by Travis Fahs0
Retro Droid – Keen Dreams
Remembering the Early Days of id Software
PC gaming history is littered with tales of bedroom companies that rose from nowhere, and nerdy teenagers who became overnight successes, but the PC’s greatest tech gurus, id Software had no such story. Their origin was a messy one; a cesarean birth that saw them struggle to gain their independence from a company that simply wasn’t ready for them. For one crazy year, id Software produced more than a dozen games for two different publishers before finally getting to stand on their own two feet.
The gang of four that would form id shared an office in Shreveport, Louisiana at a company called Softdisk. Softdisk was not a game developer, and was best known for their Big Blue Disk, a monthly diskmag packed with utilities and other goodies. But an Origin Software vet named John Romero was dying to make some real games instead. He persuaded the brass at Softdisk to launch a bi-monthly subscription service called Gamer’s Edge, and they placed Romero in charge of delivering a new game every two months.
He recruited artist Adrian Carmack and tech wizard John Carmack (no relation) to round out the team, and shortly thereafter they were joined by designer Tom Hall. The four-man team was given little supervision, with only a contractual obligation to make sure they delivered a game every other month. The Gamer’s Edge crew kept their own hours, often working late into the night, experimenting with different ideas.
In 1990, IMB-compatible PCs were hardly a dominant gaming platform. Compared to the Amiga and the Atari ST, PCs had a weak graphics palette, no dedicated sound hardware, and struggled to replicate the kinds of games that were popular on the then-dominant Nintendo Entertainment System. Scrolling graphics were a particular problem – exactly the kind of problem that a tech guru like John Carmack lives for.
Finally, the solution came to him. Using a trick unique to the 16-color EGA graphics cards popular at the time, Carmack was able to achieve perfectly fluid scrolling. To showcase the tech, the team put together a one-level demo that blatantly copied the first stage of Nintendo’s newest hit Super Mario Bros. 3. They called it Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement.
The Gamer’s Edge team was smart enough to know that what they had was too good to be wasted on Softdisk, who only sold games by subscription and didn’t offer royalties. Around this time they met Scott Miller, who had pioneered a new episodic sales model with his Kingdom of Kroz series and was looking to expand. The team founded id Software shortly thereafter, and designed a console-style platformer in the hopes of giving PC gamers their very own Mario.
Commander Keen was an overnight hit. Initially sold exclusively through the mail, and backed by a free “shareware” episode that served as a very extended demo, the Keen trilogy was so successful that it gave way to hordes of imitators adopting a similar model by the end of the following year.
The money was rolling in, but life wasn’t so simple for the new software house. Like a bad recording contract, their deal with Softdisk left them bound to deliver bi-monthly titles until they had fulfilled their contractual obligation. Softdisk had won a jackpot of its own. They may have missed out on the smash hit that was Commander Keen, but they were owed 9 more titles by PC gaming’s hottest new developer.
The id crew played it smart, and used their Gamer’s Edge titles as a way to prototype technology for their outside projects. Hovertank 3-D marked Carmack’s first crack at a 3D raycasting engine, and by the time they released Catacomb 3-D a few months later, they had worked out most of what would later become Wolfenstein 3-D.
They took the same approach when it came time for the inevitable sequel to Commander Keen. At first they built a horror-themed side-scroller called Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, but to really lay the ground work, they threw Softdisk a huge bone and gave them an all-new, exclusive episode of Commander Keen.
Keen Dreams is very much a prototype for the series’ next outing, Goodbye Galaxy. It uses the same larger sprites, new engine, sound card support, and oblique pseudo-3D view as the later games, as well as a very similar overworld. Despite this, it was conceived from the beginning as a spin-off and makes some unique choices. The entire game takes place within a dream, where Keen is being tormented by vegetables, and he has been stripped of his trademark ray gun and pogo stick.
Id Software fulfilled their contract ahead of schedule and never looked back. Softdisk abandoned the Gamer’s Edge program not long after, in favor of an episodic shareware model. They aggressively marketed the Gamer’s Edge titles as the “lost games of id Software,” and churned out their own sequels to Dangerous Dave and Catacomb 3-D. It didn’t matter to id; all Softdisk could do was follow. Not long after, Softdisk left the game-publishing business, and id Software released their first wholly self-published title, a little game they called DOOM.
Commander Keen in Keen Dreams is available now on the Google Play Store for $0.99. This port is the first Android release from retro-publisher Super Fighter Team and the only id Software title to appear in officially licensed form on the Android platform.