A Sequel?

What do you do when you have one of the most popular computer games at the moment?  You make a sequel, of course!  Keen Dreams aside, the time was right for a true sequel to Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons.

Keen 4 Title Screenid Software was located in the frozen tundra of the Madison Wisconsin area.  They worked on games for Softdisk, including Keen Dreams.  Keen Dreams was a startup for the new series of Commander Keen games they had in mind.  Work began on the sequel to Commander Keen in June of 1991.  Far larger in scope than the original, this new Keen was destined to become a greater extension of the popularity of the original.  However, unlike a lot of sequels, this one truly delivered.  The graphics for the sequel were vastly improved.  The second series of Commander Keen games had a lot more - one of which was sound card support (the original was PC Speaker only).  In another odd development, Keens 4-6 were also created as CGA versions.  All of the 7 Keen games out there are EGA titles, and Keens 4-6 also had a separate additional CGA version produced.  The game play was exactly the same, sounds were the same, it was just that the graphics were CGA.  At the time, this was a godsend, as a lot of people still only had CGA graphics, and couldn't play Keen.  If you'd like to see a comparison of the EGA vs. CGA graphics of Keen4, click here.  It's an ironic twist that the second Keen series was produced in CGA because it was the lack of CGA that kept Softdisk from using the original Keen's engine in the first place!

Tom Hall remembers some of the sequel's development:

Deciding on the tilted perspective made things look really cool, but the levels look a lot longer to make. I think the overall art design was a lot cooler, though I have a definite place in my heart for the original Keen development. We were in Wisconsin (my home state) for most of this development. We got convinced to make the third game a commercial game, which I think hurt sales of the first two a lot. Getting a trilogy seems great. Getting the second half doesn't seem as cool. They still did decently, though.

I had done most of the art in the original Keen trilogy. With Adrian working on this new set of Keen, his skills honed over many games, the art was looking awesome. We did Keen 4, then Keen 6 (Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter), and then Keen 5. We did Keen 5 in one month. That was an amazing amount of work, but it's probably my favorite Keen, even though it doesn't have a Dopefish!

DopefishThe Keen series has spawned a lot of fan sites, and the Dopefish character from Keen 4 itself has spawned a tremendous "cult" following.  Joe Siegler has this to say about Dopefish.. "It's just a stupid green fish.  It swims and burps.  That's about it.  I don't know why I like it - perhaps it's just because it burps - who knows?".  For more on Dopefish, head over to the Official Dopefish site at (duh) http://www.dopefish.com - you can learn probably more than you wanted to know about this character.  Tom hall also had this to say about the Dopefish's origins:

The Dopefish, upon reflection, is pretty much based on one of two little faces my brother, sister, and I would draw on everything.  Except stuck on a fish. I guess they were sort of the emoticons of the seventies. And of course, he's inspired by the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That's why they're the SECOND dumbest creature in the universe.

Keen 5 Title ScreenKeen 5, (The Armageddon Machine) is considered by a lot of folks (Tom Hall as well) as the best episode of all the episodes produced for Keen.  It was also the last one produced, despite being not the last in the series numerically.  (Keens 4-6 were produced in the order of 4, 6, 5)  Was it the music?  The level design?  The gameplay?  Who knows what specifically Keen 5 has that holds most Keen player's imaginations, but this reviewer also agrees with Tom that Keen 5 is the best Keen episode (although Keen 3 is probably the most difficult).  Keen 5 also has one of the more maddening things in a Keen game - the way to finish the last level isn't quite obvious, and if you play the level wrong, you can find yourself stuck in there with no way to complete the game.  That frustrated some players, but ultimately lent the game a bit of a puzzle aspect.  Keen 5 also had an alternate ending.  In researching this article, I came across an animated GIF file which shows the alternate ending to the game.  Check it out.

The original Keen series was a trilogy of games.  Keens 1-3 were collectively called "Invasion of the Vorticons".  As Tom talks about above, the sequel was also to be a trilogy of games, but the id guys were convinced to break Keen 6 off and make it into an independent retail item.  To this, the sequel that was distributed through Apogee was only two games.  Episodes 4 & 5 were collectively called "Goodbye Galaxy", and Keen 6 was called "Aliens Ate My Babysitter".  Keen 6 was sold by FormGen in retail, and since it was in retail, FormGen convinced the id guys to put in some off disk copy protection for the game.  The fact that Keen 6 was broken off into it's own game, and the addition of the copy protection kind of made the "vibe" not the same as the original, but Keens 4-6 are awesome games, even if it's not a trilogy.

