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Retrospective: Duke Nukem 3D

Hail to the King.

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.

Holoduke - never mind what it offered in gameplay, it was a chance to stand back and admire yourself.

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.'

Cacodemons, it turns out, have nothing on these guys. Sort of.

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.

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Will Porter avatar

Will Porter


Will ‘Velvet Owl’ Porter is a roaming freelance writer who most recently worked with The Creative Assembly on Alien: Isolation. You can find out how cold/hungry he is by following @Batsphinx on Twitter.