PC Platformers Game Opinion Summaries – Intro and Part 1

I want to keep moving and start on something new, now that the Genesis list is done, so I decided to finally do this list that I have been thinking of writing for at least a year now. Platformers were probably my first favorite genre on the PC, back in the early ’90s, and even if many of the most famous ones are only on consoles, PCs also have their share of great platformers. Just as a warning though, I like platformers a lot, particularly some of the ones in this first update, so there are some summaries (read: Keens 1 and 4, particularly) in this update that are a bit long. The Commander Keen series is fantastic though, they deserve it!

The biggest challenge with a genre-based list is, which games on the margins do you include? I’m still unsure about some — do Tomb Raider and its sequels, Baron Baldric, or Jump!/Dschump! count? I’m really not sure if they should or not, good arguments could go either way. This is something I will have to decide, but it’d be interesting to hear others’ opinions as well, about these and others listed below.

Finally, again this will be a multi-part series; I really like breaking it up, instead of writing a whole update then uploading it all at once. This first update covers 12 games.

First I will post the list of titles I currently intend to cover, though again this could change based on decisions above; Tomb Raider games after the first one probably won’t make it into the final list, unless someone thinks otherwise, for example. But who knows. Then after that I will post the first 12 summaries.

Games Summarized In This Update

1A. 2D Platformers – Physical Copies (Disk or Disc) [see below for table of contents]

Ancient Empires (Educational) (1990)
Arcade America (1996)
Batman Forever: The Real Game Begins (1994)
Blackthorne (1994)
Bumpy’s Arcade Fantasy (1992)
Claw (1997)
Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars (1990)
Commander Keen Episode II: The Earth Explodes (1990)
Commander Keen Episode III: Keen Must Die (1990)
Commander Keen Episode IV: Secrets of the Oracles (Shareware) (1991)
Commander Keen Episode VI: Aliens Ate My Babysitter! (1991)
Earthworm Jim for Windows 95 (1995)

Before we begin with the summaries, though, I should list the games to be covered here. This list will grow as I buy new games or decide on more freeware or shareware games to cover, but it’s a good starting point to show what the intended list is right now. As the above list of games covered shows, I’m going to use the same organization method that I used in my PC racing games list, but with added dividers for 2d, 2.5d, or 3d platformers. So:

Table of Contents

1. Platformers I own physical copies of, not digital.
1A. 2D Platformers
1B. 3D Platformers
2. Full games that I own through digital download services.
2A. 2D Platformers
2B. 2.5D Platformers
2C. 3D Platformers
3. Freeware titles (selected titles only).
4. Demos and shareware (selected titles only).
5. Demos of games I also own the full versions of, but still have the demo of on my computer too.

List of Titles To Be Covered In This Series

1A. 2D Platformers  – Physical Copies (Disk or Disc)

Ancient Empires    (Educational) (1990)
Arcade America (1996)
Batman Forever: The Real Game Begins (1994)
Blackthorne (1994)
Bumpy’s Arcade Fantasy (1992)
Claw (1997)
Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars (1990)
Commander Keen Episode II: The Earth Explodes (1990)
Commander Keen Episode III: Keen Must Die (1990)
Commander Keen Episode IV: Secrets of the Oracles (Shareware) (1991)
Commander Keen Episode VI: Aliens Ate My Babysitter! (1991)
Earthworm Jim for Windows 95 (1995)

Jazz Jackrabbit 2 (1998)
Jazz Jackrabbit 2: Holiday Hare 98 (1998)
Lode Runner: The Legend Returns (1994)
The Lost Vikings – Puzzle-Platformer (2D) (1993)
Interplay 15th: Norse by Norsewest: The Return of the Lost Vikings (1997)
Mega Man 3 (1992)
Mega Man X (1995)
Mega Man X4 (1998)
Mega Man X5 (2002)
Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (1997)
PCG CGC1: Duke Nukem II (1993)
Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure (1996)

Rayman (1996)
Rayman Forever (1998)
Sonic CD (1996)
Sonic & Knuckles Collection (1997)
Sonic 3D Blast (1996)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
Zool 2 (1994)

1B. 3D Platformers – PC Physical Copies

Croc 2 (2000)
Donald Duck: Goin’ Quackers (2000)
Emperor’s New Groove, The — Action Game (2001)
Frogger: The Great Quest (2002)
Rayman 2: The Great Escape (1999)
Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc (2003)

2A. 2D Platformers  – Digital Download

1001 Spikes (2014)
8BitBoy (2014)
Aaru’s Awakening (2015)
Adventures of Shuggy, The (2011)
Arctic Adventure (1991)
Apotheon (2015)
BattleBlock Theater (2014)
BiT Evolution (2015)
Bleed (2012) – Platform-Action
Camera Obscura
Capsized (2011)
The Cave (2013) – Platform-Adventure
Closure (2012)
Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars (1990)
Commander Keen Episode II: The Earth Explodes (1990)
Commander Keen Episode III: Keen Must Die (1990)
Commander Keen Episode IV: Secret of the Oracles (1991)
Commander Keen Episode V: The Armageddon Machine (1991)
Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure (1992)
Crystal Caves (1991)
Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion (1991) – Platform-Action
Dangerous Dave’s Risky Rescue (1993)
Dark Void Zero (2010)
Dave Goes Nutz (1995)
Deadlight (2012)
Defy Gravity Extended (2011)
Duke Nukem (1991)
Duke Nukem II (1993)
Dust: An Elysian Tale (2013) – Platform-Action-RPG
Earthworm Jim 1 & 2: The Whole Can of Worms (1996)
Electronic Super Joy (2013)
Fly’n (2012)
Freedom Planet (2014)
Gateways (2012)
Gigantic Army (2014)
Gunhound EX (2014)
Guacamelee! Gold Edition (2013) – Platform-Action
Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit (2012) – Platform-Action
Hocus Pocus (1994)
Joylancer, The: Legendary Motor Knight (Early Access Game) (2014-)
Just Get Through (2015)
Limbo (2011)
Love (2014)
Magnetic by Nature (2014)
Magicmaker (2014)
Math Rescue (1992) – Educational Platformer
Momodora III
Monster Bash (1993)
Monuments of Mars (1990)
MURI (2013)
Mystik Belle (2015)
Nimbus (2010)
Oniken (2014)
Out There Somewhere
PixelJunk Eden
Pharaoh’s Tomb (1990)
Polarity
Puddle (2012)
Rayman Origins (2012)
Realms of Chaos    (1995)
Residue: Final Cut (2014) – Platform-Adventure
Rogue Legacy (2014) – Platformer-RPG (Roguelike)
Schrodinger’s Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark (2015)
Scribblenauts Unlimited (2012)
Secret Agent (1992)
Serious Sam: Kamikaze Attack (2011) – Autorunner Platformer
Shantae: Risky’s Revenge: Director’s Cut (2011/201?)
Shiny The Firefly (2014)
Super Lemonade Factory (2012)
Super Meat Boy (2010)
Superfrog (1993)
Swapper, The (2013)
Tembo the Badass Elephant (2015)
Terraria (2011) – 2D Minecraft
Terrian Saga: KR-17 (2014) – Platform-Action
They Bleed Pixels () – Platform-Action
Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge (2013) – Platform-Shmup
Umihara Kawase (199?/200?)
Umihara Kawase Syun (199?/200?)
Valdis Story: Abyssal City – Platform-Action
VECTOR (2013)
VVVVVV (2010)
Volgarr The Viking (2013)
Waking Mars (2012) – Platform-Adventure
World of Goo (2008)
Word Rescue (1992) – Educational Platformer

Maybe consider including:

