History Lessons: Duke Nukem 3D

2011 saw the release of Duke Nukem Forever, a mere 14 years after it was originally announced. The game was not well received, but really the release itself is more significant than the actual game. Duke Nukem Forever was the classic example of vaporware, a game that had garnered enormous amounts of hype but which suffered delay after delay, until it entered a state of limbo with few believing it would ever be released. Yet somehow the game was never cancelled, and it became a sort of myth, elevated to legendary status.

Why so much excitement about one game? The protracted development certainly didn’t help, with expectations for the final product rising with each delay, but the original spark was the hit game Duke Nukem 3D. Released back in 1996, the game earned an extremely devoted following. I had never played it, so I decided to try it and see what all the fuss was about.

Duke Nukem 3D is actually the third game in the Duke Nukem series. The first two games were 2D platformers, starring the titular Duke Nukem, a parody/homage to the super-macho 1980s action movie star. I once watched someone play some of Duke Nukem II, but I’ve never played either of the first two games myself. I do know that Duke Nukem spends most of his time shooting aliens and saving Earth, as any good B-movie action star would.

Duke Nukem 3D, however, was the game that really brought the Duke character into the mainstream. The key was having him star in a first-person shooter, a genre that had exploded in popularity since the release of Doom three years earlier. Fans responded to the strong sense of personality and humor that Duke injected into the genre. So how does the game stand up today?

First, I should state that I did use one modification when I played. Rather than running the game through DOSBox, I used the eDuke32 source port, which allows the game to run natively in Windows. It also has a lot of optional features like enhanced graphics and lighting, but I stuck to the originals. The only real gameplay change is an improved implementation of mouselook control. The original game supported mouselook but it caused visual distortions when looking up and down; eDuke32 corrects those. Other than that (and the fact that it could scale up to run at my monitor’s native resolution) I was playing the original game.

The mouselook control really helps. The game felt instantly familiar despite its age, and its low-resolution textures and 2D sprite enemies were surprisingly easy to acclimate to. Within a few minutes I was running around shooting aliens and getting lost.

Yes, lost. Duke Nukem 3D comes from an era of nonlinear level design, a style that is remarkably different from shooters being made today. Most modern games focus on forward momentum, by keeping the player in a linear path and providing plenty of cues as to where to move next. Or, if they feature more open-ended map designs, they opt for objective markers and verbal reminders to guide the player. The best of these games can create some incredibly tense experiences, but at the cost of breaking immersion whenever the player does not correctly follow a cue or simply tries to explore outside the intended area. Back in the 90s, developers had no qualms about providing true 3D spaces rather than linear paths, replete with the need to backtrack through levels to open doors and otherwise overcome obstacles. And, of course, the possibility of getting lost or simply being unable to find how to proceed. Duke Nukem 3D provides an automap but that’s the only help you get.

The first time I got stuck, backtracked through a level a few times, and eventually realized that the way forward was accessed by blowing up a wall in a semi-secret area, things clicked. I remembered this; games used to do things like it all the time. Duke Nukem 3D, like many games of its era, is packed with secrets, encouraging you to check for destructible walls and other secret paths, and rewarding you with powerups, ammunition, or even the chance to find some of the more powerful weapons early. Some particularly well-hidden secrets contain myriad pop-culture references and in-jokes, with references to Star Wars, Indiana Jones and even rival games. I wasn’t able to find most of these, but the game cheerfully informed me of my failures at the end of each mission by displaying how many secrets I’d missed. The developers clearly wanted players to play through again to try and find them all.

The levels these secrets are hidden in are generally very well designed, too. The game makes great use of vertical space in its level design and in hiding secret areas. The earliest 3D games were basically flat and it could be argued that modern games are pretty much flat too, but Duke Nukem 3D makes great use of stairs, ledges, bridges, multi-story buildings, pits and other vertical elements in its levels. There’s even a jetpack that can be found in some levels to allow free vertical movement, and efficient use of it means it can be carried through to later levels and used as a fairly drastic shortcut if desired. But then you’d probably miss some secrets.

Solid base mechanics, then, but the most notable thing about Duke Nukem 3D is Duke himself. At a time when protagonists in other games were silent and characterless, Duke made sure you knew that he’s the star. He constantly spouts one-liners stolen from films like Evil Dead while you fight off aliens, and usually has a quip or joke in store when the player tries to interact with various aspects of the environment. The developers went overboard with environment interaction (for the time), letting the player use urinals, water fountains, arcade and pinball machines (when attempting to use a Duke Nukem branded arcade game, Duke says “Don’t have time to play with myself”), and so on. The player occasionally passes billboards with advertisements for Duke Nukem’s book or other Duke-branded products. Duke can find steroids and use them for a speed boost. The result is a very tongue-in-cheek tone to the whole game that is in stark contrast to competing titles at the time, and is a large part of the game’s appeal.

Unfortunately, the game’s treatment of women is poor. Most women encountered in the game are strippers or prostitutes, and Duke can hand them money and tell them to “shake it, baby”. In fact, one of Duke’s main motivations for fighting the aliens is that they are abducting the “babes” and using them to breed more aliens, to which Duke takes personal offense. It’s clear that the developers meant all this jokingly, but the end result comes off as juvenile at best and misogynist at worst. In fairness, though, the content in Duke Nukem 3D is far tamer than that in Duke Nukem Forever, which might be a commentary on what it takes to be shocking these days. Duke Nukem 3D certainly raised quite a controversy back in 1996 for this stuff, which might very well have been what the developers wanted.

