Programmed in but a single month, the fifth official episode in the Commander Keen series, The Armageddon Machine, was released on the same day as its immediate predecessor as part of the Goodbye, Galaxy duology. Does this installment allow the duology to end on a high note?
Analyzing the Experience
Having received information from the Gnosticenes, Commander Keen was able to locate the Shikadi space station, which is looming above Planet Korath III. Keen manages to infiltrate the space station via the ion ventilation system, beginning his most dangerous mission yet. If he succeeds, the galaxy is safe. If he fails, he can wave goodbye to the galaxy as the Armageddon machine blasts it to space dust.
Having been built on the exact same engine as Secret of the Oracle, The Armageddon Machine shares many of its strengths and weaknesses. Keen controls exactly as he did in Secret of the Oracle and remains more maneuverable than he was in the original trilogy. He is also just as fragile as he has ever been, with one hit from a hostile force being able to put him out of commission. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that you can save at any time, but just like in Keen Dreams, it just comes across as a way of solving the problem without addressing the underlying issues causing it. And then, of course, you can potentially cheat the game by saving during the death animation and reloading, but this can render your playthrough unwinnable on certain stages.
However, despite providing more of the same, I have to say that The Armageddon Machine manages to be a marked improvement over its five predecessors. “How can this be if the gameplay hasn’t changed from the previous installment?” you may ask. The answer to this question lies in the subtle details.
To begin with, The Armageddon Machine, unlike Keen Dreams and Secret of the Oracle, takes place in an indoor environment. This change in setting has significant ramifications on Keen’s survivability. With a definite ceiling over Keen’s head at all times, the number of fast enemies that can ambush him are significantly reduced. You still have to worry about significant drops or enemies in long hallways – especially when moving right, but ammunition is fairly common in this game, so it usually doesn’t pose too much of a problem.
In fact, it’s entirely because the game is set in an indoor environment that the mazelike design id had prided themselves in from the beginning truly begins to shine. More than any previous installment, id managed to craft entirely distinct environments for Keen to explore, ensuring the player can determine their location at any given time. It’s not likely you will ever get lost playing this game, and even if your sense of direction is poor, you can usually use the stunned enemies to determine where you have and haven’t been.
I also have to comment that The Armageddon Machine has a great enemy lineup. They manage to be threatening without actively being a pain to deal with. On top of that, most of them can be stunned or otherwise permanently disposed of by studying their patterns. The Shikadi themselves are transparent energy beings capable of sending electric shocks up the poles Keen can climb, adding an element of danger even when they’re otherwise out of reach. There is one rather notorious robotic enemy known as a Robo Red, which fires multiple shots at Keen if it hears him, but I found myself enjoying their presence as well, as they lend stealth elements to the proceedings.
Otherwise, what I consider to be the single greatest strength of The Armageddon Machine is that it is, by far, the best structured installment in the series. A reoccurring problem throughout the installments leading up to this one was the fact that so many stages were optional. This had two adverse effects on the gameplay. First of all, it rendered significant portions of the experience pointless. In the original trilogy, you could get a high score by repeatedly dying in certain stages whereas in Keen Dreams and Secret of the Oracle, you had the ability to save at any time. Secondly, and more tangentially, it also deprived those games of any kind of natural difficulty curve. Sure, some stages were intended to be completed before others, but there was little stopping players from going off the rails. The developers likely realized this as well, for even the stages intended to be the last were only slightly more difficult than the introductory areas. This problem was at its worst in Secret of the Oracle, which didn’t have an obvious stage intended to serve as the final one.
The Armageddon Machine solves this problem through one easy fix: all twelve stages onboard the Shikadi space station are required to complete the game. As for the mandatory twelve stages, they follow a logical progression in difficulty. You have to complete two stages to get to the central portions of the space station. From there, you must sever the circuits of the security machine blocking access to the Quantum Explosion Dynamo – the device that threatens to destroy the galaxy.
As one would expect, the first few stages are simple and straightforward while the last is the most difficult. It even throws a puzzle at you by forcing you to guide a mobile mine to the dynamo’s power supply and intentionally detonate it. Amusingly, Keen can still get struck by the mine’s shrapnel and still clear the stage as long as his death animation doesn’t complete.
There is a hidden thirteenth stage to be found on the surface of Korath III, but this installment contextualizes it as actual bonus content. In fact, if you complete it a certain way, you unlock an alternate ending. Usually, when you destroy the Quantum Explosion Dynamo, the Shikadi make an escape, but if you sever a circuit there, it turns out to be for the space station’s engine. This causes the Shikadi to be arrested for double parking. In a series perennially laden with goofy, if occasionally intelligent humor, I think that’s the absolute best note the game could have gone out on.
Drawing a Conclusion
Tom Hall considered The Armageddon Machine his personal favorite installment of the Commander Keen series. It’s easy to see why, for it is easily the best game the franchise ever spawned. The level design has a level of focus none of the previous installments had, the humor is good, it boasts the greatest music Bobby Prince had ever composed by this point in his career, and there is a definable difficulty curve to be found. The id team had always attempted to create a platformer with an emphasis on exploration that didn’t exist in contemporary efforts such as Super Mario World, and this is where the pieces fell into place a little more gracefully.
Now, the real question is: does that make The Armageddon Machine a definitively good game? To that, I would have to say the answer is, regrettably, a resounding no. The Armageddon Machine does mark the moment when id could finally say they caught up with the Mario series. The problem is that they caught up with the Mario series as it was in 1985 when the original Super Mario Bros. debuted. By 1991, the Mario series, through Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, had demonstrated a hitherto untapped potential other developers weren’t even close to realizing – including id themselves. In fact, given the complete lack of boss fights, it’s not unfair to say even this game manages to be behind the curve. Combined with the fact that this game leaves the series without a proper resolution, and you have yourself a difficult sell.
I will offer an olive branch to this game; of all the series’ installments, The Armageddon Machine is the only one I can realistically envision anyone enjoying for purposes that go beyond historical curiosity. Plus, it’s laudable that a game made in one month managed to be fairly decent – even when considering Mr. Carmack and company didn’t have to create a new engine for it. As long as you don’t go into the game expecting something on par with the best contemporary efforts the likes of Nintendo, Konami, or Capcom had to offer, it is possible to have a lot of fun with it. Although not originally intended as such, The Armageddon Machine marked the series’ final hurrah before the id team moved onto bigger and better things within the next few years.
Final Score: 5/10