In the same month the Goodbye, Galaxy duology saw its release, so too did the standalone sixth official episode of id Software’s Commander Keen series: Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter. Although the second episode of Goodbye, Galaxy, The Armageddon Machine, teased at a new set of games entitled The Universe is Toast!, this sixth episode would be the series’ finale. Was it able to give id’s first triumph a proper sendoff?
Analyzing the Experience
Eight-year-old Billy Blaze is working on his wrist computer in his backyard clubhouse when his babysitter, Molly, calls him in for dinner. He then hears a loud noise, and when he emerges from his clubhouse, he sees a smoking crater and a note left behind. Aliens from Planet Fribbulus Xax have taken Molly hostage and plan to eat her. Billy dons his helmet and hurries off to Fribbulus Xax. Hopefully, he is able to rescue Molly before his parents return, for they will not believe him if he tells them, “Aliens Ate My Babysitter!”
Utilizing the same engine as both Secret of the Oracle and The Armageddon Machine, Aliens Ate My Babysitter plays exactly the same as both of them. As such, all of my praise and criticism of the core gameplay applies to this installment as well. It’s much more mechanically sound game than any installment of the original trilogy with responsive controls and a superior presentation. On the other hand, Keen still has the survivability of a dried husk, and significant programming errors ensure you can trivialize certain stages.
When researching the development of the Commander Keen series, I was initially surprised to learn that id worked on the latter half of the Goodbye, Galaxy duology after they finished Aliens Ate My Babysitter. This means that the sixth official installment in the Commander Keen series was created before the fifth. I have to say that, looking back on Aliens Ate My Babysitter alongside The Armageddon Machine, there is one discrepancy this bit of information perfectly explains.
To be more specific, The Armageddon Machine, although bearing the central issues of its direct predecessor, was the first installment to have a real difficulty curve. John Carmack and his team accomplished this feat by making almost every stage in the game mandatory – the sole exception served as bonus content. From there, they drastically limited where Keen could go at any given point, forcing players to complete two stages before it opened up. This was quite the contrast from Secret of the Oracle, which fell back on the series’ standby of simply turning players loose in a mostly non-linear overworld and letting them identify the important stages through trial and error.
How does this relate back to the odd development cycle? It’s because Aliens Ate My Babysitter, despite being the sixth episode of the series, bridges a gap between the fourth and the fifth in terms of design. Like in The Armageddon Machine, you are forced to complete two stages in succession before being offered a larger variety to choose from. Rather than placing stages in strategic locations, Aliens Ate My Babysitter resorts to using roadblocks to inhibit Keen’s progress. These include a tall cliff, a monster, and an inactive rocket ship, which can be bypassed using a rope, a large sandwich, and a keycard respectively. This effectively places the game’s stages on tiers, with each new set being more difficult than the ones that came before.
Had this game been released first, I would have considered it a step in the right direction for the series. As it stands, it comes across as the series falling back into old patterns. The problem, once again, is that the question of if a given stage is required to complete the game is ambiguous at best. This means having to play a long, drawn-out guessing game to determine if you just completed a stage that gets you closer to your goal or if you just wasted your time. Given the lack of tangible benefits to completing these optional stages, it’s plain to see why that would be an issue.
On the face of things, it’s easy to declare Aliens Ate My Babysitter a superior effort to Secret of the Oracle due to its difficulty curve, but it’s not that straightforward. What really sinks this game isn’t necessarily the lack of cohesion when it comes to overworld exploration, but rather its enemy lineup. There is a bit of mercy in that, despite their advanced space program, Bloog of Fribbulus Xax aren’t especially intelligent, preferring to hit enemies with sticks. In other words, they don’t have any projectile weapons to speak of. This is nice because The Armageddon Machine featured Shockshunds, which were extremely fast dogs made of pure energy capable of firing bolts of electricity at Keen.
Unfortunately, while there are no Shockshunds to be found on Fribbulus Xax, they have the next worst thing in the form of Giks. These creatures, which vaguely resemble ladybugs, have a tendency to fling themselves at Keen. While they aren’t the sheer threat that Shockshunds presented, they are also, like many other enemies, immune to Keen’s Neural Stunner. You will likely find yourself saving whenever one shows up, and they are especially grating in narrow corridors where Keen can’t jump out of their way.
Plus, there’s the fact on the back of both the Vorticons and the Shikadi, the Bloog are about as generic as they come in terms of design. Given how there was at least some imagination that went into designing the aliens of the previous installments, this is disappointing.
In the end, Keen is able to rescue Molly from the Bloog. She takes things rather well all things considered, although she probably would take the bizarre situation in stride given her younger brother is the omnicidal Mortimer McMire. Yes, it ultimately turns out that the Mortimer McMire Keen fought in Keen Must Die! was actually a robot replica. The Shikadi were taking orders from him all along, and once Keen learns of his nemesis’s plans to destroy the entire universe, takes off after him.
The end of The Armageddon Machine promised a new set of games entitled Commander Keen in The Universe is Toast!, which was slated for a release in 1992’s Christmas season. It’s a reality that did not come to pass, as the breakout success of another game id developed resulted in the Commander Keen series coming to an abrupt end. How the id team of 1992 would have handled Keen’s final battle against Mortimer is a riddle for the ages.
Drawing a Conclusion
Despite subtle changes to the gameplay, I really don’t have much more to say about Aliens Ate My Babysitter that I didn’t already say about Secret of the Oracle. It does manage to be a nominal improvement over the series’ fourth installment by virtue of having an actual difficulty curve, but as a follow-up to The Armageddon Machine, it represents a relapse into old habits. This is largely explained by the anachronic order in which these games were developed, but it’s still a little disappointing to have the series’ weaknesses flare up again after the comparatively promising fifth episode.
Because of this, my stance on Aliens Ate My Babysitter is exactly the same as it is for Secret of the Oracle. That is, you may get something out of the experience if you’re either a fan of platformers or a gaming historian, but it is rather uninviting for anyone outside of those groups. And then, of course, if you do get invested, you will have to deal with the fact that the series has no ending. As always, I can say that the Commander Keen series had a net positive impact on PC gaming, introducing scrolling and parallax scrolling in an era when such concepts, now considered basic, were utterly foreign. Its place in history, though overshadowed by id’s later accomplishments, is a secure one, but most enthusiasts are perfectly fine merely knowing of what it did for the medium. Experiencing it for themselves? Not nearly as necessary.
Final Score: 4/10