2B. 2.5D Platformers – Digital Download

Bionic Commando Rearmed (2008)
Blade Kitten (2010)
Blade Kitten: Hollow Wish Collection (Parts 1 & 2)
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013)
Fez (2013) – Platform-Puzzle
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams (2012)
Pandemonium (1996)
Pandemonium 2 (1997)
Red Goddess: Inner World (2015)
Sayonara Umihara Kawase (201?)
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (2012)
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II (2012)
Strider (2014)
Toki Tori 2+
Trine (2009)
Trine 2 (2011)

2C. 3D Platformers – Digital Download

Cloudbuilt – Platform-Shooter
Edge (2011)
Grow Home (2015)
Jet Set Radio
Mirror’s Edge
NiGHTS into dreams…
Psychonauts (2005)
Puzzle Dimension (2011)
Quantum Conundrum
Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut
Sonic Generations
StuntMANIA Reloaded (2014) – Platformer (3D) (Vehicular)
Tomb Raider (1996) – Platform Action-Adventure

Maybe consider including:
Mystic Towers (1994) – Isometric Platform-RPG
Tomb Raider II (1997) – Platform Action-Adventure
Tomb Raider III (1998) – Platform Action-Adventure
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (2003) – Platform Action-Adventure

3. Freeware and Full Shareware titles (selected titles only)

2D

Abuse (1996) (originally retail title, now freeware)
Akuji the Demon (always freeware)
BioMenace (1991) (originally retail title, now freeware)
Cave Story (always freeware; has retail remakes)
Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (1991) (full shareware)
Dark Ages (1991) (originally retail title, now freeware)
Dopefish (always freeware)
Dopefish Forever (always freeware)
Dschump!/Jump! (full shareware)
Eternal Daughter (always freeware)
Guardian Twins (always freeware)
Halloween Harry (aka Alien Carnage) (1993) (originally retail title, now freeware)
Holdover (always freeware)
Keen 2000 (always freeware)
Legend of Princess (always freeware)
Mario!! (always freeware)
N (always freeware; has retail sequels)
Natuki (always freeware)
Ninja Senki (always freeware)
Noitu Love (always freeware)
SideSwipe (always freeware)
SkyRoads (once shareware, now freeware)
XEVIL (1994) (always freeware)

3D

Miko-san’s Miracle Board (always freeware)

4. Demos and limited-content shareware (selected titles only, this list will get longer)

Adventures of Captain Comic
Aldo I, II, and III
Alien Rampage
Clyde’s Adventure
Eduardo the Magical Toaster
Electro Man
Gateworld
Hunter/Hunted
Jazz Jackrabbit
Jazz Jackrabbit Holiday Hare ’95
Jill of the Jungle
Rochard
Vinyl Goddesses from Mars
Xargon

5. Demos of games I also own the full versions of, but still have the demo of on my computer too.   (this section may be removed from this list)

Nothing I can think of at the moment.

 

Summaries

And now for the actual summaries in this first update.

1A. 2D Platformers  – Physical Copies (Disk or Disc)

Notes: “Saves” mean the game supports save files saved to your hard drive; “password save” means that the game will give you codes that you will need to write down in order to continue from that point. “No saving” means you can’t save in that game (shame on them!).  Number of players listed is for single-system multiplayer first; if a game has online play support, that will be listed afterwards, and noted as such.


Ancient Empires (Educational) (1990, DOS) – One player, saves.  This game was later re-released as Super Solvers: Challenge of the Ancient Empires, but I have a copy with the original title.  Ancient Empires is one of many edutainment games from The Learning Company.  Sort of like how Operation Neptune is an undersea shooter crossed with a math game, Ancient Empires is one part puzzle learning game, one part platformer. This really does feel like Operation Neptune’s logic-puzzle-focused platformer cousin, and uses a similar interface.  Both are pretty good examples of edutainment, games which are both decent games and might teach you something.  These games always seemed less well known than Super Solvers games such as Treasure MathStorm or Midnight Rescue, but they’re just as good or better than those games.  Maybe the slightly older “10-adult” (AE) or “9-14” (ON) age ranges on the boxes hurt them, versus the games like MathStorm that are for younger children?  These wo games have more traditional videogame action than titles like those, but still have plenty of educational elements.  As usual for Super Solvers games, you play as an anonymous person in a blue coat who you name.  This time you’re a tomb-adventurer variant of this person, so you have a backpack and such, but it’s mostly the same as the character in most of these games, Operation Neptune excepted since there you are a submarine.  So, this game has two parts, platforming and logic puzzles.  The platforming side looks reasonably nice for a 1990 PC game, and has VGA graphics and even soundblaster/adlib music, though it’s not great and repeats often.  At least it has sound card support, though, which puts it above some games of the day, so it’s nice they tried.  The graphics are well-drawn and varied, with different visuals for each setting in the game.

As for the gameplay, you control your character with the arrow keys on the keyboard.  Up jumps or grabs on to things, left and right move, down  goes down a rope or such.  Enter switches between your three items, a headlamp that shoots out a beam of light that can temporarily freeze enemies, spring-boots for a high jump, and a limited-uses-per-level shield that protects you from damage.  Frozen enemies can still hurt you, though, unlike in Operation Neptune, so watch out, and shoot them when you won’t hit them while walking past!  The game does not scroll, but instead flips between the screens that make up each level.  Again ON works the same way.  This isn’t a fast-paced action game, then; instead, careful thought should go in to each move.  This is a puzzle-platformer, after all, and there is a puzzle to solve on almost every screen.  There are five different ancient tomb settings to explore in this game, and you can access four right from the start – Egypt, Greece & Rome, India & China, and Middle East.  Each setting has four levels to complete, for a total of 20 stages.  There is a harder difficulty option, if normal is too easy; this makes the puzzles harder.  Each setting has somewhat different puzzles as well, in addition to graphics.  Egypt has many puzzles where you shoot beams of light into rotating prisms; the Middle East mostly has puzzles with numerous switches that move platforms or walls around the screen, and yes solving these requires a lot of trial and error; Greece & Rome has puzzles where you have to hit switches in the correct order in order to move platforms out of your way, a challenge made harder by that enemies will trigger them as well; and the final stage combines the previous types together.  The random nature of many puzzles, particularly the switch puzzles in the Middle East area, is kind of annoying as you hit the switches until you luck into the right combination, but still this game will build some puzzle-solving skills among children, or adults, who play it.  At the end of each level, you have to put together an image of an ancient treasure from that region.  On the lower difficulty these are fairly simple, and thankfully are NOT sliding tile puzzles; you just take the tiles and place each one in the right place.  After that is a tougher challenge at the stage exit, to solve a logic puzzle by figuring out what the right tile is for a question-mark block on a 3×3 grid of tiles with various pictures on them.  These start out not too hard, but do get tricky; these are definitely good logic puzzles.

So, overall, Ancient Empires is a fun little obscure puzzle-platformer with decent to good level designs, tricky puzzles, and enough enemy-avoiding action to keep things interesting.  The gameplay is stiff, and some elements require maybe too much trial and error, but it’s at least a  decent to good game.  The Learning Company were known in the early ’90s for making some of the best educational games, and this is one of their better ones.  I wish I’d had this as a kid, but getting it as an adult in the ’00s I still have had quite a bit of fun with it.  Pick this up if you can, and think you might like this kind of game.  Also get Operation Neptune, this games’ math/sub-shooter cousin!  Unlike the more popular Super Solvers games, this game is DOS floppy disk exclusive; it doesn’t even have a Windows-port CD version re-release like ON does, much less a Mac version like the most popular Super Solvers games.  For the adult gamer, though, if you want any Super Solvers games, this and ON are the two to get.  Physical release only.


