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.

Blackthorne DOS review

Well, like I promised last time, today’s review is from a GOOD action PC game and it’s also one of the first games produced by a famous game developer. I’m talking about Blackthorne.

Blackthorne (AKA Blackhawk in Europe) is an action/platform game developed by Blizzard and published by Interplay. It was originally released in 1994 for DOS and SNES/Super Nintendo. It was ported the next year for the SEGA 32X and the following year for Macintosh and the PC-98. It was re-released in 2003 for the Game Boy Advance and in 2013 for Windows.

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

26863-blackthorne-dos-front-coverWow! With famous comic book artist Jim Lee responsible for this cover art, Blizzard wasn’t pulling any punches when promoting the game. It features our protagonist, armed with a shotgun, posing as the badass he is. With an equal badass title logo, this would be one of the best covers I’ve ever seen, if it wasn’t for the lack of background. Although I kind of like the red colour on our protagonist.

28145-blackthorne-dos-otherAnd yes, this is the type of cover I would like for the gamebox (this is the jewel case cover). Featuring a proper background and even one the enemies you face on the game behind the protagonist. Although some might say that this looks more like a comic book cover than a computer game cover, I think I prefer this one.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so, because almost every other cover had the coloured art version, like this one:

228230-blackthorne-snes-front-coverYes, this is the full cover art and it’s probably the reason why the SNES/Super Nintendo version is the most famous version of the game.

But for the Game Boy Advance re-release, another cover by a different artist was used:

273340-blackthorne-game-boy-advance-front-coverIt’s not bad and the lines look better, but as far as content go, it’s no different than the original cover. They should have used the back cover instead:

273341-blackthorne-game-boy-advance-back-coverNow this look badass! And featuring one of the reasons why this game is famous: the not-looking back shot! Not very practical, but it does look awesome!

But enough talking about the covers and let’s boot this sucker:

In the title screen, you have the badass logo featured in the covers and the traditional options menu, plus a Practice level which is basically a tutorial to learn all the necessary moves needed to play the game and if you select New Game, you’re treated to the game’s intro.

The intro, despite being somewhat small, explains everything you need to know about the backstory: in the world of Tuul, the evil Ka’dra’suul (who look a lot like the orcs from the Warcraft series) led by Sarlac, wage war on the human-like Androthi (again, just like in Warcraft). But as the Ka’dra’suul are raiding Androth’s royal castle, King Vlaros asks the court wizard, Galadril, to sent his infant son Kyle to Earth. But 20 years later while hitchhiking, the now adult Kyle (calling himself Blackthorne) is sent back to Tuul, where he must avenge his father, rescue his people and defeat the evil Sarlac armed only with his boomstick. And if you wish to know more, the manual expands upon the backstory and reveals more about the protagonist.

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Like I said before, you start the game armed only with a shotgun (with infinite ammo), but you can pick up other items like bombs, potions, keys, etc. from enemies or other Androthi you encounter throughout the levels. You can also upgrade your shotgun and raise your health bar in some specific levels. You go through 17 levels divided in 4 areas. In each level, you need to get keys, bombs and other items to open doors and barriers in order to progress to the next level, beating all kinds of enemies and avoiding traps along the way. But everytime you start a new level, you lose all the items you gathered in the previous level (meaning you have to get them all over again) but at least your health bar is recharged back to full.

The combat system is a bit more strategic than most action games. You can dodge attacks simply by pressing yourself against the background (you’ll notice this as Blackthorne gets darker), but your enemies can also do the same. So basically, most combat revolves around dodging attacks until you get an opening to attack. Patience and quick reflexes are the key to victory. You can also run past most enemies but some of them carry items necessary to solve the environmental puzzles. And the enemies get progressively harder and harder, but at least your shotgun and your health bar get upgraded throughout the game.

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Killing an enemy.

And the difficulty also grows exponentially as you progress, but I only found the game  starting to get hard from the 2nd area forward. Luckily apart from the upgrades, you also have infinite lives, so you can try again and again, although everytime you die, you need to restart the level all over again (which can be a drag if you die near the end of a level).

