In this world, there are few things as comforting as a familiar old saying. From classics like “a penny saved is a penny earned” to “the original was better” there is nothing that makes one feel more at ease when life proves these ideas true time and time again. Except when it doesn’t. I can’t even begin to count the times where the line “it’s better to burn out than fade away” has become the utter bane of a band or video game series that’s outlived its usefulness. Still, when it comes to video games, there may be an even more abhorrent saying: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Seriously, what could be flattering about a competitor leeching off the success of another developer’s product? Such distain aside, one of the greatest examples of such thievery has to revolve around id Software’s Doom and the arrival of what were eventually dubbed as “Doom clones.” As quickly as it started, generic takes on id’s spectacular space shooter popped up from every corner of the world, everyone and their mother vying for a piece of the action. Many of these games didn’t deserve a sliver of the praise that was paid towards the original, but there was one game that made a name for itself: Duke Nukem 3D.
As a child of the genre, Duke Nukem 3D didn't rewrite the book on first person shooters. While the engine behind the game offered some basic enhancements over its forbearers, the real driving force behind Duke’s success was savvy marketing. It isn’t hard to believe that Duke Nukem owed more to its raunchy sense of humor than any other element. So, as with any successful product, it was only natural that the game would see life on the current consoles of the time, one of the most notable being the PlayStation version. Unfortunately, as famous as Duke’s antics were, Total Meltdown wouldn’t become known for the right reasons. So what is Total Meltdown known for? Total Meltdown is one of the worst ports of Duke Nukem 3D in existence. Still, dramatics aside, is the experience salvageable? Yes and no.
While most would think the low-res graphics and sagging frame rate would be the most likely place to start when tackling the problems present in Total Meltdown, what’s even more pressing are the controls. As expected, there’s an immense amount of pain to be experienced in trading down from the keyboard and mouse to a controller. In an attempt to accommodate players the best it can, Meltdown offers up three different configurations, although in hindsight it’s more like two. Layouts “Nukem1” and “Nukem2” are essentially the same since they turn a maneuver like circle strafing into an impossible art. The third option, “Doomed,” corrects this problem by getting the strafe commands off the square/x d-pad combination and back on the shoulder buttons where they belong. The raw part of the deal is this ends up complicating the aiming controls even further, making enemies like RPV’s and automated turrets difficult to deal with. In other words, there’s no quick-fix when it comes to the controls; in order to gain better access to one thing you’ll always have to give up quick access to something else.
Disappointing as the control issues are, there's also the conflict between Duke’s weaponry and the alien scum they’re used against. When it comes to weapons in general, the game seems to have the bases covered: you have a rapid-fire pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun, a grenade launcher and more. Clear cut as the weapon selection appears to be, trouble sets in ever so slightly. The first ill-omen is the low capacities on the shotgun and grenade launcher; fifty and two hundred rounds for these weapons never feels like enough, especially when one considers how often they're used. Complicating things even further are the enemies and inability of certain guns to suppress return fire. When dealing with an enemy like an Enforcer, the game usually wants the player to retaliate with a be-all end-all solution like the grenade launcher; the problem is that these encounters usually take place at close range, nullifying any rational use of the launcher and allowing the ensuing volley of gunfire to put a big dent in one's health.
The game somewhat bounces back with its level design. It never ceases to amaze me how excellent the maps are in these early 2.5D shooters. Total Meltdown's no exception, but one has to ask themselves if the sacrifices made to keep these layouts intact were worth it, especially when one considers the fact the PlayStation version of Doom made all kinds of edits to it's levels and still offered up an enjoyable experience. As nice as the new wrinkles the Build engine brings to the fold are, these improvements often kneel the before the problems they create. Jumping through tripwires in a first person viewpoint is an exercise in trial and error until the player “feels out” Duke’s dimensions and crush hazards are another area where survival seems completely random, making them the most cumbersome obstacles in the game. Its flawed elements like these and the shrinky-dink/mouse parts that’ll make one appreciate the ability to (ever so slowly) save their game on the fly.
Terrible as these experiences may be, perhaps the most disappointing aspect about Total Meltdown - and Duke Nukem 3D in general – is how the game’s defining sense of humor fails to save it. I can see how this was the controversial, edgy kind of game hormonal teens hid away from their parents, but in world where yesterday’s sex and violence is nothing to what's currently available, it’s comes off as a cheap prefix to a experience that has enough going for it. To put it another way, while one could see the hellish depictions in Doom being used for shock value, they were necessary in drawing the player into the game’s simple narrative. This fails to be the case with Duke’s babes and toilet humor. I’m sure I’d have a completely different viewpoint had I played the game in it’s prime, but I didn't so there's little chance of this element ever becoming anything more than window dressing.
In wrapping up what this take on Duke Nukem 3D has to offer, there’s one last connection to discuss. That connection? That Total Meltdown is the PlayStation equivalent of SNES Doom. Sure, the game may look a lot better, but with both games doing everything in their power to retain their original level structure its an apt comparison. Another, perhaps more striking similarity is that both ports offer up enhanced soundtracks that take advantage of their respective console’s sound capabilities. As much as I liked Robert Prince’s tunes in the PC version of Doom, I liked them even more after the Super Nintendo’s sound processor was put behind them. The same holds true here, Prince and Lee Jackson’s tunes receiving an impressive upgrade by Mark Knight. Music easily comes off as Total Meltdown’s best element yet it does little to aid the experience when placed side by side with the game's shortcomings.
As a game, it’s not hard to see why Total Meltdown has acquired its title as a lousy port of Duke Nukem 3D. Aardvark may deserve some credit for shoehorning the game onto the console as well as they did, but after experiencing what lies within most won’t feel so generous, especially if they’ve partook of what the PlayStation version of Doom has to offer. That said, the one thing that should be kept in mind is even though Total Meltdown resources are strained, it’s still a reflection of the original - warts and all.