Gear Games Retrospective: Duke Nukem 3D (1996, FPS)

This week we FINALLY get the sequel to the classic 1996 game Duke Nukem 3D. I will be getting a review copy very soon in will have a full review as soon as I can. But in the meantime I thought it appropriate to dig back into the game that launched the 15 year quest for a sequel!

The Hype
Duke Nukem, the politically incorrect celebrity and ultimate alien ass kicker, defends Earth and its babes from alien invasion.

He is a can-do hero who realizes that sometimes innocent people have to die in order to save Earth, so accuracy of gun fire is not a real concern to him. This is the award winning game that helped define the FPS genre and introduced unparalleled interactivity and a talking main character.

The Reality

Released early in 1996, Duke Nukem 3D capped the ‘first great era’ of first person shooters. The genre began in earnest in 1992 with Wolfenstein 3D, took on epic proportions with Doom in late 1993, jumped to the Mac in 1994 with the story-based Marathon (Doom and Wolf3D lacked significant stories), became a sci-fi RPG-hybrid in System Shock, and took on a major license in 1995 with the innovative Star Wars: Dark Forces.

By the time Duke Nukem 3D arrived, games had already evolved graphically from Doom, had gotten vertical height and up/down aiming from Marathon and Dark Forces,and seen interesting stories from both of those games as well. Duke Nukem 3D fit very well in the sprite-based, 2.5D engine mold of the Doom era, but allowed a level of interactivity not seen before in other games.

Duke Nukem 3D also featured some excellent level design marked by non-linear exploration and freedom of movement as well as puzzles and vertical hidden areas, but that isn’t why it is known.

There are two major non-gameplay reasons people still talk about Duke Nukem 3D:
– The game featured largely immature humor from the gravel-voiced one-liner spouting Duke Nukem, as well as strip clubs, XXX film theaters, and dancers who would gyrate or flash you if you gave them money.
– The sequel, Duke Nukem Forever, was announced in 1997, available for pre-order as early as 1999, but not released until June 14, 2011.

There are a few different ways to play Duke Nukem 3D now, either using the original shareware/download or CD versions and then fitting up DOSBox or the equivalent, grabbing the all-in-one solution from Good Old Games, or use one of the fan-made interfaces that allows the game to run on modern operating systems but requires more user setup. I have already played the Good Old Games version, and it is great – like all of their DOS releases, DOSBox is perfectly configured and you can just start the game right up and go.

For this run I tried out eDuke32 and the High Resolution Pack (HRP), which utilize the game files from your existing Duke 3D installation for the core content. There are two great things about this – they are freely available under the GNU license, and they make the game look like it was developed using a much newer engine!

Duke Nukem 3D was never known for having much of a story – even in 1996 it was seen as a step backwards from the Dark Forces and Marathon and System Shock games. If you read the background you’ll learn that Duke Nukem 3D starts after the events in Duke Nukem II as he heads back to Earth only to have his ship shot out of the sky. This explains why when you land on the roof at the start of the game Duke makes comments about getting revenge for them wrecking his ride.

While much attention has been paid to strippers and other mature content, for me the attraction of the game has been the level design. Even getting off that roof requires you to think for a few seconds, and then once on the ground level you will be treated to enemies on multiple levels, the need to jump to ledges, and all sorts of other ways of seamlessly integrating puzzles, jump puzzles, and straight-out shooting within the first level.

As mentioned, there are any number of ways to approach the levels, but ultimately a single approach to the end. At the end of each level you have a radioactive symbol that is the game logo, and you activate that to end the level and get your stats. There is no ‘score’ but you find out how long you took, how many enemies you found and how many of the secrets you discovered. It lets you know how much better you might have done based on what metrics you try to attain.

Personally I don’t think I have ever beaten a level within the goal time, as I love to explore – but since there is no penalty I have never worried. I concern myself more with finding secrets and killing all of the enemies!