Arcade America (1996, Win3.x) – One player, saves, gamepad supported (if it works for you).  Arcade America is a bad single-screen ‘comedic’ platformer with a crass, redneck-styled theme to it that I mostly quite dislike.  You’re a cartoony redneck guy on a road trip across America, seeing the sights and challenging platformer levels in each area you pass through.  The platforming levels are okay I guess, though they can be frustrating due to the games’ control issues.  You navigate the platforms on each stage, shooting or belly-bumping enemies and jumping between platforms as you make your way to the exit on each stage.  It works, though enemies can be hard to avoid at times, and cheap hits are an inevitability.  This is a hard game, and it’s not the good kind of hard.  The graphics are well-animated, though, and vary between amusing and unpleasantly gross, which I’m sure is the point, for those who actually like gross stuff, something I never really have.  That animation does sometimes that animation get in the way of the gameplay as well, as it can be distracting.  And when you’re playing a level for the tenth time, those intro cutscenes and animations the game also has get VERY old.  There is one more problem: there is a somewhat hidden time limit.  Take too long to finish and you won’t get the ending.  I hate game-wide timers in games, they’re awful!  Still, the platforming here is okay.  Arcade America is overly difficult and not all that fun, but there is some decent platform-action challenge to be had.

The game has performance issues, however.  The installer won’t run on my newer computer, it just crashes.  Copying the game folder to the hard drive seems to work though, though I also tried installing it in a Windows 3.11 installation in DOSBox; that also did the trick.  Unfortunately, I have never been able to get most Windows 9x to recognize gamepads or joysticks on my current computer, which is a real pain for platformers like this one; they aren’t as good on keyboard!  I recommend using a keyboard-to-joystick mapper if you also have this problem.  Running it in that Win3.1 installation in DOSBox didn’t fix the problem, either; still no joystick.  On my older WinME computer the game does recognize that a joystick exists, but I can’t get all of the buttons to work, only jump and shoot, and you need four — jump, shoot, interact (to grab the end-level pullchain, mostly), and belly-bump.  And you can’t use the keyboard and gamepad together, so you can’t use those on the pad but the others on keyboard.  And of course, you can’t change any settings while in a game, only from the main menu… and you can only save after each level.  Great.  So yeah, this game has problems.  If you can get the game working with a 4-button gamepad or it works well with a keyboard mapper the game is better, but it’s still a frustrating game with only adequate-at-best platforming; this game is not that good.

Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to this game.  It should be, but it isn’t.  No, there is also a driving component, as you travel between each location around America, finding your scattered companions.  The problem is, this plays in the most minuscule window imaginable!  It’s somewhat unbelievable that they actually thought that that was a good idea, it’s an awful one.  Almost all of the screen is taken up with a map of America, and you drive in a tiny one or two postage stamp-sized corner of the screen.  Here you have a view behind your car, and flip between three different lanes in order to avoid obstacles coming at you and pick up turbo and ammo pickups.  In order to have ammo in the platformer levels you need to collect it here, there aren’t ammo pickups in the main game.  This mode controls just fine, but these segments go on far too long, so they take up a significant amount of time.  With something you play this much, they really needed to put some actual work in and make something fullscreen.  But no.  As it is, Arcade America is one half incredibly bad racing game, and one half mediocre platformer, all with a visual look and comedy style I greatly dislike.  Pass on this game unless you have fond memories of it and can get it running well on your computer.  Physical release only.


Batman Forever: The Real Game Begins (1996, DOS) – 1-2 player simultaneous, no saving, gamepad supported (kind of).  Batman Forever is the PC port of Acclaim’s infamous 1995 SNES and Genesis game based on this unpopular Batman movie.  This is a sidescrolling beat ’em up / platformer with prerendered graphics and somewhat awful controls.  Batman Forever is difficult, frustrating, and hard to control.  It does look nice for the time, but the gameplay beyond the graphics is poor, and this has always been the main issue people have with this game.  The core gameplay here is that as either Batman or Robin, you explore levels, beat up the guys who pop up in front of you, and make your way through each stage.  You can walk, jump or duck, punch and kick, grapple, and drop through floors.  Using those last two is much trickier than it should be because you need to stand in precise, but very poorly marked, spots to do either, and the controls for doing so are awful as well; more on that below.  The punching and kicking does work, and you have a couple of variations of each type of attack, but enemies seem stronger than you are, at least on Normal difficulty, so the game quickly gets frusrating.  And like an old console game, the game has no saving and not even any continues!  When you die you respawn right where you were, but run out of lives and that’s it, start over from the beginning.  There aren’t any cheatcodes either, I believe.  Awful, for a PC game.  For modes, there is the main game, for one or two players simultaneous, and a bad 2-player-only versus fight option.  There are difficulty settings for the main game, but it’s hard on any of them.  My main issue with this game goes beyond any feature quibbles, however.  Beyond the bad controls, my main problem with this game is that I’ve never really been a fan of side-scrolling beat ’em ups.  I like isometric beat ’em ups, they’re good fun despite their simplicity, but removing that third dimension makes games too simplistic; there just isn’t enough left to keep a game interesting, most of the time.  This game tries to mix things up with its platforming, puzzle elements, inventory, varied moves, and tough enemies that often attack you from both sides at once, but the core gameplay still isn’t all that fun or rewarding.  The internet may overstate how bad this game is a bit, as it can be fun to walk around and beat up baddies, but it is extremely repetitive, has control issues, and is far too difficult.  Had it had saving it would have been much better.

When compared to the console versions of the game, some things are improved and others are worse.  While they did not put in a save system, Acclaim did add CD audio music, voice acting for all text boxes that pop up, and a nice-for-the-time, several minute long CG-rendered introduction.  There are also short CG scenes introducing the setting for each subsequent level.  Those features are exclusive to this PC version, as there never was a CD-based console release of the game, only cartridge ones.  And those are nice features, for sure.  However, the controls on the PC are even worse than they are on consoles.  You have two options, keyboard or gamepad.  On keyboard, the controls are weird and hard to get used to; I list them below.  On gamepad, the problem is that DOS only has standard support for 2 or 4 button gamepads, but this game is a port of a console game that used more buttons than that.  So, like in Blackthorne (below), you need to use the keyboard along with the gamepad to play this game, if you use one. Movement, blocking, and attacks are on the pad, but the drop-through-floor and grapple buttons are not.  You get used to it, but there is a worse problem I have with this game: While the game runs okay in DOSBox on a modern PC, it doesn’t like the joystick emulation somehow and when I tried to enable a gamepad, Batman will randomly jump or duck even when I wasn’t touching the pad. and the cursor randomly moves around the main menu if you return to it, making selecting anything impossible.  Great.  Other games in DOSBox do not have this issue.  Also, the game only supports one standard gamepad, so if you play a two player game, one player is going to be on keyboard.  The only way to get around this is to have a Gravis GrIP setup, which was a multitap for the PC, essentially, for games programmed to support it like this one is.  GrIP controllers are, I believe, 4-button gamepads somewhat similar to Gravis’s standard classic PC Gamepad from the early ’90s.  Maybe DOSBox supports the GrIP?  If so then that would work, but I haven’t tried it myself.

Finally, here are the controls for this game.  No, they are not customizable.  I’m not sure what all the keys are because I do not have the manual, just a CD in jewelcase, and this game does not have any kind of readme or in-game help, so this is just what I managed to figure out by randomly pressing every key on the keyboard.  Finding the grapple and drop-through-floor keys took a while!

left/right arrow keys or numpad 4/6 or joystick left/right – move left/right
arrow key up or numpad 8 or joystick up – jump
arrow key down or numpad 2 or joystick down – duck
arrow key 5 or a joystick button – block
End, 1, or 3 or a joystick button – punch (maybe different types?)
Page Down, 7, or 9 or 2 joystick buttons – kick (maybe different types?)
Insert – grappling hook
Insert+arrow Up/numpad 8 (hit at exactly same time for this to work) – grapple up to next platform above (if at right point)
Delete+arrow Down/numpad 2 (hit at exactly same time for this to work) – drop to next platform below (if at right point)
Esc – Quit to main menu.  If there is a pause button, I can’t find it – this ends your game, start again from the beginning!
Alt+Q – Quit game.