But the gem in the crown is the mix of action and platforming which is very reminiscent from other titles like Prince of Persia, Another World or Flashback. It’s very fluid and fast-paced (but perhaps not as much as the titles I mentioned), but then the combat sections slow that fluidity to a halt (although an experienced player can combine the running and the dodging with the back shot to keep it somewhat fluid). Yes, Kyle can use a back shot by stretching his arm backwards, without looking or aiming. Very useful (and badass looking) when you’re in the middle of two enemies but not very realistic.

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Another great aspect of the game are its graphics: all the levels are very detailed and beautiful, with a fantastic color palette, from the backgrounds to the gothic aesthetic in the last area. And the animation is equally superb, especially during the cutscenes and Kyle’s idle animations (which contribute to the overall atmosphere of the game). Despite the DOS version having a small resolution, the artstyle is top-notch and it doesn’t shy away from some light gore, like blood and exposed wounds.

The level design is very well made and apart from some later levels, you won’t need maps to figure your way around them. Although you might have trouble in some screens figuring out where you can climb up to an upper screen. Although the levels aren’t too big (although you might have to take some long routes in the later levels), the game itself has quite a proper length, mostly due to the puzzles and figuring out where all the items are (and some hidden areas here and there).

Also there is a good variety of enemies from the aforementioned Ka’dra’suul (that come in different colors and respective ranks of difficulty) to other beasts. But I wish the game had boss fights at the end of the last level of each area, apart from the final boss, that is. In fact, when you watch the cutscenes, you might get convicted of the contrary.

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For such an hardcore action game, you might expect an hard-rock soundtrack, right? Well, the soundtrack is actually a bit subdued in contrast with the action on screen. The initial levels have some upbeat themes but as you progress through the game, the music gets more ominous and nerving, but each theme suits its level quite well. I actually found the music a bit relaxing and not a bit distracting. It contributes a lot to the game’s atmosphere. And the sound effects are equally good (especially some enemies’ grunts).

And like I said in past reviews featuring action games, the controls are probably the most important feature for such games and Blackthorne has very responsive keyboard controls. But here lies the game’s biggest flaw: both the original DOS version and the re-released version aren’t compatible with any joystick or gamepad, especially if you’re playing in a native DOS computer. It’s technically possible to remap the keyboard controls with a gamepad if you’re using Dosbox, but I couldn’t do it with the re-release version that comes bundled with Dosbox.

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I love the color palette used here.

So, in conclusion, Blackthorne is probably one of the best action/platform games ever made for the PC, despite being eclipsed by other classic titles in the same genre (like the aforementioned Prince of Persia or Flashback). Still, it’s a very solid game with great controls, gameplay (albeit only through keyboard), graphics and animation. Needless to say that I recommend it for any action game fan!

I haven’t played any of the console versions but I do know that the SNES/Super Nintendo version is probably the most famous one (mostly due to the fact that you can play it using a gamepad!), although the gore is censored. But the Sega 32X version might be the definite version due to its superior graphics and an extra area with 4 more levels. But I did play the Mac version which has a bigger resolution and better graphics than the DOS version and a very similar gameplay.

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The Game Over screen, but only if you choose to give up.

I’m sure you’re already searching through digital stores for this game, but what if I tell you that it’s completely free? That’s right! In 2013, Blizzard re-released an updated version bundled with Dosbox at Battle.net free of charge! What are you waiting for? Go and get it!

And that was the review. Whew, that was a lengthy one! But I did promise to review a proper action title. So I hope you don’t mind if for the next review, I choose a game from a totally different genre. And it’s one of my personal favorites too. Until then, practice your no-scope back shot and keep on playing!

Duke Nukem review

I think reviewing the first titles of popular gaming franchises that still continue to nowadays has become sort of a running theme around here, hasn’t it? Then again, a lot of popular gaming characters have humble beginnings, like probably the manliest character in video-game history having started in a shareware title. And believe it or not, I’m talking about Duke Nukem.

Duke Nukem is a platform/action game made by Apogee Software and originally released in 1990 for DOS. It was re-released digitally in 2013 for Macintosh and Windows.

And in proper shareware tradition, Duke Nukem is divided in 3 episodes, the first of which was distributed freely through computer software magazines in order to garner attention in the public to order the other 2 episodes by mail.

