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.
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.
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..
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.