Thunderbolt logo

Commander Keen: Secret of the Oracle

When I was 9 years old there was one thing on every little boy’s mind that has been the subject of much lunchtime debates: Who is better, Mario or Sonic? Many tater tots, half drunk cartons of milk and little girls (whose presence wouldn’t be noticed until 5 years later) bore witness to heated arguments of the integrities of being a Brooklyn plumber or an anthropomorphic hedgehog. Unbeknownst to my prepubescent brethren was a third, a character who to this day is still unknown to many gaming veterans, yet his lack of recognition only adds to his charm. He was id Software’s wunderkind, Commander Keen.

Commander Keen was one Billy Blaze, a present day 8 year old with an abnormally high IQ of 314, who one day, while his parents were out and his babysitter fell asleep, constructed a spaceship in the backyard made from soup cans, his mom’s car battery, his dad’s bottle of everclear, a vacuum cleaner and a joystick. Naming his masterpiece ‘The Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket’, and donning his brother’s football helmet, Billy decided to take the craft for a test spin with Mars as its first destination. Things were successful until the Martians learned of his ship and after a series of adventures involving finding a ray gun, a prophetic pogo stick, and saving his world from hostile takeover, Billy became known throughout the galaxy as Commander Keen, Defender of Earth.

screenshot

The guns of our forefathers

The developers of the Commander Keen games would go on to create milestones of FPS such as Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake.

Commander Keen: Secret of the Oracle is actually the fourth installment of the Keen series. In this adventure, our young hero has already acquired a great deal of experience in intergalactic travel, culture, and butt kicking. Keen now puts more focus on his tinkering towards space exploration and has completed the Photachyon Tranceiver, a radio device that can pick up signals from anywhere in the galaxy. The first transmission it happens to receive is about an evil plot to destroy and remake the galaxy devised by the notorious Shikadi. In hopes of learning more about the Shikadi and their whereabouts, our hero flies to Gnosticus IV to seek help from The Council of the Oracle. Upon arriving, Keen learns that the Shikadi have already paid a visit and have kidnapped and scattered the council members all over the planet’s treacherous Shadowlands. Keen’s mission is to find all 8 elders and reunite them before it’s too late.

Like its predecessors, Secret of the Oracle, draws a lot of influence from the Mario games of the ‘90s, particularly Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. You’ll divide your time between navigating a map screen for choosing locations and the corresponding side scrolling stages. The objective of each stage is to reach the goal at the end while encountering obstacles along the way. Like the Mario games you traverse various terrains such as wooded areas, caverns, deserts, frozen wastelands, dungeons, and even dive underwater. Instead of collecting 100 coins or a green mushroom for an extra life you collect 100 raindrops or a vial of lifewater for the same effect. Mimicking Mario even further are the borrowed bestiary concepts of facing occasional fake rocks that only give chase when your back is turned and avoiding the massive gulping Dopefish underwater, obvious references to Boo Diddly and Big Bertha.

screenshot

“Like its predecessors, Secret of the Oracle, draws a lot of influence from the Mario games of the ‘90s”Despite a number of imitations, Secret of the Oracle keeps it fresh by implementing the original trademark gameplay that has spanned over the entire Keen series. For starters it’s evident that Keen lives in a universe where candy, baked goods, ice cream and soda are floating around on every planet and in no shape or form do they inhibit his health. The forces of evil’s choice to leave sweets well enough alone is apparently the start of their downfall, as each sugary morsel provides points that eventually yield an extra life. Of course it takes more than just spoiling your dinner to save the galaxy, limited only by its need for ammunition is Keen’s Neural Stunner, a ray gun that can also be fired in different directions midair. For those hard to reach places comes the signature pogo stick. Keen can also look up and down to peek into territories beyond his line of sight, useful for spotting dangers before making a move. And if need be, Keen can grab onto ledges and pull himself up. It’s a shame that what sets a hedgehog and plumber apart from an 8 year old is a set of gadgets, super vision, and trained lats.

The levels are very well designed and as you gradually roam further into the Shadowlands they become more expansive, complex and rich with hidden areas. Noticeable are the series’ use of color coded locked doors that can only be opened with the appropriate colored key and flipping switches to activate the use of lifts and open certain passages. Like many of the popular side scrollers of its time the game ensures that exercising caution when jumping or walking becomes common practice, as every level is riddled with hazardous pits, traps, and enemies of varying movements.

screenshot

Do video game characters go to hell when they die?

For those who aren’t familiar with Commander Keen but played a lot of Doom 2, yes, he’s the out-of-place 2D duplicated sprite that you find at the end of a secret level hung by a noose and needing to be dismembered in order to reach the exit.

The dark denizens of Gnosticus IV are a diverse bunch capable of invoking panic and chuckles. From acid defecating slugs, to two mouthed mutant spiders and even living thunderclouds. As the name implies, the Neural Stunner is a not a weapon of mass destruction but one that merely incapacitates. Given the large variety of creatures you will face your weapon may permanently or temporarily put your foes out of commission or not even work at all forcing you to avoid such encounters.

The one feature of the game that may break the challenge factor for a number of people is the ability to save your game at any point, whether you’re on the map or in the middle of a stage. Beginners, or those curious enough to attempt hard mode, may find themselves abusing this aspect especially since all it takes is a single touch from an enemy to die and then having to restart an entire level from scratch. However, the most hardcore gamers can just simply ignore the save function altogether to keep the experience at seat’s edge.

screenshot

Keen fans may remember that Secret of the Oracle was the first game in the series that started using graphics and sound that were a step up from the first three titles. Though nowhere near comparable to the power of the SNES and Genesis, as a game that ran on DOS it was quite impressive nonetheless. The graphics could be described as somewhere between the capabilities of the NES and SNES and ran just as smooth. The campy comical art couples with the series signature lighthearted, witty tone and much can be said about the humorous digitized sound effects. Though the music was not the kind that got the adrenaline pumping, the cartoonish tunes have a way of taking up residence inside your head, making you hum without realizing.

Though DOS no longer has a place in today’s operating systems, five out of the seven Commander Keen games (including Secret of the Oracle) can still be enjoyed today through Steam for only five bucks. Regardless of how far gaming has come, I still to this day recommend the Commander Keen series for anyone looking for fun and major nostalgia, not just for Keen fans but more for those who despite not knowing him knew a time when 2D side scrolling adventures were at their best. Here’s to you, Billy Blaze.

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in August 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @S_Chyou.

Gentle persuasion

Like chit chat? Join the forum.