Keen GBC Development

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This page is intended to have information regarding events that led to the development of Commander Keen and some interesting insights into what happened during the development.


Press Release

On March 01, 2001, id Software issued a surprise press release[1] announcing the development of a new Commander Keen game:

id's Original Hero Blazes A New Adventure
Santa Monica, CA ­ March 01, 2000­ id Software and Activision, Inc. (Nasdaq: ATVI) are teaming up this spring to release Commander Keen, an action-packed, comedic quest to save the cosmos for the Game Boy Color. Commander Keen is rated "E," for "Everyone," by the ESRB.
Commander Keen marks a return to id Software's roots -- developing over-the-top, comic book-style adventure games for kids. Based on id's original Commander Keen series on the PC, Commander Keen finds precocious 8-year-old superhero Billy Blaze on an all-new quest to save the world from his alien adversaries, the Droidiccus, Shikadia and Bloogs of Fribbulus Xax.
"Commander Keen shows a kinder, gentler side of id Software," Todd Hollenshead, CEO, id Software said. "Like the original Commander Keen adventures, this is a game that appeals to the spunky 8-year-old hero in all of us ­ putting the 'id' back in 'kid.'"
But no one said saving the world before bedtime would be easy. A side scrolling platform game, Commander Keen challenges players to save the world by finding super-powerful plasma crystals hidden on three separate alien worlds. Each world contains several multi-level maps rife with progressively precarious puzzles. Throughout the adventure, Keen will encounter more than 35 different aliens as well as puzzles, slime pits, magical platforms, secret rooms and teleporters.
"An undisputed classic, the original Commander Keen games combined excellent level design and platform action for an unforgettable gameplay experience," said Larry Goldberg, executive vice president, Activision Worldwide Studios. "Our goal with Commander Keen for the Game Boy Color is to bring this incredibly satisfying and addictive experience to a whole new generation of console gamers."
Commander Keen for the Game Boy Color is being developed by David A. Palmer Productions for Activision and id Software.

Interview with Todd Hollenshead

A few hours after the press release, the then-existent website posted an interview[2] with id Software's CEO Todd Hollenshead:

Stomped: Why did id wish to return to the Commander Keen universe after such a long time?
Hollenshead: There are several reasons. First, we thought that we could make a fun and compelling game for the GBC. Some of us have GBCs or have kids who do, and we honestly believe that a Keen game can be well done for the platform and can really compete well with the best GBC games from a gameplay standpoint. While I understand that it's not a Disney or Pokemon franchise, which is certainly important for the GBC demographic, I think we can make a game that's more fun to actually play. Further, I like the idea of making games that appeal to different consumer types. The Keen games were revolutionary in their own right, and still have tons of fans. I hope we'll see a bunch of new fans with Commander Keen for GBC. Finally, it's a fun project to work on. Like the press release stated, I think Billy Blaze really does appeal to the 8 yr old hero in all of us, including us at id.
Stomped: How did id select David A. Palmer Productions as the developer for the new game?
Hollenshead: They were experienced with GBC development, had an existing relationship with Activision and were very enthusiastic about the project. They were an easy choice.
Stomped: How much is id Software involved in the design process for Commander Keen?
Hollenshead: Pretty deep, actually. The original idea to do the game came straight from John Carmack, and Adrian Carmack has been involved even to the point of actually creating some new game artwork. That's not to take away anything from David Palmer's group, because those guys have been fantastic and have done an excellent job of developing a game that new and old Keen fans will love.
Stomped: Can you go into more detail on the story of the new game and how it relates to the original id title?
Hollenshead: We'll have more info on that later, so I'll hold off on that for right now.
Stomped: How has it been to help develop a game that is so far removed from what id has mostly done for the past decade or so and on a platform that id has never used before?
Hollenshead: It's been a ton of fun. We're excited about the game's potential, and it's neat to have a game that you can recommend to anyone with a 6 yr. old without reservation.
Stomped: What weapons and enemies will show up in the new game that will be familiar to Keen fans?
Hollenshead: Again, more will come out on that later.
Stomped: Any future plans for Keen or other id properties for Game Boy Advance?
Hollenshead: I don't know about Keen and GBA, but I will say that we're exploring our opportunities on GBA. It's a powerful little system and we're excited about it's potential.


