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Commander Keen

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Commander Keen

Commander Keen
Goodbye Galaxy title screen
Goodbye Galaxy title screen

Developer(s) id Software (DOS)
David A. Palmer Productions (GBC)
Publisher(s) Apogee Software (DOS, only Invasion of the Vorticons and Goodbye, Galaxy!)
Softdisk (Keen Dreams)
Activision (GBC)
Super Fighter Team (Android, Keen Dreams)
Director(s) Tom Hall
Designer(s) Tom Hall
Programmer(s) John D. Carmack
John Romero
Composer(s) Robert Prince
Platform(s) MS-DOS
Game Boy Color
Release date(s) December 17, 1990 (13)
1991 (Keen Dreams)
1991 (46)
2001 (GBC)
2007 (Steam rerelease)
June 10, 2013 (Android)
Genre(s) Side-scrolling platform
Mode(s) Single-player
Distribution Floppy disk

Commander Keen is a series of video games developed by id Software in the early 1990s. The series focuses on the adventures of Billy Blaze, an 8-year old boy who travels through space and assumes the secret identity of "Commander Keen". The series was successful at replicating the side-scrolling action of the Nintendo Entertainment System Super Mario Bros. games in DOS. The cartoon-style platform games are notable for their pioneering use of EGA graphics and shareware distribution, and they were some of the first games by id Software (who went on to later develop Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake). The games were also exciting to the PC gaming community of the time because of John D. Carmack's smooth-scrolling graphics game engine. Although developed by id, most of the Commander Keen games were published by Apogee Software, an already established DOS shareware game publisher. Tom Hall is Commander Keen '​s designer and the creator of its universe. Commander Keen Complete Pack, a collection of the official Commander Keen games (excluding Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter! and Keen Dreams) was made available on Steam on August 3, 2007.[1] Keen Dreams was ported and released for Android enabled devices on June 10, 2013 on Google Play.[2]


Seven official Commander Keen games were released for the PC under MS-DOS. They are divided into mini-series, and are considered "episodes" of the full series. Under the Apogee version of the shareware model (the "Apogee Model"), the first episode of a series was usually available as shareware. The eighth game in the series is available exclusively for the Game Boy Color.

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons

1. "Marooned on Mars" (first released as shareware on December 14, 1990)
While Commander Keen is exploring Mars, the Vorticons steal four vital components of his ship and hide them in Martian cities, each guarded by a Vorticon soldier. In this episode, Keen acquires his trademark pogo stick and meets a variety of Martian aliens and robots.
2. "The Earth Explodes"
Keen returns to Earth only to find the Vorticon mothership hovering above with its deadly X-14 Tantalus Ray cannons locked on to eight of Earth's greatest landmarks: Big Ben (London), the Sphinx (Cairo), the Sydney Opera House (Sydney), the Statue of Liberty (New York), the Eiffel Tower (Paris), the Colosseum (Rome), St Basil's Cathedral (Moscow), and the White House (Washington D.C.). Keen has to find and deactivate each of the cannons to save Earth. Unlike the first game which had a happy and friendly atmosphere, almost everything in this game is hostile towards Keen, from the floating machine gun robots to the electrified floors. The engine has more features than the first episode, such as light switches and moving platforms.
3. "Keen Must Die!"
Keen travels to the Vorticon homeworld in search of the mysterious Grand Intellect that has directed the Vorticons toward Earth. The game features the cities, parks, and suburbs of the Vorticons, and their women, children, pets, and mechanical toys make up the enemies. The Vorticon alphabet is also decoded in a school house, allowing for the player to travel to the other in-game locations and read the Vorticon signs.

Commander Keen: Keen Dreams

3.5. "Keen Dreams" aka "The Lost Episode" (published as shareware by Softdisk)
After refusing to eat his vegetables, Billy is sent to bed by his parents. He falls asleep, only to awaken in a strange vegetable kingdom led by the evil potato king Boobus Tuber, who has imprisoned other sleeping children there. In the dream world, Keen does not have his trademark raygun and pogo stick, but has to defend himself with "Flower Power" seeds that temporarily turn enemies into flowers.
On June 10, 2013, "Keen Dreams" was published for Android enabled devices by Super Fighter Team, under license from Flat Rock Software.[3]

Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy!

