I’m not a gamer. I don’t own any video game consoles. Video games are not part of my identity. One game, however, holds a special place in my heart—Commander Keen: Secret of the Oracle. It’s a strange story.
A lot has been said about the Commander Keen series and the role it played in changing PC gaming. I’m not here to give another history lesson, though. My relationship with Keen is an unlikely one. There’s really no reason why I should have ever played the game. But I did, and it has stuck with me ever since.
Why Did I Have This Game?
Commander Keen: Secret of the Oracle was released in December 1991—30 years ago—but I didn’t play it until much later. When I think back on it, Commander Keen was a weird outlier. My family isn’t into video games. I never asked for video games for birthdays or Christmas. The games we did have were purely educational. So why did we have this one?
After a little family investigating, I discovered that the game was included for free with the Gravis PC GamePad—that’s how Commander Keen made it into my home. Strangely, no one can remember why we got the GamePad in the first place. I only remember using it for Keen 4.
As a kid who had very little exposure to video games, I was immediately hooked on Commander Keen. I vividly remember putting the floppy disk into our Gateway 2000 desktop and starting the game from the DOS command prompt. I think it’s the only thing I ever used DOS for. The string of commands to start the game are still seared into my brain.
Without ever intentionally seeking it out, Commander Keen entered my life. The rest is history.
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Blue Jeans and Candy Bars
Without the nostalgia, Secret of the Oracle is not that super unique. It’s a pretty standard side-scrolling platform game. However, as someone with very little video game experience, I found it accessible and charming.
For starters, Commander Keen himself is just a kid and the game reflects that. He wears sneakers, blue jeans, and a purple t-shirt. For armor, he dons a green and yellow football helmet—sans facemask. His gear includes a pogo stick for high jumps and a stun gun.
The levels are chock full of collectible items, most of which are food. Candy bars, soda, jawbreakers, donuts, gum, and ice cream cones. As a snack lover, that immediately made sense. Collecting snacks is a lot more fun to me than coins and rings.
The game has an irreverent charm that really speaks to me. If you don’t move for a few minutes, Keen will sit down and read a book while he waits. When you rescue the Council Members—the main goal of the game—Keen says things like “no sweat, oh bearded one.” It doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The enemies in the game are very silly as well. The most common inhabitants are yellow slugs that literally poop out puddles of poison. Others include a derpy-looking fish, sneaky rocks, and deadly dragonflies. There is one enemy, however, that especially tormented me—the Mad Mushroom.
It has big pink eyes that stare into your soul. A huge tongue flops out of its cocky grin. It doesn’t chase after you, it just hops in place and dares you to run underneath. The Mad Mushroom is the cyan embodiment of pure evil. At least, that’s how I saw it.
I’m really not sure why the Mad Mushroom gave me such trouble. There are more difficult enemies in the game, but the mushroom is particularly maddening. It should be easy to get past, yet it’s not. I guess that’s where the name comes from.
I’ve played a few levels to re-familiarize myself for this editorial and the mushroom still gets me sometimes. My least favorite food is mushrooms. Did the Mad Mushroom scar me for life? Is that why I don’t like mushrooms? I can’t rule it out.
Reconnecting With an Old Friend
I’m not exactly sure how old I was when I played Commander Keen, but I don’t remember it being a long period. Most of my memories are from one particular Christmas vacation; probably the year I got the GamePad controller. After I finished the game, I didn’t play it for a long time.
Sometime in high school, I was reminded of the game, so I had to look it up. Before this, I had only ever known it as simply “Keen 4.” The DOS command to start the game was “run keen4.exe,” so that’s what it was in my mind. As a young kid, I never made the connection that the “4” meant it was the fourth game in a series.
I was shocked to find out that this seemingly random, obscure game I had played as a kid was actually kind of a big deal. There were four other games in the series, and it had some pretty big names attached to it. Of course, I wasn’t the only person who had ever played it, but that’s how I had felt.
Thankfully, my mom had never gotten rid of our old Gateway 2000 PC, the Gravis GamePad, or the Keen floppy disk. So I hooked it all up in my room and played Secret of the Oracle again for the first time in years. It was like putting on a perfectly broken-in pair of jeans.
I remembered how all the levels worked, I knew where the secret passageways were, I didn’t need to re-learn the controller buttons. It was like being transported back to our cozy computer room on a cold post-Christmas winter day.
The Power of Nostalgia
Eventually, I played the other four Commander Keen games, but they never could live up to Keen 4. That’s the power of nostalgia. The feelings around the thing become more powerful than the thing itself. It’s not just a video game anymore.
I am far from the type of person who should have a nostalgic connection to a Commander Keen game. It just so happens that by some random string of events I had the opportunity to meet Keen at a time in my life where it made a lasting impression.
You never really know what experiences will stick with you. I still sneak in references to Commander Keen whenever I can. My Twitter cover photo is items from Keen 4, and the favicon on my pizza blog is from the original Commander Keen game. It’s a part of what makes me who I am.
I’ve played plenty of games over the years, but none will ever compare to Commander Keen: Secret of the Oracle. The next soda is on me, Keen.
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