Why the impactful opening moments of 3D Realms' evolutionary first-person shooter brought me back again and again.
As he'd been doing ever since I picked up that 2600 controller for the first time, my brother, James, was actively pushing me to try new things--to act upon my newfound interest in the PC scene and begin exploring its seemingly boundless new world. He rightfully suspected, though, that blindly venturing off into the vast unknown was an intimidating prospect for someone like me, who had always been shown the way forward, so he thought to nudge me in the direction of a game he'd described to be comfortably familiar yet enlighteningly illustrative of modern PC values; he knew, that is, that I loved Doom and its sequels, so he suggested that I go online and hunt myself down a copy of "Duke Nukem 3D," a similarly acclaimed first-person shooter about which I knew next to nothing (I'd seen images of Duke, himself, as he was depicted in the title art, but I could derive from them no concept of the game's actual subject-matter beyond "cool, masculine hero shoots things with big guns").
However, I didn't feel compelled to immediately login to AOL and begin scouring the Internet in search of Duke 3D because, quite honestly, I wasn't really much of a fan of the first-person shooters beyond Doom. I mean, I'd played through other shooters like Heretic and Hexen: Beyond Heretic, but none of them were able to convince me their developers had found a way to meaningfully advance the genre; rather, I came away from them with the impression that Doom had peaked so spectacularly that it left nowhere for the genre to go but down. There was little chance, therein, that the umpteenth clone of it, no matter how popular it appeared to be, would change my opinion that I should simply stick to Doom if I was looking for some shooting action. So I was in no rush to give it a shot. In fact, several weeks dropped off before the game's name worked its way back into my mind's forefront.
When I finally decided to download the shareware version of Duke Nukem 3D, which I dug up from AOL's aging "Download Center," I did so under the assumption that I'd passively demo two or three of its "obviously curtailed" introductory levels and then quickly discard of it in favor of heading back to AOL's wrestling chat to discuss the important happenings from that past Monday's RAW (you know--all of those lovely "traditional" pro-wrestling standbys like father-on-daughter incest, human sacrifice, necrophilia, and attempted castration).
Also, I wasn't exactly keen on the idea that I could be continually pelted by hovering enemies that were placed so far out of sight that merely stopping to look around for them was a recipe for hemorrhaging 90% of my health. The game was filled with these kinds of surprises, really, and their recurrence might've turned me away from the game had Duke 3D not thankfully retained Doom's sight-line-damage mechanic (if a target is visible onscreen, your shots will connect with it regardless of whether or not it's in range of the reticule).
But the experience wasn't shaping up as I expected it would; try as I might, I just couldn't find any additional signs of inferiority. Rather, as I repeatedly trekked over every inch of the game's opening mission and focused in on its surprisingly thoughtful level design, I found that my cynicism was being slowly supplanted by an excited curiosity as I became more and more engrossed in Duke Nukem's world.
As I've discussed countless times in the past, I've always had a thing for cityscape backgrounds and abandoned-city settings--the atmosphere they produced--and Duke Nukem 3D had them in spades. This was evident from the start of the first mission, wherein Duke's flying vehicle was shot down and he was confined to an unoccupied rooftop whose eerily muted decor told the story of an uneasy calm before a violent storm; from the lofty rooftop position, it was easy to spin about and immerse myself in the surrounding view of a silently standing cityscape whose looming, shadowy presence heightened the tension while providing me some all-important environmental context. There was noticeable lack of music, which I assumed to be the developers' conscious decision (not so--the music was merely omitted from the shareware version), but I didn't mind at all; rather, I liked that they allowed for the game's atmosphere to speak for itself.
That's how I preferred it, anyway; in fact, whenever I'd play the full-featured version, I'd voluntarily switch off the music and let the game's noise--the trailing sounds of distant planes and disturbing howls, both of unknown origin--do its work and create what I felt was the essential ambiance for an abandoned-city setting. The unnerving earthquakes, startling explosions, and sudden structural failure (collapsing buildings, mainly) also, were so much more pronounced when their thunderous conveyance went uninterrupted by the neutralizing effect of rock music.
