Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars (PC) review
"Billy Blaze is eight years old. And he's a genius. He's constructed what he calls a 'beans and bacon' spacecraft from miscellaneous slop he unearthed around his parents' house. When he dons his big brother's yellow football helmet and carries along with him his trusty pogo-stick, we know it is nighttime (got to make sure the folks are asleep, after all), and that he's heading to outer space. We know he is blazing trails of interstellar discovery and aggressive peacekeeping endeavors. We know he has become... Commander Keen! "
No money down, with fleeting - but genuine - interest
Apogee was famous for making fun games and providing them in part, for free (e.g.: download chapter one, like it and order the next two parts). The company was a big name in Shareware (Duke Nukem anyone?), and fun titles like Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars (we'll call it 'Keen 1' from here on in) are the reason why.
Keen 1 is the first part of a three game series dubbed, Invasion of the Vorticons. Episodes 4 and up are part of a different grouping of games, though the protagonist is the same in each case. His name is Billy.
Billy Blaze is eight years old. And he's a genius. He's constructed what he calls a 'beans and bacon' spacecraft from miscellaneous slop he unearthed around his parents' house. When he dons his big brother's yellow football helmet and carries along with him his trusty pogo-stick, we know it is nighttime (got to make sure the folks are asleep, after all), and that he's heading to outer space. We know he is blazing trails of interstellar discovery and aggressive peacekeeping endeavors. We know he has become... Commander Keen!
In this episode, Keen makes for Mars. He parallel parks his spacecraft so he can cruise the environs, looking for a little action. When he returns to his ship, he is flabbergasted at the nefarious Vorticons' theft of four critical parts belonging to his ship. Without these integral pieces of high technology (a game joystick, mom's car battery, a vacuum cleaner and a bottle of dad's booze), Keen finds himself MAROONED ON MARS. Yes, just as the title suggests. Your mission entails scouring the Martian landscape, battling the aliens and their robot helpers in the various installments they’ve constructed, in an effort to locate and reclaim the missing pieces of your ship.
For an old game, Keen looks decent. Your position on the Martian terrain, as well as the position of the alien outposts, are viewed on a convenient overhead map. Sometimes you’ll have the option to scoot around one of the alien edifices and take on another, but since you don’t know where your parts are hidden, you’ll need to crash the party at every spot, until all the installments are flattened and replaced with a blue square that reads “done”. Still, having the option to beat the areas in varying order is nice (a few of the edifices actually block your passage to progress on the map, so no such option to roam ahead will be available in these cases).
Once you choose to enter an alien hotspot, the view switches to the good ol’ side-scroller. Keen will be able to jump from platform to platform, over the heads of belligerent aliens, and onto the heads of the comparatively harmless one-eyed variety to stun them. He'll come across tiny robots that can't hurt Keen directly, but have a nasty habit of pushing him into more dangerous enemies or toasty pits of fire. There are larger robots that sit on tank treads, which are also non-threatening to the touch, though the same cannot be said of their laser cannons. ZAP!
It is at this point where your penchant for harassment gets checked—the other two foes in Keen 1 won’t stand being touched, and so you’ll need to bring your ray gun into play to handle them. There are big, ugly, green rushing aliens; and leaping, bipedal coyotes in a blue space suits. You’ll need to move carefully, Commander, always saving your progress on the overhead map, and always ensuring that you grab every ray gun icon (charges for the weapon) that you come across during your side-scrolling travels.
The journey takes you through alien areas infested with these robots and weird life forms, buzzing about on plain platforms, and crawling around on shaded blocks. Though harder to control than your normal jump, the vertical boost provided by your pogo-stick will gain you access to out-of-the-way secret areas, and further on in the quest, out-of-the-way areas that are neither secret, nor optional. Coloured key cards often play a part as well; coloured doors will bar your egress in many levels, so that a scavenger hunt for the keycards is necessary. Sometimes you'll need to find the blue card to unlock the blue door leading to a passage where the red card is hidden, and so on. Dark, near-uninhabited alien outposts featuring serious jumping and strange obelisks offering advice, are mixed in with the colourful, heavily populated puzzle-y areas. The variety is welcome.
The only unwelcome aspect of Keen are the sounds. They're truly horrible. Offensive squawks and squeaks bleep forth from your computer each time you jump, descend from a jump, or anything else. The game uses your PC Speaker to issue the cacophony, and for many, this means the volume can't be controlled. A word to the wise: turn the sound off altogether. And be thankful there was no real music attempted.
Aside from the aural assault, Keen doesn't really disappoint. This being said, the game won't blow you away either. It's extremely simple, and because of the 'save anywhere on the map' feature, it's possible to beat it on your first try in about half an hour. Expect the revolutionary, and you'll be sorely disappointed. Expect to have a few hours of cutesy, old school platform enjoyment with a decidedly juvenile tilt, and Keen will do rather nicely.
If you were provided a chance to play this game when it first came out, at no cost to you, you would almost certainly want a chance to play the other two installments so that you could close out the adventure. Perhaps laziness and thriftiness would keep the other two parts out of your hands (as was the case with me). But now that all three installments of Invasion of the Vorticons are available free of charge, with the graceful way the series has aged (jumping, shooting and finding keys never became outdated), nothing should stop you from playing this series to completion. It won't take long, and it will bring a little keen platforming into your life. Begin here, with Keen 1. Pack your helmet. You're going to Mars.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 14, 2004)
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