FBT revisits Duke on his 25th Birthday – because he does have time to play with himself.
Still a Blast?
I’ve realised that buying Duke re-releases is a hobby of mine. In the last 25 years I’ve had the shareware version, the big box version, add-ons from CD giveaways, then the Plutonium PAK (and the Atomic Edition, not realising it was the same), then Kill-A-Ton, then the Megaton Edition and Kill-A-Ton’s re-release because I wasn’t sure what I did or didn’t have anymore. So many versions of Duke, each with different add-ons, levels and episodes, if you fancied a particular Duke experience you’d spend hours going Mph, Ugh, Where Is It?
Then, after DNF brought Duke down faster than the MeToo movement, Gearbox released the 20th Anniversary Edition. Finally, a definitive all-in-one Duke, right? Nope, didn’t include any of the add-ons. Gearbox, hasn’t Duke suffered enough under your not-so-mighty foot?
But, 20th Anniversary did have an all-new level by the original DN3D designers, and their commentary. Sounds worth it – but not for the 15 quid price tag. That’s almost as shameful as DNF. Eventually it hit the Sales and I got it for under 2 quid. Finally, 25 years after Duke Nukem 3D was released, I’ve got all the 3D Duke ever released on PC. I’m going to play the entire collection, see how Duke’s aged in this Cancel Culture. I even tracked down the Penthouse Paradise level - just for completists sake of course.
Shoulda Stayed There?
First up, the original – Duke Nukem 3D. The 20th Anniversary looks nice, but it’s not like any of the earlier versions struggled; DOSBox is hardly a hardship. Its smoother, but then so was Megaton. One thing I do like is you can choose any level so it’s perfect for a dip-in replay and being able to rewind on death is a cheaty plus. But what I really love is the developer commentary. They react to events, recall moments, share titbits and stories - it’s a glimpse into FPS’ heyday and worth buying 20th Anniversary for alone. In the sales.
Barrelling through Episode 1 - L.A. Meltdown, I am so relieved that Duke has actually aged well. He’s surprisingly well-adjusted which just makes DNF all the more offensive. Yeah, he’s macho and egotistical but he’s a hyper version of 80s heroes, a Bond-style ‘women want him, men want to be him’ type. He’s never creepy unlike his FPS pal Lo-Wang, who was a sex pest. He’s a horndog for sure, but not the lecherous deviant of DNF.
Yes, a strip-club and a porn theatre aren’t exactly up to Third-wave feminism expectations, and the only women featured are strippers, prisoners or prostitutes, but … actually not sure I have a solid argument, beyond blame the Aliens for landing in a crummy part of town. At least Duke pays the strippers when he asks them to shake it, baby. He’s not saying “looks like you’re fucked” when his incestuous twin GF’s get alien-raped. God I despise DNF.
Anyway, we’re here for some alien-ass-kicking, and this episode still delivers. This isn’t a patch on Doom’s intensity and focus, but the LA levels are efficient and interesting, and Duke was the only one of the big four – Doom, Duke, Shadow Warrior, Blood - that felt relatable in its location. Not to suggest I spend a lot of time in Porno theatres, but I recognise what we shot through and that makes it more fun than gloomy corridors or other worlds.
It’s also a lot more unforgiving than I remembered. Every corner has a poised Pig Cop and it’s rare you keep 200 health for long. But at least Duke can drink out of toilets to regain health… That’s one thing that does mark out Duke. Others on the Build engine had interactions, but in Duke it feels immersive; Doom might have been the daddy, but Duke was the cool uncle who took you to a bar and let you play pool.
I wasn’t a fan of Episode 2 - Lunar Apocalypse then and even less so now. It’s just boring compared to the inner-city levels, but it’s saved by Spin Cycle, the best secret level of any Doom-era game, ever. Just watching those Lizard Troopers flying around on the moving floors is worth dragging through Lunar Apocalypse. And of course, the final level where Duke makes good on his threat to the Overlord boss. Still got it.
By now I am getting fatigued. Just too many Pig Cops, too long wandering lost. Even being back on Earth, Shrapnel City is a bit of a slog. Still, Duke 3D feels like you’re in a movie – we even get the girl(s) in the end, after taking out the Emperor in a Sports Stadium – a perfect setting for a true American Hero to save the day. None of the other Doom era games are this bombastic and fun, or end with us enjoying being a hero; they’re all bitter-sweet or anti-climactic, except Shadow Warrior which ends with Lo-Wang letting the baddie go so he can do Karaoke.
