Although Keen Dreams wasn’t the breakaway success for John Carmack and the rest of id Software the original trilogy of Commander Keen games managed to be, they did wind up crafting a superior engine in the process of developing it. With Keen Dreams having been completed by June of 1991, id began work on a new trilogy of Commander Keen episodes to be named Goodbye, Galaxy. The team intended for the episodes to be published in the same manner as the original trilogy. Players could order the episodes individually or all three with a lump sum totaling less.
The following August, Mr. Carmack and his team had completed a beta version of the series’ fourth official episode: Secret of the Oracle. Fellow programmer John Romero sent it to Mark Rein, a fan that he had met from Canada who offered to playtest the game. Mr. Romero was then surprised when Mr. Rein sent back a large list of bugs he compiled. Coupled with his impressive business acumen, Mr. Romero proposed hiring him as a probationary president in an attempt to expand their business. Within weeks, Mr. Rein made a deal to get id into the commercial market, but there was a catch. The sixth episode was to be made a standalone game, published as a retail title through the company FormGen as opposed to id’s signature shareware model. The fledgling company signed the deal, although Scott Miller, an employee from publisher Apogee was dismayed, believing reducing Goodbye, Galaxy to a duology would hurt sales.
In the same month, the team moved from Shreveport, Louisiana to Designer Tom Hall’s hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Working out of a three-bedroom apartment, they worked on the Goodbye, Galaxy duology, any remaining Softdisk projects, and the now-standalone sixth Commander Keen installment. One software catalog listed the release date in September of 1991, but the project ended up being delayed. The sixth episode, being a standalone effort, was developed after the fourth, but before the fifth. The fifth itself would be created in less than one month.
All three games would see their release in December of 1991. As Mr. Miller predicted, the sales figures of Goodbye, Galaxy were roughly one-third those of the original trilogy, which had made $20,000 in its first two weeks and $60,000 a month by June of 1991. Mr. Hall himself would also blame the falling sales on the lack of a third episode, which undercut their shareware model. Nonetheless, the games still fared well overall, becoming one of the top shareware sellers of 1992. Like the original trilogy, the two games that formed the Goodbye, Galaxy duology, Secret of the Oracle and The Armageddon Machine, were well-received. As the first installment of this duology, does Secret of the Oracle mark a significant improvement over its four predecessors?
Analyzing the Experience
Having defeated the Grand Intellect, Billy Blaze, better known as Commander Keen, returns home to planet Earth. After building a faster-than-light communications radio, he receives a startling transmission. A race of aliens known as the Shikadi are planning to destroy the entire galaxy. With no time to waste, Billy Blaze dons his football helmet, becoming Commander Keen once more.
Unfortunately, at that exact moment, Keen’s parents enter the room. Thinking quickly, Keen reaches for his Neural Stunner, incapacitating both of them. With the threat of dinner narrowly averted, he now has plenty of time to save the galaxy and return before his parents regain their senses. In his Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket, he sets course for the planet Gnosticus IV.
Upon arrival, Keen is greeted by a Council Page. He informs the young genius that the council of Gnosticenes’ oracle will identify where he may find the Shikadi. However, the Shikadi are one step ahead and, because the Gnosticenes are immortal, have imprisoned them in the Shadowlands. Now knowing what he must do, Keen ventures to the Shadowlands, hoping to rescue the Gnosticenes and discover the secret of the oracle before the Shikadi can effect their plans.
Secret of the Oracle was built using an engine similar to that of Keen Dreams. However, thanks to the contributions of Mark Rein, it is notably more sophisticated this time around. One improvement can be observed – more specifically, heard – as soon as you begin the game. Indeed, Secret of the Oracle is the first game in the series to have actual music. The design team wanted Keen Dreams to have music, but technical limitations prevented this from happening. As much of a platforming game’s personality shines through in the soundtrack, this is a welcome change from the dead silence of the original trilogy or the scant SoundBlaster cues of Keen Dreams. Composer Bobby Prince does not disappoint, coming up with great, fitting themes for the various stages.
Entering the first stage reveals that the graphics are largely the same as Keen Dreams – albeit with the title character no longer pajama clad. Keen controls similarly in this game as well. You press the “CTRL” key to jump, and the spacebar to fire his weapon. Thankfully, the nigh-useless Flower Power pellets from Keen Dreams are gone, and in their place is the Neural Stunner.
