Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons was a massive success for Ideas from the Deep, a development team formed by programmers John Carmack, John Romero, and Tom Hall. With a clear hit on their hands, the team sought to break away from their company, Softdisk, and strike out on their own. Their boss and owner of Softdisk, Al Vekovius, confronted the team on their plans – particularly after he learned they had used company resources to develop the three games. They would work on the game after hours, even going as far as taking the computers to Mr. Carmack’s house on weekends. Mr. Vekovius proposed a joint venture between the Ideas from the Deep team and Softdisk, which ultimately fell apart when the other employees threatened to quit in protest. After three weeks of negotiation, the team agreed to produce a series of games once every two months for Gamer’s Edge, Softdisk’s subscription service. Ideas from the Deep, having renamed themselves id Software after one of the Freudian components of the psyche, then proceeded to use these games as prototypes for their own releases.
In spring of 1991, Mr. Carmack and his team began work on another Commander Keen game. Initially, they did not want to make another installment for Softdisk, but eventually decided that doing so would let them fulfill their obligations, and hopefully improve another set of games for publisher Apogee in the process. For this installment, id Software crafted a brand-new engine rife with new features, including the ability to have the background scroll at a different speed from the foreground and support for sound cards. As a result of these changes, it was decided that this game would be a standalone effort as opposed to a true sequel. Even with other members of the team working on another project at the same time, this game, entitled Keen Dreams, was finished in less than a month following the engine’s creation. Despite the previous three installments having been bestsellers, Keen Dreams did not receive much attention from publications at the time, and thus fell into relative obscurity. Now considered a “lost episode” of sorts, how does Keen Dreams fare in the grand scheme of things?
Analyzing the Experience
Eight-year-old Billy Blaze, also known as Commander Keen, has defeated the Grand Intellect and saved Earth from the invasion of the Vorticons. Unfortunately for the young genius, this does not save him from an even greater threat: his mother’s insistence that he eats his vegetables. He is then sent to his room following a pointed remark about the quality of the mashed potatoes he was served. Shortly thereafter, he goes to bed and falls asleep.
When he wakes up, he is astonished to find his bed atop a hill. He finds himself flanked by giant, sapient potatoes wearing metal helmets and carrying bayonets. Keen has been brought to the land of Tuberia by a device called the Dream Machine. The potatoes’ boss is a being by the name of Boobus Tuber, and he has brought Keen to Tuberia for the purpose of enslaving him. Keen grabs his Vorticon Hyperpistol and instantly dispatches the two goons. A child in chains then runs up to Keen and begs him to save him and the other children from the Dream Machine. Only by destroying the Dream Machine can Keen and everyone else imprisoned here return home. Clad in his pajamas and bunny slippers, Keen sets out on a new journey.
Taking place in the land of Tuberia, Keen Dreams puts an interesting spin on the series, swapping out the science-fiction motif that defined the original trilogy in favor of a fantasy backdrop. Gone are the mechanical and galactic feel of Invasion of the Vorticons and in its place is something one would expect from Super Mario Bros.
Indeed, if it’s one immediately praiseworthy aspect about Keen Dreams, it’s the presentation. The original trilogy was, in a lot of ways, behind the curve. It still used the PC speaker, which, even at the time, was a notoriously crude sound system, when most big-budget games such as King’s Quest IV and Future Wars were starting to utilize actual sound cards. It didn’t have a heads-up display (HUD) to speak of, meaning the only way to know how many charges Keen’s raygun had was to pause the game. This time around, John Carmack and John Romero were able to program a much more sophisticated engine – HUD included. This one is capable of parallax scrolling and sound card support. In addition, it is presented from a pseudo-three-dimensional view as opposed to the side-on view that defined the original trilogy. The most significant ramification from this is that Keen Dreams now has actual slopes, which allows for a more dynamic level design than anything in the original trilogy.
Given the new engine, it seems highly appropriate that Keen Dreams would fare differently from a tactile standpoint. The greatest compliment I can give this game is that the controls are significantly improved. The Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy was an admirable effort in an age when the idea of scrolling did not exist in the PC world, but the controls sunk whatever chance any of them may have had of being timeless classics. This is no longer the case with Keen Dreams in which the controls lack any kinds of delays. It is most observable when jumping, as Keen no longer takes a split second to bend his knees as you press the key. This allows you to actually dodge incoming attacks on occasion. It can take a little getting used to the fact that Keen doesn’t really build up momentum when running, but it’s not too bad.
As Keen has completely expended the use of his raygun, he must now make do with Flower Power. Designer Tom Hall believed that children playing the original trilogy needed to be taught of the finality and consequences of death. Therefore, when enemies were struck with a bolt from Keen’s raygun, their corpses would be left behind. This was in defiance of the then-standard trend popularized by Super Mario Bros. wherein enemies would either blink out of existence or fall off the screen upon defeat.
However, this did not go unnoticed by parents, who wrote to Mr. Hall claiming they did not like the idea of the enemies’ charred corpses remaining onscreen after killing them. While it may sound like a typical case of the moral grandstanding common among parents in the early 1990s, this aspect did have an unintended, negative consequence on the story. Even if it clearly wasn’t serious, there did exist a major disconnect in how Keen slaughtered a significant portion of the Vorticons only to later be hailed as a hero by them. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Flower Power’s purpose is to give players a way to deal with enemies without actually killing them.
If that was the intent, I would say Mr. Hall both failed and succeeded a little too well at his goal. I will say it’s nice that, unlike in the original trilogy, you only need to press one key, “ALT” by default, to throw a Flower Power pellet. This means no more instances of accidentally wasting a weapon use when attempting to jump. The downsides? Everything else about them. I speak no hyperbole when I say that the Flower Power could very well be the single worst weapon in the history of platfomers. The only thing that could give the Flower Power a run for its money in terms of sheer uselessness is Dr. Jekyll’s cane from the 1990 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde NES adaptation – an unwieldly weapon only capable of defeating all of one enemy in the entire game.