… Yes, really.  No, this is not a very good layout.  And again, you cannot change them.  So, is the game worth it?  Again, it’s not all bad; there is a little fun to be had here, as you explore around and beat people up.  But with its high difficulty, flawed controls, and mediocre, repetitive gameplay, it’s not all that good either.  For the few people who actually liked this game on the SNES or Genesis, the question is, is dealing with the iffy controls and emulation issues worth it for the exclusive CD soundtrack and CG introduction?  Well, with how dirt-cheap this game should be, maybe.  Everyone else should probably pass.  Enhanced port of a game also available on SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, and Game Gear.  Physical release only.


Blackthorne (1994, DOS) – One player, password save, gamepad supported.  Blackthorne, from Blizzard Entertainment and published by Interplay, is a game in the Prince of Persia vein, but with guns and more action.  Set in a dark almost fantasy-esque sci-fi world, you are a hero, of sorts, off to defeat the evil king.  You’ve been taken prisoner, but break free, grab a gun with infinite ammo, and begin your quest for vengeance in the prison mines.  While you are the hero, you don’t actually need to be heroic along the way, as the numerous other prisoners in the game can be killed with no consequence.  You can’t even free them, just ignore or murder them!  I really wish you could free them, the game would be more satisfying that way.  Platforming controls are similar to Prince of Persia, so the game is well-animated and your movements are deliberate and controlled.  When you move you tap a direction you move a set distance forward, jumps must be pixel-accurate, you have different controls for jumping up and forwards, and you’ll need to carefully let yourself up or down platform edges if you don’t want to die on impact from the fall damage.  You also have an inventory, though do know that if you play with a gamepad you’ll need to scroll through it with the bracket [] keys on your keyboard, as this is a DOS game so it only supports the standard 4-button limit on joysticks, unfortunately.  Maybe there was no good way around that.  It works, but is a little annoying at times.  Fortunately you only rarely need to switch items.  It’s worth using a gamepad anyway, because the rest of the time it’s more fun with one.  The controls are fine for the genre, though I’ve always found these games somewhat tediously slow compared to traditional platformers like Mario or Keen.  You need to always be careful here, or you’ll run off some cliff or walk into a trap and die.  Having to carefully face the right direction from the exact right spot to jump up to a ledge above you also gets old fast.

Visually, Blackthorne has classic Blizzard graphics, with an art style similar to The Lost Vikings or Warcraft, but taken in a somewhat different direction.  The game looks pretty good and is very well drawn.  Each level is large and complex as well, though each area clearly draws from a common tileset so every level in an area will look somewhat similar.  The game also uses screen-flipping, instead of scrolling, as in PoP.  However, as with Blizzard’s earlier great platformer The Lost Vikings, this games was originally developed for the SNES, and the console roots do show in the password-only saving, absence of any features to really explain why this is a CD game and not floppy disk — the game is under 2MB, has only a Soundblaster or General MIDI soundtrack based on the SNES chiptunes, and does not need the CD in the drive to run — and console-styled controls.  There was apparently also a floppy release of this game in Europe, but they added nothing for the CD version.  What is here is good, though, as I really do like the visuals and art design, and the music is pretty good as always from Blizzard.

As for those level designs, this game isn’t quite as trap-heavy as PoP games are, but it is still tricky and has plenty of puzzle elements to work through in the stages.  Each of the 16 stages is fairly long, so this game will take a while.  I’ve never been a PoP fan so I don’t love this either, but the Blizzard touch and more action-packed style makes this a bit more fun for me than Prince of Persia.  Plus, no game-wide time limit, thank goodness!  The biggest distinguishing element between Blackthorne and PoP, however, is the combat.  While PoP 1 and 2 have the occasional swordfight, traps are your more common foe.  Here, however, you will fight many enemies.  And while combat is deliberate, it is nothing like PoP, as this games’ combat is cover-based.  Yes, this is sort of a 2d proto-cover-based shooter, mixed with a Prince of Persia clone.  By pressing Up, you hide in the stage background, and while doing this enemy attacks cannot hurt you, bombs excepted.  When you let go you dodge back into the plane of action, hopefully to shoot the enemy before they dodge themselves.  Naturally prisoners are often in the way, doomed to be killed by you or them.  Combat is a tense game of hiding, then popping out when the enemy is vulnerable.  You can shoot either direction without moving with two different buttons, which is occasionally useful, as well.  The combat system is good.  Some stronger enemies must be blown up with bombs, but be careful, because levels usually only give you exactly what you need, so if you waste a bomb somewhere on an enemy that didn’t need it you probably won’t be able to finish the stage.

Overall, Blackthorne is a good game for this highly-animated-deliberate-platforming subgenre that Prince of Persia created, and mixes things up with its original combat system, but I’ve never much for this kind of game.  I’ve never gotten more than one or two levels into other popular games of this style, including Prince of Persia, Out of this World, or Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, and while I have gotten to level four in this game, I doubt I’ll stick with it; this just isn’t my thing.  Still, Blackthorne is probably one of the better games in this subgenre.  Fans of this kind of game who haven’t tried the game certainly should play it.  For the rest, maybe try it out if you’re interested, you might like it more than I do.  Also available on the Mac, PC-98 (in Japan only), SNES, Sega 32X (with a 32X-exclusive graphical overhaul and several exclusive levels), and Game Boy Advance.  This PC version is a SNES port.  Blizzard has also made a downloadable PC version of this game available on their website for free, though I have the disc.


Bumpy’s Arcade Fantasy
(1992, DOS) – One player, password save, gamepad supported.  Bumpy is a pretty fun but difficult little puzzle-heavy platformer probably inspired by  Namco’s classic ’80s game Mappy.  I think it was only released in Europe, but I found a copy sometime in the mid ’90s anyway.  The game was made by the French studio Loriciel.  This is a fairly obscure game, but it’s good, though very tough!  Bumpy has decent graphics in that classic early ’90s European cartoony-videogame style, but it’s only a single-screen platformer; no scrolling here.  That works well for the design, though, which is around tough single-screen puzzles to work your way through.  The number of colors on screen may be limited for something that does support VGA, but the art design is decent.  There is also Soundblaster and Roland MT sound support, but only for sound effects; there is no music, unfortunately.  There also isn’t any real saving, so the high-scores table is useless, it won’t save any of that.  Fortunately there are passwords to continue from the start of each level.  Bumpy’s gameplay more than makes up for these shortcomings, however, and that’s why I like it, frustration and all.  Sort of like Mappy, you move a character around a screen made of paths separated by narrow walls, and have to collect all the stuff on each stage and then get to an exit.  The differences pretty much end there, though, as that is a fast-action scrolling arcade game, quite unlike this one.  Here you play as a bouncing smilie-face ball, Bumpy.  You bounce as you move, from one tile to the next, so you’ve got to set up your next move about a tile ahead of time — he bounces, remember, and you need to hit the button before the beginning of the bounce.  You move with the arrow keys or joystick d-pad, but I recommend the keyboard; this game demands precision, and a d-pad isn’t quite as precise as hitting the exact key you want, the exact number of times you need to press it.  Hitting, or holding, Enter makes you jump up to the top of the screen.  While in the air, left or right will move you a space that direction, though you can only do this while going upwards, not down, and only once per jump.  Down makes you stop, vital for avoiding spikes above you.  You die in one hit, so you’ve got to get each puzzle right to progress!