A sampling of two of the tilesets used in Commander Keen.[3]

David A. Palmer Productions

id Software enlisted UK developer David A. Palmer Productions to create a new Commander Keen game exclusively for the Game Boy Color. The team at David A. Palmer Productions consisted of the Producer David A. Palmer, the Associate Producer James Palmer, the Lead Programmer who is mysteriously known only as Roo, and the Game Tester Neil Palmer.[4] David A. Palmer Productions hired Mark Cooksey to create the sound effects and music, and :)Smilie Ltd. to design the game, create the levels, and most of the art.[5]

:)Smilie Ltd.

:)Smilie Ltd. is a UK developer that had worked previously with David A. Palmer Productions on the Game Boy Version of Gex: Enter the Gecko. Jim Meston was Lead Artist on Commander Keen, and designed a large portion of the game, creating the levels themselves and most of their elements.[6] Enemy design was handled by Support Artist Martin Turner, who was tasked with recreating most of the original Keen enemies to fit the low resolution and restricted colour palette of the Game Boy Color, and designed miscellaneous art elements.[7] Additional art elements were created by Support Artist Ian Terry, and all three artists used (among other things) tools designed in-house by Damian Slee.[8]

Development of Commander Keen was completed in about six months, and the game was released only a few months after the surprise announcement.


Commander Keen was released in the North American market on May 30, 2001, and in PAL markets on June 15, 2001, to average reviews.[9]


Beta Version Screenshots

Numerous promotional screenshots were published before the game's release, some of which clearly show an earlier version of the game. The most common sight in those are point items with a different color palette. Apparently, the coloring of the point items depended on the level, whereas in the released game they are generally red and yellow. The captions of the screenshots in the following gallery denote the level name and any differences besides said point items.

Website Screenshots

Activision's official site for Commander Keen that went online about a month before the game's release featured a gallery of five screenshots.[11] Again, they are not from the final game and the point items appear in different colors. Four of the images are unique for the fact that Keen wears a yellow helmet with white stripes rather than a white one with orange stripes.


With two exceptions, all sprites in the following table are taken from the screenshots above. They either differ from the released game's sprites or don't appear there at all (though at least certain ones may still be available in the game's code). The table does not include graphics that simply use a different color palette but are otherwise identical to the final version.

Picture Name Description
KeenGBC beta Keen.png
Commander Keen Keen with yellow helmet as seen in the former website's screenshots only.
KeenGBC beta Darg.png
Darg Stunned Darg with fewer details.
KeenGBC beta Droid 1.png
Droid 1 Droid 1 with bigger emission.
KeenGBC beta Mad Mushroom.gif
Mad Mushroom Mad Mushroom with crazy eyes, found on Martin Turner's website.[12]
KeenGBC beta enemy 1.png
Hovva The Hovva in an unused stun state.
KeenGBC beta enemy 2.png
unknown enemy Brown bulky creature from The Plasma Crystal Mines rising its fists.
KeenGBC beta enemy 3.gif
unknown Droidican Droidican clad in red armor, revealed through Martin Turner's website. Interestingly, the animation was given the filename "vort2.gif".[13] Statues of it appear in the final game in The Imperial Palace.
KeenGBC beta Cookie.png
Cookie Cookie in narrower shape.
KeenGBC beta Rocket.png
Rocket Rocket with its details arranged in a slightly different manner.
KeenGBC beta Small Crystal 1.png
Small Crystal Small Crystal viewed from a different angle.
KeenGBC beta Small Crystal 2.png
Small Crystal Small Crystal from another angle.
KeenGBC beta Sugar Stoopies Cereal.png
Sugar Stoopies Cereal Sugar Stoopies Cereal with the spoon placed one pixel higher.
KeenGBC beta point item.png
unknown point item Point item from The Plasma Crystal Mines that is possibly intended to be a lemon drop.
KeenGBC beta weapon.png
unknown weapon A weapon that could either represent ammo for the Neural Ray Blaster or an extra weapon.

Map Elements

Picture Name Description
KeenGBC beta Fiery Canyon map 1.png
Fiery Canyon An earlier design of Fiery Canyon using a different color palette, found on Martin Turner's website.[14]
KeenGBC beta Fiery Canyon map 2.png
Fiery Canyon This design taken from a promotional screenshot includes two torches not seen in the released game, otherwise it is nearly identical to the finished one.
KeenGBC beta Shikadi in Space map.png
Shikadi in Space The saucer's shading is slightly more simple in this earlier design found on Martin Turner's website.[15] There are no grass blades in the released game at the positions shown in this image, the grass blades on the right are not seen on the map of Shikadi at all.