Sigh … Duke Nukem as a franchise can be a sore subject for many gamers, largely in part due to the long development time for Duke Nukem Forever and how terrible it ended up being upon release. It may have been a long time ago but there was a time when Duke was king of the first person shooter genre. 3D Realms helped perfect the same genre that id Software helped create just a few years earlier. It’s difficult to find a more polished first person shooter that’s so self aware and boasts this much confidence. Duke Nukem 3D is a landmark title with very few flaws that absolutely needs to be experienced by everyone who has any love for the first person shooter genre or video games.
It’s best to start with addressing the fact that there are many different versions of the core release of Duke Nukem 3D. I’d like to start by saying that many of the versions should be avoided because they’re inferior to the many other versions available. This game should be played on PC or Xbox 360 if you’re planning on playing the original version. Some content may differ but overall you’ll be getting the best version of the game if you play on PC or Xbox 360. I’m of course omitting the newest released version that just came out on PC, PS4, and Xbox One and just talking about the core original release. There are variations on Duke Nukem 3D all the way from the Sega Genesis to the iPod and I could spend this entire article discussing those alone so I’m just going to summarize and move on. The lowest I would go would be playing the Playstation version Total Meltdown as it has the spirit of the game without losing too much while being ported. I would skip all the other versions and would recommend the PC and Xbox 360 version above all of them.
Duke Nukem 3D ironically helped the first person shooter genre grow up quite a bit. It’s ironic because of its potty mouth and inappropriate humor that is often sexual and can be cringeworthy. It can absolutely border on offensive though and is honestly the part that has aged the most. A lot of critics remain divided on how they felt about the sexual content but overall many weren’t offended by it. I’m not a fan of it personally but I do believe it was done in a tongue in cheek manner and is often satirical in nature. I don’t think 3D Realms were serious in their presentation of the sexual content. There was a lot of negative buzz from some media watch groups who claimed players were rewarded for killing women but it’s completely false. In fact, when the player does kill any of the women in the game, enemies spawn and attack the player. Regardless of how you feel about the sexual content, it is important to note there isn’t any actual nudity and it’s just one of the many parts of this game. It doesn’t define the game; its identity is deeply rooted in great level design, pop culture references, and tightly designed shooting mechanics. If you can overlook the sexual content and don’t mind some mature langue then you’re in for a treat because this game has aged better than Doom.
The level design of Duke Nukem 3D is a shining example of what is possible in a first person shooter. Levels are sprawling labyrinths that are connected in clever ways and fluid in every sense of the word. They’re designed in a way where once you learn and master them, you can beat them in a matter of minutes. There are 39 levels across the four episodes and they all link together cohesively in the small but still present story. Many of the levels link together as well with the starting places being connected to the previous level’s ending. It’s a simple but thoughtful gesture that adds to the immersion. It also reflects the amount of hard work and thought that 3D Realms put into this game. Levels are all very well designed and feel unique in their own way.
From movie theaters, to Japanese restaurants, to alien spaceships, Duke Nukem 3D takes the player on a huge journey to stop the alien threat facing Earth. Levels border on being based on reality and taking place in science-fiction settings. 3D Realms did a great job of ensuring that each level is enveloped in the appropriate atmosphere; locations all feel very appropriate despite there being so many of them. It’s impossible not to feel uneasy while in an alien spaceship surrounded by enemies. It’ll make you long for the feeling you experienced hours earlier while in Red Light District or Hollywood Holocaust when you were packing heat and slaying your surroundings. It’s impressive that 3D Realms were able to tell such a story and evoke such diverse feelings in such a variety of levels in the middle of the 90s. I don’t think this achievement will ever go unnoticed by game designers and developers – regardless of the amount of time that passes. 3D Realms absolutely laid the groundwork for what is truly possible in the world of a first person shooter, regardless of graphical and processing restrictions.
