Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter!

Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter

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?

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Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy – Episode Five: The Armageddon Machine

Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy – Episode Five - The Armageddon Machine

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?

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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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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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Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons – Episode One: Marooned on Mars

In 1981, a company named Softdisk was founded in Shreveport, Louisiana. Some time later, they hired an alumnus from the University of Missouri named John Carmack. Despite not leaving the college with a degree, Mr. Carmack was an exceptional programmer – particularly in the field of the rising new medium of video games. He was initially hired to work on Softdisk G-S, an Apple IIGS publication. There, he met another programmer by the name of John Romero. With the help of Michael Abrash’s Power Graphics Programming, Mr. Carmack developed an engine capable rendering graphics capable of smoothly scrolling in any direction. This was practically unheard of at the time; IBM computers available for commercial use were not able to replicate such a feat.

With an engine capable of scrolling graphics to hand, it was only natural for Mr. Carmack and his colleagues to use it to create a game. Coworker Tom Hall encouraged Mr. Carmack to demonstrate the engine by recreating the first stage of Nintendo’s landmark platformer, Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been released internationally in 1990. Mr. Carmack and Mr. Hall were then able to do just that in a single night using a character the former had created for a previous game he called Dangerous Dave. The game, cheekily titled Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, was then shown to Mr. Romero, who realized the implications of being able to bring the success Nintendo had enjoyed to personal computers.

PC gaming survived the 1983 North American crash by virtue of being a niche market and therefore largely unaffected by whatever problems had plagued the mainstream. The team’s manager, Jay Wilbur, was impressed with their work and recommended that they contact Nintendo themselves in the hopes of being able to create an authorized port of Super Mario Bros. 3 for PC platforms. This team of programmers, now going by the name Ideas from the Deep, spent the next three days working on the demo for the hypothetical port. Although Nintendo praised the efforts of this budding team, they ultimately turned down the offer, wishing the Mario series to remain exclusive to their own consoles.

Undeterred, the Ideas from the Deep team convened to come up with a completely original idea. Mr. Hall suggested giving the game a science-fiction theme, which prompted Mr. Carmack to envision a child prodigy saving the world. The protagonist’s name would be Commander Keen. It was after Mr. Carmack read the premise in an overdramatic voice that the group knew they had a winning idea on their hands.

The first three games in this new series, Marooned on Mars, The Earth Explodes, and Keen Must Die!, formed a trilogy called Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons. They were all released simultaneously in December of 1990. The Ideas from the Deep team distributed their game using the shareware model pioneered by their publisher, the Garland, Texas-based Apogee Software. Specifically, the episodes could be obtained individually for fifteen dollars apiece or in a single lump sum for all three at the cost of thirty dollars – all via mail orders. This way, buyers could choose between paying an amount smaller than the price of a full game for one episode or a comparatively cheaper sum for all three. This distribution method proved to be a success for Apogee, as their sales levels had jumped from $7,000 per month to $30,000 by Christmas of 1990. Speaking retrospectively, it was speculated that this trilogy of games moved at least 50,000 copies. As a trilogy of games that afforded PC users an experience many of them otherwise had no access to, could they be said to possess the same timelessness of their primary influence?

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Colossal Cave Adventure

The Second World War brought about one of the most significant advancements in technology in recorded history. Decades after the conflict ended, the world’s superpowers began working with advanced machines capable of expediently conducting calculations. These machines were eventually named computers. In the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a branch within the United States Department of Defense invented a packet-switching network. Named the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), it was the first network to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite. Government agencies would use this internetworking process to quickly share important information in a secure manner.

One of the programmers who helped develop ARPANET was Will Crowther. In his spare time, he and his wife Pat would frequently go spelunking. Mr. Crowther had previously helped create vector map surveys of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky for the Cave Research Foundation. He was also a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game that launched its first edition in 1974. These good times weren’t to last, for he ended up divorcing his wife in 1975. Striving to find some way to connect with his daughters following the separation, Mr. Crowther had an idea. Combining his fondness for cave exploration with his programming expertize, he decided to create a computerized simulation of his travels.

Development of this project began in 1975 and took a year to complete. It consisted of nearly 700 lines of FORTRAN code with another 700 written for BBN’s PDP-10 timesharing computer. The result was considered the first known instance of interactive fiction. The executable file for this program was called ADVENT, but the opening screen provided its more famous name: Colossal Cave Adventure. One person who discovered Mr. Crowther’s work was Don Woods – a recent graduate from Stanford University. Mr. Woods added his own ideas to the code, including a scoring system and high fantasy elements – the latter of which was inspired by his fondness of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Unlike Mr. Crowther’s original version, the source code of Mr. Woods’s was widely distributed. What started off as a way for a man to connect with his daughters became ground zero for a type of entertainment the public later dubbed adventure games. As computers became more commonplace in the average household, Colossal Cave Adventure became a great success. Even those with limited programming knowledge could enjoy playing this game, and its impact on the medium cannot be denied. In an era before people regularly used the term “video game”, how does Colossal Cave Adventure hold up?

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King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride

Despite not selling as many copies as its direct predecessor, King’s Quest VI was yet another success for Sierra’s flagship franchise upon its 1992 release. While King’s Quest V was a major step up from its own direct predecessor in terms of presentation and gameplay, King’s Quest VI ironed out a majority of its flaws. The untrained office employees were replaced by professional voice actors. Combined with more user-friendly design choices and sensible puzzle solutions, there was little question King’s Quest VI managed to be the pinnacle of the franchise as soon as it debuted. Even if making a sequel was the logical thing to do, series creator Roberta Williams had her work cut out for her.