I didn't play through the entire shareware episode that day, because I didn't need to. The first two or three episodes, on their own, were all the advertising I needed to see. I absolutely adored everything about them. Each was an instantly classic set, its rendering of a 3D urban setting standing amongst the most thoughtfully designed, convincingly rendered I'd ever seen. Every single detail--every purposefully designed room, accompanying texture, and specially crafted furnishing--mattered to the overall scheme, much more so than in Doom, where many of the halls and corridors tended to be purely functional in design and samey-looking. Duke 3D's variety of environments, in comparison, was astonishing; the deserted city streets of a given level could spill into any from a list of distinct locales, be it a restroom, a movie theater, an arcade, a magazine shop, or a strip club.
And access to buildings wasn't always limited to the entry points that were plainly visible; I loved that I could move about their ledges and fly high into the air with my jetpack in search penetrable exteriors (read: furiously hug up against their surfaces), either obvious or concealed, and access the apartments and office spaces that were hiding some of the game's more precious inventory.
Duke 3D felt more alive than Doom. The game's environments were constantly transforming around me. Scripted events, like sudden earthquakes, would cause noticeable ground rupturing and the crumbling of a nearby walls, their freshly cut openings often giving access to series of newly navigable spaces! Blowing up a fire extinguisher or a set of propane tanks would yield a similar result, but there was also a chance that doing so would cause a loud, pulse-rattling chain reaction of explosions that would level an entire room and leave all of its devices in a state of disrepair! An entire building could spectacularly collapse out of nowhere, its battered remnants becoming a whole new section of the level! Nothing like that ever happened in Doom!
Also, its levels flowed so much more organically than its inspiration's. As it was in Doom, I'd procure a keycard and then have to backtrack across the entire level to find the color-coded door it opened, if I could remember where it was. Duke 3D's design was more tightly compact even though its levels appeared to be complex and sprawling; they were instead structured in a way that keycards were usually placed in proximity to their corresponding doors, and I wouldn't realize as much until I obtained the key and a resultant explosion tore open a hole in the floor and created a convenient path between them. The game's abundance of secret areas, the uncovering of which the game was nice enough to confirm with text, converged in much the same way; I'd spend ten minutes working my way through a complicated system of caverns--feeling that my lengthy detour, no matter how fruitful, was leading me to disaster--and then I'd emerge from an aperture, somehow arriving right back at the point of divergence if not an adjacent room I never knew was there.
I was stunned by how interactive Duke's world was in comparison. Part of the fun of exploring each level was approaching every object in sight and hitting the action button to see if my interaction would trigger an event or more likely a smart comment from Duke, and surprisingly I got a response in a great many instances! He would express bladder-emptying relief if I brushed up against a urinal, which had an added effect or resorting some of his health. He could break open a fire hydrant and drink from its gushing excess, similarly restoring his health (though now hit-point by hit-point). He'd drop himself a compliment any time he'd see his reflection in a mirror. He'd reject the notion of stopping to mess around with a Duke Nukem-themed arcade machine, stating that "I don't have time to play with myself."
My personal favorite: He could knock around the balls on a pool table, the collisions' resulting geometry way more faithful to the real game than they had any right to be; I was even permitted to sink shots and clear the entire table, which on its own spoke of the designer's remarkable effort to build a memorable world and imbue all of its furnishings with a considerable degree of authenticity. And the result was that the game, like its protagonist, was loaded with personality and 3D Realms' distinct brand of humor (as evident in the former Apogee's earliest games, into which I'm looking to dive further in the coming years).
Duke 3D was one of those games whose true depth couldn't be ascertained by playing through it a handful of times. I didn't know until years later, for instance, that you could locate the bloody remains of Doom's protagonist, about whom Duke would joke, "Damn--that's one doomed space marine!" before using his boot to splatter what was left of the corpse. I even discovered recently that you can find the lifeless body of Indiana Jones hanging from a cavern wall in Hotel Hell, the first episode's eighth mission! Why? Who knows?! Let's just say that Duke 3D considers nothing sacred, and that's what makes it what it is.
