I didn’t know anything about Duke Nukem before I played the demo of Manhattan Project, but he obviously hit a nerve as I spent the rest of my years at school putting on my deepest voice and delivering all the lines — “makin’ bacon!”, “hail to the king, baby!”, “ooh, that is gonna leave a mark”, “there’s only two ways this can end, and in both of them, you die!” — blissfully unaware that most of them originated elsewhere and the Duke’s appeal was merely in concentrating them into a single pastiche. I’m more widely read nowadays, honest!
Thing is though, it was also a really fun game. Why haven’t I replayed it for years? Good question. Let’s see if we can answer it.
Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project
For all Duke Nukem seems to be famous as a first-person shooter protagonist, it seems that he started life as a side-scrolling platformer, so in truth Manhattan Project is a truer sequel than Forever ever was (or could be… but that’s another story for another day). It seamlessly marries 3D graphics with 2D gameplay in a way that can only be described a no-brainer: you move the Duke left and right along a completely fixed path through a fully 3D world.
Sure, you lose the ambiguity of true 2D levels, like where Sonic could do things like jump up in front of higher platforms and yet somehow land on them when falling back down. But because the Duke’s in full 3D he can do other fun things that disguise the linearity of the levels, like go round corners (hint: do not activate debug mode and look directly along an entire level, because I don’t think there’s a draw distance limit). There are even specific points where you can switch between foreground and background tracks, or duck into buildings and other sub-areas.
The Duke can also double-jump, cling to ledges and mantle, so there’s no shortage of quality platforming action even if you’re not going very fast. Most of the game isn’t too strenuous in terms of jumping puzzles, but if you want to find all the secret areas…
The Duke can also shoot. There are seven weapons, though their variety leaves a lot to be desired. You start with the Golden Eagle pistol, though if you spot a secret area right at the start of the game you can go straight to the Shotgun, at which point you would never go back; the shotgun costs more ammo but does more damage and since ammo is plentiful and very few things die in a single pistol shot anyway, it’s more of a straight upgrade than a situational choice. Ditto for the assault rifle.
Pipe Bombs are much better. By using them directly, you can toss them in a gentle arc or drop them down ledges to explode enemies without them being able to hit you — since they only explode when manually triggered, you can drop several on a single spot for an overkill mega-blast. Later on in the game, you find the PRPG which shoots them directly forwards and has them explode on impact. Both these modes are useful, so finding the PRPG doesn’t make the loose bombs obsolete the way the Assault Rifle nullifies the shotgun which nullifies the pistol.
The GLOPP Ray and Pulse Cannon do add some more interest. The GLOPP Ray doesn’t hurt enemies, but rather causes them to de-mutate back into little critters rather than die. This is mildly amusing until you remember that you still have to kill the critter to 100% the level, and some enemies that launch GLOPP blobs of their own can cause these critters to re-mutate back into dangerous foes. So once you get the Pulse Cannon, which just uses your GLOPP stockpile to obliterate things, it pretty much nullifies the Ray again.
The Pulse Cannon does not nullify the Assault Rifle, though, because you still have separate ammunition stacks for each — so if you run out of bullets you can go pulsing, and if you run out of GLOPP you can go back to dependable slugs. The Assault Rifle is also less effective (or totally ineffective?) against some robotic enemies that appear later on, so there are still tactical and resource scarcity considerations to be made.
But shooting stuff is fun, so it doesn’t matter all that much that there aren’t very many guns and they’re all kinda similar! Most enemies are more numerous than hardy, so your progress through a level is a joyous romp, though those levels aren’t the most imaginative on the market. Rooftops, sewers and industrial plants abound, though they are rendered crisply and cleanly.
Besides, the levels don’t need to be so interesting when the sound design and special effects are so fantastic; it really is a joy when you get to turn an enemy into giblets with a huge dollop of screenshake and a resounding boom — or erase them from existence with a fully-charged blast of the Pulse Cannon. Throw regular Duke one-liners over the top (and some fantastic oof and grunt noises to accompany every jump or kick) and you have a recipe for a good clean bit of fun.
Well, clean-ish, considering the protagonist; some of the one-liners may be a little bit off-colour, but it’s definitely nowhere near as crass as Duke Nukem: Forever ended up being. I feel like Manhattan Project is “cartoonish” in a way that Forever isn’t, meaning its easier to take its quips as light-hearted ribbing rather than mean-spirited sneering, as parody rather than ugly “locker-room talk”. Your mileage may vary though, and there’s definitely a good chunk of stuff that probably was a bit cringey even at the time, but went flying right over my teenaged head.
I will stand by the “you’re going down faster than Enron” line though — it is deliciously dated.
So yeah, who wouldn’t want an expansive side-scrolling shooter? It’s an attractive game that’s just the right length (assuming you don’t try to 100% it) and neatly modernises the 2D formula with its 3D loops and hoops without descending into control-scheme chaos.
It’s no wonder I was thus interested in Duke Nukem: Forever until… well… Manhattan Project came out in 2002, with a lovely trailer for Forever on the disk, but the infamous follow-up didn’t appear until 2011 and when it did… er… Well. Quite.
Yes, maybe let’s pretend Manhattan Project was the last Duke Nukem game. I’d definitely go for another round of this.