Duke Nukem 3D is an infamous first-person shooter, developed and published by 3D Realms in 1996. It is the sequel to the platform games Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem II, which were released in 1991 and 1993 respectively, and it is arguably the biggest-selling and most popular game in the Duke Nukem series.
Duke Nukem 3D is considered to be one of the earliest first-person shooters that helped popularise the genre, alongside Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. It uses Ken Silverman‘s Build Engine to create the 3D game world, with simple 3D polygons used to make the environments and 2D overlays used for weapons, enemies, and other objects. The game has been praised for its level design, humour, interactivity, and satirisation of action heroes and the pop culture of the time. It was also criticised for its violence, eroticism, and portrayal of women.
The original version of Duke Nukem 3D, shown here, features three separate episodes: L.A. Meltdown, Lunar Apocalypse, and Shrapnel City, and a fourth episode – called The Birth – was released with an expansion called The Plutonium PAK and later included in a ‘complete’ edition called The Atomic Edition. An official fifth episode was released with the 20th Anniversary World Tour Edition, published by Gearbox Software in 2016.
The main character is voiced by Jon St. John and is fighting against an alien invasion on Earth, although there is little plot that explains this further. Duke can find a variety of weapons to use as he explores, plus he can kick with his boots if he’s out of ammo. The main aim of the game is to find your way to the exit of each level, through a maze of buildings and corridors, unlocking doors with keycards and surviving whatever the enemy throws at you. It plays in much the same way as Doom, but with more interactivity and humour.
There are destructible environments, explosive canisters, reflections in mirrors, bloody footprints, panels where you can see CCTV camera views, ducts to crawl through, and a variety of secret areas. The game also features adult content such as peepshows, pole-dancing women, aliens sitting on toilets, and Duke can even relieve himself into urinals (although the game thankfully doesn’t show it, like in Postal 2; Duke just says “Ah, that’s better!“).
There’s a map overlay (accessed by pressing Tab), which can be viewed as a simple wireframe, overlaid over the first-person action, or as a fully-rendered overhead version of the game that can be played from that perspective, if you’re that way inclined.
Aside from the default pistol and shotgun, Duke Nukem 3D has some other interesting weapons, such as triple-barrelled machine gun, laser trip mines, pipe bombs, and the rocket launcher. There’s also The Devastator (a dual-wielded explosive set of pistols); The Shrinker (which shrinks opponents, allowing Duke to step on them), and The Freeze Gun (which freezes enemies, allowing Duke to then shatter them with regular bullets).
Duke can also use a variety of interesting utility items, such as The Jet Pack (which allows him to fly temporarily), night vision goggles (for seeing in the dark), steroids (which speeds up Duke‘s movement), The HoloDuke (which is supposed to act as a decoy but doesn’t seem to work very well), the protective boots (for walking on surfaces that would otherwise harm him), and a portable med kit for a health boost. There are also swimming sections, and Duke can even use a re-breather (aka The Airtank) to stay submerged indefinitely.
Duke 3D features a variety of spoken wisecracks as Duke does about his business, which seem to be mostly stolen from Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Levels have a relatively high amount of interactivity; there are various devices and contraptions to activate by using them, and you can even give money to women in exchange for Duke being an assh*le.
Overall, Duke Nukem 3D is a fun – if mindless – first-person shooter that is still fun to play now. It’s still available to buy on Steam but is currently missing from GOG.com, which is a head-scratcher.
An official sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, called Duke Nukem Forever, was released in 2011 after over a decade in “development hell”.