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Gaming: Always bet on Duke

 

 

Duke Nukem in a nutshell

Big guns, women, giant boss, modern setting... If you can imagine Jon St. John's voice saying some sort of quip then you'd have almost everything that defines Duke Nukem.

 

Doom wasn’t my first first-person shooter. Nor was it Wolfenstein 3D or, despite what the title might suggest, Duke Nukem 3D. At the time I didn’t have a PC, only an Amiga 1200. It was a great system and some of my favourite gaming experiences are on that machine, but Doom and this new genre of games – called “Doom clones” back then before the term FPS was settled on – were a PC thing, something that in my pre-internet days I was only vaguely aware of. Once it was clear that it was set to be a Big Thing it was Team 17, then a premiere Amiga developer, who turned their Alien Breed series into a Doom clone, Alien Breed 3D. It was well received (with Amiga magazines excitedly talking about how it would not just match Doom but exceed it, in a similar manner to all the ‘Halo killers’ of recent generations) but as my first FPS I wasn’t particularly impressed, and I don’t even remember getting very far before being disappointed that it wasn’t more like the traditional Alien Breed games.

Then there was Duke Nukem.

Once I had a PC I played Doom and liked it, but again it wasn’t something that wowed me. Duke Nukem 3D was where the genre really clicked for me. Duke was a distinct character, making quips and swearing (which appealed to my teen self), in levels that were all recognisably based on Earth (at least in the early levels) in settings like streets and movie theaters, where there were all kinds of pointless things to interact with that made the world feel that little bit more tangible. Throw in inventive weapons and equipment, Duke’s ridiculous cutscene antics (and a game that in general didn’t take itself seriously), spoken lines that I still quote to this day and, yes, boobies, and you had a game that completely sucked me in.

It’s a game that continues to have an influence on the shooters that I play after it. While playing Alan Wake a few days ago there was a bit where you enter a public bathroom to get an item that’s in the room behind it. Because of Duke Nukem 3D I go into every toilet in a game expecting to find secrets, because in that game you would find items, secret routes and occasionally things like this:

 

Occupado?

He should have locked the stall (click the image for a link to the source)

 

In case the Build engine’s visuals are too hard to decipher that’s a picture of an alien using the toilet. Obviously it’s a set placement rather than the aliens having routines that can see them caught unawares, but it was something that was really neat to discover and has stuck with me. In every bathroom I enter I always check everywhere for secrets (in games, that is, not real life), which in the case of Alan Wake it meant I discovered immediately that one of the stalls was locked and it didn’t take much to figure out that a Taken was going to come out of there and ambush me when I picked up the item. Sure enough, I pick the item up, start heading out, the lights go out and a Taken comes out of the stall. Predictable and disappointing for it, and that’s mostly because of Duke, although Alan Wake wasn’t exactly subtle about it anyway.

It turns out the influence goes even further. I’ve always wondered why it is I invert the Y-axis in shooters as it isn’t logical to switch up and down and it’s not even convenient, requiring me to change the settings for every shooter that isn’t on 360 (where global defaults mean it’s done automatically). Two recent interviews with veteran PC developers have finally revealed the answer. The first was part of PC Gamer’s epic series of Valve interviews, specifically the one where they were talking about the early days of FPS control:

Gabe Newell: I remember back when nobody used the mouse to play, and that was this huge scandalous thing. And Romero would get on and say, “I’m not going to use a mouse.” (Laughs)

Erik Johnson: We had a playtester from Half-Life 1 who – I don’t even know his name, he ended up being in the games industry – but we nicknamed him Keypad Boy, because he used the keypad to navigate everything.

PC Gamer: I must’ve used it, like… two years after it was cool. Because in the Build-engine games, you’d look up and down with the mouse and the whole thing goes [cry of existential terror at the world distorting], because they had no vertical vanishing point.

Doug Lombardi: Yeah, you could tell the Duke players from the Quake players…

Erik Johnson: They’d all have inverted mice.

PC Gamer: Yep, I invert my mouse.

Gabe Newell: Well, Robin for a long time was an inverted mouse guy.

PC Gamer: I very rarely hear of people switching actually. I’ve tried to switch…

Erik Johnson: If you work at this company, and you’re hazed for long enough, you find you switch. (Laughs)

And the second was in a Eurogamer interview with id’s Tom Willits:

Eurogamer: That’s the 360 for you. I expect we’ll have quite a few PC people in the audience at the Eurogamer Expo, so I wanted to ask: do you invert the mouse in FPS games? Answer carefully.

Tim Willits: I do not! What I do is I tease the people at id Software who do invert the mouse for being Duke Nukem fans. Way back in the day when there was Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem, people who played Duke had it inverted because it was default, and we have a few people at id who used to work at 3D Realms too.

Eurogamer: Surely that should be a prerequisite for moving to id – that you have to learn how to play without inversion.

Tim Willits: Exactly. You are right about that. John Carmack did not invent first-person shooters to be played inverted.

Eurogamer: I firmly agree.

So Duke Nukem 3D was hugely influential on the way I play one of the dominant genres of the present day, shaping both my control preferences and gameplay expectations from then on. Would subsequent Duke Nukem games have done the same? Perhaps not, but of course there’s no way of knowing for sure because 3D Realms managed to fail to put out a proper sequel in the sixteen years since Duke Nukem 3D (during which time other people managed to achieve quite a quite a lot of other things that were more complicated), before running out of money and shutting down in the middle of last year. We are finally going to be getting Duke Nukem Forever thanks to Gearbox Software stepping in to polish up everything that can be salvaged and try to turn it into something resembling a coherent game, but it remains to be seen just what 3D Realms actually left them to work with.

The initial footage is actually reasonably reassuring (once the video starts there’s a clickable caption to skip to the gameplay footage):

Granted, it’s just an updated version of a Duke Nukem 3D boss (which you can watch here to see just how far things have come) but it’s undeniably Duke Nukem. The classic weapons, the immaturity, the quips, the pointless interactive objects, mucking about with the bosses… it’s all there. Is it going to justify the development time or blow away all other shooters made since then? Of course not. Will I play through a lot of the game with a stupid grin on my face, caught up in a mixture of nostalgia and embracing the silliness? It seems very possible. Always bet on Duke.

Hail to the king, baby.

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