As the third episode in the Commander Keen trilogy Invasion of the Vorticons, Keen Must Die! was released on the same day as its two predecessors. Did it end the trilogy on a high note?
Analyzing the Experience
In his last adventure, Commander Keen successfully foiled the Vorticon’s plot to destroy Earth. However, as he journeyed through the Vorticon mothership, Keen learned that the Vorticons were not acting of their own free will. They were forced to do the bidding of a mysterious entity they call the Grand Intellect. As the Earth came dangerously close to Armageddon, there is only one way to stop this. Commander Keen, taking advantage of a convenient snow day, blasts off to Planet Vorticon IV. The Grand Intellect is sure to be stationed there, and as soon as Keen arrives, he and his forces have one sentiment on their minds: “Keen Must Die!”
After the rather basic-looking Martian landscape and the mechanical mothership Keen traversed in the previous two episodes, the concluding installment for this trilogy is set on Vorticon VI. It is remarkably similar to Earth, and the stages are accordingly quite eclectic in terms of aesthetics. Keen’s journey can potentially guide him through cities, natural landforms, and even military instillations. These kinds of levels play much differently from each other, featuring unique hazards and enemies to fight.
What is perhaps the most substantial addition to the gameplay Keen Must Die! brings to the table comes in the form of an ankh. Yes, after two installments, Keen Must Die! sees fit to give the title character an actual powerup. The ankh, once collected, grants Keen invincibility for a brief duration. In a game where your character dies from any damaging source, it is an invaluable asset if you can find it. After all, it’s not as though you can take advantage of the standard post-hit invincibility if your character can’t take a hit to begin with.
With these small touches in place, it’s clear that John Carmack and his team gave Keen Must Die! an identity all its own. And there is practically no reason to engage with any of this material whatsoever. One reoccurring problem with the series up until this installment is that it didn’t properly incentivize players to engage with the material. The original game only required players to clear six stages in order to win whereas its sequel necessitated completing ten. In theory, the non-mandatory stages could be completed for extra points. Practicably, this proposition was redundant when considering that the points gained in any stage aren’t lost if one fails to complete a stage. This meant, with enough patience, you could get far more points than would otherwise be possible if you found every single item in every single stage, but only completed each of them once.
The reason this bears mentioning is because Keen Must Die! plays around with the formula established by the previous two games in how its end goal is reached. In the previous games, specific stages had to be completed in order to win. Some blocked Keen’s progress, but in the end, the actual order in which you completed them did not matter. In Keen Must Die!, your overarching goal is much simpler: defeat the Grand Intellect. This just amounts to finding the Grand Intellect’s level and defeating him. Once that is done, you win; it doesn’t matter how many stages were completed beforehand.
The Earth Explodes took a step in the right direction by making more stages mandatory. The stages themselves were difficult to get through owing to the bad controls, but that is beside the point. Because Keen Must Die! ends as soon as the Grand Intellect is defeated, the obvious takeaway is that the only mandatory stages are the ones actively blocking Keen’s progress on the world map.
So, with that in mind, how many stages are required to complete the game? The answer to that question is three. That’s right – a whole thirteen stages serve no purpose whatsoever. To be fair, Vorticon IV features a maze of teleporters that, if navigated improperly, will force the player to complete one extra stage. On top of that, one of the sixteen levels is a secret stage, justifying its non-mandatory nature. Even so, none of this changes the fact a little over two-thirds of the game is a complete waste of time.
I will say that the idea of being able to skip a majority of the game – excluding the use of a cheat device – is not an untoward one. After all, it was present in the Mario series – the primary inspiration behind Commander Keen. Super Mario Bros. featured Warp Zones, which placed the title character in later worlds if reached. By making extensive use of the Warp Zones, one could get away with completing eight stages out of a possible sixty-four.
However, there is one mitigating circumstance Super Mario Bros. had that Commander Keen didn’t: secrecy. While the player could indeed skip a majority of those stages, it wasn’t intended that way by design. The Warp Zones were effectively bonus features that the player had to jump through hoops in order to utilize. It doesn’t matter if they’re well-known aspects now; the expectation is that the player is to complete every single stage of the game. Plus, if someone completely new to the game attempted to pull this off, they would likely be blindsided by the dramatic increase in difficulty between worlds. Using the Warp Zone in Super Mario Bros. is thus like attempting to take a test without studying. It will work out fine if you know the subject inside and out, but if you don’t, you are likely to fail.
Outside of sparing players from having to deal with its unwieldly controls, Keen Must Die! doesn’t have an excuse for making such a vast majority of its stages optional. The teleporter maze can potentially force Keen to go through an extra stage, but the fact is that most of them don’t block his progress at all. For that matter, it’s easy to avoid getting trapped as long as you save frequently. Perhaps this is for the best, as some stages are absolutely punishing in how much opposition they throw at Keen. Many of the military installations have ninjas patrolling the hallways, and unlike the Vorticon Elites on board the mothership, there is no easy way to deal with them. This does technically resolve the issue of having to complete these difficult stages with horrible controls, but it’s a case of a solution introducing even more problems.
