Here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, Duke Nukem is both a celebration and a parody of 80s and early 90s action movies, and Duke Nukem 3D is the same thing, only with 90s first person shooters. It doesn't take itself seriously; it revels in stereotypes and exaggerates bits and pieces in the name of humor. With references to cult films such as Big Trouble In Little China, Army Of Darkness (even going as far as to have the cover look like the movie's cover), They Live and many others, That isn't to say that the game is Doom with a more colorful protagonist – in fact, this was one of the first games of its kind to have more colorful, urbanized level designs along with sci fi settings and just a lot of attitude in general. Sonic The Hedgehog may have gotten the kids, but Duke Nukem got the teenagers and adults! Doom, Quake and a lot of their contemporaries – past, present and future - were gritty and serious, but Duke Nukem 3D was more lively in its setting, look, feel and the unserious nature of the whole situation.
I mean, it starts with aliens invading Los Angeles and shooting down Duke's cruiser! Outside of a cutscene at the end of each episode (of which there are three in the original version and four in the Atomic Edition), it's largely unimportant and simply serves as a backdrop to the gameplay. Then again, it is about an alien invasion, which opens up the floodgates for some rather fun shenanigans, and being both a celebration and a parody of 80s action movies... well, I think that ought to speak for itself. In terms of fun shenanigans, it's Duke Nukem who jumps through the glass and opens up a massacre with a one liner. A lot of it is very tongue in cheek. At the same time, it does at least try and serve as a deeper backdrop than Doom's “kill the cyberdemons” and Quake's “kill the aliens” plots, so there's that to consider. Not to mention, it does offer more variety in its locales than dinky dungeons and creepy castles – you'll go through a strip joint, a movie theater, a movie set, a subway, a hotel, a supermarket and outer space in an effort to stop the aliens from taking over Earth. In that regard, it has more creativity and ingenuity than the shooters of its time, making it a world that you really want to save in comparison to some dark, dull dungeon or whatever.
But Duke Nukem 3D is no mere celebratory parody; it actually manages to improve on a lot of the mechanics present in 90s shooters. Not only can you use the mouse to aim, but you can also freely use the Y axis. No more will you need to circumnavigate your pinky finger to the Page Down and Page Up buttons to use the Y axis if you need to look at something above or below you (the guns have an auto aim on the Y axis). Nope, now you have to have good aim on both axes. Thankfully, the aiming is smooth and the response you get from each of the guns is spot on. Damn, does it feel satisfying to shoot enemies with your arsenal of automatic pistols, small chainguns, shotguns and various alien weaponry like shrink rays, lasers and an automatic rocket launcher – seeing aliens either blow up or look as if they're about ready to decompose is exactly what Duke's looking for. The most satisfying is when Duke rips off a boss's head and shits down its neck. After having to fire enough bullets to stop herds upon herds of aliens, nothing beats using the boss' neck as a toilet - especially if the fight itself involved having to circle strafe to avoid constant fire, collecting resources once you start to run low thus running the risk of getting hit, and then blowing your load all over them.
Really, the crux of the game is shooting up aliens and pigs wearing LAPD – sorry, LARD shirts whilst finding your way from Point A to Point B, with the last level of any given episode involving an intense boss fight. Actually a lot of encounters can be intense as you have to shoot down your foes without getting shot, although your foes are trigger happy if you're visible to them. While the game's level layouts are reasonably straightforward, there are also a fair amount of branching paths and secret areas to look for. Said secret areas tend to hold health, ammo, weapons you may or may not have and items. Items add a layer of depth to the gameplay as you can either apply a first aid kit or steroids (the latter of which increases Duke's running speed) in the heat of battle, or strap on the jet pack to fly around and either attack from above or scale across gaps. More often than not, it simply leads to rooms on the beaten path with some ammo and health pick ups, but there are some points where it'll be necessary in order to progress. But nothing beats the scuba gear as there are sections of levels where underwater traversal is required – thankfully, you'll have your trusty scuba gear to rely on.
If I was to pick on the game for something, it's that it's touchy about interacting with objects underwater, which can be a pain when you have to interact with doors while swimming away from aliens (usually, you don't have enough time to stop and shoot – keep moving to the next place with air or Duke will drown). On land, it's easy enough to align your cursor with a switch, a door or something that you wish to interact with, press the interact button and something happens; underwater, the touchiness of it all combined with Duke's limited air supply can result in mind annoyances as you have so many directions to aim your cursor, especially underwater where there is no ground to stand on. Another niggling annoyance is the game's reliance on key cards. Now, I understand that it's a shooter from the 90s and as such, every area is like a secret government building or something where you need color coordinated key card security. Needless to say, these parts can either feel like an afterthought or just not feel right in general. The door is either somewhere nearby or on the other side, and when it comes to the latter, it can result in aimlessly wandering around for a while, trying to either remember where you may have seen that door or even just looking for the key card in the first place. It doesn't usually last too long, but it happens too often for it to be a mere coincidence.
