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RPS Remembers: The Best And Worst Of Duke Nukem

Occasionally bet on Duke

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Duke Nukem 3D [official site] turned twenty this year, which means it can get away with drinking hard liquor and smoking cigars in a strip club legally in some parts of the world, but might not think that’s as cool as it once seemed. Mr Nukem is actually twenty-five years old, however, having appeared in two platform games before his FPS adventures. Years of development hell later, he also appeared in Duke Nukem Forever, a game remembered more for its delays than its eventual release.

Today, we’ve been thinking and chatting about all things Duke, from wonderful level design to wonky nipples and weird space tigers.

Adam: I haven’t played the World Tour yet, which adds a new episode of eight levels designed by the original Duke 3D crew, but I am extremely fond of the original. The original Duke Nukem 3D that is, rather than the platformer that came first.

I loved it back in the day and I still replay the first few levels every now and again. It was the first time I’d ever seen levels in an FPS that felt like real places – the cinema in particular – and I think it does fade fast, losing that sense of place that was the most impressive thing about it, but DAMN, it was exciting to play. I reckon I spent almost as much time on that first level in deathmatch (or Dukematch or whatever the fuck they called it) as I did playing Doom and Quake.

I don’t think I want any more though. Is anyone actually excited about a new episode of Duke 3D? Anyone here, I mean. I’m sure somebody somewhere is.

John: I’d be excited if it were to have been discovered on a hard drive in the attic of one of the developers at the time. I think more recent Duke outings, and their last HORRIBLE game, Bombshell, suggests they might not have the same finesse these days.

Alice: I’m up for it! I’m always curious to see ‘90s level designers return to their games years later, seeing how time and games in-between have changed what they make. I’ve similarly enjoyed seeing John Romero rediscover Doom mapping, though I suppose he’s a name I mostly see positively – a maker of a many classic maps for many classic games. Levelord is a name I do mostly know because he wrote it in a secret I found while trying to cheat my way through a boring level.

Adam: Levelord is the one that comes to mind for me as well – I didn’t even know his real name until I googled it this morning. Richard Gray. He made a hidden object game recently! I think the idea behind the new episode, or at least what I thought was the idea, was a getting the band back together kind of thing. The ones who’d wandered away and not really worked on FPS level design for a good while rather than the people who worked on Forever and Bombshell necessarily. Levelord wasn’t around for those, not sure about the rest.

There is something about nineties FPS level design that I adore. It’s the working with tools that aren’t quite able to make the kind of architecture people might necessarily want and the ways to circumvent that, all the little tricks and illusions. It’s fascinating and I’d hope for some of that. Romero’s Doom return certainly seemed self-aware of that kind of playfulness, though I’m not sure Duke has ever really been about that. That lack of abstraction that I praised it for earlier might actually make the level design a bit less interesting in some ways.

I am a total Build engine mark though. I love it so much. If id engines had been Blur and Build had been Oasis, I’d have totally failed to see why they were in some kind of press-manufactured Britpop competition. But I’d definitely have been under the Build engine banner, which is alarming considering how much I love Doom. And Quake! Build was my fave though, definitely, though that’s more to do with Blood than Duke.

Pip: I didn’t really play Duke Nukem in any meaningful way, back in the day. I sort of shared some faint enjoyment of 3D with my brother because we were of an age where the crassness and punchiness seemed illicit. I’d never seen a game where you could chuck money at ladies and see… not really much of anything. As a kid I didn’t really know enough about the world to understand what exactly was going on in those scenes, it was more that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be watching them. I think I also sort of wanted to not look like I wasn’t “in the know” or was a killjoy. (Our mum definitely didn’t know we were playing Duke Nukem).

I’ve just booted the World Tour up and I’m remembering things like the shapes of the enemies and there was a weird moment as I barged into a bathroom and muscle-memoried the fact you can kick toilets to death, leaving them spurting water all over the place, but it’s not a game that has any special place in my heart beyond being this collection of novelties I’d never seen in a game before and which were childishly delightful at the time.

Adam: I can’t let mention of the strippers go by without telling a very short anecdote. One of my friends at school had a copy of Duke Nukem 3D shareware before anyone else in the group had managed to get it. He made us pay to borrow it for a night because he was a dick.

When we’d all had a go, we were chatting about it all and he looked very uncomfortable and asked if we’d seen the strippers. We figured his mum had walked in while he was playing a game with boobies in it or something, but it turned out he was totally freaked out because he thought the nipple tassels were super-long nipples and wanted to know if that’s what ladies really had under their blouses.

DUKE NUKEM GAVE HIM SEX ED IN ALL THE WRONG WAYS

John: Amazing.

Alice: Oh god.

Pip: What did you tell him? Because I would totally have gone with it. “Well, yes. That’s nipples for you. It’s just nature’s drinking straw.

Adam: As far as I know, he is none the wiser to this day. Although, in all seriousness, this was pre-internet, or pre-ProperInternet, so I think he probably went scrounging in a skip for a smut mag or a copy of the Sun to put his mind at ease. That’s how things worked back then. Bin-diving for boobs.