Duke had audible reactions--appropriately famous quips and one-liners taken from the era's biggest action movies--for all occasions, it seemed. Sure--most of them were vulgar in nature, and a lot of the interactions (like Duke's frequent womanizing) were just plain juvenile, but that's what made the character stand out to me (and, well, I'm inoffensible by nature, so it was never really an issue). Those other shooting-game heroes could muster nothing more than grunts and generic-sound death cries; the sardonic Duke, however, wouldn't miss a chance to quantify his pain using sarcastic language or joyously congratulate himself for blowing a pig cop's corpse to smithereens. When Duke would let out that blood-curdling scheme, it meant something; I knew that it was time to retreat or die.
Duke 3D went beyond Doom with its sloped surfaces, navigable pools of liquid (their addition fine when limited to a few sections), and airborne combat via a jetpack, whose use provided me a desired alternative to using the free-look mechanic to bring an enemy into view. The added ability to jump and crouch opened up for some genuine platforming sequences, the likes of which required that Duke jump onto and move between spinning crushers, duck beneath trip lasers, negotiate around piles of boxes, cleverly throw himself into the grasp of cranes' claws and use them as special transport, leap across shaky mountain cliffs, carefully trek across broken bridges, and fly from rooftop to rooftop while avoiding projectile storms. Mowing down reptilian aliens and pig cops, it turned out, was only half the battle. Duke 3D was a game about solving puzzles using both the combat tactics I'd become accustomed to using after playing so much of Doom and the platforming skills I'd picked up from years of playing Mario and Mega Man. Duke Nukem 3D was indeed a true evolution to the formula.
It borrowed a lot from Doom, yeah: It copied its basic look and presentation. It sounded a lot like it (it used a lot of the same stock sound effects). Its use of surround sound to convey the snortling of unseen creatures created a relatable sense of foreboding. Its weapon system was almost an exact duplicate. The music (which I wouldn't hear until years later) was similarly toned--its rockin' tunes tempered with sinister strains--though I would say a bit generic-sounding and not nearly as memorable (I prefer silence, anyway, for reasons discussed earlier). And its means of progression--activating switches and using color-coded keys to open doors--was highly reminiscent (though Duke padded the template with novel additions like tricky combination locks, sequenced switches, and other advanced triggers).
But nothing about it felt shameful. Hell--I wouldn't even call it a clone. I mean, it was built using Doom as its foundation, absolutely, but it had fun with those original ideas, often expanding upon them in cool and unique ways, and it introduced enough meaningful new material (swimming, flying via jetpack, involved platforming action, and creative new weapons like the shrink ray and freezethrower, the likes of which could produce hilarious results) to distance itself from the game's that inspired it.
More than anything, I enjoyed gauging its environments and admiring the effort that went into crafting them. After clearing out all of its enemies, I'd spend five or maybe ten minutes re-exploring a level--looking for all of the secret areas, attempting to interact with even the tiniest of objects (I could kick away the wine glasses!), and generally absorbing its desolate vibes. If I'm talking about games that ooze atmosphere and invite me to immerse myself in their worlds, I have to put Duke Nukem 3D near the top of my list. Those opening levels were a lesson in how to do it. I wish I could use this space to depict their every pixel--to display from every angle what I consider to be its most meaningful details--but I can't; there's simply too much to show, and I'd risk neglecting to represent the rest of the game (also, modern browsers are already unstable enough).
I so thoroughly enjoyed playing those opening levels--Hollywood Holocaust, Red Light District and Death Row--that I didn't feel the need to go out and buy myself a copy of Duke Nukem 3D. The shareware version, with its eight considerably lengthy levels, was packed with so much content, I felt, that it was good enough to be a standalone game. If ever I returned to Duke 3D on the PC, I'd do so, predictably, for a quick, satisfying romp through the early levels. I wouldn't own a full retail version of the original game until about eight years later.
