Duke Nukem 3d was released for the Playstation 3 and Vita last week–free for PS+ members–and it caught me totally off guard. I’d forgotten that anyone really cared about Duke Nukem anymore. I certainly didn’t think that, in the wake of the abysmal Duke Nukem Forever, there would be enough fond memories of the franchise to port even the best-regarded installment to the goddamned Vita.
I don’t have a ton of great memories from Duke Nukem 3d. I’ve always been more of a console gamer, which means that I missed the Duke zeitgeist. It also means that I first played the game on the N64. Feel free to write off all my opinions for this reason. I don’t really care; I played the PC version a year later and nothing of value was really lost in the port.
Less important than the platform was the timing. Since my first experience with Duke Nukem 3d was the N64 port, I came to the game a year and a half after it was released. And that was a year too late. Duke Nukem 3d was a product of a very specific time in pop culture and video game development and there was really no going back.
Duke Nukem 3d was released in January of 1996. At the time, it was the zenith of FPS development. It was the natural progression from Wolfenstein 3d to Doom to Hexen and all sorts of other similarly-designed titles. Duke specifically used the Build Engine, which improved upon Doom Engine/id tech 1 to allow for better “faking” of three dimensional space. The Build Engine was a hell of an achievement for its day. The only problem? Quake released five months later.
Quake, unlike Duke Nukem and other Build Engine games, featured actual 3d rendering and processing. I can’t overstate how much of an effect Quake had on everything that came afterwards. If you want to know how important the Quake Engine was, just look at this chart.
In a lot of ways, Duke Nukem was made obsolete less than six months after it was released. Sure, more Build Engine games were released (Blood, Shadow Warrior) but the 2.5d shooter was dying. If you didn’t catch Duke before you tried Quake, you were in for a bit of a disappointment.
Of course, as a console player, I didn’t play Quake first. At least not a lot of it. I tried it out a few times at a friend’s house and thought it was pretty awesome but I never played through it until–you guessed it–the N64 release in 1998. Once again, not a terrible port by any means. But, yeah, I accept all the mocking. I deserve it. While I’d only played a little quake by the time of Duke Nukem 3d’s N64 release, I had spent a ton of time with fully 3d shooters Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Goldeneye. So while Duke might have been technically impressive upon release, it seemed incredibly dated to me. But it wasn’t just the Build Engine that failed to hold up.
The game is steeped in affection for a specific brand of 80s action films. The main character is an (almost) entirely unironic mash-up of various characters portrayed by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, with the voice of a Clint Eastwood impersonator, quoting liberally from They Live and the Evil Dead series. There is no satire here, only theft. The big “joke” of Duke Nukem 3d is that it reproduces these 80s action tropes and nudges the player like “hey, remember Rowdy Roddy Piper? So do we.”
I don’t mean to be overly critical of Duke Nukem here, as all of this was fairly novel in January of 1996. FPS characters didn’t have any personality. They were B.J. Blazkowicz, Doom Guy, and Not-William-Shatner in TekWar. They were absolute ciphers. Duke was different. Sure, he was literally the definition of pastiche crammed into a crew cut, sunglasses, and tanktop… But that was an improvement over any other characterization in FPS games up to that point. It was dumb–and I knew it was dumb as a 13 year-old boy which says a lot–but any advancements in media are gonna involve some real dumb steps.
This is all an extended lead up to say that I didn’t think much of a 2015 re-release of Duke Nukem 3d. Since I never experienced it in its prime–before 3d geometry and actual characters in FPS games–my memories of the game were tepid at best. I didn’t understand why this particular 2.5 FPS kept getting resurrected. Why Duke Nukem? What is so special about it that it keeps being resurrected, even after the poisonous release of Forever? And where the hell is my Hexen Vita port? That game had some real cool architecture I wouldn’t mind revisiting if nothing else.
I try to keep an open mind, and Duke Nukem 3d was free this month, so I decided to download it and give it another look. Now that I have a better idea of its place in history, maybe I could appreciate it more for what it is rather than what it isn’t. Or maybe I was just morbidly curious how poorly it would hold up almost twenty years later. I don’t know. Either way, I downloaded the Vita version and started from the beginning last week, then skipped around to the other chapters a bit and even tried a little of the multiplayer.
First, I want to get the good out of the way because I’ve been hard on Duke Nukem 3d and I will continue to be hard on it: this isn’t a bad game. It wasn’t a bad game at the time and it’s not a bad game now. The mechanics are very responsive and work well even on the Vita, a system that isn’t even remotely similar in control to the keyboard controls the game released with. Like all shooters of this era, Duke Nukem‘s difficulty was mitigated by the ability to quicksave anywhere, ensuring not much progress would lost by dying. This was important, since the first time through each level you’re probably going to die a lot. The modern console ports (going back to the 360 version) have replaced the quicksave with a rewind function, allowing you to return to any point during your playthrough after you die. I’m sure this is casual-as-hell to hardcore PC players but I think it’s far more intuitive than the quicksave, which functionally does the same thing.
The weapons in Duke Nukem 3d are great–especially the freeze ray, shrink ray, and laser trip mines–and the locations are far more varied and interactive than anything from the era. While everyone remembers levels set it a theater, or porn shop, or burger restaurant (in the expansion), those are often front-loaded in each chapter which is then filled out with plenty of generic facilities and space ships. But Duke Nukem 3d at least offered that variety.