Pip: I think one of the papers had a nipple count. You’d be able to work out the pennies-to-nipple rate for that day.

John: The game didn’t have an impact on me like Doom or Dark Forces did, but I do remember being genuinely thrilled that there were slopes in the game. You could go up and down things. That felt huge at the time. And that levels could change their shape due to your scripted actions, blowing things up, and the like. It felt like games could be bigger, more complicated, than I’d realised. That, I think more than anything about Duke, is what stuck with me.

Adam: I took something similar from it. The character never really appealed to me – and I still find it weird that there’s so much cross-over between him and Blood’s Caleb, presumably because there were just limited pop culture references around the place – but the setting for some of those levels was exciting because you could see how it all worked. And then imagine a game you’d rather be playing using some of the tech.

Did anyone play the platformers? Or side-on action games. Whatever they were. I did! They were rubbish! But all games were rubbish back then.

Alice: I played the Duke Nukem 2 shareware. It was rubbish, as all those PC platformers were. And it has nothing to do with Duke Nukem 3D.

John: I played the Commander Keen stuff, some of Jill Of The Jungle, Jazz Jackrabbit, various Apogee/3D Realms stuff, but never the Dukes.

Adam: I remember them being really annoying because Duke isn’t very mobile. He’s just a big hunk of meat after all and he’s not really up for jumping around all that much. That’s why I ‘corrected’ myself when I said ‘platformer’ earlier. You sort of stood on platforms and shot things but you didn’t really ‘platform’ in the verb sense. Not much jumping and bouncing around and exploring.

Pip: Oh lord, I’ve just gone down a vent and found one of those naked ladies encased in green vines? goo? Whatever. Muttering “Kiiiiiiiilll meeeeeeeeee”. This is like having the longest session of deja vu. Lots of half-remembered noises and moments but nothing to knit them together.

John: I imagine, like Adam’s chum, the developers hadn’t had much experience of ladies at this point in their lives.

Adam: OK. Duke Nukem Forever. There’s something about it that I find vaguely interesting and it relates to green goo and people wanting to die and all of that horrible stuff. I think of Duke Nukem 3D as essentially a big pile of references – it wasn’t just a game about a testosterone-fuelled machismo parody jetpacking around the world to save babes, it was all kinds of different ideas crammed into one game that happened to have that guy as the hero. There’s sci-fi stuff, horror stuff, loads of disaster movie stuff. It isn’t cohesive and it certainly doesn’t cohere around Duke as a character.

I think one of the big problems with Forever is that it tried to. And he’s a terrible protagonist because there’s nothing to hold on to there. Maybe fine as a supporting character or a comedic foil, but as a hero he’s tedious beyond all belief. And sticking with the grotesqueness of Duke 3D but rendering it all with more fidelity took it from corny x-rated Saturday morning cartoon into a really ugly place. Duke 3D isn’t particularly funny and I don’t particularly like the character, but it never felt unpleasant to me, even when he’s shitting down a corpse’s neck, which is a thing that he actually does.

Is that just because I got older and forgive the things that I remember fondly? Or was all of that stuff best left in a slightly more lo-fi setting?

Pip: I think the pile of references description of 3D feels right. I mean, I’m playing the first level of the revamped version at the moment and remembering bits as I go. I’ve just gone from triggering a movie screening of a woman in her underwear repeatedly rubbing a towel on her left butt cheek as a kind of proto-porn gif to slamming my fist into a radioactive warning sign to trigger the end of the level because… eighties action things, I assume. It’s a kind of repository for all these bombastic moments but the don’t really have interstitial tissue, which is interesting because in terms of the actual levels that’s the most interesting bits. They knit together because you can see bits you can then access. You shoot the space tiger in the projection room, then you can actually go up there and see what he was doing. You see a walkway as you enter the cinema that’s not within reach at that moment, then you kill a punk rhino on it a few minutes later. It’s like you’ve only got coherence in the physical place, not in the ideas.

Alice: I think Duke’s incoherence is part of why it endures so well in memories. It’s set in real-world places! It’s got a quote from that movie! It’s also sci-fi horror! And you can play pool! And the quote from that other movie I like! And you flick lights on and off! And real-world guns! And shrinking people and stamping on them! And destructible environments! It’s all in a hazy space of imagination and projection, something inside you knitting it all together to spark visions of an amazing future of video games which are just like real life – only with your favourite movies. Replaying it, eh, it’s fine until it quickly runs out of steam, but in my memory it’s still so exciting. It’s like current dreams of VR. Slammo!

