It still feels like yesterday – that moment when Duke Nukem 3D came out in the mid-90s. It was not the first fully textured 3D-like shooter since Doom took the lead, but it was certainly one of the best: the 3D Realms guys had tons of great ideas on how to make Duke Nukem 3D a different game, and the reason why there are still ports of it today is simply because it still kicks as much ass as it used to.
Before going to the Pandora port itself, there may be younger people who do not know Duke Nukem (my poor little ones) very well and who might even wonder why it’s one of the best shooters out there. Well let me first assume you know what a FPS is and that you know Doom, for example. And I’m not talking about the fucking movie.
FPS games are great in many aspects. You can’t beat them in immersion, but at the same time this is where their weakness lies – in character development. Since you are seeing the action through the eyes of the hero, it’s difficult to make you feel that the hero is anyone else than you, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, read the words again slowly, it will start to make sense after a while.
Very often you end up with characters who are as thin as cheap printing paper, such as Gordon Freeman in Half Life who has literally no personality whatsoever and does not even speak. The poor Gordon must be mute.
Duke Nukem 3D basically solved the problem in a very ingenious way, by using voice-over to give personality to the character even in first person view. The fact that the hero speaks and comments on what’s happening (often with hilarious things to say) made a huge difference in the atmosphere of the game. It was not as cold or neutral as Doom any more. It was a game with a clear, well-defined personality and style. It made you feel that you were someone different. Using Jon St John’s voice probably helped as well.
But the qualities of Duke Nukem 3D do not end here. Richard Gray (“Levelord”), one of the famous developers of Duke Nukem 3D, attributed three components to the success of game development.
First, the “fun factor”. The game has to be fun to the developer in the first place, since it’s probably going to be a good indication whether it will please the player in the end. But playing a few minutes is not enough, you need to relentlessly play your game to ensure it remains fun in the long run.
The second factor is the player-environment interaction. The team behind Duke took things further by allowing the destruction of many items and even pieces of buildings in all levels because “blowing stuff is so much fun“. Most of the objects around can be kicked, blown off, destroyed or damaged. Even buildings can be destroyed (well, some parts, only), which was fairly new at the time. The attention to details in level-design was great and levels were clearly made not to be boring. The designers put a lot of thought in it, including many secrets if you were willing to explore and search for exciting items scattered all around. Rewarding curiosity was always a big driver for spending more time in each level. “Discovering secrets make the puzzles even more fun“, said Richard Gray.
Finally the sense of authenticity is important. “The more the gamer will feel in a familiar place, the more he will feel immersed into the level and the game.” Technically Duke Nukem 3D was not a full 3D shooter but used what is now referred to as a 2.5D, using tricks to simulate a 3D environment view but limiting it to a certain perspective (you can never look above your head for this particular reason – Quake was the first real 3D textured shooter, while being an inferior game in my opinion…). This being said it had certainly a more complex geometry than Doom, and allowed for a lot of variety. Doom was clearly set in an unreal environment (supposed to be Mars…) but Duke Nukem tried to recreate realistic environment with the technology they had at the time, and it was quite successful to do so (the theater in the first level is very well done).
But it’s not just about trying to be realistic, “your levels have to be solid from beginning to end” says Richard, to avoid the “patchwork effect” that you see sometimes in games which have issues to fit all pieces back together.
All in all his advices and principles still make sense to this day. Too bad they didn’t do a very good work with reapplying them on Duke Nukem Forever…
Back to the Open Pandora port.
Mcbit released his version of the Eduke32 port for Pandora not too long ago, and while I had tried the previous version (where nubs were not supported) and stopped playing it very quickly, this time the port was so well executed it was a great pleasure to play Duke Nukem 3D again.
First, the controls are extremely comfortable: the left nub is used for movement and strafing; up and down direction makes you move forward and backward, left and right makes you strafe. And since it’s on the analog controller you get all the intermediate positions possible at the tip of your finger. Since the Pandora’s nubs are a joy to play with, this is just plain awesome (while you may have to tweak the sensitivity of the nubs to make them work the way you like). Add to this the support of the right nub to look around you, and you get a very precise combination of controls to move and shoot things around you. The trigger is associated with the right shoulder button which is just perfect to coordinate all actions at once. I doubt that any other machine could provide such adequate control in a similar way.
You will need, of course, the original files of Duke Nukem 3D to play the game, but I can confirm that you can get those from good old games without any issue (6 dollars at the time of writing). You also need to install Timidity midi files in order to enjoy the music, but I assume you have already done so if you followed my self-proclaimed excellent tutorial on what to do after reflashing…
So, there you have it. One of the most fun shooters out there in the palm of your hands, with the best controls you can hope to get in this day and age. I assume you are here to “kick ass and chew bubblegum”, and all out of bubblegum. (That was taken from the movie They Live, incidentally).
Always bet on Duke.