Game Retrospective: Duke Nukem

Warren Leigh
5 min readApr 28, 2020

On the 29th January 1996, the shareware version of Duke Nuken 3D was first released for MD-DOS in North America. The full version would launch three months later.

Developed by 3D Realms (previously known as Apogee Software before 1996), Duke Nukem 3D is a sequel to both 1991’s Duke Nukem and 1993’s Duke Nukem II. Unlike its predecessors, which are both 2D side-scrolling platformers, the game is a first-person shooter. The majority of the game’s development was handled by a team of roughly eight people, which increased to around 15 as the game neared completion, over a period of around two and a half years.

The game utilises the Build engine written by programmer Ken Silverman. 3D Realms had been impressed by Silverman’s 1992 game, Ken’s Labyrinth, a title which saw the impressive engine’s debut and soon after entered an employment agreement with the programmer that allowed the studio to use his engine across a range of projects. The same engine would be later used for games including Blood, Shadow Warrior and Redneck Rampage (A later version would even be used for the 2019 shooter, Ion Fury.)

The game immediately follows the events of Duke Nukem II which saw Duke take on the evil Rigelatin alien race

Duke Nukem 3D takes place immediately following the events of Duke Nukem II with Duke descending back to Earth in his space cruiser after defeating the evil Rigelatins. However, after being shot down over Los Angeles, he soon finds himself in the midst of an alien invasion. Using an arsenal of firearms and weapons, from a shotgun to a shrink ray, Duke fights his way through the invading alien forces as well as the city’s police force, now mutated into fierce, snarling pigs. Although later versions of the game would introduce additional episodes, the original release’s three episodes sees Duke fight through several environments including city streets, military bases, space stations, sushi bars, desserts and even a movie set.

The game uses Ken Silverman’s Build engine, an early version of which had been previously used to power 1995’s Witchaven

3D Realms were encouraged to leap into the world of 3D graphics with Duke Nukem 3D following the release of id Software’s 1993 first-person shooter, Doom. Their first Duke Nukem game had been a successful release for the studio and its sequel Duke Nukem II, inevitably maintained the side-scrolling platforming roots of its predecessor. Doom would be released just one week following Duke Nukem II’s launch. Somewhat overshadowed, Duke Nukem II’s sales were less than expected. Gamers now wanted fast, immersive 3D worlds. The studio knew such a model would have to be adopted for Duke’s next adventure.

Aiming to keep the majority of the game’s environments grounded in reality, many stages feature bars, towers blocks and city streets

Although the team were initially inspired by Doom, they aimed to create something different. Rather than Doom’s sci-fi setting, Duke Nuken 3D would adopt stages that were (for the most part) grounded in reality, taking place in bars, streets, sewers and tower blocks. The team also strived to create a game that surpassed what could be done in Doom and introduced several features such as jetpacking, slopes, large moving sections and numerous interactive elements. In a 2015 interview, co-producer of Duke Nukem 3D, and Apogee/3D Realms co-founder, George Broussard stated, “None of us had ever made a 3D game before so all we could do was study Doom and veer off the path and see where it led us.”

Voice of Duke, American voice actor Jon St. John

Duke Nukem’s edgy and often hilarious in-game quips, a now-iconic part of the Duke character, were a late addition to the game and were inspired by the 1995 LucasArts point-and-click adventure game, Full Throttle. During a conversation about the game, Broussard remarked how Ben (Full Throttle’s main character) sounded much how they believed Duke would sound. Broussard sent a cassette tape recording of Full Throttle’s introduction sequence to a voice casting agency and asked for someone similar. The team were put in touch with a local radio personality, Jon St. Jon. Impressed by his demo tape, St. Jon was promptly brought on board to voice Duke.

When it came to writing Duke’s dialogue, the team would gather at Broussard’s home and watch movies such as Army of Darkness and They Live for inspiration. The character’s dialogue contains numerous references to a plethora of movies including Aliens, Full Metal Jacket and Dirty Harry. The game also contains many hilarious pop-culture references strewn throughout the game world, such as encountering a tunnel concealed behind a poster during a prison level (referencing the 1994 movie, The Shawshank Redemption).

In addition to movie references, the game included several moments which poked fun at other games (“Hmmm, that’s one doomed space marine”)

Upon release, Duke Nukem 3D was a huge success. Due to the popularity of the shareware version, the game had over 50,000 pre-orders, which, at the time, were all packaged and shipped by the team at 3D Realms. The original release of the game received praise for its fast gameplay, interesting weapons, varied stages and robust multiplayer mode and currently maintains a score of 89% on Metacritic. The game would be ported to a range of platforms, including PlayStation, Saturn, Nintendo 64 and macOS. A version of the game (albeit, heavily reworked) even appeared on the Sega Mega Drive in Brazil developed by Tec Toy.

The game’s eventual sequel, Duke Nukem Forever, currently holds the record for having the longest video game development period

Although the series would receive numerous spin-offs and re-releases in the years that followed, Duke Nukem 3D would not receive a true sequel for another 15 years with the release of 2011’s Duke Nukem Forever; a title notorious for its lengthy and often difficult development cycle.

🕹Are you a fan of Duke Nukem 3D?

🕹Have you enjoyed any of its numerous ports and spin-offs?

🕹What were your thoughts on Duke Nukem Forever?

🕹Do you believe the series can make a comeback?