Back in childhood days, computer games were usually a group activity. Two or three kids would crowd around the screen, pop in the floppy disk or tape, wait patiently for the game to load, and take turns trying to play. The emphasis was on trying, especially when those kids, used to side-scrollers on the Mega Drive, tried to play Duke Nukem 3D.
Duke Nukem 3D isn’t the friendliest introduction to first-person shooters for anyone, compared to something like Doom. Even the basic enemies hit pretty hard, so you need to either be quick to take them down, or be good at dodging bullets. If you’re still learning how to move around, this doesn’t end very well.
We were usually lucky to even make it into the cinema, often being killed in a small apartment near the entrance, not able to turn around a corner fast enough to take down the enemy standing around the bend. Not being able to aim means running out of ammo fairly quickly, and trying to storm the cinema by kicking everyone to death. Not knowing how to strafe, and only having keyboard controls rather than a mouse, had a lot to do with it. It was fun to toy with, but impossible to progress at all.
So it’s been nice to go back and try it again now I can actually play the damn thing. And what a damn thing it is. As good a game as Doom still is, Duke just has something that Doom lacks. Part of this is the level theming: much of the first episode, and all of the third and forth, take place in stereotypical cityscapes, so you raid a cinema, a bank, a police station, and the set for a film about Duke’s exploits in the previous episodes. The last two episodes in particular take this to the extreme: the forth episode is a Mission Impossible sendup, and the third boss is fought in the middle of an American Football stadium. They make a welcome change after the claustrophobic, dimly-lit, facehugger-filled spaceports of the second episode.
Another part of the theming comes from Duke’s dialogue, especially in the first episode, so enthusiastically evoking the action nonsense of the nineties that it’s impossible to take the game seriously, with Duke merrily taunting enemies he’s just blown up, or badly singing Born to be Wild in a karaoke bar, or swearing when the aliens blow up his ride. Three times. Camp was more muscular and explosion-laden in the nineties, but it definitely wasn’t dead.
One thing you notice as you play through the game, though, is the levels start becoming rather skewed when giving out ammunition. Why are the levels so liberal with pipe bombs? Explosions are great, but unless you’re up against a great crowd of enemies, which doesn’t happen overly often, they seem rather a waste. The level designer’s fondness for them is hard to decipher.
That is, until you play it on Nightmare.
Doom’s Nightmare setting is a place of hurry and panic, where the sole focus is on running through the level as quickly as possible. Duke’s, while not exactly leisurely, isn’t an enforced speed run like Doom’s is, but leaves room to breathe and think things through.
This is almost entirely because of a single difference between the two games. In Doom, every enemy comes back. In Duke, they only do so if they leave a corpse. And explosions destroy corpses.
Suddenly, the dishing out of pipe bombs makes sense. Rather than running everywhere in a blind panic as you try to remember perfectly where to go, you can stop for a moment to consider whether you’ll need to come back through the area you just cleared out. If you are, put down a pipe bomb so the inhabitants can’t come back. You can now take the time for detours to grab weapons from secret areas, and can afford to not remember exactly where you’re going.
Inadvertently, this means both Doom’s and Duke Nukem 3D’s mechanics in Nightmare bring the feel of playing them closer to that of their bare-bones story.
Doom’s story is of a demonic invasion of Mars and Earth, ending in the inevitable demonic conquest of Earth. Taking this story as-is would imply a tone of panic, of the feeling that time is not on your side. However, on the lower difficulty levels, the ease with which armies of demons can be blown away, and the leisurely pace at which one can explore the levels and absorb the atmosphere and the music, give the game its natural feel of 90’s camp goriness, defying you to take it seriously. On Nightmare, though, the demonic forces come back over and over, and since ammunition is mostly picked up from the ground rather than bodies, the game becomes a panicked dash through the levels, hoping to reach the end before sheer numbers bring you down, as is fit for an inevitably victorious demonic invasion. Playing at this setting, you can almost take the story at face value, Daisy and Romero excepted.
Duke Nukem 3D, on the other hand, has its tone enhanced by Nightmare difficulty, not subverted. The basic plot, and feel, of the game are that Duke is an incomparable badass, and that, while the invading aliens are powerful and numerous, Duke’s victory is assured, through brawn and firepower. While Nightmare is still difficult, the ability to take out enemies permanently gives a sense of final victory that Doom lacks. Where Doomguy can only hope to run his way through the endless eldritch onslaught for as long as possible, Duke can take his time, confident that he can blow his enemies to Kingdom Come. He even destroys the Alien Queen herself, after all, with a pipe bomb.