Overall, though, it’s a fun game. But I wasn’t blown away. Nothing really seemed too groundbreaking, and I don’t really understand the huge hype that arose around Duke Nukem Forever. I suspect that a lot of the real love for Duke Nukem 3D came from its multiplayer modes, which I did not try. Some of the more imaginative weapons, like the shrinkray, freeze ray and the laser trip mines, would be a lot more fun in competitive multiplayer. Many of the powerups seemed designed for deathmatches too, such as the HoloDuke decoy, which I found little use for in the single-player levels. These ingredients would make for a raucous and slightly silly time that was in all likelihood a lot more fun (or at least a lot funnier) than most deathmatch games at the time. Add the fact that the game allowed fans to build their own levels, and I can see how a strong community of fans could grow around it.

All in all, Duke Nukem 3D is a good game to check out if you’re interested in the history behind Duke Nukem Forever or indeed the first-person shooter genre in general. Although it has stark differences to modern designs, it’s easy to pick up thanks to fan porting efforts, and it’s good fun as well. Sometimes it’s time to kick ass and chew bubblegum… and Duke’s all out of gum.

Duke Nukem 3D can be purchased from GOG.com and will run under DOSBox. If you want to use eDuke32 you will have to set that up yourself.

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5 Responses to History Lessons: Duke Nukem 3D

  1. Jefequeso says:

    I was planning to write my own review, but then I remembered that you’d already covered the game!

    I think that the biggest thing in Duke Nukem 3d’s favor is its nonlinearity. Even amoung shooters of that era, the game is still remarkably open-ended and filled with different paths and secrets. That’s the one advantage it has over Doom gameplay-wise. The combat, however, is a little lacking. It’s fun, but it’s not particularly well designed. And it can sometimes stray into “trial and error” territory, especially where larger enemies are concerned. Almost all Build Engine games (and even Rise of the Triad) exhibit this sort of thing, some more than others (Blood is by far the worst, where enemies can shoot you with unfailing accuracy the moment you round a corner).

    Then there’s the humor… when it remembers that it’s supposed to be a celebration of cheesy action movies, it works wonderfully. But when it starts with the cultural/game references, it loses me. They simply aren’t funny. So, there’s a dead Doom marine… what does Duke say? “That’s one DOOMED space marine.” Wow, 3d Realms… you must have spent, what… 30 seconds coming up with that?

    But what really keeps me from loving the game is its treatment of women. Now, I’m a pretty long way from agreeing with politically correct feminism. This is a game about appealing to low-brow male desires, so it only stands to reason that you’d be tripping over naked damsels in distress and strippers. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is how dehumanized everything is. These women don’t even get the dignity of being sex objects. They’re pieces of scenery. They’re just there to look at, and kill if they happen to be in the way. At best you ignore them and leave them to their fate once they’ve served their purpose of providing eye candy. At worst, you blow them apart to gain access to hidden health and weapons. I realize I’m probably taking things a little too seriously, but this whole thing has always bugged the heck out of me.

    But yes… those are just the thoughts that I have on the game. Great review, as always!

  2. waltorious says:

    Just because I’ve done a review doesn’t mean you can’t write your own! Anyway, I think that I got accustomed to non-linear shooters because those are the ones I ended up playing (with some notable exceptions, like the Half-Life series). Lucasarts games like Dark Forces and Jedi Knight felt very similar to Duke in terms of their non-linear level design. Not to mention Looking Glass games like System Shock or Thief, which weren’t “true” FPS games but still had some incredible non-linear environments. I never played many of the id games or others that may have been more linear, so I think I have a skewed sense of what FPS level design was like for older games versus shooters of today.

  3. Jefequeso says:

    Oh, certainly it’s not as open as Thief or System Shock. Nowhere close. Can’t speak for the Star Wars games, since I haven’t played them.

    Almost all FPSs of that era are “non-linear” in the sense that the levels are set up like miniature worlds that you need to find a way out of, rather than in a straight line like Halflife (although it’s worth noting that the actual gunplay and puzzles of Halflife are very open-ended). In practice, there’s usually only 1 way to complete the levels (barring secret exits), and player choice is limited to occasinal alternate routes via secrets. But the freedom is still there. You aren’t artificially confined with invisible walls, and doors don’t mysteriously lock behind you. You go where you want, when you want… even if the result is always ultimately the same. Duke Nukem did all this, but did it ever so slightly better. The secret paths were more intricate and numerous, and you had access to a jetpack that would let you bypass some puzzles (and even entire sections of levels). It’s probably the best example of open-ended design from an action FPS of that era (System Shock was really its own beast). I think that’s why the non-linearity is worth noting, even if it isn’t anything spectacular in the grand scheme of things.

  4. Simo Vihinen says:

    You mention Blood… I discovered not long ago that the real way to play that game is actually to crank the difficulty up to Extra Crispy and go ultra-slowly if you need to. That way every item makes you feel relief, every fight where your health remained relatively intact feels great… Because it’s not like the game doesn’t offer you ways of counteracting the monsters! Mainly the cultists. You’ve got dynamite, napalm, the doll, the tommy gun that can all be used intelligently to minimize your losses. Oh and I recommend the expansion pack episode Cryptic Passage as I think it has the highest quality of any of the official episodes.

  5. Pingback: 21 Years, 21 Stories #gamersonwatch | United We Game

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