4. "Secret of the Oracle" (first released as shareware on December 15, 1991)
Keen's newly finished homemade faster-than-light radio picks up a plot by the Shikadi to destroy the galaxy. He rushes to the planet Gnosticus IV to consult the Keepers of the Oracle, but discovers that they have been taken captive. Thus, the gameplay centers on Keen finding and rescuing the eight elders. This episode features huge levels and a wide variety of enemies and modified game mechanics.
5. "The Armageddon Machine"
After getting information from the Oracle, Keen lands on a massive Shikadi space station, the Omegamatic, nicknamed the Armageddon Machine, and seeks out the mysterious Gannalech. The gameplay centers on Keen advancing through the Omegamatic to deactivate it.

Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter!

6. "Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter!" (published commercially by FormGen, Apogee only distributed the game; now discontinued)
When Keen's babysitter Molly is abducted by the Bloogs, the inhabitants of the planet Fribbulus Xax, Keen must journey across the planet, braving the dangers throughout in order to find her. Chronologically, this is the last episode of the original Keen series. A playable demo, containing three levels from the game, was also released.

Game Boy Color

  • The 2001 release for the Game Boy Color, titled simply Commander Keen, was the final release in the series. Although it was developed by David A. Palmer Productions, id had heavy involvement in the direction of the game, and Adrian Carmack was directly involved in creating art assets.[4]

Other releases and cancelled games

  • In 1997, all seven episodes (1-6, as well as "Keen Dreams") were included in id Software's "id Anthology" compilation. The compilation featured only the CGA version of episode 6 for unknown reasons. However, an update was later released to add VGA compatibility.
  • On August 3, 2007, episodes 1-5 (excluding "Keen Dreams" and "Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter!") were rereleased on Steam as part of the id Software game addition to Steam. The package was priced at USD$4.95 on release.[1] In this release, the DOSBox emulator is used to run the games on Microsoft Windows.
  • A Commander Keen game for the Nintendo Entertainment System was announced in an advertisement, that was planned to be released by a major American Nintendo publishing company.[5] No further mention of this game was made since the ad.
  • An additional trilogy, tentatively titled The Universe is Toast!, was planned for Christmas 1992, but it was never produced, for id moved on to Wolfenstein 3D and then Doom. Tom Hall claims that he intends to make a new game if he ever reclaims the intellectual property rights to Commander Keen.[6] It is now considered to be vaporware. The final trilogy was released as a fan-made mod requiring the original games to function.[7]
  • Monkeystone Games planned to release Keen Chronicles through Softek International in April 2002. It would have consisted of all Keen games packaged together for Microsoft Windows and Pocket PC, but it never got out of the planning stages, and was never even officially announced. The logo that would have been used was the only product of the project, and it can be seen here.[8]


Billy Blaze is an eight-year-old boy genius who has constructed a spaceship in his backyard from old soup cans and other household objects, called The Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket. When his parents are out and the babysitter falls asleep, he dons his brother's Packers helmet and becomes Commander Keen, Defender of Earth.

In the first game, Keen is exploring on Mars when aliens steal four spaceship components that he must get back. The aliens are the Vorticons, a fierce dog-humanoid race that had an outpost on Mars. Keen travels through different Martian cities, and eventually recovers all the missing parts. However, when Keen gets back to Earth, he finds the Vorticon mothership looming over the planet, with its cannons ready to attack. In the second game, Keen infiltrates the mothership and has to disable each of the Tantalus Rays targeting different Earth cities. During this adventure, Keen learns that the Vorticons used to be a peaceful race, but were enslaved by the mysterious Grand Intellect.

After disabling the cannons, Keen travels to the Vorticon homeplanet, Vorticon VI. In the third game, Keen has to face the Vorticon masses in their cities, all ready to kill Keen. After fighting through many levels of Vorticon-infested cities and military installations, Keen arrives at the lair of the Grand Intellect. There he discovers that the leader of the Vorticons is actually his school rival Mortimer McMire (whose IQ is a single point higher than Keen's). In the final level, Keen has to disable the "Mangling Machine", a large apparatus with many crushing parts controlled by Mortimer. Keen eventually defeats Mortimer and frees the Vorticons.

