Portal made me do it. That's the short answer as to why I finally decided to get involved with game developer Valve's Steam distribution platform. I'm not much of a PC gamer when it comes to actually buying commercial software. I mostly stick to little freeware things because I have a hard time accepting that software I buy may not work on my PC for some weird obscure reason, leaving me with nothing but an error message and a fifty dollar hole in my wallet for my trouble. However, I've really wanted to try Portal (last seen here as Narbacular Drop), so when I saw that Valve offers a free demo of the game for NVIDIA video card owners, I decided to give it a go. Then I learned I had to install the Steam platform just to play the free demo, so after a day or two of consideration, I made the leap and fired it up. While the Portal demo was downloading I browsed through the back catalog of games for sale through the Steam platform and my eyes lit up with I found the Commander Keen collection. Commander Keen! The first PC game I ever experienced that looked, sounded, and played better than my old library of Commodore 64 games. 1993 came roaring back and I knew I had to get the collection.
I paid the $5 price and gleefully prepared to play the game. The first five original episodes were promised in the package (Episode 6, "Aliens Ate My Babysitter" was excluded for some reason, while Episode 3.5, "Keen Dreams", had been disavowed by the developer a long time ago). It'd been a long time since I'd played any of them. Back in the day I couldn't get enough of Episode 4 as shareware, and when I finally found Episodes 4 and 5 for sale in a retail store more than a decade ago, I had to buy them. A friend at the time owned Episodes 1, 2, and 3. Now I could play them all without having to coax modern Windows into cooperating with the old DOS files. Watching Steam pop up with a "Ready" message had me ready for a VGA graphics homecoming. Glorious Steam! Steam is wonderful! Steam is... crashing... why is it crashing?
It turns out that the Commander Keen pack simply runs the DOS emulator DOSBox and then emulates the original games through that. For whatever reason, this implementation of DOSBox crashes horribly when I try to run it. Plain ol' non-Steam DOSBox runs just fine on my PC, so I was stumped as to the problem. I went to the Steam support site to check the knowledge base and found that since Valve isn't the developer behind Keen, they do not offer support for it. Instead the Steam site referred me to Keen developer id Software. That made sense. At least, it did until I went to id's site and found that they refer all technical questions back to Valve and Steam. I was pessimistically left with what I should have expected: an error message and a five dollar hole in my wallet.
So as you can imagine I was rather soured on the whole Steam experience at this point. Searching the Internet at large for technical help had mixed results. There's a lot of folks complaining about the use of DOSBox for this sort of thing, although most of the rage is aimed at Valve and id for violating the emulator's licensing agreement and has little to do with software crashes. I don't know why I thought to try it, but I decided to unplug my USB game controller and attempt launching the Keen pack again. This time it worked. Launching it with the controller connected kills it dead, but if I go without then the games will play. I wound up playing Commander Keen with the keyboard as I had fifteen years ago. Somehow I'd managed to bring the experience full circle. If anyone knows how I can get Steam's implementation of DOSBox to work with a game controller, I'd love to hear about it. Playing exclusively with the keyboard reminded me of why I never quite got around to finishing all five episodes of Keen: it's darn uncomfortable after a while.
And as for Portal? Well, that's a story for another day.
(Images via MobyGames)