Before they founded ID Software, four guys sequestered in a Louisiana office building were pouring their blood and sweat into something entirely different from the carnage of Wolfenstein or DOOM. They didn’t know it, but these men were working to revolutionize PC gaming using a cute, football helmeted boy genius. And without Commander Keen, we would likely never have gotten DOOM: Eternal.
Everything started in 1990 with a small four-person team of game developers that included now-legendary talents John Romero and Tom Hall. Apogee Software (later 3D Realms) headhunted the team and tasked them with creating the most technically advanced side-scrolling platformer possible at the time for the PC. Over the next three months, the crack team put together Commander Keen, a platformer starring eight-year-old boy genius named Billy Blaze. Armored in his now-iconic football helmet, Billy would venture into space in a paper ship and fight evil Vortigon aliens with his ray gun and a pogo stick.
The popularity of Commander Keen was immense, earning the team well over five times the monthly revenue common for typical releases in just one week. The team had used some groundbreaking background animation methods to give Keen the same frame rate gamers were used to only on home consoles. Keen also had well-designed platforming gameplay, charming cartoon aesthetics, and its smooth graphics could compete with the juggernaut that was the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The game sold so well that Romero and his co-workers quit their 9-5 jobs and went into business for themselves. They founded Ideas from the Deep Software, which later was shortened to simply ‘ID Software.’ Working for themselves, the upstart ID team would go on to unleash the games they really wanted to make with the exciting mayhem of Wolfenstein 3D and eventually DOOM.
It turns out that Commander Keen is not only responsible for putting ID Software on the map, but Billy Blaze is also, genetically speaking, responsible for the Doom slayer. Commander Keen’s name, Billy Blaze, is a shortened version of his real name, William J. Blazkowicz II. Keen is the in-canon grandfather of the protagonist of the DOOM games. And if Blazkowicz sounds familiar, it’s because Commander Keen’s grandfather is the protagonist of Wolfenstein, B.J. Blazkowicz. This has been confirmed by Tom Hall himself, who has jokingly added that heroism seems to skip every other generation.
Commander Keen is an integral part of ID’s history, and, through some Easter eggs, the developers of DOOM have never forgotten where they came from. Many games in the series reference Billy Blaze somehow. In DOOM II, an incarnation of the character can be found in a secret map, where four Commander Keen bodies are suspended from ropes by their necks, surrounding a metal cube containing the exit switch. The player can’t advance until the helpless Keens are slain. In DOOM 2016, a skull wearing Keen’s football helmet can be found sitting on a pike, starting the proud tradition of including Billy’s head as an easter egg. Most recently, in DOOM: Eternal, the Keen skull can be found sitting on the Slayer’s bookshelf next to a Commander Keen ray gun.
As for Commander Keen himself, he appears to be in something of a state of limbo. Partly this is due to ID Software being owned by ZeniMax since 2009, but it didn’t seem as though ID had any interest in a new Keen title until recently. At 2019’s misbegotten E3, ZeniMax announced it was working on a free-to-play mobile game for IOS and Android. This did not go over too well with fans of the original, and it’s not hard to see why. Although the trailer revealed some bright and fun looking cartoon aesthetics, the gameplay looked to abandon the fun platforming action of the original series completely. This put the game in a very awkward position before it even launched: the card-based play turned off classic Keen fans, and newcomers had no nostalgia to drive their interest.
Romero and Hall have both moved on to other companies, so the will to develop new classic Keen isn’t really there. Tom Hall has summed up the voice of the fans over the mobile offering pretty well, saying the franchise “deserved better” and adding, “It smells like a Biz Deal game.” Perhaps as a response to this condemnation, as of this writing, there has still been no update on a possible release date.
If anything, the adverse reaction around the mobile version should tell developers that there is still a market out there for a more traditional take on remaking this classic. Until that happens, however, gamers in the know about this 90’s warrior can admire Commander Keen’s skull in DOOM: Eternal and hope that his proud lineage one-day returns. Until then, plasma-death some demons for Billy.
This football-helmeted skull keeps showing up in DOOM and it belongs to a hero from a proud lineage of heroes going to the wayback of 1990.