And indeed, while Bumpy starts out simple, by the second level this game is hard, and it just gets harder from there.  I’ve never beaten this game and don’t know if I ever will, but it is fun to challenge.  Each level in Bumpy is made up of about ten single-screen stages, and you can play these stages in any order from a level-select screen.  You only get a few lives for each level, though, and only get passwords between levels, not stages, which is probably the key to why this is such a hard game.  There are difficulty choices, but it’s hard even on Easy; it mostly seems to just give you a couple more lives.  The centerpoint of this game are the many different types of tiles you will bounce on.  Wall pieces can form walls or floors; you can’t stop on wet tiles, though you can jump or turn around; bounce tiles toss you over two spaces; other tiles throw you horizontally across the screen; spike tiles will kill you on contact; some tiles can only be passed through a limited number of times; and more.  There are also enemies to contend with, and if you fall off the bottom of the screen you also die.  The free stage select within each world allows you to practice any level without having to beat the others, which is great, but you do need to beat them all in one game to actually progress, and the game quickly starts expecting perfection to get through each stage.  I eventually gave up on this game in level three, and never have gotten past that point.  Still, based on what I have played of the game I do recommend it.  I had fun with this game when I first played it in the mid ’90s, and the gameplay holds up fairly well.  Bumpy is an interesting and somewhat unique game, with a tough but fun style of puzzle-platforming that keeps you coming back.  This game is obscure and perhaps too hard, but it is good.  Unfortunately this game doesn’t have a digital re-release anywhere, but it’d be nice to see someone bring it back; it deserves it.  Play Bumpy if you can.  In addition to this PC release there re also Atari ST, and Amstrad CPC versions, all Europe-only of course.  Physical release only.


Claw
(1997, Win9x) – One player single system or 1-2? player online, saves, gamepad supported (if it works for you).  Claw is a good platform-action game developed and published by the American publisher Monolith Software.  They also released a 2d Gauntlet-style game called Get Medieval around the same time, but this is their platformer.  Claw is a hand-drawn 2d title released at a time when more and more platformers were going 3d, but it achieved at least a moderate level of popularity, probably particularly in Europe.  You are an anthropomorphic pirate cat named Capatain Claw, and need to run, jump, slash, and shoot your way through many levels of platforming fun as you try to win a hidden treasure hoard and defeat the evil dog-people of the Spanish Armada.  Good cat versus evil dogs?  This sounds like my kind of plot! 🙂  The game has 17.5 minutes of fully-animated cutscenes, mostly hand-drawn but with some CG elements such as ships, which is pretty cool.  There are two reelases of the game, CD and DVD.  The much rarer and more expensive DVD version has 640×480 videos, but is otherwise identical to the CD release.  I was lucky and found a cheap copy of the DVD version years back, and I do like the higher-quality videos, but the gameplay in both is the same.  The in-game graphics are also good, with large, nicely-drawn and animated sprites on detailed backgrounds.  As with most of my Win9x platformers I can’t get this game to see my gamepad, annoyingly, but at least keyboard-to-joystick software exists.  Claw moves fairly quickly, and you can jump, melee attack, and use several different kinds of ranged weapons that you can switch between.  You have a percent-based health meter, and your ranged attacks have limited ammo.  The game controls well, though sometimes I was wishing you had a double jump.  Ah well.  The game also lets you set buttons to directly use the four kinds of ranged weapons, but only supports 8 joystick buttons while there are a total of 9 functions, so if you ant to use these and do have the in-game joystick functionality working you’ll need to not use one.  This doesn’t matter much because just switching to the one you need and using that is simple enough.

Level designs in Claw are large and loaded with treasures to collect for points.  A little like Commander Keen games, the game is loaded with side areas full of items to get for points.  Unlike those games, though, Claw levels are mostly linear paths, not squares or mazes as so many Keen levels are, and they are fairly long.  Levels may twist and turn around, but the path forward is usually obvious and well-marked.  Getting through those side areas will take practice, though, particularly the ones that require special, one-time-use, time-limited powerups such as the high-jump power to access.  This adds some nice replay value to the game.  The 14 levels in this game will take longer to get through in a single run than a Keen game would due to the length of the levels.  The game allows you to start or continue from any level or save checkpoint you have reached.  But yes, there are two kinds of checkpoints here.  Each level has some small checkpoints that just continue you from that point as long as you still have lives, but there are also two per stage which save your progress just like a completed level.  The levels are long enough that these are welcome, as they do drag on a bit long.  If you continue your last game instead of starting a new one, you keep the score you had before, but you also keep the number of lives, which makes progress difficult once your life counter runs low.  The solution is starting a new game from that point, but this, of course, resets your score.  I would be trying to collect as much as I can in each level anyway, but this is a good dynamic which makes the score system mean something.  Claw is a reasonably challenging game, but it’s balanced well and is neither too hard nor too easy.  This is a good game that is quite fun to play, repetition aside, and I can see why the people who did play it mostly seem to have liked it.  And if you do beat it, the game also supports custom levels, which is a pretty awesome feature.  A bunch come with the game, and you can also find an editor for the game online to make your own.  The multiplayer is level-racing, competing to get through stages the fastest.  It is unfortunately linked only, not splitscreen, but it is nice to have as an option, though I haven’t played it myself.  It supports IPX network, dialup modem, and direct-IP connections.  There was also online play on Engage back when it released, though that has been dead for a long time.  Overall, Claw is a good game worth seeking out if you are a platformer fan.  The visuals are nice, the game plays well, and levels are fun to explore and collect stuff in.  You do do the same things a lot, but what you’re doing is interesting so it works.  Recommended.  Physical release only.


Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars
(1990, DOS) – One player, saves, gamepad supported.  Part one of the three-part Commander Keen in the Invasion of the Vortions game, Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars is the first game in this great platformer series developed by ID Software, later to be id Software, and published by Apogee, now better known as 3D Realms.  You play as kid supergenius Billy Blaze, a young boy off to on an adventure in a homemade spaceship put together with some parts from around the house.  Billy, Commander Keen once he puts on his brothers’ football helmet, has taken off to Mars on an adventure, but he crash-landed there, and the place is crawling with aliens who stole parts of his ship!  You’ll need to find all four parts to win.  What, a car battery can’t power a spaceship?  Nah, it can, and this game is proof!  Yeah, the story here is a funny and a great encapsulation of childhood fantasy, except it’s a childhood where the adventure is real.  I first played the shareware release of this game sometime after we got a computer in early 1992, and this was by far the best platformer I had played on PC up to that point.  The game made a big impression on me, and I’ve loved the Keen series ever since.  So, this game is a very hard one to review, or even summarize; how to be even kind of impartial about a game I have this degree of nostalgia for?  It’s not easy.  I have always regarded the original Commander Keen trilogy as my favorite games ever developed by ID, and still say their name as “eye dee” not “id” because that’s how their name was originally presented as. (Also, as a a little aside, I’ve always referred to the games by Roman numerals, but you could also use regular Arabic ones; they are sometimes referred to either way.)

But anyway, on to the actual game.  Commander Keen is a platformer, of course.  But as it is an ID game, the technology behind the game is almost as important as the game itself.  At the time of its release in early 1990 it was a revolutionary game because programmer John Carmack figured out how to get a smooth-scrolling platformer to run on the PC, something no one had done before.  ID’s first thought was to approach Nintendo about a Mario PC game, but that was immediately turned down, so Tom Hall came up with an original idea instead.  It turned out pretty well, for sure.  There is no parallax scrolling here, but just getting regular scrolling on the PC had never been seen in a platformer in the ’80s.  All seven Keen games run in only 16-color EGA, and this original trilogy really can’t match up to the kind of graphics seen in contemporary console games on the Genesis, but for the PC it was a huge step forwards visually.  The art design is pretty good too.  The sprites look great, and stages look alright, though backgrounds in this episode are just solid colors.  Aurally there isn’t much to say; Keens 1-3 have no music and only PC Speaker sound effects.  I like that there are movement sounds for things such as walking, jumping, hitting a ceiling, using the pogo, and more, so at least there is something to listen to beyond silence.  PC Speaker sounds are simple, but these are good, I like them.  I also quite like the signs written in “Standard Galactic Alphabet”, a letter-replacement cypher.  Find the hidden code in the hidden level in Episode III for the key to read all those signs!  Or just look it up online, but that’s less fun.  Episode I’s Yorp and Garg enemies are iconic for sure!  Environment graphics are tile-based, as in games like Mario, and levels all draw from the same tileset; each episode in this game has a consistent look to it that is distinct from the others.  There are also only a handful of enemy types in this game, but it’s enough, as each one is very different and has its own unique style.  Each episode of the three in the original game does look a little better than the one before it, in some different colors, but despite this each level has its own unique look and feel.

