Action platformers were nothing new in 1991. By then there had been several Mega Man games, a pair of Metroid titles, and numerous other examples to flesh out the genre. While these games had varying levels of success, and resulted in varying levels of actual enjoyment, there is one thing that was missing from all of them: a badass in a spandex pink vest.
Enter Duke Nukem.
And of course, the fine folks at Apogee Software misspelled his name on the title screen. Apparently they became aware of a Captain Planet villain also named Duke Nukem, and got worried they would be sued for infringing copyright. Nevermind the fact that nobody even bothered to check if the name was copyrighted; they just changed the spelling of their own hero's name and prayed to avoid litigation. Only after the game was distributed did someone decide to, you know, actually see if the name was available. Naturally, it was, so "Nukem" remained the official spelling from then on.
The plot of the game is basically just a lazy rip-off of Mega Man. The villainous cyborg Dr. Proton has assembled an army of "techbots" to take over the world. He's already leveled Los Angeles, so you know he means business. Duke Nukem is the only one who can stop him, I guess because nobody else was man enough to try. So in Episode 1 of the game, Duke pursues Dr. Proton across the city ruins and dispatches Proton's techbots along the way. These include little wheelie drones, some hovering laser bots, frog hoppers with cannons, and the occasional automated military helicopter.
And oh yeah, why not? Magenta bunnies. For a company so deathly afraid of copyright lawsuits you'd think they'd be a little less obvious about ripping off Dr. Wily's magenta rabbit affinity. And all they do is sprint at you and then pirouette with glee on your face if they reach you. There are also little green radioactive things that crawl on the walls. I don't have a clue what they are supposed to be, but I think they're explained by the frequent appearances of nuclear waste being dumped in the background. The environment? Dr. Proton is not interested.
The game also probably inspired some of the games in the soon-to-emerge First-Person Shooter genre in that most of the levels are really glorified key hunts. There's a locked door in one place that leads to the exit, so you have to explore the entire rest of the level to find the key. Once you do, you're pretty much home free. While in shooters these can get tedious as they feel like a way to just add length to the thing, for some reason it works a bit better in Duke Nukem. Maybe it's the 2D gameplay or maybe it's the fact that the levels were designed with these in mind so they don't feel like cheap throw-ins. Whatever the case, just accept that you'll be searching for a lot of keys and roll with it.
That said, spikes. Well, not spikes per se...these are more like jagged broken PVC pipes more than anything else. They don't make you instantly explode, at least. Touching them will drop one bar of health, as will being damaged by any other hazard or enemy. The game is pretty generous with how much health you get and how much it provides, so even though the maps get more dangerous and the challenge increases, the game never begins to feel unfair. There are only two things in the game that can't be hurt by your little squiggle shooter, and both of those are easily avoided. When the rest of the game feels appropriately difficult, you find yourself not particularly minding the occasional spike-like surface.
As is the case with most all episodic games of this era, you begin each episode from scratch, with none of the abilities you gained (most notably, high jump boots) in the previous episode carrying over. This is inane from a story perspective, but it's tolerable from a gameplay perspective, especially because Duke Nukem does a good job designing the levels to help you feel more empowered as you progress anyway. For example, weapon powerups are provided more frequently to allow you to ramp up your firepower more quickly. You'll also find that many later levels are very short in terms of when you find the exit, but you have the ability to explore the entire area for extra bonuses. If you want to just blow through quickly though, you have that choice. In addition, you have the ability to save your game between every single level (though not mid-level), so there's very little pressure to get things right the first time through.
Episode 2 sends you to Dr. Proton's moon base. This is where I start having some issues with what's happening on the screen. First off, how the hell are you alive?! You're not in a shelter or anything; that moon base is open air. Or perhaps more appropriately, open nothing. In Doom at least we could make an assumption that the marine was wearing a helmet with an oxygen supply. But all you've got here is a pink vest and some jeans. Don't act like you're capable of surviving that. Second, why do you need to find high jump boots here? If you really are just on the naked surface of the moon, you should already have massive hops. Instead the gravity appears completely normal. Third, while this game is supposed to take place in the future, keep in mind the game came out in 1991. You know what year "the future" is according to the story? 1997. Come on! This is why every science fiction story worth its salt goes into the distant future - so that six years later when we haven't actually built a massive lunar facility run by robots, you don't look like a bunch of idiots.
While on the subject of the odd goings on, why does Duke do a sustained pelvic thrust every time he jumps? The only exception is after he gets those high jump boots - then he'll occasionally do an aerial cartwheel for no good reason. Maybe he's just showing off. Maybe that explains the pelvic thrusting too, but it's not like there's anyone out there to impress. You've got robots, radioactive junk, and the crazy cyborg trying to kill you. Not exactly the best audience for flaunting your manhood, you know?
Perhaps the most charming thing about this game is that it has a conscious disinterest in taking itself seriously. This is most obvious in the various pickups you can collect, which either give you health or points. Chosen seemingly at random, they consist of cans of Coke, footballs, purple pennants, turkey legs that turn into entire turkeys when you shoot them, joysticks, and copies of the Duke Nukem game itself. It's a bit meta but that's what makes it great. When you shoot a can of Coke it will actually launch in a fizzy explosion. Where else can you find programming that specific in this era?
Duke Nukem also goes out of its way to be helpful to the player. Most noticeably there's the constant invitation at the bottom of the screen to press F1 for help, which is pleasant if not entirely useful - it actually just opens the game menu. Also, between every level (in the "save corridor") there's a little sign that gives you tips for the next level. They're less "here's where to find a secret" and more "here's what to expect," but either way that sign is doing you a solid. Which is nice, because the one thing the game does not do well is allow you to see. The graphic design of the backgrounds leaves a lot to be desired, but after a while you realize it's gone from lackluster effort to intentional trolling of your sense of sight. When you see the level with a background comprised of a camo pattern while the actual platforms are a slightly different camo pattern, you'll understand. The sight issues get progressively worse until the final boss, who you fight against a flashing red background that makes it virtually impossible to tell anything you're doing.
As for that final boss, well. It's Dr. Proton, as you might have expected. As you might not have expected, this maniacal cyborg is actually stuck in a hoverchair - 1997's super futuristic version of a wheelchair. We've been down the last-boss-is-handicapped road before, and it was troublesome then, too. After you defeat Proton in each of the first two episodes, he uses his time machine (!) to warp to the future and escape. Granted, this means the future from 1997, so we're talking what, present day at best? When you kill him in the future, he's "permanently defeated," and you return to the past. Where, presumably, he still exists because you haven't killed him yet. Way to end your plot on a time paradox, game.
Overall there's a lot to like about Duke Nukem - challenging gameplay that doesn't get too repetitive or too unfair, tight controls, and a good sense of humor. It's a shame then that issues like decreasing visibility are so prominent. It's enough that it makes it tough to give this game as high a score as I'd otherwise like to. For what it's worth though, most of the levels are littered with No Smoking signs. Duke Nukem cares. Maybe that's all we really need.
Bottom Line: 13/20