Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy – Episode Four: Secret of the Oracle

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?

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Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!

Donkey Kong Country 3

With the release of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, Rare had another hit on their hands. However, Director Tim Stamper and his team didn’t intend to stop there. As the Nintendo 64, the successor to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), loomed overhead, Mr. Stamper set out to make a sequel almost immediately after the release of Donkey Kong Country 2. Armed with the company’s trademark Silicon Graphics and Advanced Computer Modelling programs, they were able to finish the game one year later.

This sequel, entitled Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, saw its release in November of 1996. Although it fared well commercially, the game moved 3.5 million units, which was a step down from the 4.37 million copies Donkey Kong Country 2 sold. It is speculated that the release of the Nintendo 64 and its signature launch title, Super Mario 64, may have been responsible for the lower sales numbers. Even in light of these setbacks, Donkey Kong Country 3 was an undeniable success with critics and fans alike. Emerging at the tail end of the fourth console generation, did Donkey Kong Country 3 provide a fitting swansong for the venerable SNES?

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country was a tremendous success for the British developer Rare upon its 1994 release, capturing much media attention due to its advanced graphics and solid gameplay. While many developers would use the commercial success of a game for the grounds of making a sequel, Rare co-founder Tim Stamper sought to do so shortly after the release of their breakout hit. The employees behind the creation of Donkey Kong Country were satisfied with the final product, but had plenty of ideas remaining for another installment. Mr. Stamper found himself in the director’s chair once again with colleague Brendan Gunn returning as the lead designer. Though well-received, veteran gamers considered Donkey Kong Country too easy, so this sequel was to be significantly more challenging.

Utilizing the Silicon Graphics and Advanced Computer Modelling technology they used to take prerendered images, model them as three-dimensional objects, and transform them into two-dimensional sprites, they began their work. In a move that shocked fans, Diddy Kong, the original game’s deuteragonist, was to be the sequel’s protagonist. Artist and producer Steve Mayles stated that the team’s youth gave him the courage to disregard the risk they would have doubtlessly taken by pushing the title character out of the spotlight.

Development of this game, entitled Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, proceeded smoothly, and saw its release roughly one year after the debut of the original. Like its predecessor, Donkey Kong Country 2 was highly acclaimed, with critics praising both the gameplay and the graphics. It cannot be denied that Rare supplanting the title character with one of their own creation was quite the daring gambit. To everyone’s surprise, it paid off, for Donkey Kong Country eventually became the sixth-best selling game on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Was it truly able to deliver an experience worthy of being a follow-up to the acclaimed original?

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country

After receiving an unlimited budget from Nintendo, the company that revitalized console gaming in North America with the Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System/NES abroad), the Twycross, Leicestershire-based developer Rare created several games for them. The company’s first game for Nintendo, Slalom, which was originally released in arcades under the Vs. System, proved a modest hit. From there, they developed various games utilizing famous film licenses such as Beetlejuice and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it was their original property Battletoads that would cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

Then, in 1990, the successor to Nintendo’s Famicom console, the Super Famicom, was released. It would see its international debut the following year as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Rare had been quite prolific throughout the third generation of console gaming, but after the SNES saw its release, they decided to limit their output. To this end, they invested the money they made from their various NES games in Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations. These devices were notable for their ability to render 3D models in an era when such a thing was unheard of. It proved to be quite the financial risk, as each workstation cost £80,000 apiece. In doing so, Rare became the most technologically advanced developer in the United Kingdom. Rare tested the technology by creating an arcade installment of Battletoads before beginning work on a boxing game they named Brute Force.

Meanwhile, Nintendo was in a heated console war against the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in North America). Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario series, had become a smash hit, and won the Genesis many fans in the process. Some of those fans included Disney animators, who lent their talents to Virgin Games to create an adaptation of Aladdin. It was notably the very first game to ever feature hand-drawn animation. Realizing they needed to think of something quickly to remain relevant, Nintendo, impressed with Rare’s work on Brute Force, bought a 25% stake in the company, which eventually increased to 49%.

Now part of a second-party developer for Nintendo, Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper were contacted by Nintendo with an interesting proposal. Released in arcades in 1981, Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s breakthrough hit, turning them into one of the industry’s most respected developers. Despite this, it was the then-unnamed Mario, not the title character, who ended up becoming synonymous with the company. This may have been justifiable as Mario was the player character while the game itself had been named after its antagonist. Even so and with the exception of scattered cameo appearances and a Game Boy remake of the arcade original, the title character hadn’t been used at all since Donkey Kong 3, which itself fell into relative obscurity following the infamous North American video game crash of 1983. As journalist Jeremy Parish writing for USGamer pointed out, it was “quite an ignominious twist” for one of the medium’s most recognizable characters.

On the back of this, Nintendo wished to revive Donkey Kong for a modern audience, and the Stamper brothers were to do just that. Development began in August of 1993 with an estimated development budget of $1,000,000 and a team of twelve. The creator of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not work on the game directly, but he ended up contributing ideas throughout the development process. This game was to be a side-scrolling platformer, as much of the staff had grown up playing Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. Finally in November of 1994, Rare completed their work. It was called Donkey Kong Country (Super Donkey Kong in Japan), and it set a record upon its release for the most man hours ever invested in a video game’s development at 22 years. The game was highly acclaimed and a commercial success, selling seven-million copies worldwide in four months. As the third-best selling game in the SNES’s library, how does Donkey Kong Country hold up?

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Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

In 1993, the Japanese developer Neverland released Lufia & the Fortress of Doom for the Super Famicom – or the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) abroad. Although somewhat lost amid the slew of Eastern role-playing games that saw their own releases around the same time, Neverland’s effort received a warm critical reception with the American publication Electronic Games in particular calling it one of the best RPGs of the year.

The game also proved to be a modest hit – enough so that Director Masahide Miyata and his team began working on a sequel shortly thereafter. It was finished and released domestically in February of 1995 under the name Biography of Estpolis II. The game was released in North America in May of 1996 renamed Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which would see its European debut the following year. As its predecessor hadn’t been released in Europe, the game’s title was truncated to Lufia. Like the original game, Lufia II was a success, selling a little over 60,000 copies in Japan. This time, however, the critical reception was significantly more positive with aficionados of the SNES library considering it an underrated gem of a classic. Was Lufia II truly able to improve on the formulaic original?

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Keen Dreams

Keen Dreams

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?

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