Each game also has an overworld map you can move around between stages that fits its setting, so for this game it’s the planet Mars.  There are 16 levels in this game, but this one has the fewest full-sized levels of any Keen game.  This game has 8 mini-stages, and 8 full levels.  Mini stages are just little areas with only a couple of screens and few or no enemies.  These are all optional, and the pogo is in one, so don’t skip it!  Some have little bits of story, too.  As for the full levels, two are required but do not have ship parts, four have ship parts, and three are optional, one of those a hidden stage.  I drew maps of the overworlds of most of the Keen games as a kid, listing the shortest paths, number of levels, and such; came in handy here. 🙂

As for the gameplay, Keen has large, open levels with a lot of stuff to collect in them, in that Western platformer style but with better level designs and controls than most.  Much like Doom or Wolfenstein would later also do, collecting keycards is central here.  There can be up to three in each stage, in red blue and yellow just like Doom, and when stages have keycards they are usually required.  A lot of items are out there off the main path if you want to get them for points, though.  Your goal in each stage is to reach the exit, but four levels have a Vorticon to avoid or kill in them, at the end; they serve as the games’ bosses.  Going back to it this is not a particularly long game, but there are enough levels here for a few hours of fun anyway, or many more if you’re a kid like I was when I first played the game.  Once you finish a level you can’t return to it, and the game does have a scoring system, so there is a lot of replay value here if you want to get higher places on the high-scores table.  Be wary, though!  While bottomless pits are in short supply here, sometimes the game likes to try to trick you with lines of powerups leading straight into pits and the like.  With enough skill you can get everything, but be cautious as you explore.  I think they got the balance between challenge and fun just right, as the game is not a cheap-death-laden nightmare, but beating each level while getting most of the stuff will take at least a little practice. Keen controls well, also.  One button jumps, the other uses the pogo stick, and both together shoot; yes, you do have to hit both to shoot, either control+alt or buttons 1+2 on your gamepad.  The pogo stick, once you get it, is great and one of the trademark elements of this series.  Once you get used to how it controls it gives you a lot of mobility.  As for that gun, ammo is limited, so don’t waste it.  You only get ammo from the somewhat uncommon gun pickups; enemies never drop anything in this series after death.  In addition, you die in one hit, and there are no checkpoints in levels, so watch out!  You can touch some enemies, such as the small robots or Yorps, without dying, but they still can push you into a hazard, and others such as Gargs and Vorticons are deadly at the touch.  However, you can save anytime on the map, so game only is only for the inattentive.  Apogee required all games they published to support saving to save files, a fantastic standard that all console games should have been doing since as early as they could save.  That I grew up with Apogee games and the like is a huge part of why the absence of saving in so many console games in the 3rd through 5th generations bothers me so much.

As for flaws, there are a few I guess.  Playing the game again now, the game is fairly short, and there aren’t a huge number of levels.  Also, the shared tileset and limited enemy variety are of note.  Additionally, sometimes you can accidentally shoot when you meant to do a tricky diagonal pogo jump because of the two-button control scheme.  The scoring system is also partially pointless, since you can save between levels and retry stages as long as you have lives, so you aren’t working from a set maximum score; it will just go up as long as you keep playing, though watching it increase is fun.  Even if most ‘only’ got me points, I have very often found myself trying to get every item I can in Keen games.  And last, some will dislike the often open nature of the stages.  I think that the game strikes a good balance here, with levels short and well-designed enough to hold up well design-wise compared to console platformers while also having lots of stuff to collect as was common in Western platformers of the day, but this is a matter of taste.  But overall, Commander Keen Episode I: Marooned on Mars is a fantastic game and one of my favorite platformers.  This great game was better than any PC platformer that came before it in both graphics and gameplay, and has some of the most fun game design around.  The art design and stage layouts are great as well.  I really like things such as the lighting in the Yorp temple mini-stages, areas with Gargs suddenly charging in at you out of pipes, and more.  This is a fantastic, must-play title for any genre fan.  This game is shareware, and is also available in digital-download compilations of Apogee and Commander Keen games.


Commander Keen Episode II: The Earth Explodes (1990, DOS) – One player, saves, gamepad supported.  While the first episode of Keen was distributed free as shareware, parts II and III are available by purchase only.  I loved Keen 1, though, so via mail order, which was how you bought these games back then, my parents bought me the registered version of Keens I-III back in the early ’90s. I still have the original disk and manual.  So, ID made this game bigger and more challenging than its predecessor.  Episode II of Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons is, essentially, more of the above, but with new graphics and enemies.  This time, Keen has left Mars, but finds a Vorticon mothership heading towards earth, planning to blow up the planet!  You need to take out its death rays to save the Earth.  With the stakes raised considerably above the first games’ simple ‘get off this planet and go home’ story, Keen sets off to defeat each base on the mothership and save the world.  So, this time the theme is industrial, with more robots and machine environments, instead of the often-red facilities of Mars.  I’ll probably always like the first games’ look the most since it’s the original, but this game looks good as well.  I always have liked this game the least of the three in Invasion of the Vorticons, for some reason, but it is still pretty good.  This game has as many levels as before, and it’s a harder game with tougher opposition; as a kid I beat Keen 1 without too much of a problem, but this game took me much longer.  It’s not only a bit tougher though, but more levels are required this time; there are 15 stages, one less than before, but this game has no mini-levels, so it’s probably got more content.  Of those ten are required: 8 with death-rays, two other required stages, and five optional levels.  This was  the last of the original trilogy that I finished.  I can beat it now of course, but it does take more effort than the first one.  It’s fun though, of course.  Also, the game has enhanced graphics and more complex levels with additional puzzle elements.  Keen 2 does some interesting things, and really is a pretty good game.  The backgrounds are now cross-hatched, instead of just solid colors like in the original, and stages now have elements such as light switches that make everything dark, and jumping enemies won’t jump in the dark.  That sounds good, until they hit a light switch and kill you, but hey, that’s part of the challenge!  Overall Episode II of Commander Keen is a very good game.  The great core gameplay of the first game returns, but the gameplay additions and greater challenge make this a nice followup to the original.  This game may be my least favorite of the original trilogy, but it’s still a pretty good game definitely worth having.  This game is available in digital-download compilations of Apogee and Commander Keen games.