Secrets are spread generously throughout each level too and it’s always exciting finding them. Many of them will just make sense after a while too, like the Legend of Zelda series. The player will just know how to spot most of them after they spend enough time with the game. That isn’t to say that they’re overly obvious though. Some of the secrets are more tricky to find but no matter the difficulty in their discovery, they’re always fun to find and reward the player with weapons, ammo, and health. Some secrets will also create shortcuts to different sections of the level for quick and effective backtracking. Many of them even reference actual real locations and are of course littered with pop culture references. Many of these help show the age of a game that is able to transcend time in other aspects. In fact, I would argue the graphics and pop culture references are all that have really aged with Duke Nukem 3D.
Duke Nukem 3D possesses the same charm that many 16-Bit games have that manage to still be loved for their aesthetic and style. The graphics have aged but are still fun and don’t get in the way of the game being a fun time. The world can still be recognized and enjoyed for what it is. 3D Realms brilliantly put the available technology at the time to work to help craft the world of Duke Nukem 3D. The game is largely an illusion but you’ll rarely look past its tricks and only see its treats. Duke Nukem 3D mostly consists of 2D sprites that will shift as the player moves around the world to maintain the magic. It’s just as hard as it is easy to notice the 2D sprite trickery as it doesn’t require much attention to notice, but if you don’t look you’ll forget all about it. It’s brilliant really and this magic helped craft a game that manages to still look charming even 20 years later.
Duke Nukem 3D is a colorful game that feels vibrant and full of life. I will forever be impressed with all that 3D Realms were able to wring out of this sponge that somehow never seemed to dry. The level of detail in and across every pixel is nothing short of a marvel and as soon as you get a few levels in, all you’ll be able to focus on is slaughtering the alien forces that stand between you and saving the planet. There’s plenty of life in this game and it feels like a living and breathing world. There are nice little touches everywhere that help support the illusion. Seeing an enemy run around on the ground and squashing them with your mighty foot after attacking them with the Shrink-Ray will always put a smile on my face. Explosions from RPGs, water spouting from damaged fire hydrants, and fires spread across the wreckage of levels are just a few of the things that help bring this world to life. The level of detail is impressive, period, but especially for the time that it was originally released in. The graphics and sound design work hand in hand to ensure this world is as lively as technologically possible – and somehow past the limits.
The music of Duke Nukem 3D is just as impressive as the graphics in that a lot is accomplished on so little. The music is largely atmospheric which is nice but there are a lot of catchy beats and measures that help add even more to this already larger than life world. There are a few reoccurring motifs that are communicated across some of the various songs but the 42 tracks are mostly unique in what they offer. There’s a lot of beep boops and guitar sounds in the soundtrack and each and every song will motivate you to keep kicking ass and forget about buying more bubble gum entirely. The theme song ‘Grabbag’ alone has gained a cult following and was even covered by Megadeth. The composers did a great job and it’s honestly no surprise; one of the two composers is none other than Robert C. Prince III, who previously created music at id Software. The soundtrack is both fun and atmospheric and it will absolutely get stuck in your head after a while, too!
No first person shooter is great without having satisfying shooting mechanics and Duke more than delivers. There’s a great variety of weapons available to use that all fit many different situations and strategies. A few of them are so fun that, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself using them against your better judgement in situations that don’t call for them. Some of my favorites are the RPG, Pipe Bombs, Shrink-Ray, Devastator, and the Chaingun. I couldn’t even attempt to count the many times I died from stupidly using explosives in close quarters simply because they’re so satisfying to kill with. The explosions are so pleasing to the ear and the crunch you hear when enemies are disposed of with a swift stomp after they’re shrunk is equally satisfying. Aiming and maneuvering around enemies is as fun as the weapon variety and never fails to please. You won’t find Halo amounts of bobbing and jumping around but you won’t encounter any difficulty if you need to dash to cover or weave and dodge around enemies.