Adam: That’s as good a summary of its appeal as I’ve ever seen. And also goes some way toward explaining why Blood was my go-to for so long. It’s the same deal but with a bit more focus – just horror this time around. And comedy horror. So it’s all Evil Dead and Phantasm and The Shining and whatever else I had posters of back when I was a teenager. “Here are all of your favourite fun things in one shared world but don’t worry about why they’re all there, it’s just for kicks”. The easter eggs are the distillation of that: here’s Lara Croft and there’s something from Star Wars and, hey, Indiana Jones and maybe a Jason mask or something like that? Playing those games was a bit like hanging out with someone who liked all the same things you liked and just getting to play with all of their toys and watch all those movies and listen to their cds. Although that said, I can’t for the life of me remember any of the music. I can’t hear the word Doom without humming the e1m1 music (silently; I’m not a monster) but I can’t even remember Duke’s theme, if it had one.

Pip: Come to that, where was his duchy? I mean, it’s all very well being a Duke but what was he the duke *of*?

Alice: Is Nukem an American’s attempt to transcribe an English place name? It could be anywhere. Nottingham?

Pip: Is there a place called Newcombe? Maybe this is all just a transatlantic transcription error.

Alice: Duke of Newtown-in-St Martin.

Adam: Remember how Borderlands isn’t at all funny but the Telltale Borderlands is actually pretty damn good? I want Gearbox to give Duke to Telltale. That’s where he belongs now, I think. It’d be like going to a retirement home – if there has to be more Duke, put him in an adventure game and let him figure out what the fuck to do when his big boot and his guns are taken away from him. If the character has a future, I think it should be well away from first-person shooters.

Alice: I would like to see a Telltale Duke Nukem! They could do something fun with him. And if we’re talking a new Duke Nukem first-person shooter, I’d rather that not be Gearbox either. Duke is at its best when it can be a weird mishmash of ambition and imagination. Gearbox games lack that – they feel like games from a years back either given a spin or smooshed into another old game. Duke needs PROMISE. Duke needs FUTURE. Duke needs IMAGINATION. Give Duke to a weird developer. I was delighted to see Space Hulk go to the EYE: Divine Cybermancy folks because they’ll certainly have an earnest crack at the weird overambitious sprawlingness that Space Hulk needs. Who can do that with Duke?

Adam: I’d give Flying Wild Hog a stab at it given what they’ve done with Shadow Warrior. I think anarchic is the way to go – ditch any idea of a Duke-style adventure with all the eighties and playboy mansion excess that implies, and just go with gore and gags.

John: (Telltale have only been funny twice. It might have been by accident.)

Adam: The Walking Dead is hilarious

Pip: There’s a lunar crater called Newcomb.

Adam: Duke does go to the moon. You probably haven’t got to that bit yet, Pip. He loves the moon.

Pip: “This crater has a sharp-edged and somewhat irregular rim that appears polygonal more than circular.” So, not great graphics, I guess.

Adam: “Rim”! Duke would get a good laugh out of that.

Pip: There’s a Newcomb crater on Mars as well but no word on how many polygons for that. But anyway, I’ve now played through the opening bit and I have absolutely no desire to go further. It’s a weird feeling. Not even nostalgia, just a kind of pretty flat acknowledgement that this game did indeed happen at some point in the past and now it is happening again because a certain amount of time has passed and that means ANNIVERSARY EDITION!

Adam: In closing then, everyone has to name their favourite Duke Nukem moment. Mine was, genuinely, going into the strip club for the first time. Not because of the elongated nipples, before that – in the bar out front is where you see the pool table and the balls move around properly, and the bottles behind the bar smash during shoot-outs and it was ever so exciting. I think, basically, I liked that there were lots of destructible things and I could do a wee. That was Duke Nukem 3D.

Pip: I’m not really sure of mine. I mean, I think it would be the story you told about your friend and the nipples. That’s partly because it really wasn’t one of the games that meant anything to me in terms of my personal history of important gaming moments, but there’s also a touch of – how to say this without overstating it? – I know that some of its attitudes particularly towards women were added to a big pile of things I saw showing women in a particular light and which, en masse, did have more of a negative impact than I’d like.

Adam: I played it with my sister, as I did most things back then, and I remember us both being faintly embarrassed by just about everything involving women in the game. Speaking to her about it years later, I realised she wasn’t faintly embarrassed – that was just me – she actively hates the whole game now and found it deeply uncomfortable at the time. I was a faintly oblivious teenager, clearly. I don’t think I’d be quite as willing to grit my teeth through some of the crappiness now that I’m an old man.

John: I really can’t remember a moment, anything that sticks in my mind at all. Which is odd, since I’m sure they were there when I first played it. So I’ll pick instead the hilarity of seeing Forever listed in every “Games coming out in 19**/200* feature in every magazine every year, and the increasingly desperate copy that was being written each time. Why they had to spoil that by releasing a game I cannot understand.

Alice: Exactly: Duke lives best in the imagination! For me, yeah, fiddling with barthings too. Duke Nukem 3D is Gone Home with guns, yeah?

Adam: It sure is. Alice, I’ll meet you in the bar. Drinks are on Duke. Unless he’s read this in which case we’re probably not welcome anymore.

Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour is out now.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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