Before his claim to fame as a FPS-icon of the nineties, Duke Nukem started off as a humble protagonist-in-pink on a PC-exclusive side-scroller. His debut game bagged some sweet reviews and sold very well at the time, but by today’s standards it’s not that remarkable. Its 1993 sequel, however, was red-hot. Duke Nukem II is a pixelated powerhouse that’s packing more heat than a petrol station on fire.
While promoting his latest book ‘Why I’m So Great’ on a talk show (if that’s not the name of a best-seller, then god-knows what is), Duke is captured by a race of evil aliens known as the Rigelatins. Our hero must evade the brain-harvesting freaks by fighting his way through 32 levels divided between four chapters. Missions are set in chemical plants, hazardous caverns, mysterious planets, and eventually the enemy mothership. The game’s cutscenes are a fun watch, and flesh out Duke’s trademark ego-driven personality.
As Duke himself would say, “damn, I’m looking good!” Duke Nukem II’s luminous colour palette and detailed graphics look fantastic, even to this day. While a lot of the backgrounds are pretty detailed, the important stuff in the foreground stand out well enough. The in-game camera can be a bit finicky at times, plus it can be a bit tricky to spot important things incoming or nearby. It makes the vehicle levels a nightmare as you’ll be thumping into enemies and taking damage like mad. Good news, though: you have a radar, plus the ability to shift the camera view up and down a little.
As expected from side-scrollers of the time, Duke can scroll to the sides. Plus, he can jump, climb, and can even fire while hanging from vines and pipes (too bad he can’t shoot up). Its simple controls are easy to get the hang of, and it’s even compatible with a controller. Unlike other games, Duke has a health bar and infinite lives – he ain’t some wimpy pipsqueak like Commander Keen, after all. Dying will send you back to the start of the map, and while you can’t save mid-level, you can rest easy knowing that there are no limited lives or continues.
If you think beating the game is as simple as walking to the right while spamming the fire button, think again. Much of the game is made up of nonlinear levels hiding key cards – other missions spice things up by having Duke dangle from the railings of launched missiles, or destroying all radars in the level. Levels are full of colourful crates, most of which contain timebombs and Duke merchandise (yes, he’s vain enough to collect gear with his name on it) that only beef up your score. Some do have some useful things, like cans of fizzy pop, ‘atomic health’, and chickens. There are some nifty details implemented into this one – shooting cans of cola will send them flying upward like a rocket, while vaporizing chickens with your gun will cook them to perfection for extra health. Being trigger-happy could cost you pickups or detonate traps, so you can’t be too careless.
The weapons and power-ups aren’t too special but are most definitely handy. Your standard cannon does decent damage, but can be temporarily-upgraded with rapid fire. Plus, there are rocket launchers, laser cannons, and a flamethrower that can be fired downward to send you flying. A “hint globe” will give you a bit of handy information about where to go in the level… unless you got lucky and already figured it out for yourself. In which case, you get some bonus points – which is essentially the patronising equivalent of a gold star stuck on you.
Fighting robots and aliens are all good fun with the small-but-satisfying arsenal available, but these bad dudes will fire back pretty quick, or will hurtle at you at top speed before you’re able to react, dishing out minor damage. If you’re new to the game, you’re gonna struggle to hit ‘em before they hit you.
From firing your cannon to blowing up baddies, there are so many sweet, satisfying sound effects in this super-cool side-scroller. Bobby Prince’s peppy and catchy soundtrack is awesome, too. Some tracks sound like emulations of tracks by Megadeth and Metallica, though it’s not a bad thing. While one or two songs do sound a little bit goofy or silly, it’s still a fun listen..
Duke Nukem II is a brilliant choice for side-scroller lovers and Duke fans-alike. It’s challenging enough to put your skills to the test, but forgiving enough to make taking damage or dying feel like little more than a minor setback. While enemies are irritate with their quick reaction times, obliterating them with the few weapons on offer is still pretty damn fun. It looks and sounds great, and it plays like a charm. Duke may be best known for his 3D-adventures – and with good reason – this title stands strong after well-over two decades. Hail to the king of nineties PC side-scrollers, baby!