Apogee Software was released on December 14, 1990 Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons. It was the first in a line of PC shareware games that brought fluid Mario-like platforms to PC. It also launched the legendary Developer ID Software. This is why it was special.
Keen: Playful console magic on the PC
The first Commander Keen game, Invasion of the Vorticons, is split into three episodes designed for PCs with MS-DOS. In the first episode, you play as Billy Blaze (aka Commander Keen), a child who must travel to Mars to fend off an invasion of canine aliens called Vorticons.
The aliens have dismantled your ship and scattered its parts around the planet. It̵
On the way, Commander Keen builds a fascinating background story through special stages. The mini narrative scenes showcase items such as a pogo stick and a foreign language written in glyphs. Keen also picks up whimsical items like teddy bears and books with the word “SIDE” on them. This gives the game a playful and funny feel.
At the time of release, Keen’s real achievement was the smooth, Mario-like platformer on the IBM PC. Few thought this was even possible, since side-scrolling platformers were most popular on home video game consoles at the time.
However, folks with PCs could get a taste of console-style gaming by downloading a free game from a BBS, thanks Commander Keen. This was magical at the time.
To understand why, let’s rewind and take a look at what gaming and computers were like in the year of Keen’s release.
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1990: The Year of Mario
In 1990, the Nintendo Entertainment System console was at the peak of its success thanks to smooth-scrolling platform games such as Super Mario Bros. 3. Smooth scrolling from Super Mario Bros. (1985) was the technical breakthrough that made it the stunning, awesome app that it was.
The secret of Super Mario Bros. was certain that the NES game cartridges included special memory management chips that allowed the graphics on the screen to scroll smoothly. Other consoles also included dedicated graphics handling and acceleration hardware, which made smooth-action games relatively easy to create.
However, in the late 1980s, there were almost no compatible IBM PCs with game-oriented graphics acceleration hardware. Instead, programmers worked with IBM-created standards, including CGA, EGA, and VGA, all of which required software tricks to create interesting graphic effects.
Due to these technical limitations, very few PC games at the time had attempted to duplicate the Mario run and jump platform. It’s also why slower games, such as RPG, strategy and simulation titles, dominated the PC game market at the time.
Carmack’s EGA Breakthrough
One programmer in particular changed the future course of PC game genres. In the mid-1990s, John Carmack, who then worked at a publishing house called Softdisk, invented a new graphics technique for EGA graphics cards called “adaptive tile refresh”. It took advantage of oddities in the EGA standard to produce smooth sub-pixel scrolling that was similar to the Mario games.
Shortly afterwards, Carmack and his Softdisk colleague, Tom Hall, created a scrolling demo covering the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3. It was called Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, because it was based on a character created by another Softdisk employee, John Romero.
When Romero got to work the next day, he was blown away. He realized he had the future of the trio’s independent success – away from Softdisk – in his hands.
Shortly after, the three developers, working under the moniker “Ideas from the Deep”, secretly created one Super Mario Bros. 3 demo while you are still employed by Softdisk. They used EGA graphics and Carmack’s new scroll engine. They ended up pitching it to Nintendo through a friend, and while the company was impressed, it passed the project on.
Enter, Commander Keen
Around that time, Scott Miller, the president of shareware publisher Apogee Software, contacted Romero to see if he wanted to work for him. Romero then pitched Miller a game idea from Hall’s about a boy who saves the galaxy with a spaceship that has been pieced together from household spare parts. This became Commander Keen.
In the fall of 1990, Carmack, Romero, and Hall quickly hit the first Commander Keen game, Invasion of the Vorticons. According to Romero, Carmack provided the engine and gameplay programming, and Hall provided the design and graphics.
Romero coded the level editor, did half of the level design and other production work. Adrian Carmack (no relation to John) later joined and contributed some graphics before the game shipped.
Apogee’s episodic shareware model was compelling at the time. It used the loose network of dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSs) to distribute the first installment of games for free. Players downloaded the game and if they liked it, they could send a check to Apogee to buy more episodes.
The great thing about shareware is that it put an end to deep-rooted PC game publishing. The latter required connections to stores and large investments to duplicate discs and print boxes and manuals.
The shareware model also allowed Apogee to experiment with publishing alternative genres (such as console-style action platforms) that may have been shunned by mainstream PC game publishers.
“Creating Keen shareware was critical to its success,” Romero recalls. “It was easily accessible to everyone and it was legal to distribute. People could just give a copy to their friends to show them something really cool, and that was okay. “
Apogee published Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons on December 14, 1990 by making the first episode, “Marooned on Mars” available on BBSes. To get the other two episodes, customers paid $ 15 or $ 30 each for the entire trilogy
Miller said the response was overwhelming. Typical Apogee shareware games sold only a few thousand copies, but Commander Keen sold 30,000 in just a few months and nearly 60,000 in the coming years.
The amazing success of Commander Keen mapped a new future for Carmacks, Romero and Hall.
“The first month of the game went so well that we were able to leave all four Softdisk and officially launch id Software on February 1, 1991,” said Romero. “And Keen sales just kept increasing. At the end of 1991, Keen had five sales [times that of] the first month. “
id Software would continue to make other technically groundbreaking games, such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Earthquake. But before that, the quartet worked on several others Commander Keen shareware games, each of which was a success in its own right.
Over the years, several attempts have been made at it Commander Keen series, including a 2001 Game Boy Color version and a poorly received 2019 mobile reboot that was eventually canceled. Neither captured the magic of the original or the place it held in the zeitgeist.
How to play Commander Keen on a modern PC
If you want to play classical Commander Keen today, Invasion of the Vorticons works under emulation in a package available on Steam for $ 4.99. This also includes the sequel, Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy! It is the officially supported way to play classical Commander Keen on Windows 10 (or any other recent version).
If you happen to have an old MS-DOS PC in a closet, you can drag it out and play Commander Keen as it was originally intended. It still scrolls just as smoothly as it did in 1990.
Happy Birthday, Commander Keen!