I Played That! #40: Commander Keen (PC)

Around 1990, an interesting thing happened in the videogame world. While large companies battled endlessly against software pirates, a new distribution model appeared that embraced the idea of people copying and downloading their work. It was called “shareware”, and the idea was that they’d give away part of a game for free, encourage its propagation, and then you could buy the rest of it from the company. It seemed to catch on somewhat, at least for a while, and a few small game companies popped up that used it exclusively.

One was Apogee, a name that I would eagerly scan download sections for, as I was a rabid consumer of all their games. Their particular specialty were platform games, and I enjoyed them all. There were two real standouts, however.

The first was Commander Keen. Commander Keen, based on the “Spaceman Spiff” character from “Calvin & Hobbes”, was a young boy tasked with saving the galaxy from various alien threats. This involved him jumping around, pogo sticking aliens in the head, collecting lollipops and soda cans. Keen was great fun and a big hit for them, and there were several games released, with increasing graphic sophistication. Apogee only distributed the first couple of Commander Keen games; the rest were done by a spin-off company, id Software, which you may have heard of. (Keen was created by John Romero and John Carmack.)

The other series that proved popular for Apogee was Duke Nukem. Before he was a politically incorrect rip-off of Bruce Campbell, he was just another little dude jumping around platforms and shooting things. He would eventually go on to bigger, though not particularly better, things.

I never had a Nintendo, but for these games and others like them I bought a Gravis gamepad. I think I still have it somewhere.

A major shareware competitor to Apogee was Epic Megagames, which produced similar output, and who I also followed closely (though they had a lot more non-platform games).

If I had to guess, I’d say that two things caused these companies to change their ways. First, although I played every portion of these games, I’m pretty sure I never bought any of them. The exact same technology that could distribute the free chapters one also easily distributed the paid for chapters two and three. Shareware was a good way to get word out for indie developers, but it still fell prey to pirates.

In addition, it’s not like the companies went away. Apogee became 3D Realms, which gave us Duke Nukem 3D. id Software did Doom and Quake. Epic Megagames gave us Unreal. All three of them went on to compete in the sole arena of first-person shooters, abandoning poor Commander Keen in the process. Commander Keen, you were too innocent for the bloodthirsty mid-90s.

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