Sixteen years after he had made his 3D debut in DOS and twenty one years after his 2D platforming debut in his first game, Good Old Games is offering up the Atomic Edition of Duke Nukem 3D for free this entire week until December 14th, Friday.
Though he started out life as a side scrolling sprite, it was when he stepped into the 3D space in 1996 that his man boots stomped into stores as the “Doom Killer” that many itchy trigger fingers had been waiting for since 1993.
Duke 3D is an iconic game in many ways. Ken Silverman, then a college-going, first semester student, took time off from his studies which he admits that wasn’t doing so well in because of his focus on pushing the 1s and 0s that would shake up the FPS world.
The result was the Build engine that would become the cornerstone of many of 3D Realms’ games. Though everyone has heard of John Carmack of id fame or Tim Sweeney thanks to his role in founding Epic and creating Unreal, Ken Silverman and his engine are arguably the third piece of a first-person, engine building triumvirate from the 90s pushing the first-person world forward.
With the engine in place, 3D Realms’ designers went to town with Duke Nukem 3D turning it into something that pushed the boundaries of gaming and FPS planning starting with its main character. Duke Nukem wasn’t just any ordinary hero — he was a tyrannosaurus, cigar chewing, man rex armed to the teeth with alien busting weapons and boots that were just the right fit for gravedigging. And he had an arsenal of the craziest toys seen yet in an FPS game and which have been hardly matched since.
It brought interactive switches, lights, and strippers that flashed the goods every time Duke whipped out a wad of bills and his wallet was infinite. It brought in peep shows, crude humor, aliens begging not to be killed if they survived a shotgun blast to the face, gibs, flying pig cop cars, jet pack’ed enemies, and a giant boss whose football-sized eye Duke would kick into the end zone to celebrate humanity’s victory over the bad guys. Sure, he’s a macho guy who doesn’t mind a binge at the local bar, but he’s got a heroic heart of gold buried beneath that testosterone.
This was a frat-sized, over-the top celebration of manliness that poked fun at itself while racing headlong into its fast-paced, mosh pit of death and destruction. The Build engine lent itself to detailed, and interactive, environments for the time if the strippers thing didn’t already hint at it. Players could crouch their way through vents, watch an animated clip at the theater, open doors, smash windows, activate drinking fountains, swim…all of that was in there.
Duke’s weapons were just as insane. There was a shrink way that actually did as it was advertised allowing you to literally crush enemies beneath your feet. A freeze ray iced foes right before you shattered them into pieces. Tripwire bombs let you lay down booby traps for baddies. It was as if the design team looked at every other FPS at the time and simply decided to top their weapons in every way possible.
Because of its guy-centric, adult only content, this wasn’t a game that sought to appeal to everyone and it really didn’t care when it also blended in references from many other inspired sources ranging from Dirty Harry to 2001. Yet because of the idea in pushing boundaries within both its content and its action both off and online, Duke Nukem 3D had a certain kind of appeal that made it titanic hit for 3D Realms and a goldmine for licensees as it exploded into a pile of third-person spinoffs in the years to come.
Take away the rude humor and you still have its amazingly fun gameplay and the creativity underpinning the open, multi-pathed freedom of its interactive levels. It had its hang-ups with its reliance on key hunts and it was still a first-person shooter at its heart, but the style with which it brought everything together gave it an identity proving just how compelling bold concepts can be then and now.
The game was also incredibly friendly to modders who went wild with total conversions ranging from changing enemies into Borg to turning Duke into an anime heroine from the Bubblegum Crisis series. It, like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, left the door open for players to fiddle with their guts and stretch their imaginative passions into the same space that the designers had.
Duke Nukem 3D was many things to different people — a great game, an adult cesspool, the reason why kids should never play games again, a brilliant masterpiece, a towering success. It was even ported over to the N64. It’s long awaited sequel, Duke Nukem Forever, whose troubled development didn’t do it many favors on its release nearly more than fifteen years later, didn’t shake the pillars of gameplay in the same way. It wasn’t a terrible game, but to those that had listened to the Duke growl out one-liners in 3D, it seemed like a throwback to an early history of gaming that everyone had outgrown.
Duke Nukem 3D’s place in history is one seen with a mixture of dread and smiles depending on who you ask, but the lessons it imparted to game design still hold as true as they ever were. Bold, unapologetic ideas, clever design, a hero packing his own personality, and all of it mashed together into a fun, switch flipping and duct crawling block party of gibs and guns. It more than what many FPS titles delivered in those days, pushing players’ expectations with 3D Realms’ George Broussard possibly smiling back and saying, “Why not?”
If you do go in on the free deal above, don’t forget to snag another freebie — EDuke32 — to bring it up to speed with things like mouselook and key bindings along with a host of visual improvements. And a number of the old mods work just fine. There’s even a thread on GOG listing a number of good ones.