Unbeknownst to Keen, the Mortimer he had defeated was only an android duplicate. The real Mortimer goes on to lead the Shikadi, a race of energy beings who name him the Gannalech. In episodes 4 and 5, he attempts to destroy the galaxy with the Shikadi Omegamatic, but Keen stumbles on a radio message mentioning the Shikadi plans. In the fourth game, he travels to Gnosticus IV, to learn more about the Shikadi from the Oracle. However, when he gets there he discovers that eight guardians of the Oracle have been captured by the Shikadi, and are imprisoned in the Shadowlands of the planet. Keen travels through dangerous forests, caves, and islands, and is finally able to rescue all eight of them. The guardians activate the Oracle, which tells Keen about the Omegamatic being near completion, and reveals the location of the station, in the Korath system.

In the fifth episode, Keen travels to Korath III and enters the Omegamatic to destroy its core, the Quantum Explosion Dynamo, and stop the destruction of the galaxy. After avoiding several defense systems, Keen is able to reach and destroy the device. There he learns that Mortimer was the Gannalech, and his intention to destroy the universe is revealed. In the sixth and final episode, Mortimer has Keen's babysitter kidnapped by the Bloogs to distract him. After travelling to Fribbulus Xax, Keen explores the alien planet and saves Molly from being eaten, and also finds out that Molly is Mortimer's sister, and she also mentions Mortimer's intentions to destroy the universe.

Creation and development

John D. Carmack, a game programmer at Softdisk, discovered a trick that would allow smooth-scrolling graphics in PC games, but only with the 16-color Enhanced Graphics Adapter card. Carmack and his Softdisk colleague Tom Hall kept the technology from Softdisk and used their own time to put together a clone of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, except for the hero, which they replaced with Dangerous Dave, a character from John Romero's games for Softdisk. They called their creation Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement. After Romero saw their demo in action, he and Jay Wilbur, project chief at Softdisk, suggested that they finish the Mario clone. The team then created a PC port of Super Mario Bros. 3 in a week and approached Nintendo with their creation, who declined to enter the PC market at that time, saying that it was made "exclusively only for their Nintendo consoles", but did congratulate the team for their efforts.[9][10]

John Romero was later contacted by Scott Miller of Apogee, who, after seeing some of id's work, advanced the team $2,000 for the development of Commander Keen, starting a profitable business relationship that would last until id Software self-published Doom.

Tom Hall, Commander Keen '​s creative designer, mentioned that Keen is based on himself at age eight.[6] Keen wears a Green Bay Packers football helmet due to the fact that Tom Hall is from Wisconsin.

Tom Hall has stated that many elements of the games were inspired by Chuck Jones's Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century.[6]

The first trilogy, Invasion of the Vorticons, was completed in three months. After developing it the team left Softdisk to form id Software. However, the id developers had a contract with Softdisk requiring them to write several more games, one of which became Keen Dreams. Keen Dreams is sometimes referred to as "Keen 3.5", "Keen 7", or the "Lost Episode", as it was never distributed by Apogee.[6]

Tom Hall's original document from 1990 showing the entire SGA.

The sequel to Invasion of the Vorticons was supposed to be another trilogy. Episode 6, Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter!, was originally planned to be part of it, along with episodes 4 and 5 (which ended up together as Goodbye, Galaxy!), but was later changed into a stand-alone commercial episode. Episode 6 was actually developed between episodes 4 and 5.[6]

Standard Galactic Alphabet

The Standard Galactic Alphabet, also known as SGA, is the writing system used to depict Omnispeak, the alien language of choice in the galaxy in the Commander Keen fictional universe. The player usually first discovers the alphabet in the first Commander Keen game, Marooned on Mars. It is a simple substitution cipher created by Tom Hall for the Commander Keen series. Originally for Keen 1 he drew some graphics for Exit signs which he made look a bit more alien by changing the ordinary Latin letters a bit.[11] After that he added other signs saying "hi" and "this is neat" (near rayguns), and he ended up creating conversions for the other letters of the Latin alphabet for the signs to resemble writings in an alien language. Because the texts are still in English, however, it is not an artificial script. The Standard Galactic Alphabet also appears in the game Minecraft as the language for the magic enchantment system.[12][13]


Invasion of the Vorticons

Screenshot of episode 3, showing the Invasion of the Vorticons engine

The player can walk left and right on the screen, and jump to get on higher platforms. Some of these are semi-solid and can be jumped through from below. In the first game, the player must find a pogo stick, which is used for a continuous jump. This makes Keen harder to control, but allows the player to jump twice as high if jump button is employed with good timing. Keen keeps the pogo stick for the rest of the series, except for Keen Dreams.