Commander Keen Episode III: Keen Must Die (1990, DOS) – One player, saves, gamepad supported.  Episode III of Commander Keen concludes the original trilogy.  This game has the same core graphical style and gameplay as the original, but again the graphics have improved, and so has the gameplay.  Keen III is a fantastic game very nearly as great as the original Keen, and in some ways is the best Keen game.  I like this game a lot!  This time Keen has traveled all the way to the Vorticon home planet, there to end the threat once and for all.  There is a nice twist near the end, but the story here is appropriately simple as always.  I like the new setting, and the graphics have more varied environments within each stage than before, though it is still drawing from a limited tileset.  You’ll travel through towns, caverns, and more; the urban theme is a nice change from the sci-fi installations of the first two games.  The level designs are really good, maybe the best of the trilogy, as well.  There are a lot of mazelike environs to explore of course, but also some very clever areas.  As you are on Vorticon you face a lot of Vorticons this time, but most are much weaker than the tough ones from the first game; those were Vorticon commandos, apparently, while these are just the home guard.  New foes are harder, though, so there is challenge here, though overall this game isn’t as hard as the second game.  The world is made up of six small islands connected with teleporters, and if you use the teleport right, you can beat this game having played only three of the 16 levels.  Your goal is only to beat the boss you see, you don’t need to collect other things along the way.  If you play all the levels this will be a tough game, but it’s much easier if you take the shortest path.  I like having options like that.  Mini-levels make a return as well; there are 7 of them, and 9 full stages.  Unlike Keen 1 these “mini” levels are pretty much full stages now, though they are shorter and easier than the main levels are.  There is also a hidden level again, after not having one in the second game, and it has that aforementioned SGA alphabet cipher to copy down.  Once you have it written, reading the signs everywhere throughout the series is fun stuff!  So yeah, while Episode has always been my favorite, Commander Keen III is a great game, and a fantastic conclusion to one of the best PC-exclusive platformers ever.  This game is available in digital-download compilations of Apogee and Commander Keen games.


Commander Keen Episode IV: Secrets of the Oracles (Shareware) (1991, DOS) – One player, saves, gamepad supported.  Commander Keen IV (or 4): Secrets of the Oracle began the second Keen series developed by ID Software for Apogee.  Part one of the two-part Commander Keen in: Goodbye, Galaxy game, this is the second shareware Keen game, and was distributed free just like Episode I was.  That was how I first played it, and it’s great!  This game released over a year after the first one, and it shows — the game has much better graphics with a slightly angled perspective to give a bit of depth to everything, much-enhanced graphics even if they still are EGA stuff that do not quite match up to console games of 1991 like Super Mario World or Sonic the Hedgehog, and actual sound card support for music.  CGA support was also added for some reason, but forget that, play in more than 4 colors!  We didn’t have a sound card when I first played this game, but when we finally got a PC with sound in 1995 it was nice to go back and listen to.  The game has 17 levels, about as usual for the series, with 11 required levels, 5 optional, and a hidden stage.  Levels are larger and more difficult than before, so despite not having more stages, Keen IV is a pretty tough game and beating it will take effort and a lot of memorization within each level.  They added a difficulty option this time though, and Easy mode doesn’t just reduce the number of enemies but also slows down your falling speed, so that’s a great option for anyone who finds Normal too hard.  Again you can play most of the levels in any order, though, so when you get stuck in one stage you can always just try another one, and the stages have a great amount of graphical variety; each is distinct, and many have unique visual looks.  The enemies and environments are all new this time, and are more detailed and cartoonish than before.  Backgrounds also are improved and look more drawn and less tile-based, and the cartoonish qualities of everything have really been played up.  Perhaps for nostalgia reasons I do like the look of the original Keen trilogy the best, but this style Keens 4 through 6 use also looks great.  There are quite a few different environments this time, including underwater for the first time in the series, as well as pyramids, jungles, caverns, and more.  The addition of music is very nice as well, and the songs here are good.  In this game you need to rescue the eight Oracles, who have been kidnapped, so finding them makes up eight of the required stages.  Of course, which stages have oracles in them isn’t marked, so just play all of them until you find them all.

As for the gameplay, for the most part Keen 4 plays like its predecessors, but with some additions.  Keen is now better-animated, and you have some more move though this is still a classic platformer.  Your gun is now a neural stunner, not a deadly raygun, but in effect it’s the same; you just stun foes permanently, instead of killing them.  You run, jump, shoot, and pogo like before, though pogo physics may be improved over before; getting used to it will take a minute, but the pogo stick is great and incredibly useful once you learn it.  Additionally, Keen 4 adds four-button gamepad support and a dedicated shoot button, so jump, shoot, and pogo are each on a separate button.  It’s a welcome change which makes getting around a little easier, though you can play in 2-button mode if you want.  You can also now grab on ledges and both look and shoot up and down, all very nice improvements.  Looking down is particularly useful to see whether jumping down from somewhere is safe.  As always ID doesn’t load levels with cheap death pits, but there are many ways to die, you still die in one hit, and levels don’t have checkpoints, so when you do mess up and bump into an enemy or killer obstacle, you start the stage over.  You still have limited ammo too, though it’s easy enough to find more.  Keycards return, though there are four now, with a green one added.  There are also now many switches, usually to turn moving platforms on or off, though some also manipulate other devices.  Last, in addition to the many items you collect for points, there are also water drops that do not give points, but instead, like coins in Mario, a 1-up if you collect 100 of them.  So, the gameplay here is familiar, but more varied than before.  The larger enemy and obstacle variety mixes things up as well.   The slugs, invincible bouncing mushrooms, fire-breathing orbs, harmless bouncing smilie faces, and more are fun and varied foes.

Levels are still very, very well designed.  Some are straightforward but have optional side areas or hidden areas full of stuff to get, while others are mazes you need to figure out.  Your goal is either to get to the opposite end of the stage, in normal stages with exit signs, or to find the Oracle in those stages.  Oracles will be in the deepest point of the level, often through a door with a second challenging area behind it.  So, you know your goal, the challenge is just to get there.  Exploration is key as ever, and levels are just the right size: large enough to be interesting, but not so big that you get lost.  Looking around to figure out the path forward and find the many secrets is great fun, if the regular dying doesn’t frustrate you.  Level size is just right, and the game is not cheap or unfair, just challenging.  Like Doom for FPSes, ID showed their impressive level designs skill with games like this one.  Just make sure to save after beating a level!  Sometimes I have thought it would be nice if levels had checkpoints, but they’re doable as they are, once practiced enough.  It’s quite rewarding when you finish one.  The point system returns too, and it’s a bit odd as ever — you get points for everything, there is a high score table, and you can’t replay a level once you have finished it, but since you can replay a level so long as you don’t beat it and can save anytime on the map, getting a very high score isn’t hard if you are good at the game.  Still, is is nice to see your score climb as you get farther into this tough game.  Oh, lastly, there is also a little 1-player-only Pong minigame in the options menu, with a look as if you’re playing it on Keen’s watch.  It’s a nice little touch.

Overall, Keen IV is a great platformer, and certainly a must-play for platformer fans.  This game is perhaps the most popular Keen game, and with its good graphics, music, and gameplay, it’s easy to see why!  This is a great classic, and it’s awesome stuff.  As with Keen 1, if you registered this game you got its paid followup, Keen V: The Armageddon Machine.  I didn’t buy that one back in the ’90s, so it is covered below in the digital-downloads category.  The weird spinoff title Keen Dreams, aka ” Keen 3.5″, will be covered in the shareware section since I also didn’t play that one back then, and it’s full shareware.  I did buy the last Keen game, the retail-only Keen VI: Aliens ate my Babysitter! back in the mid ’90s, though, fortunately, so I’ll cover that one next!  Keens V and VI both use the Keen IV engine, though, so they look and play similarly, much like II and III do for the original.  This game is shareware, and is also available in digital-download compilations of Apogee and Commander Keen games.


Commander Keen Episode VI: Aliens Ate My Babysitter! (1991) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported.  Commander Keen [Episode VI]: Aliens Ate My Babysitter! is the final Keen game.  It was released shortly after Keens IV and V as a retail-only title published by the publisher FormGen, though apparently it was actually developed between those two because of retail lead-times.  Originally this was probably supposed to be part three of Goodby Galaxy, but they got an offer for a retail game, and did not refuse it.  Unfortunately, the contract was bad and ID lost the rights for this game to FormGen, so it has not been re-released since the ’90s.  After multiple mergers the rights now belong to Atari, but that publisher sadly has no interest in making a reasonable deal for someone to publish this game on Steam, GOG, and such, or it would have happened already.  And that’s really sad, because this is a great game!  I am very lucky to have found a new copy of the game to buy back in the mid ’90s.  I still have the box, manual, Keenings mini-newsletter, and disks, but sadly the Keen wristwatch that also came in the box vanished sometime over the years.  That watch did not come with all copies of the game and seems to be quite hard to find now, so it’s unfortunate that I lost it.