The Flower Power takes the form of seedlike pellets, which, true to its name, transforms enemies into flowers upon striking them. If they were solely a way for players to defeat enemies without killing them, that wouldn’t be a reason to condemn them. No, what really sinks their utility is the fact that the enemies will revert to their original forms after mere seconds. In a game where the protagonist can’t take a hit without dying, not being afforded a method of permanently dealing with enemies is extremely detrimental.
Worse still is that actually hitting an enemy with these pellets is much harder than it sounds. While having to press two keys to fire the raygun was annoying, the bolt travelled straight and killed whatever it hit. The Flower Power pellets, on the other hand, travel in an upward arc before falling to the ground. The pellets could very well sail over an enemy’s head if Keen is a certain distance away from them. This can be nigh-impossible to remember as you’re jumping from platform to platform or attempting to dodge any other hazard the game may throw at you.
When you begin scrolling the screen, you grasp just how easy it is to die in this game. This is because, Keen has to be a little more than halfway across the screen in order to get it to scroll. This makes it very easy to inadvertently run into an enemy simply getting from Point A to Point B. What is especially curious about this problem is that it only applies when Keen is running right. If he is running left, the game more reasonably begins scrolling when he is halfway across the screen. It’s bad enough when a game has a serious flaw, but it’s another thing entirely when the engine doesn’t even express it consistently.
Moreover, this element doesn’t even make sense in terms of story either. It would be tonally fitting to give Keen a non-lethal weapon when dealing with the Vorticons, as they were eventually revealed to be a peaceful race mentally enslaved by the Grand Intellect to do his bidding. It is less justifiable that Keen would use non-lethal means to deal with the forces of Boobus Tuber, who have no qualms enslaving children and are doing so of their own free will. Personally, I don’t think even the parents who complained about the lethality of Keen’s raygun would object to him killing human traffickers, but they ensured this game won’t let you take the logical option.
The only saving grace is that, unlike in the original trilogy, you can save in the middle of a stage. The save system itself is much improved, as you select the files from a list as opposed to pressing a number when prompted. This makes it easier to keep in track of which slots have been used. However, in light of these myriad problems, the ability to save in the middle of a stage comes across as lazy patchwork that fails to address any of them directly.
The fatal flaw of Keen Dreams is that, despite the tangible improvements, the team ultimately fell back into old patterns. Just like Keen Must Die!, Keen Dreams doesn’t properly motivate players into engaging with the material. While it doesn’t go as far as making two-thirds of the stages entirely optional, it does the next best thing. In order for Keen to face Boobus Tuber, he must collect twelve explosives from the other stages called Boobus Bombs. These bombs are usually well-hidden, although some can be found near the end of certain stages.
This has an interesting effect in that only two stages physically prevent Keen from reaching Boobus Tuber’s lair and are thus strictly mandatory. A majority of the other stages only exist to house these bombs – a fact the game helpfully informs you of before attempting them. Therefore, the stages are only necessary until you have the twelve bombs you need. Boobus Tuber isn’t even an especially difficult boss, and the bombs are replenished with every failed attempt, so there really isn’t a reason to get any more than twelve.
The biggest problem with this proposition is that it allows for the possibility of rendering the game unwinnable. While the number of available bombs exceeds the bare minimum required by a reasonable amount, it doesn’t change that if you complete every stage in the game with eleven or fewer, you cannot win. The idea of rendering the playthrough unwinnable was fairly common in contemporary adventure games, but it is not a design choice that has aged gracefully. Eventually, critics began to recognize having players waste time in a hopeless scenario is a major disservice to them. While rendering Keen Dreams unwinnable does, in part, involve defying common sense, it’s still a significant flaw nonetheless.
Otherwise, the main issue is that, just like the original trilogy, you can potentially skip more than half of the game if you do find twelve bombs quickly. It’s not as egregious as Keen Must Die! wherein the mandatory stages were set in stone, but to craft so many stages only for savvy players to skip most of them renders the effort of creating them in the first place largely pointless. It does spare players from having to deal with the game any longer than necessary, but once again, that can hardly be counted as a point in its favor.
Drawing a Conclusion
Keen Dreams is in a bit of an odd place compared to the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. If you just examine the core gameplay mechanics in isolation to everything else, then yes, it is an improvement over the original trilogy. The controls are more responsive, you don’t need to press more than one key to attack, and the graphics are much improved. Regardless, Keen Dreams is, at the end of the day, a good case study in how a sequel can boast more polish than its predecessor, but still fail to surpass it. As it stands, an irritatingly persistent issue in the form of the title character’s primary weapon drags the quality of the experience to utterly unsalvageable levels. And if that wasn’t enough, many of the problems plaguing the series from the beginning, such as the lack of player motivation, return for this installment as well. The result is a game that is superficially better, but worse when you dig beneath the surface.
Now, this isn’t to say Keen Dreams is completely terrible. Simply by virtue of having more responsive controls, it slightly edges out Keen Must Die!, the third episode of the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. Nonetheless, recommending Keen Dreams is nigh-impossible to anyone who grew up without the context of having witnessed PC gaming’s evolution firsthand. With this game, the series graduated from being ruinously unpolished to simply lacking in quality. Unlike the preceding trilogy of games, Keen Dreams doesn’t even have historical value to justify looking into it. While seeing it through wouldn’t be the worst idea, the fact is that there are plenty of quality, contemporary platformers far worthier of your time.
Final Score: 2/10