hundred: Rain Drops in Keen Dreams, Vitalin in Secret of the Oracle, and Viva in The Armageddon Machine.
  • Lightning Bruiser: The Gargs once they start chasing you. Seeing them jump chasms can be extremely disconcerting.
  • Meaningless Lives: At least in 4-6, where the game save feature is essentially a built-in save-state system, and death sends you back to the start of the levels - meaning that Save Scumming is a way of life, which makes the lives useless.
  • Mobile Shrubbery: Secret of the Oracle has enemies that hide under boulders (much like the Toy Story 2 traffic cones). They're harmless (and well camouflaged) when stationary, but deadly when moving. And they can jump at you as if they're riding pogo sticks!
  • Mooks but No Bosses: Only three levels in the entire series have bosses: The final level in Keen Must Die! (Mortimer McMire on his Mangling Machine), Secret of the Oracle (Shikadi Master) and Keen Dreams (Boobus Tubber).
  • Nintendo Hard: The military installation levels in Keen Must Die! (Fort Cavort, Fort Vorticon, Fort Vorta Bella, Fort Vox and Cape Canavorta) are among the most difficult levels in the entire series. They're all optional, however.
  • No Ending: Beating The Armageddon Machine gives you a message saying "See you Christmas '92 when Commander Keen returns to battle for the universe! It'll be the biggest Keen ever!". Sadly, this grand finale was never made, and aside from a few fan-made Game Mods, the series still ends on a cliffhanger.
  • Not Quite Dead: The Arachnut and Blue Birds from Keen Dreams can be temporarily stunned if you shoot them with your ray gun, but never permanently killed (or permanently stunned; after all, the way other enemies "die" in games 4-6 leaves them with stars going around their heads). The first time you see them suddenly spring back to life is disconcerting, to say the least.
    • The same goes for the Volte-face from The Armageddon Machine.
    • Also, in Keen Dreams, none of the enemies, except for Boobus Tuber, can be permanently killed. Keen can only temporarily turn them into flowers with the help of special bombs. On the other hand, if you flower-ize them when they're right next to a bottomless pit, they may fall off...
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Mortimer McMire.
  • One-Hit-Point Wonder: Commander Keen takes hits just as well as you'd expect an 8-year old kid to take.
  • Ranked by IQ: Mortimer McMire brags that his IQ is 315, one point higher than our hero.
  • Sequel Escalation: The Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy had Keen fighting to save the Earth. In Goodbye, Galaxy, he saved the galaxy. The third trilogy, had it ever been made, would have had him up against a plot to destroy the entire universe.
  • Shareware: To be specific, games 1 and 4 were given away for free; the others were sold.
  • Shout-Out: Several, the most notable ones being To Serve Man, Wolfenstein 3D (which still had to be produced) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the Dopefish is the second dumbest creature in the universe, after all...).
  • Social Darwinist: Mortimer McMire.
  • Spikes of Doom: Very common in Secret of the Oracle, especially in the mountain and pyramid levels.
  • Stealth Pun: In order to get to a secret level in Keen Dreams, one must collect 12 worms together. This creates a giant foot that transports you. The fact that these must be "inch" worms is mentioned only in the help file, which even goes so far to say "Watch where you step or they'll be afoot!".
    • Also the level-entry texts in the same episode; "Keen disappears into Miragia", "Keen backs into the Pyramid of the Moons", etc.
  • Strange Secret Entrance: The aptly-named "Pyramid of the Forbidden" in Keen Dreams, reached by going into the basement of the "Pyramid of the Moons" and coercing twelve inch-worms to come together, at which point they form a giant foot which transports Keen.
  • Stun Gun: Your weapon in games 4 through 6. Most enemies stay "stunned" forever though.
  • Super Drowning Skills: In Keen Dreams, you can't swim on the world map until you get the scuba gear (even though you stay above water). And in Keen Must Die!, pools of plain water kill you on contact.
  • Temporary Platform: In Keen Dreams, clear "mirage" platforms fade in and out of interactable state. In Secret of the Oracle, there are platforms that periodically flip their orientation 90 degrees so that they can't be used to stand on.
  • To Serve Man: Given a coded Shout-Out in The Armageddon Machine.
  • Unreliable Narrator: If you read the story from the help file, you can come to the conclusion that the whole "adventure" is just in Billy's head... he's just playing in the garage and backyard.
  • Unwinnable by Design: Subverted in Keen Must Die!. The "Impossible Maze of the Caves of Oblivion" before the final level is just that; if you face the challenge head-on and collect all the keycards hidden in the maze cave, you'll find that the level exit is right behind a gate of spikes with no way to get through them. What you're supposed to do instead is pogo up and over the mountain to a secret exit that's out in the open with no instant-death traps barring your way.
    • It's possible to make Keen Dreams unwinnable if you complete every level in the game, but don't collect at least 12 Boobus Bombs (the minimum number required to defeat Boobus Tuber). The game won't even let you enter the final level. Hope you have an earlier save...
  • Unwinnable By Mistake:
    • Due to level design goofs or glitches, in some cases it's possible to leave a level without having achieved the objective. For instance, in the "Cave of the Descendants" in Keen Dreams, there's a door with no floor on the other side, so you fall if you walk through. Due to a glitch, you can, if you're fast enough, go back through the door before you fall, whereupon you instantly win the level. But now you can't rescue the elder from that level. In another level, you have to make sure you reach the key gem needed to exit the level before the item-stealing monster does.[1]
    • If you play Secret of the Oracle on Easy difficulty, it's impossible to break the fuse in the secret level, and hence get the alternate ending; depending on which edition of the game you have, either it crashes as soon as you enter the secret level, or the fuse is simply unbreakable.
  • Visual Pun: If Keen stands on one of the crescent moon symbols in the Pyramid of the Moons, and left idle, his first Idle Animation is to moon the viewer. In games 4-6, the doors are opened by using the matching color gemstone... key stones.[2]
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: The janitor at the end of the Pyramid of the Forbidden.
  • The Walls Have Eyes: The Armageddon Machine has a few eyes on the background of some stages, and the final stage involves a part where you have to use giant eyes hanging from the roof by their optic nerves as platforms.
  • Who Forgot the Lights?: In The Earth Explodes, Keen can switch off (and back on) the lights in some levels. This is helpful; "A wise Vorticon never jumps in the dark. In fact, even unwise Vorticons will not jump in darkness."
  • Wingdinglish: The Standard Galactic Alphabet. A standard substitution cypher, you can look at the conversion table here.
  1. Although in the latter case, if you have any lives left, you can suicide and thereby reset the level.
  2. Is this what's known as "arch" humor?