Commander Keen: Episode 1  - Dann
aka. Marooned on Mars
Commander Keen is one of my most treasured childhood games. I mean after I traded my Eagle for a 286 and all. More games from THAT era later.
In any case, save for some silly Saddam Hussein game, this kicked off the post-Church BBS swap. The Sunday ritual was always the same. When church ended, I made a bee-line for my friend who had a brother using this new Internet modem thing to download games. Aside from the game where you fire Patriot missiles into Saddam, Captain Comic and Commander Keen were the two primary ingredients for a successful Sunday afternoon.
While published by Apogee, Keen was created by id software and was their flagship title that got the founding fathers into the business. Initially created as a Mario Clone, Nintendo didn't care to enter the PC market at the time, so they decided to create a game from scratch. Pioneering the shareware model, Episode 1 was released for free, while the others had to be purchased. This left for some numbering confusion since the sequel to Keen started off at 4 and ended up getting up to Keen 6 by the end.
I did end up registering the set for $30 as a birthday gift. Back before the days of Internet information overload, this is pretty much all I had to go on for ages at a time, so getting the final pieces was important. It didn't help that they included some screenshots of the other ones, complete with new enemies. But those episodes will have to wait for another time.
So anyway, back to the shareware release. For a little back-story, Billy Blaze builds a spaceship out of spare parts and leftovers. While his parents are out, he heads over to Mars but the ship parts get scattered around the planet, so you need to get them. For a while, I was unsure how to actually beat the game. One level isn't as straightforward as the rest, so I went on beating every other level in hopes that somehow I could find the ending. As it turns out, you only need to beat the 4 levels containing parts, and anything else that blocks your way in getting there. The game is setup with a map that lets you enter levels at will, so there's no predetermined path.
Early in the game you find a pogo stick, which lets you jump much higher than you could alone. In the documentation, the developers mention an impossible pogo trick, which I was never able to pull off, leading me to believe perhaps it truly was impossible as stated. Interestingly, the pogo also appears on one of the last levels, but at this point, I'm not sure how you would have completed many of the previous ones.
Levels can be marked into three types: Standard, Ice and Shadow. The shadow levels are usually represented by Cones on the overmap, and house either the pogo or some cryptic message from a statue. Standard levels used a colorful palette and behaved like a traditional platform game. Ice levels only appear at the extremes of the map, and add some additional variation by giving the tiles some slip depending on the type. There is also an ice cannon that will freeze but also project you over some obstacles.
As far as enemies go, they are primarily green organics or robotic. Of each type only one is fatal, while the other is an annoying 'pusher'. There are also clams and tentacles that provide some danger areas to the map and will usually be present at the worst moment. Map flow is the usual find-the-key type, broken in with the find-the-item types on the specialty maps. Mazes are often used to hide the important inventory along with some jumping puzzles. Overall the game isn't too difficult compared to parts 2 and 3. It did take me a while to finally beat it, and I think I did so before my friend. Soon after I was able to get through it without using a life, which led me to believe that the other episodes would be similar. I never did end up finishing those two.
Game-play aside, I think this one just became part of life for a while. Even to the point where I was dreaming about it, and different levels where there were large stone octopi hanging from the ceiling. I even recorded audio of me playing the game though onto a cassette at one point. Why, I don't know. I think as a help guide for others, not that it would ever happen.
Over time games quickly become much more advanced. In one year we had Wolfenstein, and another we had Doom. Sidescrollers soon became a thing of the past. Not that there weren't a ton more after Keen, but as far as time went, there were only a few more years. I'm still hoping for a Keen resurrection, but until then the classics will do.