As for the game though, this is yet another great Keen game, much like 4 and 5 but with even more graphical variety.  As this was a retail title they had a bit more space, so this is a two-floppy game, versus less than one for Keen 4.  However, in actual file size it is only barely bigger than that game, and it shows.  This game does have one of the longer shortest paths to the end you’ll find in this series, but the actual amount of content is is very similar to Keens 4 and 5, and Keen 6 still only has the usual 16 stages.  So, my initial hopes that because this game is a retail title the game would be bigger than the previous ones was dashed.  What you do get, though, is a fantastic platformer that is again among the better games in the genre, so I don’t mind this too much.  The game does have a somewhat different structure from before, though.  Instead of a large map you can wander around, this time the game is more linear.  You often do have multiple stage options, but unlike some previous games you do have to play most of the stages in order, instead of just being able to wander around and after getting through a few gate stages play most levels in any order as you can in 2 or 4, for instance.  There are still some stages with items to get, but this time they are items to get past certain overworld hazards, so they just function as a gate for getting to the next stage, instead of a ‘collect all the things to win’ design like you see in Keens 1 or 4.  I think this game design works just fine, and it’s nice to see a slightly different style in the series even if the openness of the original was great fun.  Keen 5 also has a more linear design, it is worth noting, so of the second trilogy only 4 is fully open.

Within the levels, though, Keen 6 is pretty much the same as 4, structurally.  The graphics and enemies here are all-new, of course, as always, but the engine and gameplay come straight out of the Keen IV style.  Of course, this means it’s outstanding, just like its predecessors!  This time Keen is on the planet Fribbulus Xax, home to the giant green Bloog people.  So yes, as in every Keen game, the setting and enemies are new and game-exclusive even though the core gameplay is shared by the previous two episodes.  Keen is there to rescue his babysitter who was kidnapped by aliens.  So yes, the last Keen game has the series’ first and only “rescue the girl” plot, though she is not a love interest.  I don’t like “rescue the girl” plots, of course, but 6/7 is not bad and at least it’s done entertainingly here.  The level designs are as good as ever, though this game is probably a bit easier than Keen 4.  If they eased things up a bit for the retail release, it was probably a welcome adjustment.  Keen 6 is still plenty hard, with some very tough levels and many of the usual grueling optional areas full of stuff to get, but this is the fun kind of challenge that keeps you coming back until you beat it.  This is a fantastic platformer, and exploring the levels for items, hitting the now cartoonishly-giant switches, and going into those tough areas even if there is no real reason to is all great, great fun.  Keen 6: Aliens Ate My Babysitter is a nice looking, well-polished game with the usual great controls and level designs you expect from the series.  Definitely play it if you can, it’s one of the best!


Earthworm Jim for Windows 95 (1995) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported.  Earthworm Jim for Windows 95, from Dave Perry’s studio Shiny and published by Activision, is the first PC port of the original Earthworm Jim game, or rather, the improved Sega CD version of the game.  This platform-shooter was very popular at the time, enough so to have sequels and even a short-lived TV cartoon (though from what little I watched it’s terrible).  I really love Perry’s earlier platformer Aladdin for the Sega Genesis, but have mixed opinions on his other games, this one included.  I got this game back in ’97, and was happy to get a game that still was fairly popular.  This game is a very nice-looking game with good art design, great animation, good backgrounds and a ridiculous comedic style.  By 1995 PC games could look better than this, but it still looks good.  You play as an earthworm named Jim in a powered superhero suit with plenty of guns to fight with, and body-whip and shoot your way through many enemies in large, complex levels.  EWJ looks great and is intially fun to play, but for me that doesn’t last long; I thought this game had issues even back in the ’90s, and it’s probably aged even more now.  Jim controls somewhat inaccurately, first; the game does not have the tight, responsive controls you would hope for.  You can aim any direction, and while shooting you can’t move.  This works, but means you’ll take hits for sure.  Hits are often near-impossible to dodge, anyway.  You have a health meter and can take a lot of damage, but still, that the game is designed around this can be frustrating.  This game can be cheap and quickly gets extremely difficult and sometimes unfair.  The levels also can be confusing, and figuring out where to go in these big, similar-looking stages sometimes is a problem.  Worse, what you can interact with and what you can’t is not always obvious.  Bosses don’t have health bars either, and take a lot of hits to defeat, if you’re even damaging them; it isn’t always clear enough.

So, as popular as the game was, after playing it I thought that this game was probably a case of style over substance, a game not as fun to play as I expected it to be.  Sure, it looks and sounds great, and the comedy elements are sometimes amusing.  If you get into it this game is plenty hard, too.  The levels also have quite a bit of variety both in the normal levels and in bonus stages where you ride an asteroid.  Each stage has a new setting and music, and some levels change up the gameplay too, including swimming areas, some areas where you are not in your suit so you’re just a worm, and such.  EWJ 2 focuses entirely on making levels each have a unique gimmick, but this game does head towards that.  That’s fine, I love the weird level concepts on Donkey Kong Country 3 for instance, but I just don’t find this game fun enough to want to deal with.  Still, if you do want to play Earthworm Jim, this is one of the best versions of the game, and it’s probably the best ’90s version.  It has the Sega CD versions’ great CD audio soundtrack, but with 256 color graphics like the SNES, and it saves your progress as you can continue from any level you have reached from the menu.  Still, back in ’97 I quit playing this game maybe a third of the way through, and I’ve never wanted to go back, deal with this flawed, too-hard game, and get farther; Earthworm Jim is average at best, and may even be a little below average, and the graphics are the best thing about it.  Even so, it is unique and weird enough to maybe be worth a try… or maybe not. Maybe skip it if you don’t have memories of EWJ.

EWJ is on a lot of platforms, though I only have the two ’90s PC versions.  The other one beyond this version is a 1996 DOS release of this game in Interplay’s Earthworm Jim 1 & 2 collection.  I have that digitally (to be covered later), but this is the better game — that version is a SNES port, without the SCD extras, though they did add password save over the nothing of the SNES/Genesis original.  That version is available today for download on PC (Steam and GOG); it’s just not as good as this one.  However, as this is a very early Windows 95 game, it has serious problems running on modern computers, and indeed the game does not run well at all on my modern PC.  It does run, sans joystick support of course, but the full-screen mode doesn’t work (it’s 320×220/236 only) and sound effects are horribly broken and skip constantly, rendering the game sort of unplayable.  Fortunately the game does run great on my old WinME PC.  This game is also available on Sega CD as Earthworm Jim: Special Edition, and on Nintendo DSiWare and mobile platforms (iOS, BREW, webOS, J2ME) as Earthworm Jim.  Yes, those latter ports are based on this version and not the original release, though they likely have downgraded sound quality.  The DSiWare version at least should still be accessible.  The original, not quite as good version is available on the PC (DOS EWJ1&2), SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, Game Gear, and Game Boy Advance.  The EWJ1&2 version is available on PC digital download platfoms (Steam, GOG, etc.), and the Genesis version on Wii Virtual Console.  There is also a digital-only version, Earthworm Jim HD, for Xbox 360 Live Arcade, PS3 PSN, and Windows Mobile.  That version has redone graphics, some gameplay improvements apparently, and three new levels and redone visuals and sound, but doesn’t have the SCD/Win95 added level.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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