Commander Keen in Keen Dreams

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams Review

Nostalgia only goes so far

A.J. Maciejewski

Reviewed by playing a Nintendo Switch on

ESRB Everyone rating

The early '90s may be iconic for its console games but PC gamers also enjoyed some fantastic games of their own. Now that Commander Keen made his debut on Nintendo Switch, was it worth reviving the long-lost series?

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams screenshot 1
Broccoli as an enemy?! George H. W. Bush would approve!

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved 2 PC games: The Ancient Land of Ys and Commander Keen. I remember obsessively playing Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons with its episodes Marooned on Mars, The Earth Explodes, and Keen Must Die! Then, I played through Secret of the Oracle and The Armageddon Machine via Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy. However, I've never played Commander Keen in Keen Dreams and apparently, not many other gamers have as it remains an obscure entry in the franchise for various reasons. For one thing, it plays very differently to the other games as it takes away Keen's pogo stick and ray gun which are key gameplay mechanics. Instead, you merely run and jump around while throwing pellets to temporarily transform enemies into flowers.

Needless to say, this gameplay formula is a radical departure for the commander. The super-tight 2D platforming fun of the other games is replaced with much more generic gameplay and the graphics are far less appealing, too. Whereas the other games have a retro tile-based aesthetic with plenty of charming sights to take in, Commander Keen in Keen Dreams opted for a faux-3D approach to its graphics where some platforms stick out. However, this makes the visuals ambiguous at parts which causes some annoyance as you miss jumps or whack your head on a platform that you didn't notice was there. Keen's previous adventures definitely didn't have this problem.

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams screenshot 2
The overworld map is a cool place to wander around

One thing that Commander Keen in Keen Dreams does well is offer a non-linear world map. Plus, its stages are quite open as well which allows you to explore for extra points or just head straight to the exit. It's also a very easy game to pick up and play for anyone who has ever played a 2D platformer before. You couldn't get more intuitive than simply running, jumping, and tossing projectiles. That being said, the projectiles are limited so you have to constantly stock up on more if you want to stun your foes.

Although the openly designed stages are inherently cool, they're also problematic in a few different ways. The most frustrating of which is that you can't pan the camera up or down so you will inevitably run into enemies without even knowing that they're there. Also, it's tricky to know where you're supposed to go in some stages. You might end up going the long way around while facing grueling circumstances only to realise that you could have just jumped down from the starting point to reach the exit. Modern conveniences like a map as well as the ability to pan the camera and not have enemies rush towards you from outside the sides of the screen would have went a long way. As a result, it doesn't even come close to being as enjoyable as the classic Mario or Sonic games.

Commander Keen in Keen Dreams screenshot 3
I wish that crazy red-eyed vegetable would stop throwing crap at me!

Having the ability to play a Commander Keen game on a modern console is fantastic. However, Keen Dreams is far from the best that the series has to offer so here's hoping that we get to enjoy the commander's other adventures soon.

  • + It's awesome to be able to play the lost episode of an iconic series
  • + Non-linear progression and stages
  • + Easy to pick up and play
  • - Doesn't quite live up to the other Commander Keen games
  • - Platforming is frequently irritating
  • - Surprise deaths are super-frustrating
5.8 out of 10
Gameplay video for Commander Keen in Keen Dreams 5:42
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