Blimey, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? OK, first things first, I’d like to apologise for the absence, mostly due to personal stuff and some professional stuff here and there. To make up for it, I’ll review 2 games in one go (well, more like 2 parts of one game). Time to protect the galaxy with Commander Keen!
Commander Keen: The Earth Explodes and Commander Keen: Keen Must Die! are action-platform games developed by id Software and published by Apogee. They were originally released in 1990 for DOS along with Commander Keen: Marooned on Mars. All 3 episodes would be re-released as a bundle called Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons in 1991, also for DOS.
Usually, this is the part where we look at the cover art, but since both episodes were sold by mail (the 1st episode was distributed free, as per shareware practices), there isn’t any cover art per se.
So let’s jump right ahead and boot this intergalactic sucker:
Episode 2 starts right where Episode 1 ends, with the Vorticon Mothership around Earth’s orbit with its main guns pointed at 8 of Earth’s main cities. Keen must infiltrate the ship and destroy those guns, one at a time. And just like Episode 1, you start in an overhead map where you take control of Keen and travel through the ship and access the levels to progress (hint: pay attention to the symbols above each level entrance).
And just like Episode 1, you don’t have to play through every level, you only need to play the ones that give you access to more areas of the ship and the ones where the guns are located. The other levels are optional. The extra levels have more enemies yes, but also more bonus items (also you can get helpful hints if you know where to look). You can pick up several items for points and gain extra lives when you reach a certain number of points (like in most retro platform games) and the keycards to unlock doors to progress.
You also need to collect pistols as ammo to fight the enemies (at least those that can be destroyed). Your weapon even gets a new sprite (the backstory explains it as a Vorticon gun, more powerful than your previous raygun), which also explains how the last game’s final boss is now a regular enemy here can be killed with just one shot. You also start the game with the pogo stick you collected at the beginning of Episode 1, which doubles your jumping capability.
The enemies are all new (apart from the returning Vorticons), but there seems to be a less variety of enemies, although their difficulty range from easy to hard. However, unlike the previous game, there aren’t any bosses (although some of the later levels have an abundance of harder enemies, that’s about it). I particularly abhor the Vorticon Elite soldiers and Youths.
Also since Episode 2 happens inside a spaceship, all the levels’ design is more or less the same, although their layout changes a bit. In fact, the majority of the levels look smaller in comparison with the levels of Episode 1 and also all look alike (again with the context of the game occurring inside a spaceship, which makes sense). But there aren’t any more labyrinth levels like in the previous episode and fewer doors to unlock (yet again, it makes sense for a spaceship layout to be simple to navigate through).
So let’s move to Episode 3. I’ll come back to Episode 2 later on in the conclusion:
After destroying the Vorticon Mothership weapons, it returns defeated to the Vorticon home planet, Vorticon VI, where Keen must go to confront the Vorticons’ leader, The Grand Intellect, and stop the Vorticon invasion once and for all (needless to say that all the Vorticons are expecting him, hence the title Keen Must Die!)
The 1st thing you’ll notice different from the other episodes is the title screen, where it depicts Vorticon VI’s surface. That’s right, we’re back to exploring another planet, but this time, the level design and layout absolutely change to reflect that. Gone are the small and visually similar rooms from the last episode and back are the large and labyrinth levels, the secret level and a final boss battle like in the 1st episode.
But we also get new stuff, like new and harder enemies with a bigger variety and new items (like separate ammo for your weapon and ankhs that give you temporary invincibility, represented by a shield around Keen).
The overhead map is somewhat similar to the one in Episode 1 with cities, towns and forts that serve as the game’s levels (including a secret, much harder level). And just like in the previous episodes, you don’t have to play every level, you can just play the ones that give you access to new areas where the final boss is located (although I recommend doing some of the extra levels to collect extra points and lives because the final boss battle is hard).
Now about the technical aspects and since all 3 episodes were developed together, all the animation, graphics, sound, controls and gameplay are all the same throughout the 3 episodes and I’ve already review those back in my Episode 1 review. And again I recommend playing with a joystick or gamepad, although the keyboard controls are equally good.
Personally, though, I think Episode 2 might be the weakest of all 3, due to the low variety of enemies and the small size and complexity of some of its levels, while Episode 3 might just be the best one due to the new features and visuals, although some of its later levels don’t have the best layout (I think they’re were rushed to meet the deadlines).
But I don’t recommend one episode in particular. Instead, I highly recommend the entire trilogy as a very solid and fun platformer, despite its few flaws here and there. You can buy the entire trilogy here on Steam along with Episodes 4 and 5.
Now I would like to add some more links for you to explore to increase your Commander Keen experience:
- A Commander Keen wiki, where you can find information about the series and download fan-made mods;
- The tool needed to play said mods;
- Several unofficial bug fixes also made by the fans;
- And three source ports: CloneKeen, Commander Genius and Chocolate Keen.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the review. Of course, this isn’t our final Commander Keen review. We still have more games in the series to play and review. Comment below or on any of our social media what is your favourite Commander Keen game. Until then, keep on playing and protecting the galaxy.