The player can find ray guns for firing projectiles bolts left or right to kill enemies. Some enemies die after one shot, some after multiple shots, and others are impervious to the ray gun. If Keen touches an enemy or a hazard, he immediately loses a life. Enemies include fictional Martian species Yorps and Gargs (in episode 1), and Vorticon or Vorticon-related creatures (in all three episodes). Throughout the games the player can collect colored keycards to open doors with corresponding colors and bonus items in the form of sugary foods and sodas/colas (Those can be jumped on for a boost before being collected). For every 20,000 points, the player is awarded another life.

The second episode introduces moving platforms which can transport Keen, and switches which usually extend bridges over gaps in the floor. Some switches are light switches which can be used to turn off the lights in the respective level, making some enemies characteristically afraid to jump. The third game includes a power-up in the form of an ankh which grants a temporary invulnerability shield.

While traveling between levels, Keen is viewed from above on a map, the only place where the player can save the game. Some of the levels are optional and can be skipped. Episodes 1 and 3 contain secret levels, accessible by esoteric entrances.

Keen Dreams

In Commander Keen: Keen Dreams Keen has neither his ray gun nor his pogo stick, and thus is unable to jump higher than normal. However, he can duck, and drop down from the semi-solid platforms if the player presses the jump key while ducking. An addition to the platforms are firemen's poles, which the player can use to climb to higher platforms, and even jump up on them if the jumps are timed right. This and further episodes use a slanted 3D look for the levels, which allows for hidden passages containing shortcuts as well as bonus items to be contained within the walls and ceiling.

Instead of the ray gun, Keen is armed with "Flower Power", small pellets he can collect and throw left, right, straight up, or (in midair) straight down. The pellets are used up if they hit an enemy, but if Keen does not hit anything he can retrieve and re-use the pellet if he is quick enough. Enemies that are hit are not killed, but turned into a big, stunned flower for several seconds, the actual time varying with the difficultly level. All enemies are based on fruit or vegetables, whereas the collectible score items are candy. Twelve Boobus bombs must be collected in order to defeat the king of vegetables to win the game.

Keen Dreams introduces three difficulty levels. Another improvement is that the player can now save anywhere and at any time, rather than only on the world map.

Goodbye, Galaxy! and Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter!

In Goodbye, Galaxy! and Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter!, all the improvements from Keen Dreams are kept, except for the "Flower Power". In these episodes the player can look up and down by pressing the corresponding movement keys for a short while. This effectively scrolls the screen up or down. Keen also has his pogo stick again. If Keen narrowly misses a jump, he can grab onto the edges of most platforms, and climb up. Keen can also enter doorways leading to other zones, if the player stands in front of the doorway and presses the up key.

Screenshot of episode 4, showing the Goodbye, Galaxy! engine and oblique 3D look

Collecting bonus items remain the same excluding the beverages to stand on. Colored Keycards are replaced by Colored Key Gems. The Player can also collect 100 special life items or a big one to earn an extra life. Keen uses a Neural Stunner as a weapon, which he can fire in 4 directions, and has a faster rate of fire. It renders enemies dazed instead of killing them. This stun does not wear off for most enemies, yet some enemies are only momentarily paralyzed by it, and it does not work on a few enemies. In episode 4, the enemies are mostly based on animals. In episode 5, they are mostly robots and Shikadi. In episode 6, the enemies are Bloogs and alien-like.

Episode 5 has keycards that are needed to open the final doors in some levels. Episode 6 features very large switches Keen needs to either jump on, or headbutt to use.

The level maps feature obstacles which can be overcome with items retrieved, or actions performed, in the regular levels. Episodes 4 through 6 contain a secret level, and in order to find it the player has to thoroughly explore optional parts of the game world.

Commander Keen Episodes 4-6 contain a secret code that instantly grants the player several valuable things. By hitting A, T and B simultaneously, Keen is granted all of the current level's crystal keys/keycards, 1 extra life and 99 shots for the ray gun.

