Duke Nukem, in his later years, has become a nostalgia act.
He’s remembered for giving money to strippers and for spouting one-liners lifted more or less directly from movies you grew up watching ... provided you’re in your late 30s or so today. The character has become the gaming version of your grandpa who seems nice enough, but don’t get him started on anything that has to do with race relations.
It didn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way.
What Duke Nukem 3D did right
It had nothing to do with making the character having a huge ego, nor his attitude of women being little more than objects he could pay for a quick show. That stuff was window dressing, an attempt to be shocking and appeal to the assumed young men who were buying games at the time, but it had nothing to do with why the game was so great.
Duke Nukem 3D, to be bluntly, was a game about guns.
Those guns are what transformed what might have been a wannabe Doom-like into something that became one of the best-remembered games in history. It wasn’t enough to kill your enemies — or your friends if you were playing multiplayer — you had to shrink them down and stomp on them. You had to shoot them until they begged you to stop, and then you had to kick in them in the face. You had to throw a pipe bomb and wait for the perfect moment to trigger the explosion.
I have fond memories of placing the trip mines in the teleportation machines, so players warping in would explode instantly. Or throwing pipe bombs into elevators and sending them up a level in hopes I would luck into an easy kill when someone walked in and I detonated them.
That’s not counting the clever uses for the Holoduke, a weapon that made a mirror image of your character that would repeat your movements, drawing the fire of your enemies — or at least confusing the hell out of them for a little while. And that’s not even the whole list.
The variety of the weapons and items in Duke Nukem 3D made the game legendary. The sexism and dumb humor simply dated it as a game that was released in the 1990s.
I found a forum thread from 2007 asking why the game wasn’t copied, and it’s nearly as valid today as it was back then. I present the entire post with no edits of any kind.
Specifically, the laser trip mines and the holodukes. Both of these things made the multiplayer alot better but they have never become popular. The only other game i've seen with something like a trip mine is the proximity mine in Goldeneye, and I dont care for console games. No game I've come across has used something like the holoduke at all. Some games have used jetpacks but even that seems to have died off. I think multiplayer FPS would be better if they brought these back.
It’s not that other games haven’t since innovated in this way or that way when it comes to weapons, so you don’t have to jump to the comments to prove me wrong. It’s that Duke Nukem 3D was such a massive leap up from every single one of its peers — and in many ways remains better than most games today in this area — that it seemed to come from nowhere. If every other FPS at the time was The Bends, Duke Nukem 3D dropped OK Computer on the world, and we were appropriately shocked.
The arsenal encouraged creativity on the part of the player if you used it to its fullest to trick, control and ultimately kill your friends during LAN play, something that felt remarkably fresh in a first-person shooter at the time. And it was due to that combination of weapons, not just the fun each one delivered by merely firing. They all worked together to create some great memories.
The level design was also smart, and it rewarded exploration by revealing what felt like an unlimited number of secrets and Easter eggs, giving the entirety of the game a sense of play that was lacking in almost all of the games of the time. That’s what stands out to me when I remember Duke Nukem 3D, not the silly way that droopy voice repeated lines I knew from late night television.
He doesn’t have to die
People say that Duke Nukem himself couldn’t survive in our politically correct culture, and that line of thinking is so devoid of creativity that it’s barely worth addressing. Duke was created to be a parody of bad movies, not a character to be taken seriously. He was a reflection of the time he was made, and the male-dominated media landscape was a pretty easy place to make fun of.
A modern Duke Nukem would have to find a way to make fun of over-the-top action movies of today, and he would have to change to become a mirror of the pop culture we’re gorging ourselves on now. Or he could just make fun of the fact he’s supposed to be a blonde, white masculine caricature that sounds like every tough guy on every movie we’ve ever seen.
Surely our heroes have become more interesting since then, right?
Yeah, you can’t make fun of the current state of action movies at all. It’s so much better to just repeat the same old humor from the ‘90s.
Once you update the character to make fun of our time, you would then have to figure out how to give him the best arsenal we’ve ever seen in games. You need to mix it up, try new things and let the weapons work together and make sure you’re doing things no one else is doing in first-person shooters right now.
The developer would have to allow anarchy, and encourage the players to see how it all works with the environment. Take your cues from Spelunky, not Doom. Think more Arkane than Gearbox. It can be done. I’m sure there are people out there who would love to try.
Duke Nukem 3D was an amazing game, one of my absolute favorites growing up, and it was amazing due to the weapons, secrets and level designs. It was amazing because it felt like, outside of the dumb one-liners, the game thought you were smart enough to figure this all out and use it in new ways. That’s what we forget when we talk about the game, and we focus on the worst aspects of Duke Nukem, the parts of it that have aged like chicken salad instead of wine.
There is a place for Duke Nukem in 2017 and beyond, and my advice is simple: Start with the guns.