The GodisaGeek Retro Corner: Duke Nukem 3D

by on June 3, 2011

Game: Duke Nukem 3D (1996)

Developer: 3D Realms (Apogee software)

Publisher: GT Interactive Software

Originally Released on: Windows PC

Currently Available on: Windows PC, Xbox 360, iOS.

With an infamous fifteen-year development time behind it, Duke Nukem Forever is perhaps the most anticipated game of all time. Now it has finally gone gold, so the Godisageek team thought we should celebrate.  The story of how the game got picked up by Gearbox Software is an amazing one, made more so by the fact that it will finally be getting a retail release this June.

The Retro Corner is going to mark the occasion in the only way it knows how, by looking back at the game that cemented the legacy of Duke Nukem, making him a household name and causing a whole lot of controversy: Duke Nukem 3D.

Duke Nukem first came to prominence in 1991 in a side-scrolling platform shooter of the same name. This and its sequel (which arrived two years later) were simple sprite-based DOS games, where players progressed through near-future environments, shooting aliens in an effort to save the world. They were fairly innocuous games, and whilst they enjoyed modest success, they didn’t stand out from the raft of similar titles that were around at the time.

Duke Nukem 3D, the third game in the series, changed all of that, and quickly. Released at a time when the first-person shooter genre was gaining a huge following (thanks largely to earlier games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), Duke Nukem is often regarded as the last great sprite-based FPS, before full 3D polygon rendering was embraced by game developers. Because the game did not use 3D sprites at a time when such technology was widely accessible, the game’s slightly misleading title of Duke Nukem 3D already suggests that the player isn’t in for an entirely serious experience.

The game sets itself up as a cheesy B-Movie where the stereotypical muscle-bound American hero must fight to clean up the streets of his hometown and then go on to save the world, whilst rescuing women who have been captured by the aliens. Because it parodies other games, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The game constantly makes references to well-known films and has cameos from cult char acters such as Luke Skywalker and a Terminator T-800. The protagonist from FPS competitor Doom also makes a brief appearance.

Interaction with the environment was more in-depth than in most FPS games at the time, to the point where Duke could even use public urinals. The game’s sense of humour to shines through even the arsenal of weapons, illustrated best by the Shrink-Ray, which enables Duke to shrink his enemies before employing his big boot to squash them underfoot.

But what is best remembered about Duke Nukem3D (both by fans and detractors alike) are the sexual references. Being a typical American Jock, Duke seems to enjoy spending his time in strip clubs, pornography shops and XXX rated cinemas, and gamers were given the chance to do just that in-game. Scantily-clad women would gyrate in the strip club, until Duke was offered the choice to “interact” with them. Offering the ladies money would reward Duke with a quick flash whilst he made a selection of macho quips, such as the famous “Hail to the King Baby” (a quote borrowed from the Evil Dead series of films).

Naked and near-naked women didn’t only populate the first stage of the game however, they would appear throughout the levels. Naked, bound and gagged, as captured prisoners of the aliens or when simply being used as eye candy, the portrayal of women in the game led to wide-spread outrage and the game was banned in several countries for its sexual nature and the fact that the women could be killed, a feature which apparently promoted violence against women.

So was Duke Nukem 3D being irresponsibly sexist, or was the sexual content simply tongue-in-cheek and played for laughs? It was certainly gratuitous and over-the-top, but was is harmful?

One claim that was levelled at the game was that killing the women was encouraged, and players would gain extra points for violently dispatching them. This angered equality activist groups and made waves in the media at the time. However, actually playing the game reveals that it has no formal score allocation mechanic. Killing a particular human or enemy doesn’t appropriate any specific score value, so this claim was clearly baseless. Although it is true that if Duke kills a particular scantily-clad woman, he can find a hidden extra weapon, but this functions as an easter egg and is neither a core game issue or something that the majority of players would experience.

The fact that the player could simply throw money at the ladies in the game in order to get them to strip was also contentious and predictably led to the game being labelled as being guilty of objectifying women. Of course, this is true, to an extent, as the strippers found in strip clubs will remove clothes for money (as they would in real life). However, if Duke approaches a different NPC lady in the same level and tries to throw his money at her, there is no consequence or response.

Whilst this does of course still leave the fact that players can pay women to strip, it is contextualised in the sense that only the strippers will strip (I hope you can keep up with all of this!). Factor in the point that the game was released originally as an 18-rated title, and this sort of content can’t really be deemed quite so inappropriate. As always seems to be the case when violent or controversial games are discussed in the media and in open debate, people forget that if a child is playing a game that is not suited to their age, it is the responsibility of their parent to ensure they know what content is in that game, and for the parent to make a judgement as to whether or not said content is acceptable for their child.

Duke Nukem was never a particularly graphic game. The nudity was pixellated and unclear at best, and although this was due to the graphical limitations of the time, rather than being an intentional measure, it still reduces the overall impact of the images presented.

Sure, Duke spouts a lot of misogynistic rubbish that would offend a lot of people in real life, but what eighties action films didn’t feature protagonists who did exactly the same thing? In order to parody the material it is based on, the creators of Duke Nukem 3D had to take the established Sci-fi action film and video game conventions and skew them in order to create a caricature of them. As we know from parodic movies and books, exaggeration is key in much of parody. So the creators of the game would have been aiming to push the envelope in order to hit the desired level of insanity and humour.

Like any good joke, it will most likely offend a certain percentage of the population. But you need only to look at the sales figures for the game and all of the Duke-related spin-offs that followed in order to see that it struck a chord with a lot of gamers. Although Duke Nukem’s sense of humour was key, its gameplay was still solid and competed admirably with its contemporaries.

Duke Nukem 3D’s sexism and over-the-top machismo were the unique selling points that made it stand out above other titles, but they were not the be-all and end-all. The jokes were good, but people only wanted to carry on playing between them because the gameplay was so compelling. Although the game doesn’t stand up too well when compared to today’s more sophisticated shooters, it was still innovative for its time. Of course, the developers of Duke Nukem Forever are likely to try and be slightly less offensive, but with multiplayer modes such as “Capture The Babe” (where the player will have to occasionally slap the “babe” in order to “calm her down”), it seems they are trying to capture the same mood as the original.

Only time will tell if Duke will cause as much of an uproar in 2011 as he did in 1996. Duke Nukem 3D was released at a time when PC gamers were invariably young men who would play their games as a solo activity, so the developers had designed a game that would appeal to that target audience and make them laugh. In the modern day and age, the video game buying audience is much broader and crosses all age and gender divides, so the potential for the game to be played by those who may find it offensive is much greater now. However, with the advent of ultra-violent games such as Manhunt, and kleptomaniacal games like the Grand Theft Auto series, the antics of Duke seem to pale in comparison.

After fifteen years, the durability of the franchise is apparent, given that Duke Nukem Forever is still going to see the light of day. If it survived that hellish development, it is sure to survive any media frenzy that might be whipped up due to its content. Long live The King, baby!

Duke Nukem 3D is currently available on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch via iTunes for $0.99, can be purchased for Windows PC from gog.com for $5.99 or can be purchased via Xbox LIVE on Xbox 360 for 800 Microsoft Points. The God is a Geek Retro Corner will return on the first friday of next month.

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