Why Duke Nukem 3D Matters


I knew the 20th anniversary of Duke Nukem 3D was this year, I just didn’t realize it was today. I don’t think I’m gonna write a long retrospective here, just a bit of a reminder of why the game is actually important.

When people look back on Duke 3D today, they mainly remember the character Duke Nukem himself — his one-liners, his attitudes towards women, and how displaced in time he seemed when Duke Nukem Forever finally came out. The truth is Duke 3D’s hard game design probably felt like a significant step forward in 1996, particularly the way its levels and world were designed.

I say “probably” because I wasn’t fully in-tune with the PC first person shooter landscape in the mid 90’s. I was probably too busy freaking out over the 3D graphics in SEGA’s arcade games or Mario 64. For the sake of this post I’m just gonna compare Duke 3D to other, earlier FPSs I have played — namely DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D.

To most people all three of those games are just early FPSs: They have blocky graphics and more tongue-in-cheek gameplay focused on blasting aliens with a wide assortment of weapons compared to Call of Duty’s standard modern equipment. If you’re up for watching a couple YouTube videos, pay attention to this random clip of the first level of Duke 3D. Take a look at how the general environment is laid out and how it looks. Now compare it to this video of the Mega Drive/Genesis version. Yes there was apparently a Genesis version that came out in Brazil back in the 90’s or something and I think got a global release more recently.

Sure the Genesis version looks like it’s at a lower resolution, but the huge difference is in the levels. It looks more like Wolfenstein 3D than Duke 3D. Better yet just compare gameplay videos of Wolf 3D to Duke 3D. You’ll see the significant leap forward in how FPS worlds were made between 1992 and 1996. Wolf 3D mostly looks like a bunch of mazes made from blue blocks. The mazes can become quite intricate, but that’s really what they are. DOOM and DOOM II are a step above that, with a higher variety of art assets to give off the appearance of laboratories and demon realms. Despite that, today you can still tell the levels in DOOM are obstacle courses. Duke 3D’s levels look and feel a lot more believable because of how they’re laid out and everything you can interact with inside them.

The first episode where you blast aliens who’ve occupied Hollywood actually tries to look like a recognizable Hollywood. You explore a movie theater with the reception area, bathrooms, and projection rooms all where they’re supposed to be. You even see an alien using the toilet before you shoot him, which along with other things shows the extent to which the aliens have co-opted Earth society. Compare that to a level in DOOM II that’s supposed to take place in a town on Earth (I forget which one). When you enter a gun store in the second level of Duke 3D you see racks of magazines laid out, the back rooms where more aliens are watching movies in booths, and you can enter a secret code to unlock a tunnel with an elevator that leads to an apartment. Part of what sold the whole world of Duke 3D were the little things you could touch like pool tables, toilets, pinball machines, camera feeds, etc. The game is remembered for how you could toss money at strippers but that was just one part of it. I remember back in the day other kids would try to sell me on Duke 3D by describing everything you could do in its levels other than shoot aliens.

Now I don’t know how much of that Duke 3D actually started. I don’t know if other FPSs around the same time or before it did some of the same stuff. I’m just saying the design of Duke 3D illustrates a step beyond what was in DOOM, possibly in-between that game and Half-Life (which I still haven’t played yet). I’m just pointing out how people might forget that.

Furthermore, going back to play Duke 3D today shows how much like earlier 90’s shooters it is in terms of the weapons, enemies, and even level design. Duke 3D is still very much of the era when FPSs were more about solving maze-like levels and finding all their secrets. The levels still felt intricate and less linear than what you might get in a Call of Duty game. They just felt like intricate places instead of intricate obstacle courses. Duke 3D and the other Build engine shooters like the original Shadow Warrior in hindsight feel like an odd balance between the old and the new.

So if you still haven’t played Duke 3D and think it’s nothing outside strippers and an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator, I suggest you take another look at the actual game underneath it.


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One thought on “Why Duke Nukem 3D Matters

  1. Dennis says:

    I played the game like crazy when it came out back then. I also used the level editor and couldn’t get out of it anymore as it was way too interesting to create own levels. :D

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