(This is part of my journey going checking out Duke Nukem 3D. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)
It’s time to go back to a game and a genre that I haven’t frequented for a long time: Duke Nukem 3D. These days, the Duke Nukem franchise is effectively as tanked as one can get, thanks to the incredibly bad and offensive 2011 Duke Nukem Forever. But there was a time in the 90s when this was one of the hottest shooters out there — and one of my favorites.
Duke Nukem 3D followed two side-scrolling Apogee platformers that were, as far as I remember, fairly unremarkable. “Serviceable” is a good way to put it. But then came along Wolfenstein and Doom, and first-person shooters became one of the hottest genres on the market. 3D Realms took the basic format of Doom and then took it in a different direction. Instead of horror and blood splatter on another planet, Duke Nukem 3D was more about action movie parodies on earth. There was more humor, more satire, and more relatable environments (at least at the beginning). Sure, it was crude and most definitely aimed at teenage boys, but there was quite a bit of creative level design and neat interactables all around. Plus, we were really into Army of Darkness back then, and Duke Nukem’s appropriation of Ash’s best lines won us over.
But does it still hold up at all today? I’m actually very curious about that. At 40, I’m a different person than I was at 20, but the memories of the good times we had playing this high-octane title are enough to make me look at it once more — probably for the final time. Let’s do it!
If I had to sum up the attitude that many of these FPS games had back then, it probably would be “Are you a REAL MAN?” I mean, it started to diversify a little by the end of the decade, but Duke reflects the whole Doom ethos of chest-baring, guns blazing, and cigar chewing. Remember, we were just coming off a decade of Arnold, Sylvester, and all of those other actors you see in the Expendables movies.
There’s… not a lot of introductory exposition. You literally start the game looking at your spaceship (because why wouldn’t you have a spaceship?) going down in flames, and Duke growls about how he’s going to get even with the aliens for shooting down his ride.
The cinema! Man, the memories come flooding back. The whole first level is some sort of dystopian Hollywood, which you can tell by the stars on the sidewalk and the general movie theme.
The controls take some getting used to. It doesn’t take the usual WASD setup (and as far as I can tell, no keybindings), so I have to use a combination of my tiny keyboard arrows and the mouse. Duke Nukem 3D is actually — like Doom — a 2.5-D game. Aiming up or down with the keyboard is a serious chore, so I’m going with the mouse for turning and shooting, and the keyboard for moving. Hopefully it’ll be servicable.
(Ten minutes later: No, it was not. I ended up having to go into the DOSbox configuration and changing things from there to a more workable keyboard setup.)
The cinema is the first major setpiece of the game with lots of enemies to kill, secrets to find, and plenty of objects to interact with. The main theater itself looks kind of sparse, but whatever, it was 1996. Our standards were lower then.
Once the controls get locked down, the fun of the gameplay emerges. This isn’t a creep-and-occasionally-shoot type of game. No, there are enemies practically everywhere and ammo too, so no need to conserve. When I found the shotgun, things got a lot more satisfying, but even the basic pistol feels powerful. The bad guys use jetpacks to fly all over the place and even show off some battle damage (in particular, holding their guts on occasion when they’re dying).
Again, this game’s target audience is quite apparent. Also, does anyone remember the halcyon era of Sister Act?
Going back to this game, I’m struck by how small the first level here really is. It’s kind of a winding path through a one-screen movie theater, the lobby, the projection booth, and an arcade. There’s a lot packed into it, with exploding walls, little secret alcoves, ambushes, and the like. Getting the shotgun was a high-water mark, as was acquiring the RPG. One thing this game has in its favor is that the weapons feel satisfying.
Plus, because this is early-era FPS, the game clearly cheats by helping you shoot. If you even vaguely aim in the direction of the bad guys, you’re bound to hit them.
One of the elements of this game that enthralled me was all of the ways you could interact with the world. In the first level, there are light switches, being able to turn the movie on, exploding fire extinguishers, and arcade games. OK, the arcade games don’t work, per se, but they do make noise when you try to activate them. And there’s a copy of Duke Nukem II here, to which Duke replies, “No time to play with myself!”
Another thing which was appealing at the time was that Duke Nukem 3D is a very colorful, vibrant game, which stood in stark contrast to some of the muddier or more grim FPS titles at the time.
Another example of Duke Nukem 3D’s sophisticated humor palette: LAPD officers mutated into enemy boars. Because they’re “pigs,” you see. Har har.
At the end of every level, you find the auto-destruct button and slam it to complete your task (does… the world blow up around you then? I’m unclear on that.). Then you get this report card, with speed times, enemy kills, and — most interestingly — how many secrets you found. What, I missed SEVEN? Let’s go back and find them, shall we?
A hidden apartment with extra ammo!
The secrets and time goals did give players a reason to go back through levels, upping the replay value. I think they’re one of the best parts of the game, to be honest, and they show off some clever level design. Another plus about the secrets is that they typically contain stores of weapons and power-ups, so if you find them all you come out of a level in great shape for what’s to come.
For some reason, I missed the bathroom the first time through. You can actually use the toilets (and take a, ahem, bio break), drink the water for health, and use the mirrors to spot the enemies around the corner. Neat.
OK, I’ll admit that this game has some pretty cringe-worthy juvenile humor, but I actually laughed when I opened the stall door and saw this alien sitting on the john. It even flushes when he gets up to attack.
I remember when seeing yourself in a mirror in video games was pretty mind-blowing. It bugs me now that Duke isn’t carrying the gun that I am holding, but oh well. I’ll cut the devs a little slack.
Here’s another little bit of infamous Duke legacy: the half-naked women in the Aliens pods. She’s still twitching and you can put her out of her misery, but you’re supposed to protect the “babes” in this game as a rule. Duke sort of chastises you if you take any out.