FROM JASON’S CYAN AND MAGENTA SCREEN — It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when side-scrollers didn’t work on the PC. Long after the folks over in Japan had figured out how to Mario themselves into Scrooge’s Money Bank-esque piles of cash, the PC was still lagging dangerously behind.
In a way, all of the modern computer games — Bioshock, Portal, Crysis, Sins of a Solar Empire, Supreme Commander, everything — owe all their success to a little 1990 game called Commander Keen (download). Its code surmounted a major problem facing PC gaming: the lack of parallax scrolling.
Inspired by Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, Buck Rogers, and other old radio serials, Keen tells the story of Billy Blaze, an 8-year-old boy with an IQ of 314 who journeys across the galaxy trying to thwart his nemesis, Mortimer McMire. Interestingly enough, Billy’s backstory was re-written after the release of Wolfenstein 3D (both created by Id Software) so that he was the grandson of Wolftenstein hero B.J. Blazkowicz.
Keen creator Tom Hall discovered a coding trick that allowed smooth scrolling on the EGA graphics card/CRT. His first move was to port the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 to the PC and try to sell Nintendo on getting into the home computing market. Nintendo purportedly came close but eventually declined, and Hall (and collaborators) decided to make an original game.
The account of that venture is pretty widely established and you can read the 3D Realms version if you want. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to rehash it.
Of all the Keen episodes — there are six, including a Gameboy Color title — I think Secret of the Oracle (the first half of the Goodbye Galaxy story arc and the fourth in the series) is by far the best. First of all, it was the first to be backward-compatible with CGA monitors, which meant I could play it in its four-color glory: black, white, cyan, and magenta. It also boasted non-linear level selection once the first two stages were completed.
Keen’s level design was tops in 1991. This player knows what he’s doing.
But maybe the best thing about Oracle was the level design. These were still the days of randomly floating platforms and floating chochkes, but in Oracle alone did the Id team manage to make these elements look somewhat naturalistic and contiguous. The 2/3 view didn’t hurt, and the large, solid background elements like trees and desert, houses, the infamous slug statue, and Billy’s rocket ship added a sense that this wasn’t a world made up of just 16×16 sprites.
I also think a big reason why the early PC gaming community adopted Billy Blaze as its ad hoc mascot was because he’s so geek-relatable. Computers in the pre-Windows days weren’t exactly user friendly, and not everybody was savvy enough to get drivers to work or even learn commands for DOS (or DOShell). Those who developed even basic early PC literacy were pretty bright and I, especially, felt like I could identify with a kid genius slinging lines of DOS syntax and BASIC commands.
Maybe that’s a little narcissistic, but that’s how I felt as an 11-year-old 3.5-inch disc jockey.
Leave Billy alone long enough in-game and he’ll sit down and read a book — just like me. He’s also got some young punk cred; a trick in the Temple of the Moon level will make him moon you. He’s got that superior cocked eyebrow going on in the title screen. He’s also got that slightly lopsided grin that maybe I stole from him subconsciously.
One last thing: I always felt there was a little bit of ambiguity in the Keen games about whether the events were really taking place. The narrative always played it straight: Yes, Billy was really planet-hopping to fight the Vorticons et al. But I always thought that the entire Keen world might just be a byproduct of Billy’s imagination. I mean, I’m not too proud to admit that as a small boy (age 16 or 17 or 24) I would don a football helmet, grab a Captain Power lightgun and rush around the basement acting out some epic quest. I wonder if that’s all Billy was doing and if that means the surrealism of the game was entirely a figment.
There are better platformers out there now, or course, but Secret of the Oracle still holds up remarkably well (if you’re slightly forgiving). It certainly looks better than many, many
Famicom Nintendo titles from the same era. Hall continues to waffle about the future of the franchise — he doesn’t have the intellectual rights anymore — but says he wants to someday develop another episode.
Let me say this: If a Keen-a-la-Mario64 reimagining hit the Nintendo DS today, I would pay double the retail price to get it.