Commander Keen was (maybe) the first videogame i ever played. i can’t remember whether it was that or something on the Sega Master System. if it was the latter, it would have been the Sega Card version of Galaga or Rambo: First Blood Part II. either way, the one that made the biggest impression on me was Commander Keen and specifically the freeware first chapter of Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons.
there was a lot about that game that appealed to tiny me. first was the conceptual association i made between Commander Keen and Spaceman Spiff (aka Calvin) from Calvin and Hobbes, which was my favorite comic growing up. i knew they weren’t part of the same official universe or whatever but i did feel like they were a ‘type’ i could identify with.
overall the game was too difficult for me and i could never actually beat any of the Vorticons that appeared at the end of levels, so at the time i always had to have my brother or dad take over for me once i got to the end. i never finished the freeware version, but i did see the ending once my brother beat it.
the sound design of Commander Keen always stuck out to me as a kid, as the sounds for the pogo stick, ray gun, and teddy bear/free life were so memorable. i also loved the Yorps, aliens that would sort of just bump into you and cry when you jumped on their heads. like Whispy Woods in Kirby’s Dream World, the Yorps forced me to confront my own bloodlust, as they look so tragic if you go past bopping their heads and just shoot them in the face.
it wasn’t until years later that i actually got to play the full game, along with Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy. before the days of DRM my friend and i would trade games and that was how i ended up with all three chapters of Invasion of the Vorticons and both chapters of Goodbye Galaxy (that’s also how i first played Rayman, one of my favorite games in terms ambience, music, and art design).
while i already loved Commander Keen, my mind was completely blown by the full game and sequels. in the final chapter of Invasion of Vorticons Keen travels to the Vorticon homeworld, where, in addition to seeing funny domestic scenes of Vorticons at home, there was an entire Vorticon alphabet you could decipher, which meant you could go back to the first chapter and read different signs and stuff.
the sequels impressed me more for the depth of the story and the variety of characters and art, though it was also a very big deal that you could hang from ledges, which felt extremely cutting edge the first time i played it. i also fondly remember the day i finally figured out the inch-worm puzzle that takes you to the secret level.