I also liked the sparseness of the game. The level of detail in the environments of modern games strip away meaning from those environments. That is to say: the existence of a computer in an office level of Call of Duty is meaningless. The computer does nothing, it is just there to make the environment look a bit more real. And there are probably dozens of similar computers which also do nothing scattered around the same level. Papers scattered about, pens, coffee mugs… Modern shooters are so laden with these background details that they become invisible. When was the last time you looked at an object on a desk in an FPS unless it was glowing to indicate it was important? Never, because it’s a waste of time. But in Duke Nukem, where the technology forces the environments to be sparse, almost every background object is imbued with potential meaning. I tried to use every computer, every panel, every sink, every arcade machine… They were few and far between, and many of them did something. Even if it was just play a sound clip. The levels are huge and full of secrets like this, too.
This leads me back into being a critic, because it brings up a pet peeve of mine. If you read people complaining about modern shooters, you’ve probably seen some variation of the image below, decrying how far we’ve fallen from the good old days of map design.
This is a bit of an exaggeration of modern FPS level design, but the point is valid. The 2.5d shooters of the past had expansive, maze-like maps whereas Call of Duty and its imitators provide nothing but a curated ride from point A to point B. Even as the kind of person who actually plays through Call of Duty campaigns and enjoys them, I’ll admit they are linear to a fault. But what the 1993 map here is missing is plenty of backtracking and aimless wandering to find a critical path that doesn’t look too much different from of a CoD mission.
The problem with this comparison becomes clear when you go back and play a game like Duke Nukem 3d. Yes, there is a wide open area to explore. And there may be multiple ways to reach the end of the level. That doesn’t mean that the required exploration is fun. It is the first time, sure, but as soon as you’ve wiped out every enemy in an area and you’ve moved on to searching for the next keycard or switch, the game starts to drag. I might just be out of practice, but on multiple occasions I found myself wandering around the same area until I happened to activate the right semi-hidden button or fire a rocket at just the right crack in the hall. Maybe this is a Duke problem–I should probably go back and check out Doom again before I condemn the keycard/maze level design of the mid-90s–but it was tiring far more than it was fun.
Beyond the level design, there’s really no getting around the aesthetics of Duke Nukem 3d. As fitting its 80s action trappings, the game is unapologetic in its obsession with its own hyper-real portrayal of masculinity. Strippers are scattered throughout the levels for some reason. His reported sexual prowess is brought up multiple times within an otherwise threadbare story. For some reason. I suspect he’s compensating, since the steroids he takes throughout the game can’t be having a positive effect in that department.
No one really cares what a white dude finds offensive, so that’s not my point. Duke Nukem 3d certainly didn’t offend me in any way, mostly because it’s just dumb. Something this dumb couldn’t offend me. It wants to be edgy. It tries. There are cops who are literally pigs! Women captured by aliens you can only kill! You kill a boss and shit down its neck! Really?
Thematically, Duke Nukem 3d is a middle-schooler who just nicked an Andrew “Dice” Clay CD from the local record store and is breathlessly repeating the jokes to his friends on the blacktop after lunch. At best, its attempts at “maturity” are cute. At worst, they’re banal. And there is a good reason for this. It’s not that I have a problem with the attempts to be edgy. Saints Row is one of my favorite series. Those games have done literally almost everything Duke Nukem 3d has, even up to and including aping directly from They Live.
There is a huge difference between Duke Nukem and Saints Row. The latter knows that it is a joke. It takes the same middle-school edginess and pushes it to the point of undermining its own ambition at being cool. It parodies the things that Duke Nukem–at least on its face–appears to endorse. The character of Duke is never subverted. The camera never pulls back to reveal that he’s anything other than the be-all end-all hero of the story. It never meditates on how ultimately pathetic his character must be, stealing lines from cult movies and crowing about how manly he is while taking steroids and flashing money at strippers.
The closest it ever comes to poking fun at itself is in unofficial (but still included in the re-release) expansions set on a tropical beach where the guns are replaced with water pistols, and during Christmas, when the faux-mature action movie bravado of the series is contrasted by the goal of saving Santa Claus from rogue elves. But even that expansion includes one of the game’s worst attempts at humor-thats-not-humor. The enemy elves are “The Feminist Elven Militia,” which, fuck, where do I even start to unpack that? It doesn’t even make sense. Why would feminists ally with the aliens of the series, whose motivation throughout seems to be solely the murder/kidnaping of women? And why would feminists stage an attack on Christmas? And why would an elven uprising against Santa Claus identify itself as feminist in the first place? If you really want to make a reactionary joke about Christmas, an atheist/leftist elven militia would at least be relevant. It could even be funny!
But I’m not sure Duke Nukem ever really wants to be funny. That’s the problem. It wants to be politically incorrect, but not to make a joke. Because if it started joking around–actually satirizing things–it would realize that the first thing it needs to mock is itself. I imagine that fans will insist that it is making fun of itself. After all, it is so over the top it must be parody. Maybe that was the intent, but it is defeated by its reverence for its own hero. He needs to fail, because otherwise the state of the universe justifies him. Even Scarface ends with Tony Montana full of bullets.
I repeat from earlier: Duke Nukem 3d is not a bad game. The occasionally frustrating level design and humor that aspires to sophomoric don’t ruin it. It’s still fun to explore the expansive worlds for the first time and shoot aliens with a freeze gun. But that gameplay was fun in a lot of games. So of all the classic 2.5d shooters, why does this one persist? Why does this game make it to Vita and not others? Logically I think I know the answer–3d Realms, the rights-holder, can’t turn down offers from port houses in the way that id software can. All they have any more is Duke Nukem, and nobody in their right minds wants a new installation in the series. So they have to re-release the one game they have worth releasing.
Even knowing that, I still can’t get over how much I’d rather have Hexen.