Switch version tested
Review code provided
Eat your greens!
When I was growing up, we were always a bit behind the times when it came to technology. In fact we still had our Commodore 64 well into the 90s when we finally, and sadly, upgraded him to a Sega Master System II. As far as owning a Personal Computer (that’s what PC stands for kids!) we finally invested in one towards the end of the 90s and the only game I managed to convince my parents to get wasn’t even a game. I still dream of you Encarta Mindmaze!
As such I had no previous experience of Commander Keen, but when I saw those eye melting colours and pixel-tastic graphics I was transported back to the days of Wonderboy and Ghosts and Goblins, and couldn’t wait to give it a go. This is despite the fact that I do have a Nintendo Online account (mainly for Tetris 99) and I played Ghosts and Goblins for all of 5 minutes before I had to turn it off or risk snapping my Switch in half.
This is a very serious problem for me. As an 80s baby anything from the late 80s to early 90s has a rosy, comforting sentimental glow and with Commander Keen I was lured into that seductive trap known as nostalgia.
Over the years I’ve been spoiled with realistic 3D environments, smooth responsive controls, a realistic interpretation of gravity and how high a human can actually jump! As time has passed it’s fair to say I’ve lost a certain degree of my platforming skills and pretty much all of my twitch reflexes, so for a game that is stunningly simplistic I was hilariously rubbish! I’m not even going to go easy on myself here, we’re talking dire, pathetic and just put the controller down now Jill you’re embarrassing yourself!
Not since Overcooked have I used some pretty unsavoury language towards vegetables, and Commander Keen has definitely made me re-evaluate my feelings towards potatoes. No I haven’t gone insane. In “Commander Keen in Keen Dreams” you play the eponymous hero who has become trapped in some sort of nightmarish hellscape of murderous vegetables. If you are hungry for some video game lore you can visit the Nintendo game page for the full low-down.
Or if you’re of the TD:LR persuasion, first of all congratulations for getting this far, but in a nutshell you play “child genius” Billy Blaze, who falls asleep after a tantrum over mashed potatoes and gets transported to a world populated entirely by vegetables and ruled by King Boobus Tuber. I know, the 90s right!
Think Planet of the Apes but substitute intellectual simians with aggressive asparagus, belligerent broccoli, confrontational corn and god damn potatoes with freaking lances!
What you have is a fairly standard platformer, jumping ledge to ledge collecting sweets and ammo and avoiding getting head-butted by particularly hostile brassicas. In all honesty, with a lot of the games from this era, you could copy and paste this formula endlessly. Switch Keen out for a blue hedgehog and cyborg woodland creatures, or an Italian plumber jumping on angry reptiles, and you’ve effectively got the same game.
Commander Keen however, is harder than the likes of Sonic or Mario as you can’t actually kill any of the volatile vegetables, you can only stun them. This is apparently to do with some feedback the developers received from concerned parents (gotta love those guys!) who didn’t like the corpse-based consequences of shooting aliens with your ray-gun in the earlier games. The fact that a once pacified carrot can quickly return and punt you off a ledge to your demise gives this game a level of difficulty it certainly doesn’t deserve. This isn’t Vegetable Souls!
I tried to look at this game as the 8-year-old Jill would have and appreciate it as a step back in time. Yes the graphics are dated as hell but they’re not completely atrocious, and I strongly identified with Commander Keen as I’m almost certain he’s wearing the same lurid turquoise shell suit I had when I was his age. Although who in their right mind turns their nose up at mashed potatoes! I also don’t want to judge this game too harshly purely because I was so crap at it, but it was incredibly tedious.
Once you get past the first level, the map screen hints at a fairly open world and you’re not completely tied down to a specific route so you can wander around and check out the other levels, although you do have to complete some in order to get to other areas of the map. I did try my hand at a few of the different levels and despite the standard environments you always get in these games (woods, underground cave, castle, some sort of paradise with loads of water and tiny islands) there wasn’t really anything that hooked me in. When you got to the exit of a level that was it; no score, no final time, just back to the map screen.
I looked into the fairly murky history of the game. Essentially a group of talented programmers developed a successful game series, but did so during work time and using work resources. So as part of a settlement for using these resources the programmers agreed to make several other games for the company including Keen Dreams.
It’s often referred to as the “lost episode” of the Commander Keen series and didn’t receive much attention from reviewers or players at the time. Although it’s since gathered something of a cult status and thanks to an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and various publishers getting involved, Keen Dreams made its perilous journey from DOS to Switch via Android and Steam.
It is an interesting move that Keen Dreams is the game that made it to the Switch given the success of the original Commander Keen Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. Maybe this will help pave the way for more of these games coming across, but as an introduction to the series maybe Keen Dreams was not the best place to start.
As with many of these games we tend to look at them through rose-tinted glasses and remember them fondly as the best games we ever played. More often than not they tend not to hold up against the passage of time and I feel time has been especially unkind to little Billy Blaze and his war on legumes. It’s a basic, and not very interesting platformer with nothing in the way of reward or encouragement to progress. Die-hard fans of the original games might be interested to see how this plays out on a modern console but it’s not the best example of retro platforming out there.