Commander Keen in Keen Dreams – Review (Switch)

The gaming industry sucks at preserving its heritage. Take Super Mario Bros. for example. It’s one of the most important games ever made. Gaming’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gaming’s Pet Sounds. A creation of genius design and perfect mechanics. The gaming landscape would look completely different had never come along. And yet, Nintendo treats it like any other NES game.

Its ROM is just dumped on the NES Online platform, a piece of content floating around in a morass of content. There’s no celebration of the history on the eShop. No extra features. No videos and nothing to put this landmark achievement in gaming into context. It’s just a ROM on a server, ready to be selected next to Temco Bowl.

Why am I talking about this? Because Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (ComKKeeD for short) has similar problems, being an odd arrival on Switch. It’s actually the fourth game in the franchise, but the previous three aren’t on the eShop. More than that, it’s a straight port. There’s nothing here to put this game into context at all. There’s no developer interview to talk about why this game is important or different.

At least Super Mario Bros. has the rest of the NES catalogue and the enduring popularity of Mario to somewhat put itself in perspective. ComKKeeD has nothing. It’s a DOS platform game from 1991. Off you go…

As it happens, ComKKeeD is interesting. It was created by John Carmack and John Romero, the minds behind DOOM. It also implemented a version of parallax scrolling, something consoles of the time could do, but the PC couldn’t. And you can also download the source code for the game, which is cool.

Keen Dreams sees you venturing through the vegetable (not mushroom) kingdom, jumping on platforms, riding mine carts, and avoiding enemies. The combat mechanics are less typical. You can’t stomp on foes – you must collect flower pellets which, when fired at an enemy, will briefly stun them. Enemies also don’t just roam on fixed paths either, as with most games of the time, they will sense your presence and ‘home’ towards you. This makes platforming much less predictable.

Like the recent Turok re-release, ComKKeeD comes across as more of a historical curiosity than a game. It was created to settle a contract dispute and you can tell. As someone who used to play quite a bit of DOS shareware, it doesn’t stand out nowadays. The pixel persuasion required for some jumps is sometimes unreasonable and the controls don’t feel as responsive as early NES games.

I admire, however, the efforts to preserve ComKKeeD and make it available on modern systems. But more thought needs to go into making sure that games are presented with context and care. At the moment, all we have is a quick-turnaround DOS game from 1991, and seven quid less in our pocket.


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