Duke Nukem 3D would have never happened without Doom. No doubt about it. Doom is one of the most significantly important games ever made for both technological and mechanical reasons. With his engine work on Doom and Quake, John Carmack greatly accelerated gaming technology. Almost everything in modern FPS titles can be linked back to Doom. However, despite Doom being a far more important game in games history, Duke Nukem 3D is the better game in terms of the total package. Since Legendary Entertainment and the creators of Cobra Kai just announced a Duke Nukem film, let’s look back at how amazing Duke Nukem 3D was and why it’s the best boomer shooter of its era.
Let’s start with the technology. Duke Nukem 3D utilizes the Build engine in a far more impressive way than the Doom or Quake engine. The trickery on display here is what I like to call gaming magic. Playing this game, normally, you would never even know what the game actually does when you use an elevator, use a staircase, or go underwater.
For example, when going in and out of water, the game uses a sneaky teleporter to advance you. There is no way to tell playing normally. There is just something about these old games with how they hide or mask aspects of it that you just don’t get anymore. At this point, everyone knows that a game is loading when you have to squeeze through a tight space. It’s so obvious, but back in this era and during the PS2 days, games did a much better job at masking loading times or limitations of the game engine.
The Three Key Factors in Any Boomer Shooter
There are three key factors in any boomer shooter campaign: the level design, the enemy roster, and the weaponry. Duke Nukem 3D is great in all areas, and most boomer shooters are lacking in at least 1 of them.
The Level Design
The level design in Duke Nukem 3D is top-tier for an old-school FPS. Lead level designers Allen Blum and Richard Gray did an absolutely fantastic job with these levels and guiding the player. I was totally lost so many times in Doom and Doom II. Even in Doom II, there was a level called “Downtown,” which needed a blatant arrow pointing the player in the direction to go.
Guiding the player needs to be more subtle than a simple large arrow. Sometimes in the first two Doom games, it can be really obtuse with what you’re supposed to do, but thankfully this is heavily mitigated in Duke 3D. Throughout all 5 episodes of the game, I only got stuck once in episode 4.
Like in many shooters of the era, the game’s filled with surprise traps that can kill the player if they’re not on guard. I like these if used right because they teach the player early on to expect these traps. Later on, in the game, they will see these traps coming. I really like how in most maps, there is a way to go back to an earlier section. This is useful if you missed something or you were saving an item to pick up later. The game is so much fun to explore due to the number of easter eggs, cultural references, and attention to detail throughout.
You really get the feeling that the creators of this game had a lot of fun while making it. The game also had a lot of interactivity in the environment before Half-Life came out. You can drink water from various sources, play pool, tip strippers, use the toilets, and use security cameras. It makes the game world feel more alive than any FPS previously, and it’s impressive for the game’s age. However, most of the interactivity is entirely optional. Besides getting health from water and getting information from the cameras, the interactivity doesn’t provide many gameplay rewards, which I think is unfortunate.
The Enemy Roster
The enemy roster is incredibly important in an old-school FPS campaign. There are reasons why Doom wads still get made to this day, and one of them is the incredible roster of enemies that Doom II offers. The roster of Duke Nukem 3D definitely delivers. First off, like Doom, most of the enemies have a distinct audio cue to them, which is incredibly helpful to the player before directly engaging with them. It makes the player more prepared later on when they can recognize them and adds another layer of skill to the game.
The game has the standard handgun, shotgun, and chaingun enemies like Doom. The Assault Trooper and Assault Captain are the standard goons for the beginning of an episode. Pig Cops are the shotgunner equivalent and are deadly at close range but fairly mid-tier in terms of priority in fights. The Enforcer is the chaingunner of the game and is important to kill right away. The game also has mid-tier and high-tier projectile throwers with the Octabrains and Assault Commanders, respectively. All five play a very critical role in virtually any FPS of this era in making fights dynamic.
An often criticized enemy is the Sentry Drone. Sentries often appear in packs and kamikaze in on the player. The enemy can be annoying at first but serves a very important role in the dynamic of combat. They serve the same role as the Beheaded Kamikaze in Serious Sam in how you always need to be on the lookout for them even in hectic fights with other enemies. They make the fights more dynamic, and as stated before, because the sentry drones are used as traps earlier, you come to expect them later in the game. Plus, Sentries do have a distinct audio cue. The Battlelord Sentries are the miniboss enemies of the game and are a force to be reckoned with. They can take a lot of firepower, but there is another option to handle them for higher-skilled players.
With a Shrinker in hand and a precise shot towards their feet, it will shrink them. It can be tricky to pull off, but it’s incredibly satisfying to nail down and adds another layer of depth. The only enemy I don’t like in this game is the turrets because they just feel cheap. They’re small and often not noticeable until they hit you. Thankfully they’re easy to kill but are annoying. The enemy roster in total is great for a boomer shooter of this era. However, I would say Doom II still has the edge in terms of the best enemy roster.
The weaponry in Duke Nukem 3D is probably my favorite for a boomer shooter because virtually every weapon has a use. Typically in many of the era’s boomer shooters, there’s always one or two completely useless weapons, but not in this game. The handgun doesn’t become useless later on like many shooters of the era. It’s still useful for protozoid slimers, turrets, and when you have to shoot a button or interactive item. The Shotgun is perfect for killing low to mid-tier enemies, and the Chaingun is good for groups of enemies. The RPG is great for killing groups of enemies as well as high-tier baddies, and the Devastator is the big kill-all weapon that uses ammo incredibly fast. All weapons stated so far are all ones that were normally in every FPS of the era. However, the following weapons are the special ones unique to this game. The Pipe Bombs are special because they are not only used as equivalents to grenades.
Pipe Bombs can be used as your own traps because you can throw down multiple ones before detonating. This is so much fun on repeat playthroughs when you know where enemies will come from. The same applies to the Laser Tripbomb. These might seem useless initially, but if you know where enemies will come from, it’s incredibly useful. The Shrinker is my favorite weapon because, for one, it’s incredibly useful for certain mid to high-tier level enemies. Second, the weapon is incredibly satisfying to use against said enemies and especially other players. In multiplayer, there’s not much more satisfying than shrinking another player down to size and crushing them with your boot. The Freezethrower is an awesome weapon that will freeze an enemy leaving a perfect opportunity to immediately kill them with your foot. It is useful, but the projectiles can bounce off the environment and freeze you, so watch out.
The only weapon I didn’t find much use for was the Expander, and that’s exclusively in the fourth and fifth episodes. It’s impressive that with 12 total weapons in the most current version of the game, almost every one is useful. The weaponry has great variety as well. That is a reason why I think Duke Nukem 3D is the best boomer shooter. Some games, like Ion Fury, have great level design and a good variety of enemies. However, they’re lacking in the weaponry department. Duke Nukem 3D is great in all three areas.
Duke Nukem 3D is the Best Boomer Shooter, But What’s Next
With its impressive trickery of the game engine, great level design, a great roster of enemies, and fantastic weaponry at your disposal, Duke Nukem 3D is, in my opinion, the best boomer shooter. Not to mention the multiplayer is also an absolute blast to play. Unfortunately, the development hell-ridden sequel was so bad it killed the series, despite the game somewhat turning a profit. At this point, the Dukester might get relegated to rereleases of his one great classic title, which is unfortunate. A new Duke Nukem game in the same lived-in world and combat but with modern graphics could be great in the right hands. However, at the moment, the IP seems to be damaged goods.