It must be mentioned that, in terms of level design, Keen Must Die! is a significant step down from its predecessors. To some extent, the series up until now had a very unpolished feel to it – as though it wasn’t playtested properly. Many stages would have inaccessible areas due to not properly accounting for Keen’s jump physics while others had keycards, but no doors to use them on.
The most egregious example in the trilogy, however, is in one of the stages required to complete this game: the Caves of Oblivion. The level certainly lives up to its name, being an utterly confusing underground maze guarded by several Vorticon soldiers. The first few times will likely result in failure as Keen dies to either the hazards within the cave or the soldiers seeking him out. What’s worse is that there are four keycards Keen needs in order to access the exit, and with such primitive graphics, it is easy to get lost. Finally, after several tries, you get all of the keycards and race to the exit – only to see Keen get impaled on a stalagmite. As it turns out, the maze is completely unsolvable; no matter how well you position Keen’s jump, he will not make it to the exit. What you must actually do is use Keen’s pogo stick to vault him onto the roof of the cave whereupon the real exit awaits him. I can only imagine how livid one would be if they tried to get through this stage countless times only to learn their attempts were, from the beginning, utterly futile.
When Keen finally reaches the final stage, he then comes face-to-face with this mysterious Grand Intellect. It turns out to be Mortimer McMire, Keen’s archnemesis schoolmate. Commander Keen’s IQ was measured to be 314 whereas Mortimer’s is 315. The latter would always hold that extra point over Keen’s head as he bullied him in school. Mortimer then enslaved the Vorticon race in an attempt to wipe out all life he deems inferior to himself. Now, with a chance to settle the score, Keen is thrown into a boss fight against a giant robot piloted by Mortimer.
Said boss fight was a fair effort for its time, but like most aspects of this game, it is ruined by clunky controls. It is worth reiterating that, as a direct result of the game’s tanklike controls, Keen does not fare well in combat. While Mortimer’s robot doesn’t have the sheer speed of the Vorticon Elites or the Vorticon Ninjas, attempting to dodge his attacks – especially by jumping – is much more difficult than it needs to be. On top of that, the hit detection in this fight is rather off. You’re supposed to disable the robot by hitting its power sources, but the shot needs to be dead center, or it doesn’t count. This is where Keen’s inability to shoot more than once while airborne graduates from being a minor annoyance to an active hindrance.
Lastly, there’s the comparatively minor detail that it isn’t possible to get ammunition during this fight. While it’s not especially difficult to get ammunition beforehand – even if you only stick to the mandatory stages – you are still completely out of luck if you run out during the fight. Even worse, if you have completed every other stage and are out of ammunition, the fight cannot be won at all. It is admittedly difficult to render the game unwinnable if you exercise any kind of common sense, but the possibility remains all the same.
While it’s not an important part of the experience, I also have to say that the ending of the game rubs me the wrong way. After defeating Mortimer, the Vorticons hail Keen as a hero for freeing them from their mental enslavement. As mentioned before, it ultimately turns out the Vorticons aren’t actually evil. This was foreshadowed in The Earth Explodes, but it is made more explicit here. Just learning that the soldiers Keen has been killing since his Mars expedition were brainwashed should have been enough to send him into a massive guilt trip. Then again, it’s equally jarring how the Vorticons seem perfectly fine becoming friends with someone who slaughtered a not-insignificant number of their population – children included. They are referred to as a peaceful race, but it’s a flimsy explanation at best.
In a lot of ways, it really is a testament to how far video games as a medium have evolved since 1990 that this particular element comes across as extremely dated. This is the kind of thing you get away with back in the day when narratives in games only existed to tell players what their goal was. Consequently, you could write these misbegotten story beats and nobody would bat an eyelash because it had nothing to do with the main attraction of stomping turtles, zapping aliens, or exploring dungeons as the case may be. In an age when writing even just a few paragraphs of story ran the risk of running into memory issues, it is interesting seeing what scenarios development teams conceived – for better and for worse.
Drawing a Conclusion
Keen Must Die! is, without a doubt, the worst game in the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. The average player going into this game blind will likely experience significant amounts of frustration brought on by the brutal level design and tough enemies only to realize, should they see it through to the end, that none of their perseverance was necessary. One may argue that, in light of the game’s terrible controls and even worse level design, being forced to play less of it is a feature, not a bug. To that, I counter anyone is using the idea of playing a game less as a good thing is transparently damning it by faint praise.
The trilogy as a whole does have its place in history for providing such a significant boon to PC gaming, but I find it even more difficult to recommend Keen Must Die! than I do either of its two predecessors. Marooned on Mars and The Earth Explodes, if nothing else, have historical value to them that would make them enticing to archivists. Keen Must Die! would technically share that historical value by virtue of coming as a package deal with its two predecessors, but it is even more dated than either of them – not only in terms of gameplay, but story as well. Keen Must Die! may be therefore useful as a case study as to how much the medium has evolved since 1990, but as an actual game? Not a chance.
Final Score: 2/10