If it's Sunday then it must be time for another Eurogamer writer to bury you nose-deep in their barren adolescence, pointing at a retro game and braying about it with bleary eyes for a few pages. This week your hangover has been interrupted by a paean to Duke Nukem 3D, my love for which has recently been rejuvenated by the remarkably slick Good Old Games service and formerly its co-op enabled appearance on Xbox Live.
Despite the heavy snowfalls of retro adulation that blanket the gaming world from time to time, I find that I've never truly been able to go back. In the harsh light of the future-times in which we live, the games of yesteryear rarely live up to our what we remember - always turning out to be too easy, too hard, too bland, too repetitive, too brown or simply too well-known for anything other than a cursory sprint through the first level checking that all the health packs are in the same place and that its blood-stained halls haven't fallen into total rack and ruin.
Deep down I always feared this would be the case with Duke. I rationally feared that any game that numbered the ability to fire a rocket launcher at a cinema screen showing two repeating frames of a porn movie among its greatest moments, or indeed occupy a wanking cubicle complete with grimy dustbin and toilet roll holder, may well have rendered my 15-year-old self incapable of rational analytical thought. Thankfully, I needn't have doubted myself - Duke Nukem 3D remains one of the highest watermarks the shooter genre has lapped up against, and in many areas still hasn't been bettered to this day. It also has a secret area that suggests Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise really likes playing with himself. And aliens on the toilet.
So why does it demand a modern day foray through its red light districts, high-security prisons and very much forgotten (for a good reason) bits in space? What appealed to me most on my recent playthrough was the simple way levels are designed. Imagine a top-down map of a modern shooter - lets say FEAR 2 if we fancy an easy target - and it'll invariably look like a sprayed-out can of heavily shadowed silly string. Look at a Duke 3D map and, in its best levels admittedly, it'll look like a building, or a street containing various buildings - solid structures with definable and recognisable geography that you'll learn the intricacies of as if they were real places.
Say what you like about the multi-winged nature of olden-times shooters and their hefty reliance on keycards of various hues, but it's great to play a game that's free of the relentless forward push of modern linear FPS games. Too often in today's latest and greatest are environments treated as images to whiz past like images poorly superimposed on the car windows of a 1960s cinematic family who are going off on their holidays. To borrow a phrase from Max Payne, shooters today have a tendency to be 'a linear sequence of scares' without the balls to just say: 'This level happens in a post office/sushi restaurant/fast food joint/porn studio (delete where appropriate). It's a bit like a building in the real world; some of the doors are locked. Deal with it.'
This is why, I feel, the best bits of a game like Call of Duty 4 take place within solid, realistic structures (the TV studios, the hilltop village, the ship etc.). It's also the reason that Duke's second, and more sprawling, episode of space-based shenanigans are so universally forgotten.
So we've ticked off level design. Next up: interactivity. Remember the first level of Prey, the one that promised so much but was followed up with more squelch and farting than anything else? You could fiddle with the jukebox, turn taps on and off, watch TV... it really was a marvel - until the aliens came along and stole the most-part of the interactive joy as well as your ladyfriend. With far more meagre resources, Duke Nukem 3D even now retains a decent sensation of level fiddlery and manipulation throughout its running time. If it still feels fresh, so no wonder our badly-haircutted selves were so blown away back in 1996. Light switches, urinals, shootable switches, pool tables, strippers, CCTV monitors. They're repeated throughout the game, but it's a mentality that seeped into level design too.
Think of the little slots you could throw pipe bombs down to explode monsters below, kitchen sinks you could swim through and automated claws that would pick up monster corpses, barrels and Duke alike as they trundled round on conveyer belt systems. The game surprises and delights on a consistent basis even now. And all this praise without mentioning the secret areas. The recreation of the Enterprise command deck, the spaceship from Independence Day, and meetings with both a deceased Indiana Jones and a crushed Terminator.
Next up in this relentless tirade of unbalanced fanboy praise are Duke's weapons, many of which I don't think have ever been bettered. Take the pipe bombs, and the way the game lets you lay hundreds of the buggers before depressing that holy red button. Back in the day the simple feeling of freedom and power this gave me blew my mind, and it still forces it into a gentle rotation today.
The freeze ray, meanwhile, to my fevered mind (and if you can think of a game that debunks this, debunk away) remains the only time that the freeze/smash grunt-murdering dynamic has ever been particularly fun. So often 'speciality' weapons that deal in shrinking/microwaving/glob-covering have been nothing but interesting preview-fodder ideas that have felt somewhat lacking in-game. Here they were genuinely useful, and used against a menagerie of perfectly balanced foes within whom there was nary a duff note. The Rancor-esque bosses were fearsome, the pig cops packed a punch more than enough to take the unwary down and those bastard floating brain/squids were brilliant in their own purple-insta-death-wave beauty. What's more, most of them had flying eyeballs when you blew them up.
Of course though, even this rampant enthusiasm has to run dry at some point. There are some moments at which DN3D will make you sad - not least those bloody four-orange-button puzzles where you have to randomly hammer in different patterns until you hear a joyous bleep and a door opening. Then there's the space levels, which just aren't as much fun for reasons previously furiously underlined in red biro (and run over in a green highlighter) earlier in my ramblings.
I'll also admit that the majority of episodes, and most certainly the Plutonium Pack, are very much front-loaded with their best offerings before proceeding to scrape deeper from the bottom of the radioactive barrel. I'm not going to start moaning about the sexism and boob-count though. This may be leftie Guardian-reading Eurogamer, but I'm still man enough to stand here and admit that I find boobs rather fetching on a lady. If that lady is ensconced in alien slime and begging to be killed, then so be it - I will be a gentleman and kick her in the face until she's dead as requested.
Yet another feather in the modern Duke-player's babe-loving hat is that wherever you buy it from now it'll come packaged with the Plutonium Pack - an expansion that few seemed to play at the time, yet contains many of the best Duke levels ever committed to the Build Engine. Babeland, a pastiche of Disney World containing an excellent riff on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, is the standout level, but the dogmeat-scented Duke Burger runs a close second.
In summary though: Duke Nukem 3D remains a great, great game - and you won't be disappointed if you choose to go back through GOG.com or the Xbox Live Marketplace. It's always been a mystery to me as to why there's never been any talk of a sequel, but I suppose you can't have everything. Next week: why 3D Realms' Shadow Warrior was also absolutely brilliant and how it contained naked anime women sitting on toilets who were actually doing real shits. [This is not what is happening next week. - Ed] Groovy.