But make no mistake – the immature content is pretty much everywhere you look! There are a few levels where you won’t see it – such as the cell block and occasionally in later areas, but from the first minutes of the game through the very end you will see the objectification of women, misogynistic attitudes, sexist phrases, and so on.

But to put it into context, my kids – middle school boys – were watching me play and saw me hand money to the stripper and say ‘shake it baby’ (automated by hitting the ‘use’ key) … and their thoughts were ‘that’s stupid’, and were happy for me to get back to the action of running around killing the pig monsters!

In other words, that stuff is there but it is a side-show to the real action – which is solid shooter mechanics, great weapons, excellent level design, and a sense of humor that consists of more than just base off-color remarks. Duke Nukem 3D gained a rabid following of fans not because of ‘boobies’ but because of the crazy weapons and over-the-top attitude of the Duke with the gameplay to match. The game remains a blast to play today, with a design ethic that seems to have vanished – in an era of expensive art and the desire to be ‘more cinematic’ we have corridor shooters with cutscenes instead of well designed games with emergent gameplay. It is a shame.

The only question is – will the sequel live up to expectations? I have a review copy coming, so you’ll just have to wait!

RetroGamer Perspective: Duke Nukem 3D is a great RetroGamer experience. It will run on any hardware available today using DOSBox, and is the perfect mix of old and new.

– Digital Download / CD version? – While you might be able to scare up a CD version from eBay, Good Old Games and other sites offer the DOSBox-wrapped digital release for cheap.

– Installation Notes: Installation is the downloadable version is very fast, and using the prepackaged eDuke32/HRP set makes getting the best looking experience simple.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install of the GoG version takes 60MB. Adding eDuke32 and the HRP increases that to ~700MB.

– CD Required to Play? No

– Control Considerations? While the default game uses ‘DOS standard’ controls – meaning no assumption of a mouse – eDuke32 remaps to more modern controls, making the gameplay fit in very well with the enhanced visuals.

– Is it ‘Netbook-Friendly’? Definitely – the GoG version is ~60MB and will run on pretty much anything.

– Will it run with Integrated Graphics Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? Yes and No … the original game will not run on newer operating systems without DOSBox or another wrapper. But any wrapper will work great with any newer Windows version.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? Yes! eDuke32 has Linux and Mac OS X versions.

– Notes on the Digital Version: The GoG version should be considered the basis of all avenues to playing this game. eDuke32 refers to it, and it works fine on its own.

Current Outlook & Future Prospects: Without having played Duke Nukem Forever yet it is impossible for me to pre-judge, but it will either pull people away from playing Duke 3D, drive people BACK to playing Duke 3D or turn people completely off of Duke Nukem in general. Only time will tell. At this point the draw is the single player game, which remains fun and tight.

Conclusion: You can always count on the Duke! The in-game saying is certainly true with respect to this game. The first two games in the franchise are long-forgotten oddities – as is their ‘spiritual successor’ Duke Nukem: Manhatten Project. But Duke Nukem 3D remains a beloved and frequently played classic 15 years after release, having remained playable and fun even as time and technology have continued to advance. In spite of (appropriate) criticisms of the sexist attitudes in the game, Duke Nukem should be remembered as the technical pinnacle of the Doom era: a game that celebrated excellent level design, balance and pacing.

Review: Duke Nukem 3D

Where to Buy:

Price: $5.99

What I Like: Top notch shooter gameplay; excellent level design; eDuke32 and HRP fan-created wrappers make the game feel thoroughly modern; every bit as fun as it was 15 years ago!

What Needs Improvement: Misogynist content and general sexism places this game back when gaming was very heavily dominated by young single males, and makes it less share-able in a modern context.

Source: Personal Copy

Categories: Gaming, Reviews

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3 replies

  1. I haven’t played Duke Nukem 3d since senior year of high school. I have the urge to buy it and try out that high resolution pack. Duke Nukem Forever gets bad reviews but I still gotta get it eventually.


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