During this time, Disney’s success after having fully recovered from a nearly fatal slump in the 1980s effected what is believed to be the studio’s renaissance. The film most commonly cited for starting this era was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This triumph was then followed up by Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin in 1992. All three of these films are beloved classics by anyone versed in the medium – and even those who aren’t. Realizing just how much life these films breathed into the medium, the Sierra staff sought to capture that energy and transplant it into the next King’s Quest installment.

With the rising popularity of the CD-ROM format, Ms. Williams had begun drafting ideas for a game featuring heavy amounts of full-motion video footage. Its name was to be Phantasmagoria. As a result of her busy schedule, she helmed the development of King’s Quest VII alongside two other new directors: Lorelei Shannon and Andy Hoyos. Even so, Ms. Williams was enthusiastic about the project, often bouncing ideas off of Ms. Shannon. It was to the point where they were sad when the planning process came to an end, for Ms. Shannon believed they could have devised new ideas for the next two years.

In order to make as good of an impression as possible, Sierra’s co-founder, Ken Williams, had the idea to contact an up-and-coming animation studio known as Pixar. They had made a favorable impression on animation enthusiasts with their collection of short films, and were in the process of creating their theatrical debut: Toy Story. To Mr. Williams’s surprise, he received a call from Pixar founder Steve Jobs almost immediately after proposing a possible collaboration. Unfortunately for Sierra, the plan fell through when it became clear the Pixar team was far too busy to entertain making a short film for them. To bring their vision of an interactive cartoon into reality, Sierra contracted four animation houses: Animation Magic Inc., Dungeon Ink & Paint, LA West Film Production, and Animotion.

Despite the fact that most of these animators had limited experience in computer gaming, the development cycle proceeded fairly smoothly. The project eventually saw its completion in November of 1994 under the name King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. Being the seventh installment of a long-running franchise, King’s Quest VII had no problems finding an audience, selling 3.8 million copies within the next eighteen months. However, while fans and critics alike were enthusiastic about the series’ previous entries, the seventh left them divided. Some disliked the Disney-inspired presentation while others had nothing but praise for it. Although many games to follow the franchise’s pinnacle gain a new lease on life with the power of hindsight, King’s Quest VII remains a divisive entry to this very day. Was it even possible for Sierra to successfully follow up a game as beloved as King’s Quest VI?

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King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Jane Jensen, the youngest of seven children, always had a fondness for computers. Attending Anderson University in Indiana, she received a BA in computer science, a quickly budding field at the time. Shortly thereafter, she found herself working for Hewlett-Packard as a systems programmer. She then felt inspired to enter the gaming industry after playing a classic adventure title called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. As fate would have it, her passion for computers and creative writing, led to her finding a job at Sierra OnLine where she wrote the scenarios for Police Quest III: The Kindred and EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. Both games were successes for the prolific company, but she was about to receive a task of even greater and personal importance.

In the year 1990, company co-founder Roberta Williams placed the finishing touches on King’s Quest V. This fifth installment in the company’s flagship series became the single greatest-selling game in the franchise. The following year, Ms. Williams, impressed with Ms. Jensen’s work, had an interesting proposal for the then-newcomer. She had already begun preliminary work on the newest King’s Quest game, having conceived a rough outline for the plot. The two of them then began working alongside each other, brainstorming new design ideas in the process. Their goal was to retain the familiar tone of the series had established in previous installments while giving the game an identity of its own. Furthermore, Ms. Williams wanted players to connect with the game on an emotional level, deciding to fulfill this objective by penning a central love story between two characters.

With King’s Quest V having been a significant technical leap from its predecessor, Ms. Williams sought to set her sights even higher for its sequel. Co-director Bill Skirvin along with the artists began work on storyboards and character designs. One artist in particular, John Shroades, had sketched the eighty backgrounds that would end up in the final product. Taking advantage of the recent advent of motion capture technology, the team ended up transcribing the movement of live-action actors for the potential player decisions and subsequent character animations – of which there were over 2,000. Similarly, the game would feature over 6,000 lines of written messages. Handling this task was Ms. Jensen, who scripted the game, defining for programmers how it should respond to a given action.

Development of this game was completed by September of 1992. In an interview for The New York Times, Ms. Williams estimated the game’s budget was around $700,000 USD. The crew, led by her, Mr. Skirvin, and Ms. Jensen, consisted of twenty people and the project took fourteen months to complete. Although it was scheduled for a release in September of 1992, Sierra delayed it until the thirteenth of October. Entitled King’s Quest IV: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the fruit of their labor was originally released on nine floppy disks for DOS and Macintosh. It was rereleased upon an emerging format – the CD-ROM – in 1993 for DOS and Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows. Taking advantage of this new format, the team added a voiceover for every single line of dialogue and included a ballad named “Girl in the Tower”, which was composed by Mark Seibert. Sierra sent a CD containing the song to local radio stations and included a pamphlet listing them along with every copy of the game. In the pamphlet, they suggested fans request the song to be played. The owners of said radio stations were not impressed; they legally threatened Sierra as a result of the myriad requests with which they were bombarded. This prompted a bemused Ken Williams to label the stations the real criminals for ignoring their customers – “something [he believed] no business should ever do”.

Although King’s Quest VI didn’t sell as many copies as the series’ fifth installment, it ended up being the single best-received game in the series. Every single one of its five predecessors was similarly well-received, yet King’s Quest VI seemed to possess something they lacked: staying power. When parsing the first five installments in the series from a modern perspective, one is likely to conclude they don’t hold up so well. They were all, to some extent, trailblazers, yet any contemporary review will invariably include phrases such as “fair for its time” or “aged horribly”. This isn’t true of King’s Quest VI – even now, you can find it on lists compiling the greatest PC games ever made. Is this the installment that allowed the series to finally escape the genre’s early trappings and deliver an experience worthy of being called an all-time classic?

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