Usually, additional episodes in the Doom era are dull re-treads with a recycled boss. I wasn’t looking forward to this, but Episode 4 - The Birth is largely made up from discarded levels and set-pieces that never made it into the original which makes it pure fan-service, and it’s also awesome - way better than Episode 2; the Mission Impossible level is packed with in-jokes, and Duke-Burger is brilliant, but Babe-Land where we shoot through a Duke-style theme park including sexy pirates is a work of art. If those had been in the original trilogy it would have been amazing. It’s maybe my favourite Duke episode of all.
But the real treasure of the 20th Anniversary is Episode 5 - Alien World Order. Built from scratch, it’s complex, clever, and often beautiful; the opening level set in Amsterdam reminded me of Broken Sword, while the Egypt and Golden Gate Bridge levels are epic. It’s up there with retro-returns like Ion Fury or Sigil, a rediscovery of those mad old Doom-era times. The developers have still got it, paying homage to the originals while creating stuff that still surprises. It’s just tons of fun; this is what DNF could have - should have – been, and the commentary proves they had as much fun making it as we do playing it.
Man, that was a lot of Duke. I fancy a change of scenery. Duke Caribbean: Life's A Beach sees Duke’s vacation spoiled when the Aliens coincidentally realise the Caribbean is ideal for breeding, so descend on his hotel complex to kidnap bikini babes. It’s down to Duke to repel their invasion and save the day/girls. I guess a change is as good as a rest, right?
In my memory this was always my favourite DN level, and while I think episodes 4 and 5 have topped it now, it’s refreshing. The bright blue sky and tropical design makes a change from the samey bleakness of the main series, while water-pistols and Caribbean music give it a playful edge, but it’s the holiday-wear the aliens have rocked up in that makes it.
The Commander is now in a wifebeater and floating in a donut ring, the Pig Cops are in Hawaiian shirts and bounce around in inflatables, the Octabrains have Raybans... It’s a comic work of art, but not just a reskin; the levels include Duke’s hotel, a beach, a cruise ship but they’re so well made and it’s so energetic and breezy – just like a break should be.
From sea and strippers to snow and strippers. Nuclear Winter is similar in approach to Caribbean – it’s here for a good time, but just not as good as Caribbean. Some of the original levels have been reworked for snow and alternative routes, we’ve got snowmen lobing snowballs and the strippers wear Santa hats but this just feels a little laboured. Maybe I’m getting burned out on Duke, but it just doesn’t quite hold together as well, it feels a little one-joke and doesn’t add anything memorable.
Duke It Out In D.C. isn’t as good as I remember either. The level in the White House is top notch, but Smithsonian Terror really tries your patience. It’s vast, directionless, and tiresome but one thing you have to credit D.C for is detail. And the finale sees us save Clinton. It has its charms and some ingenious levels, but this is less a shooter and more a tour of D.C.; if Duke and I are going on a tour, the Penthouse Mansion is a better bet…
About all I can say about Penthouse Paradise is it totally blows away any argument that Duke was woke. It’s basically a rejected Caribbean level with loads of static Penthouse Pet images; they don’t move, interact or shake it baby, it’s sleazy, cheap and a bit uncomfortable; the fully nude and ‘erotically’ posed girls sitting in offices and showers just feel weird, it’s like a pack of dirty playing cards. The only thing of note is for the first time ever, I beat the 3D Realms par time – although not sure I want to boast about how quickly I can finish when surrounded by naked Penthouse Pets.
So give or take, that’s Duke. While DN3D did often drag, I was surprised at how much fun I had, and how not-misogynistic Duke actually was. I used to dismiss Duke 3D as shallow, but often I found a secret area, a short-cut or hidden corridor only to find a keycard there; here I was thinking I was a pro but no, it was always the plan. DN3D is a lot more complex than I gave it credit for and I never thought ‘oh that’s not aged well’ - Duke is still lookin’ good. If you can track down 20th Anniversary on the cheap it is a necessary purchase, for the extra level and that commentary. Hail to the King, baby.