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Review: Duke Nukum and Duke Nukem 2

No, I didn’t spell the first one incorrectly, and yes, it actually is the first appearance of the blonde-haired, crew cut, steroid-swilling, ass-kicking buffoon who recently disappointed everyone in the staggeringly mediocre, 12-years-in-the-making first-person shooter Duke Nukem Forever.

But these were more innocent times, and in his very first outing, which was a side-scrolling platformer with score-based gameplay, Duke didn’t use four letter words or hand ladies wads of cash to show him their goods. No, it was much more family friendly. Duke shot robots, bad robots, and the closest thing he ever made to an inappropriate cultural reference was saying he’d kick the main villain’s butt and be home in time to watch Oprah.

Duke Nukem 1

Developer: 3D Realms Entertainment
Publisher: 3D Realms
Platforms: PC
Website: www.gog.com

I actually bought Duke Nukum with my birthday money, from a game shop in a flea market. It came on one green 5 1/4-inch floppy disk – so named because it was actually floppy. You might be able to see those in technology museums, kids. It also had, for some inexplicable reason, that iconic mugshot of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator on the cover. Okay? [This smells a lot like old-school piracy. The More You Know! – Ed.] Anyway, I rushed home to play it, and while I enjoyed the game, I was disappointed to find that it was the shareware version. [Ah, so not piracy then. You just got screwed, and somebody effectively stole your birthday money. Sadface. – Ed.]

Shareware, there’s another thing that predates most of you young ‘uns’ accidental conceptions. You see, in the old days, game developers would release a portion of their game for free – a much more substantial portion than the piss-poor demos you get today, which seem like they want to end before you’ve made the decision to buy it, rather than trying to keep you interested until you reach a purchase-ensuring shareware cliffhanger. And also, in the old days, we had no Internet, so we had to wait for the postman to come by on his stone-wheeled bicycle and send away for the full game by post. And since most places wouldn’t ship to South Africa, because of sanctions or whatever, I never knew a single person who had the full game.

Duke Nukem 1

So, I only ever got to play the first episode, Shrapnel City, and all I could do was look wistfully at the screenshots of the next two episodes in the shareware version’s “ordering information” screen. But now, thanks to gog.com, you can get the full Duke Nukum package, including the last two episodes, Mission Moonbase and Trapped in the Future. It also comes with the sequel: the bigger, badder, prettier Duke Nukem 2 – spelled with an “E” this time.

The original Duke Nukum is a very simple platformer that’s easy to pick up and play. The controls are limited to move, jump and shoot, and you can press up on the cursor keys to make Duke interact with items like doors and switches. The objective is always the same: find the exit to the level. The exit could be hidden behind any number of keycard-locked doors, and the keycards could be guarded by any number of robotic enemies. There are also hazards like spike pits and exploding item boxes to make things interesting.

Duke Nukem 2

There are several score bonuses you can get on each level, including destroying every security camera in the level, not taking any damage, causing all the barrel traps to fall, collecting the D, U, K and E letters hidden in every level and an additional bonus for collecting them in the right order. The thing is, at the end of each level, it would just say Bonus 1: 50 000, and Bonus 3: 20 000 and so on. You’d be sitting there thinking, what the heck is Bonus 1 and Bonus 3? It’s easy to find out now, with the Internets and all, but back then, we had no idea.

Duke Nukum also suffers from a few gremlins that plagued old platform games back in the days before developers knew better. One of the ones that bites you the most is that you’re often required to descend in the level by making leaps of faith. There is no way to see what’s below you without jumping down there and possibly landing on an enemy, a spike, or a deadly drop – which invalidates your no-damage bonus right away.

Duke Nukem 2

Now, you’d think that by the time Duke Nukem 2 rolled around, the developers would have learned their lesson, but no. While it might be prettier with hugely improved graphics, Sound Blaster sound and all that early ’90s VGA-era bling, it was still plagued by all the problems of Duke Nukum – and some new ones besides. Perhaps the most irksome is that the developers went apeshit with their new graphics capabilities and added a lot of detail to everything, including the backgrounds. This had the nasty side effect of making some items, like enemy bullets and certain hazards, blend into the background so you’d run right into them. You couldn’t tell one thing from another sometimes.

And while Duke now had more than one weapon, including a flying hovership, there were a few interesting game design choices. The most annoying are the hazards you couldn’t know about. On the first stage, you see prison bars with green hands clasped onto them; just a background detail, right? Usually, yes, but one of them suddenly clobbers Duke in the head as he walks past. How were we supposed to know that would happen? Hell, there are times in Duke Nukem 2 where I still don’t know what actually hurt me.

Duke Nukem 2

But don’t let that impart the message that Duke Nukem 2 is bad. It’s pretty decent, and it improved on the original in several ways – the problem is that these improvements were weighed down a bit by the problems that came with them. Still, if you’re at all a retro gamer, or if you’re just looking for a bit of simple fun, you could do a lot worse than Duke Nukum and Duke Nukem 2.

You can get this double-pack of awesomeness from gog.com by following this delightful link. It’s only $5.99!

  • Delano

    Ah, I loved these games as a kid. I was totally blown away by the sci-fi environments and the apocalyptic look of the first episode. DN2 was a good game and lots of challenging fun, but it never quite hit the same chord with me as the first game did. You can see Apogee tried their hardest to make it beat the original, but they trip over themselves so much that the potential is never realized. The best part is, these games were included for free on the Duke 3D CD all those years back, so it was a mega overload of Duketastic fun and a lovely trip down memory lane.

    • Matthew Vice

      Unfortunately, I only had the shareware version of Duke Nukem 3D also. So I never got to raid the CD for these games. How I do miss shareware.

      I also liked the first Duke Nukum a bit more than the first. I had a friend who was so obsessed with it, he’d come to my house every chance he could get to play it, because I was one of the two kids in my whole school who had a computer at home. Yep, there were actually times like that, when not everyone and their cat had a computer, kiddies.

  • Matthew Vice

    Those bastards, stealing my birthday money. Funny thing is, I only learned later that it was impossible to find the full game in a retail store. Apogee didn’t distribute to retail stores in those days. The only way to get it was to send them a mail order, and they’d mail you the floppy disk. Same thing happened to me with Commander Keen and just about every other platformer they released.

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