Vintage Game Review: Commander Keen 4: Goodbye Galaxy!

Hey, Misties. It’s Alana, doing a guest post, because our good friend Nick is a) writing a midterm, b) volunteering at his favourite non-profit, and then c) driving me to an appointment out of town, so he needs a break. Since I haven’t played any games this generation since Pokemon Black, I thought I’d  go back in time to the early 90’s when I used to spend hours on end in front of the computer trying to beat my own high scores. I didn’t have any consoles or handhelds, so it was all about the PC. Today’s topic is my favourite game of that era, Commander Keen 4: Goodbye Galaxy!

Is this even the right galaxy? 

The Commander Keen games were some of the very first developed by Id Software, who went on to create Doom and Quake, both monsters of PC gaming. Keen is notable because it took the side-scrolling platforming action of Mario and made it work in DOS. Remember DOS? If not, you’re too young for me, Bro.

I played Commander Keen 4 long before I got my hands on the rest of the series, because a relative gave me a pirated copy. Shh, don’t tell! At my peak, I could beat the entire game, including the secret level, in 24 minutes, and there were some levels I could play without even looking at the screen just through muscle memory. That game was my crack. That should give you a hint of the slant this review is taking!

Let’s break it down:

Gameplay:

Commander Keen is a side-scrolling platformer. You shoot or avoid enemies, collect ammo, and get points by touching soda bottles and food items. You also collect raindrops, and get a new life every time you get 100 of them, like the coins in the Mario universe.  You can either walk, run, or jump on a pogo stick. The pogo stick is a little hard to control, but that adds to the fun. Enemies can be poisonous slugs (careful! Shooting only stuns them, and they leave poisonous slime behind), dragonflies (which can only be killed by landing on them with the pogo stick), bouncing balls that breathe fire (don’t question it), poison mushrooms (don’t do drugs, kids!), oil jets, snakes, fire balls, and the mighty dopefish, which has gained notoriety all through the gaming world.

Did you see my cameo last year in RAGE?
What, are you blind???
It’s very simple and fun, and it really encourages you to play it again and again to beat your best time or your high score. You can play against yourself, and there are plenty of secrets to find. It’s definitely addictive. 
Graphics: 
The graphics are extremely bright and colourful, which is typical of 2D platformers. It’s cartoony look fits perfectly with the game’s silly and irreverent humour. It has a slanted look, to give the illusion of 3D. This is one way the game hides secret passages, which can contain extra loot, and sometimes important items. 

He goes high on the 3rd bounce. That’s when you run.

Story:

The story is pretty damn incidental here. Commander Keen is the alter ego of 8 year old Billy Blaze, a child genius who builds a rocket ship in his garage. Armed with his blaster and his brother’s football helmut, he must find and rescue the guardians of the oracle in order to save the galaxy from evil aliens. You beat the game by rescuing all of the guardians. They give you little blurbs of wisdom when you find them, but they’re really just an excuse to keep you moving through the levels and finding the items you need to free them. At the end, the oracle predicts further destruction and paves the way for the next game. I had to look a lot of that up, because it’s really, really not important to the game. 
And she says: “buy more games!”
Legacy (thanks, Wikipedia!):
There are some fan-made Commander Keen games out there, some of them based on announced-but-never-created games. These games are discussed on The Public Commander Keen Forum
CloneKeen is an open-source game engine that supports Commander Keen 1-3, but unfortunately not Goodbye, Galaxy! It is supported by GP2X, Linux, Windows, and Dreamcast, and has been ported to the PSP and DS.
In 2002 utilities were released to upgrade the graphics and gameplay, and now over 50 mods exist. Programmers have been able to figure out most of the Keen code, which continues to be modded and improved. 
Netkeen is a fan name online multiplayer game based on the Keen universe. You can play with up to four players at a time, and there are eight characters to choose from. There is an episode dedicated to Keen 4. 
The Commander Keen games have also been referenced in a lot of other games since going out of production. Duke Nukem, Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein 3D, Guild Wars and Minecraft all contain Keen references. 
In sum, Commander Keen 4 is a really fun, lighthearted game. It’s not deep or complex, and it has no emotional impact. It’s a test of skill and reflexes, and almost infinitely replayable. That’s really what it comes down to, for me. You don’t have to think too hard. You can just run through the game, killing slugs and rescuing old dudes. It’s really pretty great.
Things I forgot to mention:
There are three difficulty levels: easy, normal, and difficult. I only played on normal, because when I got awesome at it I was too interested in beating my speed runs than slowing down to play on hard. Still, it’s nice to have somewhere to go. 
Everything is an instant kill. There are no power ups or second players. You touch something bad or fall off a cliff, you die. If you have lives left, you are put back on the world map and you can start the level again. 
Not all the levels are essential. You can pick and choose once you learn which ones have guardians and necessary items. This is good for speed runs. 
There is also a minigame called Paddle War! It’s a clone of Pong. Keen apparently plays it on his little wrist jigger. It’s, well, a clone of Pong.

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