I have been playing this game since it first released and have never experienced any issues with the hit detection. The controls are tight and responsive and if you landed a shot then the enemy will cry out in pain – or explode if you’re using explosives. You may find yourself toggling the sensitivity but it can be matched to meet your preference and skill level. I would recommend turning it up a bit as your skill improves because this game can be as quick as you need it to be. I often find myself toggling back and forth on running because I feel like some situations require being taken on more slowly, but if you want to go guns blazing and run like hell then you absolutely can. Duke lacks a stamina bar so you don’t ever have to slow down if you don’t want to.
The difficulty can be chosen at the start so you can have the game play as easy or as hard as you’d like it to. The difficulty system is the same as Doom’s difficulty system, albeit with different phrasing. If you have never played an older shooter then I would recommend choosing ‘Piece of Cake’ but if you’re more seasoned then, by all means, choose ‘Come Get Some.’ Be warned though as Duke Nukem 3D can get difficult even on its easiest difficulty – especially during waves of enemies and during boss battles. I’ve been quickly overwhelmed by too many enemies, especially if there’s a big variety. There are some tough as hell enemies in this game and as more and more of them are introduced you may struggle a bit. As long as you take it slow and plan your attacks, you will persevere in the end though. It can be hard but it’s absolutely not impossible. Even on its hardest difficulty, Duke Nukem 3D is still fair. It may feel impossible but there’s always a solution.
I don’t really have that many issues with this almost flawless masterpiece. My only major complaint isn’t even a constant issue and is easily solved as well. There are a few instances where it won’t be entirely clear on where to go. Normally the solutions on where to go next are pretty intuitive. Like I said earlier in the review, the level design is extremely fluid but there is the occasional spot that may require checking a guide. Eventually you will find where to go without a guide but twenty minutes of hearing “Oomph, Uugh, Where is it?” may finally hit your last nerve. I do want to reiterate though that more commonly you’ll just fly right through levels with maneuvering and shooting being your main focus points. Getting hopelessly lost is rare enough where it won’t impact your overall experience too much but it happens enough where you’ll have a few vivid memories of getting lost long after you complete the game. A quick search on GameFAQs though should set you straight and get you on your way though! My Dad and I didn’t have the same luxury though in 1996 unfortunately and I could tell you some stories if you ever want to hear what true pain is!
Duke Nukem 3D is a solid game with very few issues. It is honestly one of the greatest shooter games ever made and I guarantee that any other shooters running through your mind right now were inspired in some way by Duke Nukem 3D. It’s a landmark title worthy of all the praise it’s received and has aged very well. There may be a few times you get lost and the sexual content is annoying and unnecessary but these aspects won’t ruin the game for you by any means. Just roll your eyes and keep playing so you can experience one of most tightly constructed shooters ever made. Duke may have had a fall from grace with Duke Nukem Forever but over a decade earlier, he was the king of the first person shooter genre.
Duke Nukem 3D is absolutely worth at least one full playthrough for any fan of first person shooters. I would keep a guide you like on GameFAQs handy for checking here and there but other than that, I’m confident many gamers today will still enjoy it despite its age. The easiest way to play Duke Nukem 3D is on PC but the XBLA version is more than accessible. If you want to play the same game with some additional bells and whistles then I’d recommend checking out the 20th Anniversary re-release, World Tour available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. But if you just want to play the game the way it was originally released then the version on XBLA will more than suffice.
I really enjoyed replaying Duke Nukem 3D for this Retro Review and know that many of you will enjoy either replaying it or simply experiencing it for the first time. It really is a landmark title that is a ton of fun to play. Whenever people try to talk DOOM up too much, I always make sure to bring Duke Nukem 3D up because I honestly consider it to be the superior game. To read more of my reviews or check out my feature articles, make sure to follow me on Twitter @MrjoshNichols to see my articles when they’re first published! For more great Retro Reviews and other great content, make sure to keep it right here at BagoGames!
Duke Nukem 3D
- Painstakingly detailed level design
- Graphics still look pretty good after 20 years
- Extremely satisfying combat
- Lots of fun weapons
- Great enemy and level variety
- Some unnecessary and tasteless content that may offend some
- Some instances where players may get lost and need a guide