Having taken the criticisms from various parents voicing their concern of an eight-year-old slaughtering aliens to heart, this game offers a compromise: Keen is allowed a ranged weapon that doesn’t kill them. Instead, hitting an enemy with a blast from the Neural Stunner will incapacitate them, which is humorously depicted by having stars circle around their heads and a goofy expression adorning their faces. Despite this, it’s functionally the same as the Raygun; dazed enemies will never recover from their stupor so long as you remain in the stage. As an added bonus, Keen can now shoot upwards and even downwards while jumping.
As this game takes place in reality, Keen’s pogo stick makes a return. You can have him take it out by pressing the “ALT” key. Holding down the “CTRL” key will cause him to bounce higher, and you can have him put away the pogo stick by pressing the “ALT” key again. There is also a maneuver Keen can form known as the Impossible Pogo Trick, which, if successfully executed, will cause him to jump higher than usual. It’s usually done by holding down the “CTRL” key and pressing “ALT”.
There are several subtler improvements to be found in the gameplay. Pressing the up arrow key causes Keen to look in that direction. If you keep it pressed, the screen will eventually scroll in that direction. The opposite is true as well; pressing the down arrow key will cause Keen to duck and the screen to move accordingly. In a game where the main character is easily dispatched by any hostile force, the ability to – literally – look before you leap is greatly appreciated.
On top of that, Keen is a fair bit more athletic than he was in previous games. Specifically, when he reaches a ledge, he can latch onto it and pull himself up. This makes platforming a little easier, as he is not required to land on platforms in order to reach them. However, this does not work on floating or moving platforms. In most cases, the ledge in question must be attached to the ground.
Keen is also allowed to jump down from non-solid platforms. This is accomplished by holding the down arrow key and pressing “CTRL”. It’s especially nice when considering the fair number of situations in the original game in which you could go down a one-way, upwards path you were unable to backtrack from. This simple ability makes navigation much easier.
When it comes to its level design, Secret of the Oracle is noticeably more dynamic than any of its predecessors. This is because you can now enter and exit doorways, which lead to different portions of a given stage. In doing so, this installment continues to lend the series a mazelike design that encouraged a greater degree of exploration than contemporary efforts such as Super Mario World. As usual, stages aren’t always a matter of going right until you reach the goal; many require you to go on a key hunt, hiding the goal behind several locked doors. Perhaps in a bit of cheeky foreshadowing, the first stage requires you to go left to reach the goal.
Despite all of these improvements, Secret of the Oracle still presents a rather flawed experience. Although the engine itself is more polished than it was in Keen Dreams, it does retain many of its weaknesses. Specifically, there’s the strange abnormality of how, when going left, the screen begins to scroll as Keen is halfway through. Conversely, when going right, he needs to be a little more than slightly off-center for it to move. It’s an admittedly minor problem, but it can be costly when an enemy comes barreling at Keen, and you have no time to react. Even with the more responsive controls, it’s a gamble to have Keen travel down a certain direction for any length of time.
This is because, while the improvements are noticeable, they simply don’t make up for the fact that the overall design doesn’t complement the exploratory nature of these levels. Having to constantly worry about enemies, which are often faster than Keen and can kill him in one hit, makes exploration a nightmare.
Interestingly, while this was a problem that definitely existed in the original trilogy, it is expressed slightly differently in Secret of the Oracle. Keen as he was in the original trilogy controlled like a tank. There was a slight delay in between pressing the keys and the action being carried out. This meant that even if your reflexes were good, Keen could still die because of his own drawn-out animations.
In Secret of the Oracle, on the other hand, these issues can be tangentially attributed to Keen’s Neural Stunner. It is more effective than Keen’s Raygun from a purely mechanical standpoint, as it fires a shot immediately and doesn’t require the player to press two keys to activate it. The problem is that whether or not the Neural Stunner works on a given enemy is on a case-by-case basis. As it turns out, there are many, many enemies that cannot be harmed by the Neural Stunner. In some cases, it merely stuns the enemies for a few seconds and in others, it simply doesn’t work.
This is one of the very few areas in which the original trilogy could claim to be superior, for while there was the odd enemy impervious to Keen’s Raygun, they were in the vast minority. In Secret of the Oracle, you constantly have to deal with enemies that shrug off the Neural Stunner. While some, such as a bouncing mushroom enemy, are easy enough to avoid, others are perfectly mobile. Berkeloids are especially annoying because they can throw fireballs and easily box Keen in. If they corner Keen, which is a likely scenario, there is nothing you can do.
