Back in the ‘90s when I first got a PC, my tech-savvy Uncle managed to copy several games onto disks for me to try out. There was Doom 1 and 2 of course, but I’d already played them, while Quake, which was amazing to look at, was a little dry for my tastes. And then I played Duke Nukem 3D. At this time I was a huge fan of ‘80s action flicks, aliens and gore (I was a teenager after all), so discovering an FPS that featured all these aspects and more was like a distillation of my teenage mind. Oh, and the low-fi smut probably helped too.
Duke’s puerile humour resonated with me; it was all so wonderfully silly and over the top , though it helped that 3D Realms’ shooter was a joy to play as well, with exciting weaponry and memorable levels. Put simply, Duke Nukem 3D stands as one of the most important moments of my personal gaming history, so when I learned that the whole shebang was arriving on PS3 and PS Vita this month I was curious to see how time has treated a game I haven’t returned to in over a decade. Can this handheld port of a now nineteen year old shooter revive my affection for the Duke after the heart-breaking horrors of Duke Nukem Forever?
Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition features the base game and all its expansions. The contents include jaunts to a Caribbean paradise, Washington D.C. and the North Pole, all complimenting the crude madness of the main campaign in their own daffy ways. It only adds to the absurdity when alien pig-cops (subtle) are topped off with a santa hat or Duke is wielding a water pistol. The gameplay is pretty standard throughout though and is a stark reminder of how different shooters used to be. There is no aiming down the sights, no regenerating health and Duke moves like The Flash compared to modern gaming action heroes. It’s also tough as nails. Enemies appear out of nowhere quite often, catching you unawares and colouring you a healthy shade of dead before you even manage to paint a bullet on them. You may need to fiddle with the aim sensitivity as I found it a bit skittish in its default setting, which isn’t all that helpful when the enemy count is high.
Understandably, Duke Nukem 3D may not be all that forgiving for anyone weaned on modern FPS, but Devolver has added a rewind feature to help alleviate the potential frustration of certain death. When Duke pops his clogs, you are presented with a time duration bar that initially presents you with a suitable point in your playthrough to restart from, but you can also slide along the bar to pick your start point from any part of your run. It is a welcome tool as even with certain maps embedded deep in my brain, I still struggled when things got chaotic. The speed at which Duke plays means analog sticks are always going to feel inferior to a mouse/keyboard combo. I found the first shrink-ray section annoyingly tough to navigate on Vita, but the PS3 version was a little easier. Sadly, it seems the sticks on the Vita don’t quite respond as quickly as the Dualshock 3’s do; it isn’t a gamebreaker, it just adds extra challenge/frustration to the handheld port.
That may all make Duke sound like a chore to play, a relic of gaming past, but that’s definitely not the case. Duke may be sporadically unforgiving and ill-suited to a controller, but in pure gameplay and design terms, it holds up incredibly well. For all the absurdly silly nonsense on show, the game’s design and mechanics follow a surprisingly straightforward understanding of how three dimensional space should work that is lost on many present day equivalents. The opening salvo of L.A. Meltdown is level design at its best, with no button prompts or tutorials to guide you, basic logic is key to traversing the level. Puzzles are fairly simple to solve when you use that thinking. Then there’s the combat, which is still gratifying to this day. Pipe Bombs are a blast (lame pun intended) to bounce off corners, the shotgun remains as meaty as ever and the Shrink and Freeze Rays invite you to glean much joy from screwing around with the bad guys. It ensures that Duke is still a fun experience at heart and allows it to be relevant despite some of the more archaic aspects on show. Most of the smutty humour and macho posturing doesn’t come across particularly well two decades later, nor does the jarring sight of 2D enemies and objects in 3D space, but that shouldn’t take away from the remarkable feat of Duke still being an enjoyable romp with tightly-designed levels and fun to use weaponry. The fact that just five minutes of playing this Duke from 1996 has more depth and fun now than anything the lumbering embarrassment that is Duke Nukem Forever could manage in its entirety speaks volumes about the quality, care and attention to detail put into both.