The games also include a minigame called Paddle War, a clone of Pong, programmed into Keen's Wrist Computer, which functions as the main menu. (The minigame, although titled differently, can be found in Catacomb 3D as well.)


Invasion of the Vorticons, Goodbye, Galaxy!, and Aliens Ate My Babysitter! were reviewed in 1993 in Dragon #197 by Sandy Petersen in the first "Eye of the Monitor" column. Petersen gave the Commander Keen series 4 out of 5 stars.[14] Petersen would later work with id.


A screenshot from Doom II. One of the hanging Keens has already been shot.

A number of fan-made Commander Keen games have been created, mostly using Klik & Play, Click & Create, GameMaker: Studio, Construct, Unity, and similar game construction software. The Public Commander Keen Forum[15] has a forum devoted to the announcement and discussion of these unofficial Keen games. In the years since the release of utilities to modify the levels and graphics in the original Keen series in early 2002, more than fifty mods have been made, most of which feature Commander Keen as the protagonist. One of these mods, titled "Commander Genius", is an engine, released for multiple platforms, that interprets the episodes (including unofficial episodes 7, 8, and 9) as a "retro-evolved" game, with re-polished graphics, a multiplayer compatibility, and a level editor, while requiring the episodes' game files in order for the engine to interpret the episodes themselves.[16]Unofficial ports of the game to other platforms (such as Linux, Dreamcast, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS and Wii) have also been created by fans.[17]

The Dopefish, an enemy character from Secret of the Oracle, has become one of the biggest video game in-jokes and appeared in many games over the years (such as in all Quake games except Quake 4) and continues to make hidden appearances in modern titles. Keen has appeared or has been referenced in many other video games over the years, including Doom II, Wolfenstein 3D, Duke Nukem, Anachronox and Minecraft.

In January 2013, Tom Hall started Worlds of Wander, a tool for creating platform games. With an intuitive level editor and the ability to reprogram the game, it intends to have many options for sharing games and levels. Worlds of Wander would be released along with a new game created with the tool, called Secret Spaceship Club, which Hall describes as a "spiritual sequel" to Commander Keen. Worlds of Wander tried to get funds through a Kickstarter campaign in February 2013, but the project was not able to reach its $400,000 goal. According to Hall, development will continue in their spare time.[18]


  1. ^ a b Officially Purchasable on Steam Store"Commander Keen Complete Pack". August 3, 2007. Retrieved October 12, 2014. 
  2. ^ Super Fighter Team
  3. ^ Official Keen Dreams website
  4. ^
  5. ^ ROME.RO Mega Photo Gallerytron- powered by SmugMug
  6. ^ a b c d e "A Look Back at Commander Keen", 3D Realms Website, December 14, 2000. Retrieved on October 15, 2006.
  7. ^ Keen Wiki
  8. ^ Keen Chronicles? - Post at 3D Realms forums
  9. ^ Kushner, D. (2003). Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. Random House. ISBN 0-375-50524-5
  10. ^ Fahs, Travis (23 September 2008). "The Early Years of id Software". IGN Entertainment, Inc. Retrieved 24 November 2014. 
  11. ^ The Standard Galactic Alphabet
  12. ^ Minecraft Wiki - Enchantments
  13. ^ "Tom Hall mentions Notch's inclusion of the SGA in the Enchantment Table via a Twitter post, with a link to the screenshot showing the addition."!/ThatTomHall/status/120210111162617857
  14. ^  
  15. ^ Public Commander Keen Forum
  16. ^ "Commander Genius New Generation Has Been Brought by Commander Keen's". Retrieved October 30, 2014. 
  17. ^ CloneKeen
  18. ^ Worlds of Wander Kickstarter Page - Last update

External links

  • Invasion of the Vorticons at id Software
  • Keen Dreams at id Software
  • Goodbye, Galaxy! at id Software
  • Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter! at id Software
  • (Game Boy Color)Commander Keen at id Software
  • Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons at 3D Realms
  • Commander Keen: Goodbye, Galaxy! at 3D Realms
  • Commander KeenA Look Back at at 3D Realms
  • David A. Palmer Productions - Adobe Flash site with official Commander Keen for Game Boy Color page
  • Official Keen Dreams website - Android version of Keen Dreams
  • Commander Keen: Keen DreamsSource code to
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