December 15, 2008

Happy 18th Birthday Billy Blaze!

3D Realms has been around for a long time now - the company was originally founded in 1987, and in the first decade or so, was known by our former name, Apogee. Back then we specialized in sidescrollers (amongst other games), and one of the most famous from that era was Commander Keen. Created by a newly founded id Software, the game was published through us, and became a major hit for both companies.

The original trilogy of Commander Keen games came out on December 14, 1990 under the banner title of "Invasion of the Vorticons". One year and one day later, the second trilogy game out under the title of "Goodbye Galaxy" (the third episode came out as a separate commercial release, but we won't quibble about that now). We're here to mark this birthday with a few Keen goodies of recent vintage (and a few that are not):

First is a birthday retrospective by Nova Barlow over at the site The Escapist. This is part of their regular "This Week in Gaming" segment on their site, and speaks of the now 17 and 18 year Keen birthdays that are up now. They cover the original Keen games, Keen Dreams, the second set of games, and even the Gameboy Advance Keen which came out in 2001. It doesn't go into great depth, but it is obvious the person who wrote it really loved the old Keen games. Check it out.

Second is a new image we were told about which takes a quite different slant on Billy Blaze. It's called "Commander Keen: The Undead Return". It was done by Kristof Minneart over at the Australian site "CG Society". It's quite cool, and we showed it around up here as well as letting Tom Hall & John Romero know about it. All thought this was quite cool. You can check out the thumbnail and a local copy here.

That's it for the "new" stuff. Let's turn back the clock a bit.

It was eighteen years ago (on Dec. 14, 1990) that Apogee released id Software's Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons. The story of id started several months earlier when Scott Miller, Apogee's founder, contacted John Romero who worked at Softdisk, Inc. (a company that developed a monthly disk magazine with articles, small utilities and applications, and small games) about the possibility of creating a shareware game that Apogee would release.

As luck would have it, John Carmack, also at Softdisk, had just written an EGA smooth scrolling engine capable of doing Nintendo style platform games like Mario Bros. Romero sent Miller a demo of this technology, and very quickly a deal was struck to develop an original game, Commander Keen.

Tom Hall, also at Softdisk, wrote a brief story about the game, which Miller approved. Part of the approval was id's request for a $3000 advance, which at the time was quite a risk for Miller. In hindsight, of course, it was one of the deals of the century, as id and Apogee also had a publishing relationship for id's next Commander Keen series, as well as Wolfenstein 3-D. The Apogee-id relationship or the early 90's enabled both companies to quickly rise to fame, and earn enough money to avoid signing bad publishing deals with more mainstream publishers.

Click here to see the original proposal from id Software (then known as IFD -- Ideas From the Deep) sent to Apogee for Commander Keen. The four signatures are John Romero, John Carmack, Tom Hall and Lane Roathe.

Here are a few last bits you probably will want to check out. They've both been on our site for some time now, but are worth pointing out. The first is the life story of Commander Keen done in the style of A&E's Biography, or E!'s True Hollywood Story. It's called "Commander Keen: 10 years on". It was done by a fan named Andrew (don't know his last name). It's quite awesome, and includes several pices of original art, and has a fictional history of Billy Blaze (aka Commander Keen). Don't know how else to intro it, so just go and check it out.

The last item is our "real life" Keen 10 year retrospective, originally published in 2001. This tells the real life story of the creation of Keen with input from the original id team responsible for bringing the game to life.

We hope you have enjoyed this short look back at the history of Commander Keen. If you have never played the games, they're still available, actually. The original Keen games have been passed on technology wise, and as such require some help with more modern computers and operating systems (like XP & Vista). You will need to use the third party program DOSBox to get 'em running. Below are a set of links for you to check out to whet your nostalgia whistle.

Posted by Joe Siegler on December 15, 2008 at 2:49 PM | Permalink | Discuss this story on our forums
News Categories: The Classic Games