One last note about Keen 6.  At the moment, there is no legal way to obtain the game - it was a retail game by FormGen that Apogee merely resold the title.  As FormGen doesn't exist anymore, the game has been discontinued, and for now, there is no legal way to obtain Keen 6 (save for the 3 level demo which was created to promote Keen 6).

Keen 6 Title Screen


Keen's Future

The Universe is Toast.  That was the name of the third Keen trilogy that was to be released around Christmas of 1992.  However, as is known by now, that was never released.  Why?  Well, quite simply put, the direction and focus of id Software changed away from Keen.  id had massive popularity with games such as Wolfenstein 3D & Doom; thus abandoning the pursuit of new Keen games.

Final screen for Keen 5What had happened was that the final screen at the end of Keen 6 referred to the pending return of Commander Keen.  It was also referenced in the last screen of Keen 5 (shown here).  The intent was to set up a showdown between Commander Keen & Mortimer McMire for control over the universe.  The new series was to be titled "The Universe is Toast".  Tom Hall recalls a bit of what he had planned for Keens 7-9:

"Well, I don't want to talk too much about it, as I may do it someday, but as you know from the end of Keen 6, Mortimer McMire is back, and he has big, bad plans for the end of the Universe as we know it...

If I can ever get the rights back to Keen, or if I can strike a deal with id so I have creative control of him forever, then you'll see Keen again. I don't want to start Keen back up, only to have him taken away again if he's successful. That just wouldn't seem fair.

I would love to do another Keen. My last idea for Keen 7-9 was a game world was 3D, and at certain places the camera rotated with you for different games. It was halfway between Super Mario 64 and Pandemonium. This was two years before those games came out. I wish I'd been in a place where I could've made that happen back then.

I do miss the good ol' days of Keen. I love the universe and the gameplay, and I'd love to make another chapter in the saga. We will see how the future unfolds.."

Joe Siegler also has this to say about Keen 7...

"When Tom Hall was working here at Apogee, I used to pester him about Keen, because quite frankly, I was a customer of Apogee's before I started working here.  I used to ask him a lot about what he had planned for Keen 7, and I remember him being really annoyed when Super Mario 64 came out, because Tom said that was exactly what he had planned for Keen 7 - he wanted to be first to market with that kind of game concept.

When I asked which characters he said would be back from the original Keen games, he replied "All of them - a level Idea I had was that in the first level, you'd have every single character from all of the previous Keen games in there all at once - sort of a Galactic Zoo type of thing.  Then I'd start introducing new stuff after that."  Whether or not Tom actually uses this idea or not, you can tell he was thinking on a grand scale."

The most recent news of a possible new appearance of Commander Keen was the late 1999 rumors of a game for the Color Game boy.  John Carmack made an off reference to this once (in an old .plan file I believe), and there was an article (and a follow-up a few months later) about it online.  At the time Joe Siegler did some research into this, and this is what he found:

"Here's the deal with this Keen Color Gameboy. I made a few phone calls this morning - called Tom Hall, Todd Hollenshead (CEO of id), and Scott Miller this morning. All of them said that it's something that's been discussed, but nothing's been finalized. The Chips & Bits thing is highly presumptuous - I wouldn't take that as any kind of official anything.

If it does happen, it most likely won't be anything more than a port of portions of Keen 4 & 5 - I got told that the unit can't technically recreate the current games as they are, will only be portions of the game - if it happens at all."

It's an interesting idea, but again, there are no plans for a Keen Gameboy game.

Will there ever been more Keen?  Probably.  When will it be?  Who knows?  There are no plans on the books for anything official at this point.  id Software still owns the rights to Commander Keen, and given the direction and focus their company has now, you can bet they wouldn't be likely to do more Keen on their own.  And in the opinion of this author, another Keen game can't be done correctly without Tom Hall at the steering wheel.

To quote John Romero, "Will there be more Keen?  Yes, but you never know when that future is going to happen."

UPDATE - MARCH 1ST, 2001  - It was announced today officially that there will be a new Keen game for the Color Gameboy only - here's the press release.

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