Title  : Commander Keen
Platforms  : Game Boy Color
Publisher  : Activision
ESRB Rating  : Everyone
Game Rating  : 4.5
Review by  : Richard Rae

In 1990, Apogee Software released a series of shareware games for the PC detailing the adventures of the young 8-year old genius Billy Blaze, who builds a spaceship, his Megarocket, out of various pieces of junk to defend the Earth against the threat of the alien Vorticons. When danger looms, Billy dons his brother's football helmet and becomes his alter ego, Commander Keen, rocketing off to save the Earth! 

Commander Keen's various adventures against the Vorticons, Shikadi, Bloogs, and his rival Mortimer McMire were extremely popular, to the tune of 6 episodes and a couple of follow-ups (it became commercial software around 1991). Ultimately, Commander Keen became a property of id software. 

Now, after a long absence of many years, Commander Keen flies again in a new adventure for the Game Boy Color (Game Boy Advance compatible), published by Activision and developed by id software and David A. Palmer Productions. 

In this game, Billy must again become Commander Keen to retrieve three Plasma Crystals from the clutches of all the space aliens he's encountered in his previous games, and on three different worlds: the robot planet Droidiccus Prime, the world of Fribbulus Xax, and Shikadi. Aside from running, jumping, and climbing various objects and platforms and working through some puzzling situations, Keen must also fight many alien enemies (many of which all derive from earlier incarnations of the series) and the alien bosses using his wits and his Neural Ray Blaster. He also must deal with Mortimer, who is up to his old anti-Universe tricks and looking to thwart Billy's every move. 

Commander Keen for the Game Boy Color takes the form of a multi-direction scrolling 2D platform game similar in style to the Super Mario Bros. series. After the introductory screens in which Billy boards his Megarocket and heads into space, the player chooses which world he wishes to visit first by moving to the appropriate teleporter in the Hub area. Once there, the player must clear three stages, being allowed to move to the next only after the current one has been cleared. 

Each stage consists of multi-level complexes of platforms and islands (some off-screen or hinted at). The player is frequently faced with determining the best solution to gain access to key items required to move on or unlock the remaining paths. Switches in various locations must be activated, sometimes requiring Keen to teleport to different areas to complete a level successfully. The player also must decide how best to obtain extra lives or various point-producing items, such as candy and pizza, that can be found throughout the stages. Avoiding or eliminating various alien creatures that obstruct Billy's progress also falls within his job description. 

The player can move, jump, and climb easily, but frequently the player must reach considerable heights and distances. Fortunately, Commander Keen is equipped with his famous pogo stick for that purpose, activated by pressing 'Down' when jumping. Pressing the jump button when he lands while on the stick results in a higher jump. 

Keen also has a Neural Ray Blaster that, when fired at an enemy, temporarily paralyzes it. To eliminate an enemy completely, Keen must jump on the immobilized enemy with the pogo stick to knock it out. However, enemies are only disabled if he's on the same screen as the player is. If a player zaps an enemy that he sees near the screen's edge, and Keen's movements then cause the enemy to scroll off the screen, when he sees that enemy again it will not still be paralyzed. 

Once Keen gets through three stages in the world he's chosen, he'll then fight the boss of the level for the required Plasma Crystal. When successful, Keen returns it to his spaceship and then moves to one of the remaining two levels to encounter a new set of enemies and a new challenge. 

This all sounds fairly straightforward, and potentially lots of fun, yet Commander Keen quickly becomes an exercise in frustration as opposed to one of fun and enjoyment. 

The graphics are whimsical and cartoonish, and much improved over those in the original PC games (except Billy isn't as good-looking), but the complexity of the graphics can make discerning the enemies or the "safe" collectible objects difficult from the background elements. It's also not easy to determine sometimes if a vertical object is a barrier, or just an element that the player sprite can pass behind or in front of, until you bump into it. Some objects and platforms lie either above or below the player's main screen, and though you can look up or down (by pressing the 'Up' or 'Down' direction and not moving), it becomes very frustrating when Billy gets dumped into an abyss or on top of a set of spikes that you couldn't readily anticipate being there. 

The game does offer a choice of three difficulty settings, but regardless of the setting, the game tends to become difficult quickly. The player may find himself quitting in frustration rather than feeling challenged enough to persevere. A situation that comes to mind is one where the player must hop over an abyss by precisely landing on bricks that move in and out of a castle wall according to a rhythmic pattern — and there's no safe place to land if you miss. This stage alone tests your patience, and control of the character in mid-jump becomes so frustrating that you may go through all your lives and continues before you finally get to a stable platform. Even then, one false move may drop you right back into the same mess all over again, and you may find yourself (as I did) with the powerful urge to hurl your Game Boy into a wall. 

When a player loses a life, Keen will start at the last point before the mishap that caused his demise, even if an enemy is "right on top of him." The player has a few seconds to orient himself after he reappears, but may have to act quickly lest he get knocked out again. 

One of the most unforgivable aspects of this incarnation of Commander Keen is its outdated and terribly annoying game save/restore system, which resorts to 16-character password entry every time you want to pick up where you left off. The game does not have a battery backup and does not have save/restore files, and issues a password only when you've completed a stage. The game does give the player a generous supply of lives and continues depending on difficulty level, but once they're exhausted, you must either choose "New Game" and start over, or tediously enter the password of your choice to begin the stage you left off at all over again. 

Commander Keen does offer some good challenges and teases your brain, but it's also a very frustrating game requiring pin-point jumping dexterity when you least expect it and the character is frequently difficult to control in a fashion for which the Game Boy Color's control scheme isn't really suited. Overall, there wasn't the satisfaction I expected to get for overcoming certain obstacles, and I never felt the hook that makes me keep wanting to play and meet the next challenge — or lose sleep trying to figure out solutions. Most importantly, I didn't find this game particularly fun, nor as nostalgic as I'd have hoped. 

Overall, the Game Boy Color incarnation of Commander Keen left me more frustrated than satisfied. For my part, I didn't find anything special about this new game to warrant interest by either newcomers or old fans of Billy Blaze's adventures. 

Fans of Commander Keen who are nostalgic for the young hero might find this game worth a peek just to see him in action again; however, I think the average Game Boy player won't find anything in Commander Keen for GBC worth raising a fuss over.


This article is copyright (c) 2001, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Gamebits, 16-Jul-01