The origins of Duke Nukem trace back to the late 1980s, when programmer Todd Replogle was working on a side-scrolling action game called Metal Force, his fourth title for Apogee. The hero of the game was called Duke Nukem, but Apogee boss and producer Scott Miller suggested that the game should use the character’s name as its title.
Duke’s design was something of a committee effort, with Replogle, Miller, Allen H. Blum III, George Broussard and Jim Norwood all contributing to the character’s final look and personality. Duke Nukem was heavily inspired by comic book heroes and 1980s action movie tough guys complete with the cocky attitude and penchant for kicking ass.
Duke Nukem (1991, Apogee Software, DOS)
In the near future of 1997, Dr. Proton – a once sane scientist named Blunderwitz prior to a radiation-infused lobotomy – has plans to take over the world. With his servant-like army of Techbots, Proton initiates his plan by attacking Earth’s largest city. The military is crippled after all resistance and counter-attack efforts fail. As a final resort, the CIA seeks out Duke Nukem, self-proclaimed hero and alien butt kicker, to bring an end to Proton’s campaign of terror.
Little real story is presented in the game, but the conversations between Proton and Duke provide brief moments of humour, and a small inkling as to how Duke’s personality would develop in the future (such as the notion that he can kick Proton’s ass and still be home in time to watch Oprah).
Duke Nukem is a classic side scrolling shooter. The game’s core objective is to reach the exit on each level to move onto the next, blasting everything in your way with Duke’s atomic pistol. Players can boost their score by completing side objectives such as destroying all of the security cameras in a level, or collecting the letters D, U, K and E, with bonus points awarded for finding them in order.
There are several power ups to help Duke on his way, including weapon upgrades to enhance shot speed and number, jump boots and a claw that grabs certain ceilings. Item boxes also contain a number of different score boosting pickups like floppy disks, footballs and balloons. Some are booby trapped with dynamite, so one must be careful. Shooting turkey legs can increase them in size and potency, but shoot them too many times and they will be destroyed.
Duke Nukem was among the most impressive PC platformers of its day, featuring large stages with multiple paths, and challenging gameplay. Apogee used some tricks like 8×8 blocks to get around the PC’s poor scrolling, giving the game a slightly more sophisticated look. While a hit with PC audiences, Duke Nukem’s 16 colour EGA graphics and PC Speaker sound were somewhat primitive when compared to the console games of the day, not to mention games on the Amiga. For comparison’s sake, Sonic the Hedgehog was released on the Mega Drive one week prior to Duke Nukem.
What’s in a name?
The first version (v1.0) of Duke Nukem was released on July 1, 1991. While working on bugfixes for version 2.0, Apogee discovered the existence of the Captain Planet and the Planeteers character Duke Nukem. Fearing reprisal over copyrights and trademarks from the much larger Turner Programming Services that produced Captain Planet, Apogee changed the title of the game to Duke Nukum for the second release. However, during the production of Duke Nukem II, Apogee discovered that Turner had never trademarked or registered the name Duke Nukem, and promptly did so themselves.
Apogee released Duke Nukem under its shareware model. The first episode, Shrapnel City, was given away for free, whereas the second and third episodes Mission: Moonbase and Trapped in the Future would set you back $US29.95. Scott Miller designed the levels for Shrapnel City, while Allen Blum handled the rest of the game. Duke Nukem was Apogee’s best-selling shareware title for 1991 and 1992, even outdoing Wolfenstein 3-D. The game is still sold through 3D Realms website for $US5.95.
Duke Nukem II (1993, Apogee Software, DOS)
Duke Nukem was a smashing success, staying atop the shareware charts for 22 consecutive months and selling approximately 70,000 copies. However, the team that worked on the game focused on other projects in the interim while Duke Nukem II sat on the backburner. Eventually the team got back together and began producing a bigger, badder sequel.
After successfully defeating Dr. Proton in the first game, Duke is now a hero across the world. One year later, Duke is in the middle of an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote his book “Why I’m So Great” when he is kidnapped by an alien race called the Rigelatins (paying homage to the Rigellians from Star Trek). The aliens wish to use Duke’s brain to plot an attack on Earth, providing them with the opportunity to enslave humanity. Duke breaks free using a hidden explosive and begins exacting revenge on his captors.
Duke Nukem II is where Duke’s personality starts to develop. It’s nowhere near as refined or upfront as it came to be in future games, but we see elements of Duke’s cocky attitude, insult slinging and appetite for destruction in the game. Many of the collectables are in-universe licensed Duke Nukem merchandise, showing that the hero’s ego is considerably larger than before.
Side-scrolling action is still the focus of the game, but Duke’s abilities and arsenal have been greatly increased. Duke can shoot vertically now, and has access to multiple weapons, including a flamethrower, laser rifle and rocket launcher, along with a small hovercraft. The structure of the game is much the same, with finding the exit still remaining the core objective of most levels.
What really sets Duke Nukem II apart from its predecessor is the superior visual and audio presentation. The graphics were bumped up to VGA from EGA (though the tileset is effectively 3 x 16 colour EGA sets) and support for sound cards is added. There’s even an opening cinematic where Duke speaks for the first time (Joe Siegler, later 3DRealms webmaster, provides the voice).
Like the first game, Duke Nukem II was released under the Apogee model, this time being broken up into four episodes of eight levels. The first episode was free, while the remaining ones would set players back $US34.95. The game is still available for sale through 3DRealms for $US5.95
In spite of being a tighter, more polished game than its predecessor, Duke Nukem II was not as successful. It launched on December 3, 1993, but audiences had been caught up in the hype of 3D shooters like Wolfenstein 3-D. Duke Nukem II also ran face first into Doom – id Software’s groundbreaking and explosively popular first person shooter was released just one week later. Apogee were well aware of what was going on at id, and had commenced work on a first person shooter technology of their own; players who finished Duke Nukem II get the message that the character will return…in Duke 3D.
Apogee has attracted some criticism after fans discovered similarities between art assets used in Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem II and those used in Hi Tech Expressions’ PC version of Mega Man, as well as Turrican and Savage on the Amiga. Allen Blum has stated in the past that the art for Duke Nukem was developed on an Amiga, but neither he, Todd Replogle nor Apogee have ever formally addressed the accusations. You can see a breakdown of the questioned assets at this Turrican fan site.
Retro Gaming Australia’s Duke Nukem Week,
reprinted with permission.