Remembering Commander Keen, 20 Years Later

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Hard to believe it’s been two full decades since the world got its first taste of what would become id Software.

Commander Keen, the earliest work produced by the id team, was launched 20 years ago on December 14 — over a month before the company was officially founded. Starring Billy “Commander Keen” Blaze, an eight-year-old genius-turned-space explorer, the Keen series quickly won a big following for its smooth side-scrolling action and irreverent style.

To mark the series’ 20th anniversary today, developers from both id Software and Bethesda have volunteered to share their memories of the Keen games. Take a trip back through time and space with us below:

Michael Musick, id Software:

One of the first things that I recall doing after I built my first computer (Intel i486!) was loading up a handful of games – King’s Quest IV, Leisure Suit Larry (much to the chagrin of my father), and Commander Keen: Goodbye, Galaxy! I probably spent at least a good hour calibrating my DB-15 joystick to get the most precise control possible with the pogo stick, resulting in the death of countless poison slugs and shikadi.

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Commander Keen Episode 1: Marooned on Mars

Shawn Casey, id Software:

I remember always being jealous of the NES crowd because they had a cool platformer, and it wasn’t until Commander Keen came out that I could finally enjoy my own platformer on the PC.  Playing it with the Gravis gamepad was a blast, even with a snapped off stick.

Alan Nanes, Bethesda Game Studios:

In December of 1990, a good friend of mine named Steve knocked on my back porch door (like he always did) like a madman. I opened it and glared at him like he was crazy. He proudly held up a 5.25 inch floppy disc and said, “Dude, you have to play this… come on!” I yelled to my mom that I was heading over to his house, and out the door I went.

Steve’s father worked for a subsidiary of IBM and had access to a wicked cool mainframe modem setup, which he had apparently used to download “Commander Keen: Marooned on Mars.” Usually, most of the shareware stuff Steve’s dad gave him was awful, but I had never seen him react this way, so I was intrigued. We popped the disc in, and there it was in all its glory: the crazy pogo stick device, the four Vorticon baddies guarding the parts to his ship, and the cool Martian city levels. We played for hours and hours, trading off turns whenever we could pry the other guy off the keyboard. I think we were at the last city (on perhaps our third playthrough) when Steve’s dad finally got home from work and came down to the basement where we hovered over his computer.

The catch was that Steve’s dad worked a later shift at his job and never came home before midnight. That’s right… time had flown by so quickly playing that game, we hadn’t even realized. To make matters worse, my mom never heard me when I ran out the door, and she’d been calling all of my friends’ houses looking for me. Luckily, Steve’s dad was cool and had told my mom that I was sleeping over, so it never turned into a big deal. And with that revelation, we spent the rest of the night restoring Keen’s ship over and over again. Good times.

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The infamous Dopefish, seen here in Commander Keen Episode 4: Secret of the Oracle

Mike Rubits, id Software:

My childhood was pretty much made up of Mario games on the console, and Commander Keen on the PC. I was only 3 years old when the game was originally released, but I still must have played the first level in each game hundreds of times, not being talented enough to get much further. I didn’t even realize until well after DOOM that the same people were responsible for both games; I just knew that I spent far too much time on both.

Thanks in part to the Keen series, platformers are still by far my favorite genre of game, and I still revisit the series every now and then. I’m always thrilled when a new platformer hits the PC nowadays.

Jeremy Mitchell, id Software:

Keen was always one of my favorite PC games when I was a kid. I hold a special place in my heart for Keen, since it was the first id game I played. I never would have guessed that 20 years later I’d be working with the guys who made it. I remember thinking, “Whoa, it’s like Mario but with spaceships, aliens, and laser guns!”

I don’t have any charming stories to tell, but I would like to refer you to this piece of art I attached. Created by character artist Emil Mujanovic, it’s his interpretation of what Keen would look like in a modern game..

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That’s all from us. Share your memories of Commander Keen in the comments! And don’t forget that the entire Commander Keen franchise is available to play on Steam.

Reader Comments

  1. “One of the first things that I recall doing after I built my first computer (Intel i486!)”

    Now I feel old. The first computer I built was a 386DX but I haven’t become a professional video game developer yet. But I did play an awful lot of Commander Keen back in the day.

  2. This game was my childhood! I remember playing this and Doom and all the other Apogee and Epic Megagames shareware games back when I was young with my dad. Commander Keen is still one of my all-time favorites.

  3. i only vaguely remember playing one of the Keen games on a friend’s PC back in the day. i’d always had a Mac, since ’88, which actually had a lot of good games back then (maybe more than now).

    however, i was always surprised that Keen came from the same folks that later exclusively made brutal, raw games. really, how many id games are kid-appropriate? it’s like watching “Dead Alive” and “Meet the Feebles” after “Lord of the Rings”.

  4. I had no idea the Keen series was made by id. I used to play a Keen game on the computer at the public library when I was growing up. It was tons of fun, but they had one of those old keyboards that made the extremely loud “KA-CHUNK!” noise with every button press, so I’d have to pretend to browse the books every so often so I didn’t annoy the crap out of everyone.

  5. I just remembered that Commander Keen might’ve been the first game that I played in my whole life.

    My father had it on his work-computer, he worked at the polytechnic back then so he was ahead of his time when it came to technology.

    I and my brothers called it the “Boygame”, loogically because the protagonist was a boy adventuring. The enemies were named in an equally interesting manner, there were (freely translated from finnish) “Evilmatoes” and “Bubblegumstones”… Good times, although we never reached the end of the game.

  6. Time for a relaunch of the Keen series – on all platforms! Mario, Donkey Kong etc have survived, why not Keen? On The PC there was hardly any game as Keen 20 years ago. I really played it over and over again. I guess there would be millions of fans buying a new Keen game, if it was a good one.

  7. I love Commander Keen, played the shareware versions a lot on my 486 back in the early 90′s.

    By the way, the Commander Keen collection on Steam is _not_ the complete series, it’s missing Commander Keen 6 – Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter! and Commander Keen 7 – Keen Dreams.

  8. Aww man now I feel incredibly old again :) . Commander Keen and Wolf3D were the PC games that started off my addiction, which was only made worse by Doom a few years later. The rest is history. I still prefer Duke Nukem though, Keen was always a bit sissy next to duke hehe.

  9. I played this game to death, especially episodes 4-6 and Keen Dreams. Always loved the wide variety of totally weird enemies, especially the shittin’ snails and bouncin’ tomatoes.

  10. The reason that episodes 6 and 7 aren’t available thru Steam is because they actually weren’t made by id! They were actually made by Apogee without any input from id whatsoever and id has no rights to the games.

  11. I had just got my very own computer after my dad built it at his friends PC shop. He put it in front of me with some manual. I had finally put it together and booted it up, when I realized there was a floppy disk at the end of the box. I looked at it for like 1 minute curiously. I finally grabbed it and slammed it in my PC!
    BAM! BOOM! IT was WILD! Yes, I’d played many games before, especially mario. But when I put this is I was like
    “Wtf? ‘Tsupwitdis?”, and I played it for hours, hours, days, long nights, and I owned it. The floppy disk was labelled “King Keen”, for some reason lol.
    Then, I learned about the company behind this game, id software, and soon they were releasing more and more games!
    I have played everyone cmmnder keen, wolfenstien, doom, quake1,2,3,4, doom 2, doom 3, rage, lol and a bunch more

    LONG LIVE ID SOFTWARE!