Commander Keen episodes 2 and 3 review

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 profesional stuff here and there. To make up for it, I’ll review two games in one go (well, more like two 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 three 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 first 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 eight 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.

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Take that, you filthy alien!

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 that 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 isn’t any bosses (although some of the later levels have an abundance of the harder enemies, but that’s about it). I particularly abhor the Vorticon Elite soldiers and Youths.

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In here you need to disable the weapon without activating it.

Also since Episode 2 happens inside a spaceship, all the level design is more of 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 isn’t any more labyrinth levels like in the previous episode and less 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 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!)

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The first 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 first episode. But we also get new stuff, like new and harder enemies, a bigger variety of such 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 in order to collect extra points and lives because the final boss battle is hard).

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A Vorticon city.

Now about the technical aspects and since all three episodes were made together, all the animation, graphics, sound, controls and gameplay are all the same throughout the three 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 three episodes, 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.

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Vorticon VI’s surface.

Now I would like to add some more links for you to explore in order to increase your Commander Keen experience:

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the review. Of course this isn’t our final Commander Keen review. We still have more games to play and review. Comment below or in any of my social media what is your favourite Commander Keen game. Until then, keep on playing and protecting the galaxy.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream review

Last June 28th, renowned sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison passed away at the age of 84. Ellison is considered one of the most prolific and influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century and today we’re going to take a look at the video game adaptation of one of his most famous short-stories: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is a graphic adventure developed by The Dreamers Guild and published by Cyberdreams and Acclaim. It was originally released in 1995 for DOS and Macintosh. In 2013, it was re-released by Night Dive Studios at Steam and GOG.com, for Windows, Macintosh and Linux. And in 2016, it was gain re-released in Google Play and Apple Store, for Android and iOS.

The original short-story was published in 1967 and it quickly became one of Ellison’s most famous works, winning several awards, including the Hugo Award. And Cyberdreams, famous by their adult-themed sci-fi, fantasy  and horror games, decided to adapt Ellison’s short-story into a graphic adventure game. But unlike other video game adaptations, Ellison was actively involved in it from the start, from co-writing the game’s script to voice AM, the game’s main antagonist.

But before we take a look at the game, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?

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I think I’m starting to understand the title of the game…

The original cover features a central image of Ellison himself with his mouth covered by what it looks like computer circuitry, hinting at the game’s plot. In some editions of the game, the central image was in fact a 3D mousepad that was shipped along with the game. It’s a very eerie image that conveys oppression by technology, which is one of the game’s main themes.

But the re-released version brings a slightly different cover:

271594-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-linux-front-coverNow, this version expands upon the computer circuitry imagery, which I personally  adore! While the red and black background in the original cover might look more menacing, the blue highlights in this one makes it look more logical and cold, which still works within the game’s context.

But enough about imagery and let’s boot this sucker, shall we?

The game’s intro doesn’t show a lot of backstory, so reading the manual before playing the game it’s highly recommended. The backstory is basically this: an omnipotent computer called AM, after a nuclear apocalypse (of which AM might have provoked), saves the last five humans from said apocalypse, but when reaching the height of his omnipotence, AM found a great hate for Humanity and for more than 100 years, dedicates itself in torturing the last humans, preventing their deaths by torture or even old age.

AM then decides to put the humans through tests and dramas, both for its own entertainment as well to prove to itself all the failings in human nature. And it’s here that the game starts, in which you have to choose between our five protagonists: Gorrister, a former trucker with guilt-ridden suicidal tendencies; Benny, a former soldier who was the most tortured by AM to the point of being modified into an ape-like creature; Ellen, a former computer engineer with an inexplicable phobia for the colour yellow; Nimdok, an extremely old German scientist and Ted, a paranoid and vain con artist.

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The beginning of the game.

After choosing your character, AM then sends him or her to a scenario where each character must find out the objective of said scenario and fulfill it. However, they must also confront their past, fears and shortcomings in order to succeed in their respective scenarios. However, there are different ways to solve the puzzles and each character has the option of following their basic instincts or learn the human qualities that evaded their past lives in order to raise their karma level.

The karma level is measured by each character’s background colour in their respective portrait, located in the bottom-left corner of the screen. It ranges from black to white, going through several colours. It gets lighter for every “good” action and darker with each “bad” action, including reading each character’s Psych Profile, which provides clues to solve the puzzles. The reason for the karma level is only revealed at the final part of the game, but believe me, it helps to try and finish each scenario with the highest possible karma.