And like always, let’s first look at the covers:

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Because Duke Nukem is a shareware game, it was originally distributed on sleeves with just a screen capture image. But however…

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Now these are more proper cover art and perfect for any action title. Our titular hero on the foreground surrounded by monsters is as classic action iconography as it gets. Although the first cover is very reminiscent of the sequels’ cover art and the second cover is the most faithful one to the game itself.

Well, it’s time to boot this sucker:

The story is pretty simple but very Sci-Fi B-movie-ish: an evil mad scientist called Dr. Proton creates an army of robots to conquer the world and only one man can stop him: Megam… sorry, Duke Nukem! And don’t be fooled by the title screen. You see, when Apogee created this game, they failed to notice that there was already another character called Duke Nukem (from the Captain Planet cartoon), so they change the title to Duke Nukum to avoid legal problems. However, Apogee later found out that the name “Duke Nukem” was never registered, so they change it back in the sequel. However, it’s still possible to find earlier versions of this game with the original Duke Nukem title.

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Yes, believe it or not, this IS the original Duke Nukem!

The gameplay is actually pretty simple: you take control of Duke throughout ten levels per episode and face Dr. Proton at the end of the last level of each episode. You need to reach the end of each level and go through a door that takes you to the next level (except obviously, the last level), destroying several enemies and avoiding traps, initially with just your futuristic gun. You can collect all sorts of items along the way, like extra guns to upgrade your gun (only to increase the fire rate), helpful items like grappling claws or jumping boots (which some can be carried from level to level, but you’ll lose them all at the beginning of each episode), items just to gain points and also healing items.

Some of these items can only be found inside boxes that are opened by shooting them. However, some of these boxes might contain exploding dynamite that’ll hurt you. And there are special items that are essential to finish some levels, like keys and others. The enemies are varied and some require more than a simple shot to destroy them. However, there are no bosses (except for Dr. Proton himself at the end of each episode).

The 1st episode is extremely easy and great for beginners, however the 2nd episode might the hardest and longest of them all and the 3rd episode might be a bit easier than the 2nd one, but it has the toughest boss fight of all 3. But you can play the episodes in whatever order you prefer. The 1st one, called Shrapnel City is your first battle against Dr. Proton as he attacks with his Techbot army. In the 2nd episode (Mission: Moonbase), after defeating Dr. Proton in the previous episode, he flees to his hidden base on the moon and Duke gives chase after him. In the 3rd episode (Trapped in the Future), Dr. Proton uses a time machine to escape to the future but again Duke follows him for their final confrontation.

Like I said before, each episode has 10 levels and I have to say that each level feels unique in their own design, with some labyrinths here and there and lots of hidden areas where you can find all types of bonuses. And since there isn’t any time limit, feel free to explore them to your heart’s content. You also have close to infinite lives, since every time you die, the game automatically loads the latest save state. And the game can only be saved between levels, so make sure to ALWAYS save after finishing a level. The worst part is dying near the end of a level and be forced to repeat the entire level.

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Because it’s a shareware title, Duke Nukem doesn’t have the best graphics for the time and the sprites are a bit small, but at least I like the colours and there are some nice graphical effects like reflective surfaces. The animation is equally simple but still quite fluid. But unfortunately, there’s no music (apart from some short tunes here and there) and the sound effects on the PC speaker are as primitive as they come. However, just like most shareware platformers, the best feature are the controls, which couldn’t be better. Using whether a gamepad or the keyboard, the controls are perfectly sensitive and responsive.

Of course, in this game, Duke hasn’t quite gained his “ultra macho” personality (nor his iconic sunglasses) which he became famous for, but you can still see some initial elements of it during his interactions with Dr. Proton at the beginning of each episode.

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Although being a simple action platformer, Duke Nukem had the necessary success to warrant 2 sequels, the second of which became the smashing hit we all know and love, but that’s a review for another day. Still, for any Duke Nukem fan, I say to give it a shot (even if you don’t really appreciate platformers).

You can go here to download the first episode free of charge, along with a level editor (or here to play it on you own browser), but unfortunately, the other 2 episodes are no longer available digitally, so good luck finding any copies of them.

So, are you fans of Duke Nukem? Which are your favourite games of the series? Tell me below in the comments, on our Facebook page, on our Twitter feed or on our Steam group. Next time, we’re back to the streets! Until then, keep on playing and chewing bubblegum (as long as you don’t run out of it).