Written by: Stoo

Date posted: April 1, 2003

The graphics are cheerfully whimsical and colourful.

The 2D platform game, whilst perhaps one of the most popular genres a dozen or so years ago, never really took off on the same scale on the PC. From the cutesy jump-on-heads gameplay of Mario to Contra-style platform shooters this was a domain dominated by the 8 and 16-bit consoles, with some strong entries also from the likes of the Amiga. The PC meanwhile was still generally regarded as the machine your Dad did his accounts on, and as such most of its gaming options were also of more “grown-up” genres like flight sims and strategy. It also suffered somewhat from inferior hardware; the EGA graphics and PC bleeper that many people were still stuck with in 1990 for example were hopelessly outmatched by the capabilities of the Sega Megadrive. Thus it had less instant appeal to kids and their short attention spans, largely vital to shifting copies this kind of game. To be keep some perspective though, for every good console platformer like Mega Man 2, there were probably about 4 crap ones.

Map screen – you’re quite free to tackle most levels in any order.

Still, the PC was not entirely devoid of simple action gaming. The shareware scene for example, dominated by distributors Apogee, did bring us a steady stream of platformers. Many of these were fairly mediocre stuff that that would hardly challenge Turrican or the Mario games, but one of the higher notes was the Commander Keen series. These were written by iD software, who would of course later go on to fame with their first-person shooters. The Keen games starred a genius kid called Billy Blaze, who finds himself repeatedly saving the earth from aliens, armed only with his football helmet, pogo-stick and home-made blaster. For this review I’m mostly concentrating on the fourth game in the series because A: it’s the best of the lot in my estimation and B: it’s also shareware and thus (legally) available for free.

Regarding the plot, clever Billy has learned that some megalomaniac aliens want to blow up the Galaxy. Or possibly just rule it. I’m not sure but then can barely summon the effort to read about the cheesy story in the help file. Point being, he’s flown in his home-made rocket to the world of some old oracle guys who can give him some answers as to what’s going on. Except, predictably, they’ve been kidnapped and hidden away across the lands. So Keen has to track the oracles down, fighting or dodging hordes of monsters along the way. So there you go. Look, if it’s a complex story you’re after, go play Deus Ex.

This level is all glass and cool blues against a desert backdrop.

Anyway, a quick glance at the screenshots should tell you most of what this game is about. Running, jumping, zapping and so on. Still, Keen does have a few nice touches which let it stand out a little. For one, the pogo-stick allows you to make far greater leaps than otherwise possible, at the cost of increased difficulty in controlling movement precisely. Also you can “mantle”, ie cling onto ledges and haul yourself up; say for example if you take a long jump across a pit and don’t go far enough to land on your feet. Such a feature is quite welcome; it was normally only seen in the more detailed and “clever” platformers such as Prince of Persia and Flashback.

The levels meanwhile are certainly well varied; the various themes including forest village, desert fortress, icy cave and ancient temple. Levels are accessed via a map screen (a common trait of the Keen series), so once you’re past the first couple you can do most of the rest in any order you choose. Within each level, the monsters are as you might expect a fairly cutesy bunch; yellow slugs leave puddles of slime, while angry blue beanbag-like critters bound towards you breathing licks of fire. Note that although you carry a zapper, this isn’t a shooting spree on a Contra or Megaman scale. Ammo is relatively limited, forcing you to put at least some small amount of thought into where you fire. Also, many of the bigger critters can only be temporarily stunned, just for long enough to allow you to scramble and leap past to safety.

Enemies kill you in one hit, but nonetheless slugs aren’t too threatening.

Graphics are restricted to the 16 bit palletes of EGA, although that said they are still quite cheerful and colourful. Primitive, but not off-putting. Sound and music meanwhile is at best of the splangey Adlib sort. Those of you too young to remember such things, imagine sounds like “splange”, “wirrple”, “splg” and “blpp” and you have a good idea what the Adlib card was about. In all fairness though, it was a big improvement on BLEEP, which was all the PC could really do before such soundcards.

This is a pretty short review, as there’s really not a huge amount to say about these games. I might wax lyrical about the merits of in-depth games like System Shock, but sometimes a bit of simple platform fun is just what you want in your lunch hour or at the end of a hard day. As far as entertaining distractions on the PC go, this one is always a good option.