For those who remember PC gaming in the early 1990s, the name Commander Keen should ring a bell. In some circles, the console-inspired PC platformer developed by id Software is regarded as a classic. Now a decade later, Activision and David A. Palmer Studios have released an enhanced Commander Keen for the Game Boy Color. Once again, the never-aging 8-year-old, Billy Blaze, is back to don his space helmet and face down the forces of the evil Vorticons. Commander Keen, Defender of Earth--is back.
Hoopla aside, Commander Keen is an acquired taste. Following in the same traditions that spawned Duke Nukem and Jazz Jackrabbit, Commander Keen is a side-scrolling action game that places great emphasis on precision jumping and the split-second shooting of enemies. As such, while you're hunting down the card keys and portals contained within each of the game's 24-odd levels, you'll find yourself constantly surprised by floating enemies or slippery surfaces. If you enjoy difficult action games where constant practice leads to proficiency, Commander Keen is right up your alley. To the game's undying credit, Keen's pogo stick and four-way blaster make it a more enjoyable Game Boy Color port than last year's release of Duke Nukem. However, if you're expecting Mario or Sonic, the benefit of nine lives and a password backup will be of little consolation.
The real shame, if you consider it as such, is how little the graphics and sound in the GBC version of Keen have improved given a decade of possibilities. There is something to be said for purity, but the game's backgrounds just cry out for additional layers of scrolling. Also, the two-framed animation of each of the 38 different species of Vorticon is less than spectacular. For that matter, this release of Commander Keen already has a few additional background objects and animations, so it's baffling why nothing more was done. Despite these gripes though, the game itself is fairly colorful and more artistic than last year's Duke Nukem, especially in terms of jungle and aquatic environments. Sadly, sound effects and music are unchanged from the circa-1990 PC version, which amounts to a smattering of midi-music tracks and a couple of tinny "jump" and "hit" sound samples.
Not just an acquired taste, Commander Keen was always better suited to a platform where instant save games could make up for its frantic gameplay and cranked difficulty. Fans of the original or those seeking something much more in-depth than the Mario series will no doubt love the Game Boy Color version. However, if you're the easy-going sort, you'll be better off looking elsewhere.