Retrospective: Duke Nukem 3D
For a brief moment, forget Duke Nukem Forever and the trials, tribulations and false starts of 3D Realms' presumed-doomed twelve year project. Cast aside the ever-populist morbid fascination with Duke's disappointments and hark back to 1996, the year Take That went their separate ways and Michael Bay's action opus The Rock was released. It was a glorious age, one where it was excessively cool to suffix games with '3D'; a little trick the movie industry has recently rediscovered over a decade later. And whilst Quake would arrive six months down the line and revolutionise the aesthetics of my childhood, Duke Nukem 3D's brash antics, flamboyant design and overtly gratuitous destruction would capture my heart.
Of course, it was natural for a game where you could feed dollar bills to strippers to occupy a special place in the hearts of the prepubescent masses. And it's this, along with many other of the more popular moments from the game's first chapter - shooting a rocket at a screen playing a saucy movie, checking your reflection in the mirror whilst Duke complements himself, blasting an assault trooper away whilst he sits on the loo - that has very much ensconced the blonde-haired womaniser within the luxurious period of resplendent nineties yesteryear. Its commonly ingrained perception of a cheeky, tough action hero with a whole barrage of guns 'n ammo means it's a particularly ripe target for retrospection, too, and its recent resurgence on GOG.com (for about 3.60) and XBLA (800 Microsoft monies) certainly haven't hurt its popularity.
Something you can quickly gleam from replaying Duke Nukem 3D in 2009 is how much sheer endurance is required to finish the game. There's a ferocious deluge of content, and not all of it is particularly fantastic to plough through. There's thirty-six meaty levels to digest; simply too much for even a few dedicated sittings. It's also riddled with the kind of design that would cause a modern audience to close their eyes, shut their computer down and then set fire to the hard drive. Our contemporary shooters follow an altogether simpler approach, starting at point A and rocketing the player through a hyperactive tour de force until they reach point B. In Duke Nukem 3D there's an inordinate amount of keycard shuffling, area revisiting and labyrinth traversal alongside a complete absence of hand-holding from the game itself. It's surprisingly tough.
This fact alone means Duke Nukem 3D feels remarkably different from what we've become accustomed to, though the now-unique sensation is not without a certain merit. Instead of lavish rides, levels are obstacle courses: tests of your cognitive abilities as much as quick-fire instincts and a steady aim. There's so much to explore in the game it's almost daunting, with cubby holes and secret passages everywhere, and Duke himself usually able to squeeze himself into the various vents and dive into bodies of water. Wherever you go in Duke Nukem 3D there are nondescript walls that pull back to reveal Easter eggs and much-needed health packs, floors that disappear with a well aimed rocket shot, and scenery just waiting to be manipulated. Walk up to a certain microphone, and Duke will sing a few bars of Born to be Wild. Knock into the pool table and balls will fly everywhere. Simply put, this kind of interactivity was unheard of in 1996. Even today it's not without an impressive impact. Whereas most game worlds continue to be entirely static areas traversed by deferent players, Duke Nukem 3D encouraged us to leave no rock unturned, because you never knew when you'd find ammo for your rocket launcher underneath it.
Although the four-button puzzles, where you tapped out combinations in a random frenzy, were a constant exercise in unnecessary frustration.
These fancy bells and whistles would account for little if the game's shooting wasn't up to scratch. Duke boasts an impressive arsenal, an inimitable bunch of killing aides that still represent an epoch in quality and design. The standards all fit the bill: the shotgun that packs the prerequisite punch, the machine gun which feels like it's suitably riddling an enemy with bullets and the handgun that's a mostly useless popgun. So far, so standard, but where Duke captures the imagination is in his range of extra, bonus toys: an automatic rocket launcher that shoots dozens of tiny rockets, trip mines, a hologram Duke decoy, an effective shrink ray, always followed by an animation of Duke stomping them beneath his mighty boot, a freeze gun, a jetpack, and pipe bombs. The latter take the role of any shooter's customary throwable explosive, but with Duke Nukem 3D you can lob as many you want, all over the place, to be detonated remotely. Basking in the pipe bombs' magnificent fiery shower of destruction is an explosive feat rarely bested in video games, past or present.
Then there's the eclectic bunch of gnarly alien enemies to fire said weaponry at. Most famous, of course, are the mutated L.A.R.D. pig cops, shotgun-toting nuisances who are perpetually ready to blast away large chunks of health at a moment's notice. Duke Nukem 3D is never afraid to spawn monsters in from all sorts of directions, and their pinpoint accuracy ensures that you'll need eyes in the back of your head to survive most levels without prior knowledge of their locations. This leads to frequent abuse of the quick save/load functions; a necessary evil for completing the game without going insane. Duke Nukem 3D is simply fraught with confrontation, from the alien swarm's lesser peons right up to their, frankly terrifying, bosses. It's tough, but it's good.
Of course there's also Duke's famously gruff, grizzled voice. It's the sound of Duke, rather than the look, that people remember, the quips, quotes, and tongue-in-cheek homage's that everyone can remember at a moment's notice. 'Come get some', 'shake it baby', and 'I'm all outta gum' exist in a collective, modern-day gamers' consciousness. Fewer people are as aware, however, that Duke is truly a man of his word: literally making good on a promise to rip off an alien's head and defecate down their neck. What that proves, though, is that not as many people have actually played Duke's campaigns to completion. This, in itself, isn't a fact too shocking as each of the four campaigns has a tendency to have their better levels bunched up at the beginning. The second and third campaigns are also overall weaker than the first and fourth. Duke Nukem 3D would have been better served if it were paced similarly to today's modern fondness for 8-10 hour campaigns, allowing the developers to separate the wheat from the chaff and have one sparklingly polished product.
Pundits, however, are quick to denounce Duke's relevance to modern gaming communities, and they're not even considering Duke Nukem 3D's saggy midsections. He's just not current, they say. Whilst Duke's gun-swinging, pornography-addled universe is perhaps not a beacon of an all-inclusive gaming environment, it's not as if these kinds of games now fail to win over the masses: Epic's ever-popular Gears of War features a band of squaddies, exuding machismo from their pores, cussing at every opportunity and chainsawing stuff in half. If there's a place in our thematically versatile hobby for the Cole Train, and there certainly is, then there's plenty of room for Mr Nukem. After all, you can always bet on Duke.
With an active community still updating the game today (I can't recommend the eDuke port highly enough for playing the game on modern computers), it's safe to say that there's definitely something that keeps Duke Nukem 3D's spirit alive. But it's also easy to see why Duke Nukem Forever was so fraught with difficulties: how are you supposed to take Duke Nukem 3D and significantly advance it? A simple graphic overhaul would never be enough for a game that thrives on the minutiae, after all. But with so many options in Duke Nukem 3D to tinker, fiddle and explore, furthering those concepts into a modern game, with modern production costs, might just have simply been too grand a task. The animosity, and eventual lawsuits, between developer 3D Realms and publisher Take-Two probably didn't help, either.
It's certainly a sad fact that we'll probably never see a proper sequel. But whilst Duke Nukem Forever might be dead, Duke Nukem 3D is still teeming with life.