I didn't even know what the second and third episodes held until I played through them in the N64 version (titled Duke Nukem 64), which my brother picked up randomly one day, because, well, that's what my brother did. From what I could tell, the N64 version was virtually identical to the PC original, including the noticeable lack of music, which I still believed to be the developers' conscious decision. At first, all the same, I didn't play past its first episode, but this time for a different reason: I was finding the N64 controls to be too cumbersome; none of its four optional control schemes made any sense to me--particularly those that required that I move about using the C buttons. The free-look camera was as unwieldy as ever, cycling through weapons with a button was no substitute for a keyboard's quick access (leading to more spaz-out moments where I'd frantically pound the weapon-cycle button, forget that there were weapons between the chain gun and pistol, and wind up blowing myself up with a rocket), and there were times when I couldn't even figure out which button activated my special items. I preferred to stick with the shareware version.
Though, I did find value in the N64 version during the latter years of the console's life-cycle, at a time when my brother and I were still together and we would frequently play multiplayer games like Mario Kart 64 and Hexen. In fact, some of my best memories of Duke Nukem are derived from those night-long sessions where we'd play through an entire episode of the game in split-screen mode (the best part was not having to worry about quick-saving all the time, since in multiplayer mode a fallen Duke would immediately respawn elsewhere). We'd stay up until early in the morning, when our brains were mush and we could no longer see straight (split-screen gaming was tough on the eyes even though we were playing on a big-screen TV).
We made it to the final boss one, a cyclopean menace, a couple of times, but I don't believe we were able to defeat it. I'm not really sure; it's all a blur (which makes sense considering how tired we usually were by the end of any session). All I remember is that the fight took place on a football field and we could never seem to acquire enough ammo, leading to the up-close shin-kicking contests we'd usually lose via repeated squishings. But that didn't matter; we had a lot of fun with the game and enjoyed our time playing it together. I couldn't ask for anything more.
The first Duke Nukem game I bought for myself was actually Duke Nukem: Zero Hour, which was released exclusively for the N64. Oddly, though I recall being deeply invested in the game, I can't remember much about it outside of its excellent boat level and a tough battle against Jack the Ripper. I'd like to play it again so I can refresh my memory; I'm wishfully hopeful that Nintendo will get serious about securing third-party N64 games for its Virtual Console service and bug whoever owns the rights to Duke 64 (be it Gearbox or whichever company) to re-release it digitally.
In the meantime, I'll likely be revisiting Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition, which I picked up back in 2010. It has the usual "graphical enhancements," which for old PC shooters usually seems to mean "darkened color schemes," but more relevantly a newly added fourth episode. I've played through it twice since then, and I've been impressed both times. Most of its levels, like the memorable Duke-Burger and Shop-N-Bag, are more labyrinthine in construction and heavier on puzzle-solving, which lends the episode a distinctly investigative feel. I'm a fan of all of it except for that newly added imp-like Protector Drone enemy; its attacks are annoying (particularly when one of them shrinks you down and unfailingly squashes you as you're recovering), it's far too aggressive, and it's way too much of a bullet-sponge for such a low-level enemy. Though, its presence isn't enough to deter me from playing through the fourth episode again, which should be happening sometime in the near future.
Before then, I'd like to finish exploring Apogee's back catalog of DOS-based Duke Nukem games, the discovery of which was a total surprise to me; I didn't know anything about Duke's earlier adventures until I read up on them sometime around 2002. Thirteen years later, it still seems strange to me that the smack-talkin', vulgarity-spewing Duke started out life as a rather tame side-scrolling platforming hero. As I play through the original Duke Nukem, it doesn't seem right that Duke isn't chuckling at enemies' misfortune or threatening to rip them a new one.
For me, the true Duke Nukem will remain the brash, crude dude I first met on that rooftop back in 1999. Hearing his name will always conjure up images of that oppressive cityscape, those tall beige-colored buildings, and the creatively rendered locales I explored many times over. Returning to his game will serve as a reminder of the indelible first impression it made on me back then--how in many ways its aesthetic qualities do more to evoke that classic DOS nostalgia than even Doom. And my guiding him through those iconic opening levels, which I plan to do in perpetuity, will no doubt continue to yield hours of fun shooting action and thoughtful observance.
That it can stand beside the genre's world-conquering forefather as a close equal is why I like to refer to Duke Nukem 3D not as the second-best in its class but instead the other best first-person shooter ever. And if that's true, then there's only one left to do.
Hail to the king, baby!