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Gorrister’s scenario.

The screen is divided in two sections: the main section, where the action occurs and the bottom section, where the character portrait, the action menu and the inventory are located. The interface is very reminiscent of the SCUMM engine by Lucasarts, although it’s lacking some common action verbs, like “open” and “pull”. But usually it’s “use” the most commonly one used for such actions.

The graphics are very detailed and quite good, although not very colourful (with some exceptions). But then again, in such a dark-themed game, a dark colour palette for most of it makes sense. The animation is equally good. The sound is great, be it the sound effects, the voice quality; although the voice acting ranges from great (Ellison’s AM is deliciously hammy!) to bad (I’m not a big fan of using actual children to voice kids); and the soundtrack, which is also quite good in providing a proper atmosphere.

The puzzles, however, can be quite hard (especially in the final part) with a lot of pixel-hunting and backtracking. In fact, for almost every puzzle solved, you need to backtrack to previous screens to look for new objects, situations or characters to interact in order to move the story along. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to use a walkthrough several times, especially at the end, since reading the Psych Profile for clues lowers the karma level.

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I wasn’t kidding when I said there was a lot of symbolism in this game!

But I do like the freedom given to the nature of your characters, because your karma level influences the type of ending you can get, ranging from terrible (the canon ending in the original short-story) to the best ending, all of it which gives the game some replay value, something that’s quite rare in graphic adventures.

But for me, the best part of the game, it’s the story and the characterisation. Due to nature of graphic adventures, Ellison had the opportunity to expand all the characters’ backstories and the story’s themes, not just adding extra endings. The story is quite dark and bleak, exploring themes of human nature and condition, especially redemption, mixed with a lot of symbolism and ethical dilemmas. And apart from the best ending, the endings can also be very dark and depressive. You won’t find any comedy or humour whatsoever throughout the game (although the violence isn’t as gory as I expected).

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“Walk like an Egyptian…”

Also, the characters were substantially changed from the original short-story and given a deeper characterisation, making them really fleshed out when you find out their backstory. Of course, there was a little controversy when Benny’s backstory was drastically changed, but there are still some hints of it here and there when playing his scenario.

In conclusion, I Have No Mouth… isn’t a perfect graphic adventure from a puzzle solving perspective, but the premise, the story and the characters more than tip the balance in its favour. Regardless to say that I recommend it, although it might be very hard for newcomers to the genre.

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No, this isn’t King’s Quest, not even close…

I Have No Mouth… was very acclaimed by most critics, even winning some awards, but it sold poorly. Most of its success come in more recent years, becoming a cult classic and increasing Ellison’s fame as a writer, although he personally prefered to stick to writing short-stories, novellas and screenplays.

You can buy it here on GOG.com, here on Steam, here on Google Play or here on the Apple Store for iPhone and iPad. Both the GOG.com and Steam versions come bundled with the original short-story in PDF format and the soundtrack.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this review dedicated to the memory of Harlan Ellison. Next time, we’ll take a look at a more upbeat game. Till then, be good and keep on playing.

World Class Soccer/Italy 1990 review

Like I said before in my Emilio Butragueño ¡Futbol! review, I’m a casual football fan that prefers watching national teams over clubs and there’s no bigger international competition than the FIFA World Cup, currently ongoing in Russia (just don’t ask me what the hell happened with Germany because I also have no idea).

And of course, football has millions of fans worldwide which means that football video games should be more common nowadays (instead of EA’s FIFA series and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, which have a new release every year with almost no new features). But back in the 80s and 90s, there were several football games in the market, coming originally from the arcades to home releases for computers and consoles alike.

Today, we’re going to take a look at one of such games, but based exclusively in the 1990 World Cup tournament that occured in Italy. It’s an unofficial title because FIFA only decided to officially sponsor video games since 1994.

World Class Soccer aka Italy 1990 is a football game developed by Tiertex and published by U.S. Gold. It was originally released in 1990 for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS and ZX Spectrum. It was re-released in 1992 as a budget title for the Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.

