Some thoughts on the design of the game – it’s hard for me to imagine coming at this as new as I know it so well, but I’m going through Episode 1 again and I’m trying to imagine it in the context of when it was released in 1990…
The id team had obviously been influenced by the Mario games, with this game evolving out of a tech demo of Super Mario Bros 3 that they had put together – but something that sets this game apart from those (and, if I’m not wrong, most console platformers?) is that instead of a linear left-to-right progression, Commander Keen and all Apogee’s other platform games had levels that were more exploration-based in nature, with corridors and rooms folded around each other and the need to hunt for keys to open doors.
I think this might have come about because of the limitations of PC hardware before Commander Keen – no screen scrolling was available, so platform games had to have levels that were compacted into one screen area. And even though id’s technology allowed much bigger spaces, that kind of level design remained and turned into an exploration approach.
It’s also interesting that so little of the game is necessary to play in order to complete it – in this episode, just four levels are important, though you have to go through a couple more that block your way. In episode 3, just three levels are required, but I think this is probably an oversight on the map. For this reason, I remembered the episode being a lot longer than it really is. But perhaps it’s not surprising – id was always good at giving the player places to explore for themselves, a philosophy continued in Wolf3D and Doom with the abundance of secrets.
The exploration comes at a slight cost, in that the more curious you are the more progress you lose when you die… the levels aren’t all that long, really, but it’s frustrating enough to want to just rush through a level and ignore the bonuses the second time.
As far as enemies go, what stuck out to me when I thought about it was that so few of them were directly harmful! Instant death comes from stationary traps like spikes and those weird clapper plant things, but most enemies – the Gargs and Vorticons excepted – don’t kill you on touch. I remember being amazed the first time I accidentally bumped into a Yorp when I first played this game and it just pushed me aside – and on further experimentation, all the robots are the same way, with only their shots being harmful. It’s definitely not clear which moving characters are going to hurt you and which aren’t.
One last note to highlight that putting Gargs in solid pipes that you can’t see through is just cruel!
I think that style of puzzly level design is known as “metroidvania” nowadays? I don’t know that much about platformers, but maybe Keen is too cheery to be considered one of those?
Either way, yeah I noticed it’s less straight-forward to find the exit than in for example Mario games. The whole keycard thing was later repeated in Wolfenstein and Doom. It’s funny to think that basically Wolfenstein is a 3D Keen, sort of 😀
Yes, it’s weird how you can see the approach to game design carrying through Keen to Wolf3D to Doom despite the very different atmosphere 🙂 There’s a lot of exploration and side areas that aren’t necessary to complete the game… and just like Doom, Keens 1 and 4 at least have whole hidden levels that are accessible by finding alternative exits from normal levels (although I think this had been done by Super Mario by then, so they may have got it from that in turn).
Metroidvania games definitely involve going back and forward and not in a linear progression, but I think there needs to be a continuous world (no individual levels) and skill-gathering to really qualify. (The pogo stick might count 🙂 )