It would be impossible to understate what an impact Duke Nukem 3D had on my childhood. By its release in 1996, I was already a fan of the character through shareware versions of Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem II. I can remember the day I first set eyes on it, playing the first episode on my cousin’s computer in awe. A mix of a character I was already so familiar with and Doom’s first-person perspective. What could be more tantalizing?
You can probably trace back a number of obscure facets of my personality to Duke Nukem 3D. I could wax nostalgic about it until your ears fall off. It’s where I first dipped my toes into modding and configuration file editing.
It was simply a landmark game for me.
It’s one of those games that I’m probably doomed to re-buy repeatedly for the rest of eternity. I’m pretty sure I’ve even still got my original Atomic Edition disks around here and I know my way around EDuke32. So, when the 20th Anniversary World Tour hit the Switch, it may not be the absolutely excellent Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition, but I’ll take any excuse I can get to play through the game again.
Let’s first tackle what the 20th Anniversary World Tour is all about. It’s essentially just a port of Duke Nukem 3D with a few extras. First, it includes a completely new episode designed by some of the original development staff. Second, it gives you the option to use a new renderer, one that changes the games environments to true 3D.
Duke Nukem 3D’s build engine isn’t true 3D. It uses a technique called ray-casting to manipulate 2D images into quasi-3D environments. The Build Engine was one of the best at this, and I’m an eternal fangirl of Ken Silverman for designing it. However, it did have its drawbacks. Most strikingly, if you look up or down in Duke Nukem 3D, the environments warp to your perspective. It was pretty awesome to be able to look up and down in those days, but it is a strange effect.
The true 3D renderer changes the environments to use 3D polygons, and with it comes some new lighting effects. This is nothing that fans haven’t already done with the engine, and to be honest, I kept the game in its ray-casted mode because that’s how I was familiar with it. Still, it’s a nice addition, and even cooler, it can be switched on and off with a press of the d-pad if you want to compare. Which I did, regularly.
SHAKE IT, BABY
This game came out in 1996, so if you’re expecting any grand narrative, you’re going to be disappointed. No, the story of Duke Nukem 3D is that the titular character returns from his adventures in Duke Nukem II only to find aliens have invaded earth and have stolen all the chicks (that’s women in ‘90s vernacular, not actual baby chickens). Considering chicks are about one third of Duke Nukem’s entire existence, he’s understandably irritated.
What I found weird is that Duke never actually rescues any of the women he encounters. He either throws money at them or tries not to blow them up. The Duke Nukem 64 port addresses this, but it’s the same as it always was in World Tour.
Anyway, Duke Nukem 3D is a pure ‘90s shooter. You run-and-gun your way through individual levels, killing aliens and picking up keys. What set it apart was its sense of style. Not only was it extremely sexist to a goofy extent, but Duke constantly spews references to films and aliens blow up in visceral ways. It was very joyful in its violence, and its enthusiasm is infectious.
From top to toes, the game feels like it was just built to be fun. The weaponry quickly changes from pistols and shotguns to freeze guns and shrink rays. They’re not in your arsenal to be practical — though they do come in handy in some situations — but rather to just be entertaining. It’s fun to shrink down an enemy and then step on them with a squish. What more reason do you need for a weapon?
HAIL TO THE KING, BABY
Perhaps what makes Duke Nukem 3D still worthwhile to play today is it’s fantastic level design. Predating the modern standards set by Half-Life by a couple years, the game still subscribes to Wolfenstein 3D’s more open key-hunting stages where you plumb the set-pieces for supplies and secrets. The biggest difference is an absolute love of verticality. The simple addition of jumping and jetpacks ensures there’s lots of tricky platforming to be had. It also, at every turn, likes to show off its fake level-over-level effects, something that had to be done using design tricks in the ray-casting days.
It was also pretty unique at the time for setting its stages in more familiar settings. While Doom would be content in its abstract corridors, Duke Nukem 3D built levels that felt more real. City streets and strip clubs. Sunken office buildings and Hollywood sets. Each one was based around a theme.
The exception to this would be the second episode, which is entirely set in space. Admittedly this is my least favourite episode for that very reason, but it makes up for it with the game’s most inventive level designs.
There’s also a sense of cohesion between each of the stages. Each exit seems to give a hint of what’s to come. The opening to each new level harkens back to the one before it. This is something that was just never really witnessed before, and it’s an incredibly creative way to connect everything together.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? CHRISTMAS?
Duke Nukem 3D is an absolute masterclass of fun. Even my least favourite stages in the entire affair were mere speedbumps in my enjoyment.
If there’s one wrinkle in this wonderful tapestry it’s that the weapons are pretty unbalanced. I mainly stuck to the shotgun/machine gun duo, pulling out the RPG when things got hairy. I rarely strayed up into the domain of the shrink ray and freeze thrower. I’m not really sure what the point of the devastator is, and throughout all the game’s stages, I never once used a trip wire. When you compare this to something like Doom, for example, where every weapon had its situational use, it can seem a little misguided.
It’s also a very ‘90s game, and I’m not just referring to its tacky views on women. It leans heavily on references to things from the ‘80s and ‘90s that could be missed by anyone not familiar with the era. This is especially prevalent in the fourth episode where everything from Mission: Impossible to The Terminator are represented. A lot of this stuff I didn’t have a hope of picking up on when I’m a kid, and I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone who didn’t grow up around that stuff.
NOBODY STEALS OUR CHICKS… AND LIVES.
As for the additional episode that this release features; it’s okay. I was afraid that they would be unable to capture the essence of classic Duke 3D, but to my surprise, they did an admirable job. I’m not sure any of the levels really rank amongst my favourite, but it was at least nice to play through something new. Still, I miss the inclusion of Duke it Out in D.C. and Life’s a Beach.
The Duke Nukem series sort of lost its way after Duke Nukem 3D. There’d be a scattershot of spin-offs on consoles, but largely we were left waiting for Duke Nukem Forever for… forever. When that finally came out, it was apparent that it didn’t understand the design philosophy that rocketed Duke Nukem 3D to popularity.
After Duke Nukem 3D, it seems that 3D Realms made the mistake of thinking that the eponymous Duke Nukem was what made the game great, and that simply wasn’t the case. Duke is nothing more than a shallow avatar; someone powerful and fearless for the player to project upon. He was quickly elevated to the status of video game icon, and that’s just not what he’s meant for.
Duke Nukem 3D is great because it was plainly built to be nothing but fun. It’s a stupid experience wrapped in a shell of amazing design. There may never be another game that reaches the pinnacle set by Duke Nukem 3D, though many have tried and many more will continue. They just don’t make them like this anymore. It’s a philosophy that we’re now far removed from.
Luckily, we can always go back and relive the glory days. Hail to the king, baby.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using a digital copy of the game. The game was paid for by the author.