This particular issue reaches a boiling point when Keen is forced to go underwater for one stage. Here, you have absolutely no means of defense, leaving Keen open to countless hostile forces. It’s especially difficult when the most famous enemy in the game, the Dopefish, is bearing down on Keen. The help screen claims it’s the second-dumbest creature in the galaxy, but it’s difficult to take such a claim seriously considering it’s one of the few enemies that actively hunts for Keen. There is a bit of a puzzle element to this stage in that you can get smaller fish to follow Keen, and the Dopefish will pause momentarily to eat one if it’s within range. However, this doesn’t always work, and because you don’t have direct control over the small fish, it’s often easier said than done.
Otherwise, what I feel is the biggest problem with Secret of the Oracle is, once again, the lack of motivation. Secret of the Oracle has a total of seventeen stages – eleven of which are required to win. This does mean that Secret of the Oracle fares better than Keen Must Die! wherein you could get away with only completing three stages out of a possible sixteen. Regardless, it still leaves six stages in Secret of the Oracle that serve no purpose whatsoever. Granted, two of these stages could be considered exceptional cases. One has a secret exit leading to the game’s bonus stage. Still, it’s immensely frustrating to spend a lot of energy completing a stage only to learn your efforts were completely pointless.
In fact, this is one of the few issues that actually became worse in Secret of the Oracle. The first two games had visual cues to help players discern the mandatory stages from the optional ones. They were admittedly esoteric, but they did exist. Even Keen Dreams, which gave the player liberties as to how many stages they needed to complete, made the overarching goal clear from the outset. Secret of the Oracle doesn’t afford the player any hints; it’s a total guessing game as to which stages house the Gnosticenes. Some of the stage entrances stand out a lot, yet don’t house any of the elders whereas some of the ones that do are entirely unassuming or have innocuous names.
Finally, I have to say that, despite Mr. Rein’s best efforts, Secret of the Oracle has a rather major oversight in its coding. When Keen dies, he is thrown to the right, bouncing on other hazards until he falls offscreen. If you save the game while he is being thrown and then reload, the death animation continues, but the corresponding flag is reset. Consequently, the camera will continue following him until he hits another hazard or the bottom of the screen whereupon he is considered dead again. If you’re able to move Keen to the rightmost edge of the stage after his death animation plays, but before he touches a hazard, the stage is considered cleared.
This is a valuable asset for speedrunners, as it shaves several precious seconds off of a given attempt. However, it should not be used in a stage where any of the Gnosticenes are being held. If you attempt to clear these stages in such a manner, the game will consider them cleared, but without having saved the elder in question. As the game only ends once all eight elders are rescued, you will have rendered it unwinnable if you do this. While a person playing causally is unlikely to ever stumble upon this glitch and speedrunners are more likely to consider it a feature rather than a bug, it is indicative to the game’s subpar programming all the same.
Drawing a Conclusion
Secret of the Oracle is, in a very loose sense, the game Keen Dreams tried and failed to be. Keen Dreams was an example of a mechanically superior game failing to surpass its predecessors due in no small part to horrendously bad design choices. By giving the player a weapon that isn’t completely useless and polishing the engine upon which Keen Dreams was built, Secret of the Oracle represents the improvement the older title should have been. On top of that, the better presentation and catchy music ensured the series finally escaped the shadow of its inspiration and forged its own identity.
With all of that said, even five installments in, Commander Keen was still quite a bit behind what the Mario series had accomplished then. It wasn’t enough for the series to finally have its own identity; this is when it needed to bring something unique to the table, and yet it did not. As a platformer, it still lacks the elegant simplicity of the Mario series, and as a run-and-gun, it plays like a poor man’s version of Mega Man. On top of gameplay that doesn’t, in any way, complement the premise of its protagonist being as fragile as he is, and Secret of the Oracle represents the moment in which the series merely stopped being actively bad as opposed to becoming genuinely good.
This isn’t to say that Secret of the Oracle is completely bad. In fact, it’s the first installment in the series I can see somebody – especially a connoisseur of old PC games – enjoy at face value. And by allowing a lot of people to realize that parallax scrolling is indeed possible on the PC platform, Mr. Carmack and company blazed the trail for many aspiring artists to come. So, while I personally find Secret of the Oracle a difficult sell, I can, at the very least, say platforming fans might get something out of it. Otherwise, my feelings towards this game are largely the same as the ones I reserve for any of its predecessors. This is to say, while it did represent a definable step forward for PC gaming, it’s not really a part of history the average enthusiast really needs to experience for themselves.
Final Score: 4/10