Before Quake, before Doom, before even Wolfenstein 3D, id Software made its name in the early 1990s with a series of shareware platform games starring eight year old Billy Blaze. By day he was just another school kid, but when he donned his brother's NFL helmet he became Commander Keen, saviour of the universe. Or something like that. Plot was never a strongpoint for id...
Pogo Powered Platformer
Anyway, flash forward ten years and id's cult classic series has been brought to the GameBoy Color, courtesy of David A Palmer Productions. The only real surprise is that it hasn't been done sooner - the cute, colourful cartoon-style graphics and platform hopping action are a perfect match for Nintendo's hand-held, and Palmer (with a little help from id's own Adrian Carmack) have done a great job of producing something which is instantly identifiable as a Commander Keen adventure without simply cloning one of the original PC games.
Once again it is up to you to save the world, armed only with a zap gun and a pogo stick. The manual says something about plasma crystals and sub-space anomalies, but the short version presented in the opening screen is that "the Earth is in trouble, this looks like a job for Commander Keen!" And let's face it, what more do you need to know?
The Dopefish Lives!
Your mission begins in the Hub, from where you can choose to travel to any of the three worlds that make up the game, each of which features its own unique visual style and enemies. Security drones, mobile mushrooms, slugs, bug-eyed monsters and robotic warriors are all present and correct, with a mixture of new creatures and guest appearances from old favourites like the Dopefish.
The worlds are in turn split into three levels each, with the now traditional id gameplay format of pressing a few switches, finding coloured key cards and matching them to the appropriate door, with the odd teleporter thrown in for good measure. Hardly innovative, but all good clean fun. Settings vary from fire-drenched canyons and robot factories to forests and alien labs, complete with bottled Keen clones. All of them are colourful and beautifully designed, and there are some great button-pounding moments to be had, dodging enemies while trying to land on a precarious platform, or leaping through the air on your pogo stick, hopping between bricks which are constantly sliding in and out of a wall above a bottomless chasm.
The boss encounters at the end of each world are a little hit and miss. Each boss has his own weak spot that you have to shoot, but it's not always obvious what you need to do. On the other hand, the first boss I reached proved to be something of a push over. If you do get stuck you can always give up, move on to another world and come back to it later though. A slightly clumsy password system saves your position as a sixteen character code at the end of each level, and this records how many lives and continues you have left as well as which of the game's nine levels you have completed. As you always start back at the hub after inputting a password, this means that you can easily move on to another world instead of going back to where you left off.
The gameplay might be decidely old school, but the combination of imaginative characters, colourful backdrops and pogo hopping action makes Commander Keen a lot of fun for both younger gamers and those of us old enough to remember the originals. And to make sure it caters for everyone, there is a choice of three difficulty settings which alter the speed at which your enemies move as well as how frequently you will earn new lives and continues.
The only real downside is that the game is (like its hero) perhaps a little on the short side, but while it lasts it's a lot of fun.