But as always, let’s first look at the covers:

91568-world-class-soccer-dos-front-coverThis is the European cover which features some famous football players of the time (at first glance, I recognise Maradona, Butragueño and Gullit, among others). It’s a very colourful cover full of average drawings of popular players. It isn’t a bad cover and it shows exactly what to expect from the game.

But the US version had its own cover:

91621-world-class-soccer-amiga-front-coverNow, this cover is simply a photo from one of the matches (Cameroon vs England in the quarterfinals, if I’m not mistaken). It isn’t a bad cover either, but isn’t as colorful or memorable as the European cover.

But it’s time to go to the main event and shoot this ball to the goal:

 

As you can see, the game is as simple as it gets, with a very plain intro featuring a nice, albeit repetitive music theme. Then you get to the main menu, where you can choose to play a friendly match against the computer or against a friend, go straight to the World Cup tournament or mess around with the options, like control schemes and the time length of the matches.

But before playing any match, you need to choose which team to control. All 24 teams are classified by four stats: Skill, Speed, Aggression and Strength, that range from 1 to 5. Then you choose which formation do you want and which players you want for each position on the field. You can even put defenders on the attacking positions and vice-versa, although it isn’t recommended for obvious reasons. All the players are also classified by the same aforementioned stats, so you can make your own squad with your favourite formation.

Then a newscast anchor comes up, introducing the match and the teams and even says who the favourite is, according to the aforementioned stats. Surprisingly, Italy seems to have the highest stats, although it was West Germany that ended up winning the 1990 World Cup. And all the team’s squads seem to be correct (I haven’t check, truth be told).

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The match starts…

And finally the match starts. At first glance, it looks like your typical top-down view found in almost every other football game at the time, but then when you see the players fully shown and the angle of goals, it’s revealed that it has a sort of inclined top down perspective. There’s also a small horizontal bar on the bottom that shows the result, the time and the name of the player that currently has the ball. The match view almost fills the entire screen, which is what I’m looking for in a football game and there’s a blinking arrow next to the player you’re currently controlling pointing towards the opponent’s goal, to know where you should be going. The only thing that’s missing is a full pitch view on the side to know exactly our position on the field.

The ball automatically stick to each player’s feet and although some veteran gamers might not like that, personally I do, because it’s easier for inexperienced gamers like myself. And also our goalkeeper is mostly controlled by the AI until he gets the ball, which is another blessing for newcomers to football video games. And although the difficulty is linked to each team stats, even if you’re controlling the strongest team against the weakest team, the match’s difficulty is hard. I wish there could be a difficulty selection option available.

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The control scheme is the one commonly found in all retro football games with four directional buttons and one action button to shot and pass the ball or to tackle opponents (the long you push the button, the stronger will be said action). I personally found the controls to be average, either playing with a gamepad or the keyboard, but I didn’t like the fact that you can’t use the gamepad to navigate through the menus.

Also, although the manual refers to the referee’s ability to use cards, I didn’t see any cards or any punishment whatsoever. Either it’s very hard to do rough actions worthy of penalties or the referee simply wasn’t programmed into the game.

The graphics are okay for a game at the time but nothing spectacular. The only sound effect you’ll hear is the sound of kicking the ball, which is as simple as it gets, so apart from the nice (but repetitive) music theme, the game’s quite lacking in the sound department.

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In conclusion, World Class Soccer is a pretty average football game that was quickly surpassed by other titles of the time, like World Cup Italia’ 90 by Sega and the groundbreaking Kick-Off 2 (which we’ll review at a later date). So if you’re looking for an easy-to-use football game, you might want to give World Class Soccer a shot, but if you’re looking for a quality football experience, then I don’t recommend it.

However, the game came with a slew of extras, like a trivia quiz, a wall chart to fill the results, a booklet full of information about the tournament and even a form to fill to enter a competition to win tickets to go watch the finals at Rome! It’s like an entire box dedicated to the 1990 World Cup in which the game itself is just a small part of an entire football experience.

That was our review, and I want to apologize for not reviewing or even streaming for more than a month, but I had a lot of professional and personal stuff to do. And I know I wasn’t supposed to review this game now, but with the World Cup currently going on, I thought it was a good idea to review a retro football game.

Next time, we’ll take a look at a very dark game from the mind of a very prolific sci-fi writer that has recently passed away. Until then, who do you think who’ll win the World Cup? Let me know and keep on playing.