Duke Nukem 3D: 25 Years of a Bad ReputationPlatforms: All
Duke Nukem 3D is now officially old enough that it would not be impressed by Duke Nukem 3D.
That was the first thing that came to mind when I saw Duke Nukem 3D was hitting this landmark anniversary today. It's such an easy target. The series became synonymous as a joke after the frequently delayed, disastrously released Duke Nukem Forever, the death knell for a character and franchise that already struggled to be taken seriously.
But is this reputation actually deserved? Should Duke Nukem 3D be tarred with the same unseemly brush as its descendants? I am going to take a fresh look at Duke Nukem 3D, 25 years later.
Duke Nukem started life as a series of side-scrolling shooters, met with modest fame, before making a jump into the "3D" world of first-person shooters to capitalise on the genre's rising popularity following in the wake of Doom and Doom 2. While it didn't innovate the genre in many ways, the way Doom or Descent would do, coming at the tail end of the 2D sprites-based FPS era before games like Quake would introduce true 3D graphics, it did separate itself from the games of its ilk in some key ways. It was one of the first FPS games to feature Y-axis aiming, although it did not innovate this addition as games like Descent and Star Wars: Dark Forces used it first; it certainly helped popularise it. It featured destructible environments (albeit selectively), setting it apart from its competition at the time.
The game also bucked the trend of using mute protagonists in first-person shooters. Duke had things to say, quips to dispense. He had the remnants of a personality unlike the Doomguys before him and the Gordon Freemans of the genre to come. However, this approach drew some controversy as much of the scripted dialogue is plagiarised from movies like They Live or The Evil Dead series. Bruce Campbell actually called out Duke Nukem for stealing his lines. During a 2000 interview for Tachyon: The Fringe, a game in which he voiced the main character, Campbell quite bluntly put it: "They're blatantly ripping it off and if I was any kind of litigious guy they would've gotten a phone call by now. It's depressing and I think it's wrong. That's why Tachyon: The Fringe will kick little Duke's ass any day."
For all the grief people give Duke Nukem now, people remember it enough to discuss a 25 anniversary. I do not recall many people doing involved write-ups on Tachyon: The Fringe's 20th-anniversary last year. This is because, for all the superficial fluff and sensationalism surrounding Duke Nukem 3D, it was an excellent game crafted with a lot of technical skill.
The Build Engine, which powered the game, was designed by Ken Silverman and was an engine that could render 2D images as grids that register to the eye as three-dimensional. This is how Duke Nukem 3D's large open areas felt like such a radical departure from Doom's largely enclosed and basic aesthetics. It also allowed these grids to be modified in real-time, with tags being attached to different sectors of the grid informing them how to respond under specific circumstances. This made it possible for Duke Nukem 3D's levels to be destructible, it also allowed for more dynamic moving environments within the level, such as elevators. At the time, Build was one of the most sophisticated FPS engines around and is well worth studying as a feat of programming.
Fun fact: Epic Games (then called Epic Megagames) sought to pick up this engine but could not reach an agreement with Ken Silverman, and Apogee Software (later known as 3D Realms) would pick up his engine for their projects. Imagine a gaming landscape where Epic had used Build instead of the Unreal Engine.
But, for all the noise one can make about how good Duke Nukem 3D was, and how impressively programmed it was, the prevailing memory of Duke Nukem 3D will always be a first-person view of a pair of hands throwing dollar bills at a stripper.
This is not an unfair legacy to stick on the game, it is an image the game actively sought to cultivate. While Doom was relatively serious and deadpan in its approach and Dark Forces was obviously locked into a popular existing IP, Duke Nukem 3D had its own unique philosophy. The idea that sex sells. The action genre of the late '70s, through the '80s, and well into the '90s was populated by two things: Violence and nudity.
Duke Nukem 3D positioned itself as a parody of the genre, a hyper exaggeration of action movie tropes, but this hits a wall when it comes to the nudity side of things. It became quite controversial for its use of nudity and in its portrayal of women as a whole. Basically, the only women in the game are strippers. It highlights the limits of Duke Nukem's sense of parody, they can send-up the overt machismo of the heroes (by allegedly stealing all of their dialogue) and the outlandish scenarios and plotlines, such as cops mutating into alien pigs and the guns at your disposal getting ridiculously big and explosive, but there is no satire deployed when it comes to the genre's portrayal of women as sex objects. It is the one time they seemingly forgot to wink at the audience; instead, they are just winking salaciously. My first draft of this piece had the second "winking" misspelt. I think you can probably work out what it originally said and I will admit I considered keeping it.
That said, the game is not nearly as bawdy as its reputation would suggest. These instances are pretty minor, they just stood out at the time because no other game was doing this sort of thing. The marketing avoided making a big deal of it, largely because they risked the game getting banned during an era where video games were far more ruthlessly policed for their content, the only real instance I could find of the game promoting its adult content is in a prominent 18 certificate on a print ad. The series would lean into this lewd tone a lot more aggressively with future instalments, and the marketing would follow that trend, and perhaps this is why people misremember 3D as being much worse than it is. The biggest issue will remain that the raunchy content was needless, adding nothing to the humour, and feeling more like shock value to sell a game that had to compete in a genre against old classics like Doom and new hits like Star Wars: Dark Forces.
This is a shame because Duke Nukem 3D holds up very well. The game moves at a great clip, and the graphics are still some of the most impressive of that era, with the Build engine showing off such a great selection of levels unique to the genre at the time. There is a solid array of weapons available to keep the action varied. The over the top macho energy is somewhat endearing, with the more 'shocking' elements feeling very tame now. The genre has both matured and immatured in the decades since Duke's big moment; we have seen the emotional and storytelling potential of gaming expand, just as we have seen its willingness to experiment with transgressive concepts and visuals grow. Duke Nukem 3D in 2021 is about as shocking as hearing Clark Gable say "damn" in Gone With The Wind would be in the '70s.
This would be Duke Nukem's last real true hurrah. The game would have some successful ports before spinning off into a series of increasingly misguided spin-offs before finally hitting a C4-coated brick wall with Duke Nukem Forever's lengthy, messy development and completely botched release. The series would listlessly chase 3D's high without ever coming close to reaching it; because they never really learned the right lessons from Duke Nukem 3D's success. They wanted more machismo, more raunch, without focusing on constructing innovative designs and engaging gameplay.
Duke Nukem 3D's place in history is a decidedly muddled one. It is not a key game in the FPS genre's development, nor is it a misstep. It is simply a very good game, impressively made, that opted to act out to get some extra attention. Without the controversy surrounding the game's release, and the historic nosedive the franchise took, it is unlikely anyone would remember Duke Nukem 3D with any strong familiarity today.
Sometimes it's true, there is no such thing as bad press.