It's a bit of a shame because the levels are otherwise very well designed. It's easy enough to follow whether the path is laid out to you blatantly or through looking around and using basic logic. While I criticized the key card puzzles for often devolving into running around like a headless chicken, I'm quick to praise the game for making you use your curiosity and noodle to figure out where to go. The not-so obvious parts of the level are never that cleverly hidden as each section flows well enough with one another. In that regard, it's never a hassle, plus exploring big levels full of things is always fun and it becomes rewarding when you quickly manage to find your way through. Finding secret sections is especially rewarding as it's like “ooh I found something cool”, especially if said cool things are items, ammo and health kits that'll help you out. Having interactable objects like drinking fountains, toilets and strippers you can tip are some rather nice touches as they give levels more of a personality than the bland, bleak dungeons found in Doom or Wolfenstein 3D. Bit of a shame games don't do this anymore unless it's a part of some cinematic set piece...
The game sports a mix of 2D and 3D graphics, with the scenery being in 3D, the ground having 3D textures and the enemies and yourself being in 2D... like cardboard cutouts. It can seem a bit off at first as the enemies can appear to be paper thin, not to mention it's a bit jarring to see huge pixellated sprites on top of 3D environments whose textures aren't nearly as pixellated, but give it a few minutes and they won't seem so bad. At the very least, they were designed rather well. The traditional weapons looked as they should, the alien weapons look like they were lifted out of some cheesy sci fi movie and the obligatory badass weapon... well, let's just say that it's the last thing people will see before they die; people behind you should duck and cover, it's that badass. The settings look like what you'd expect them to; places you'd find in cities like strip clubs and theaters look like actual strip clubs and theaters, and spaceships look as they would based on what one would see in sci fi movies (rooms with alien technology and full of gray). Admittedly, the city levels are much better looking than the oftentimes drab looking space levels as there's more variety in locations and color schemes. The aliens, either looking like something out of HP Lovecraft or John Carpenter's “The Thing”, gives the game a bit of that creepy sci fi vibe. Speaking of vibe, Duke Nukem's design makes you feel like a badass as you have builging muscles, sunglasses and blonde eraser hair.
Keeping in tune with vibes, John St John gives Duke the kind of voice that just works so well with his character. There's quite a bit of bass in his voice and the way he says his dialogue feels just right. It captures just the right attitude for not just the dialogue, but his look and the situation. I'd even say that the sound effects feel just right as the aliens scream in pain as you shoot them down with your bassy sounding guns. It just makes you feel powerful! I can't quite say the same for the soundtrack. It veers between a tense song that's like as if you're skulking around an alien world... and a nondescript one that doesn't do much. Now, a nondescript song always feels like background noise that can still give a level life if it's not meant to be silent, so it's not all bad; just that I've always felt that the soundtrack could be so, so much better than what's on offer here. For instance, Doom has At Doom's Gate, which is an energetic way to begin a game from an aural standpoint given its fast pace. Duke Nukem 3D just sort of drones on by, and while it can often provide a solid unsettling ambience, it also tends to just exist. It's also a bit jarring when the game revolves around blasting aliens to oblivion, rather than doing what you can to survive. It's a bit more fitting for something like Alien than something like Aliens.
At the same time, it's hard to deny everything that Duke Nukem 3D did right. It took first person shooting outside of the gloomy depths of some hellish piss stained fortress and put it into a more urban environment... intersperced with alien motherships because hey, it's an alien invasion! It added another layer of interactivity to the mix by making most of any given level's objects interactable, and curiosity will lead you to secret rooms, items or at least a cool little detail. Hell, even with the firmly established mechanics, it feels a lot tighter than its comtemporaries, making each gunshot feel like an extension of Duke's general badassery. If you were to look at what this game did right, Duke Nukem 3D coule easily be a fantastic game. However, its excellence also highlights the issues that it and similar games have with sensitive interacting controls and a reliance on lame key card puzzles. In other games, it wouldn't be a big deal, but here, it's like there being a few too many freckles on an otherwise attractive girl's face – whilst it doesn't hurt the game, it does stick out and it can be bothersome. But hey, you've probably played this already and you're just reading this because you feel like playing it again and want to know if it holds up. Well good sir, it *bleep*ing does! Go play it.