As befits a wisecracking ’90s action hero, Duke Nukem is hard to kill. In spite of Duke Nukem Forever driving the series’ commercial prospects into the ground, a dedicated few still hold a torch for the self-parodying action hero.
The resurfacing of a long-lost (and genuinely exciting) Duke Nukem Forever prototype gave Duke some more time in the limelight, but what people remember him best for is 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D. A classic FPS that holds up shockingly well to this day, famous for its detailed and interactive urban environments and constant riffing on the action movies of the era—two traditions modders have been happy to keep alive.
It’s time to practice your best (borrowed) one-liners, slip on your shades, and prepare to save America at its sleaziest. Here’s how to enjoy Duke Nukem 3D in 2022, and a deep dive on some of the madly ambitious mods still in active production.
What’s the best version of Duke Nukem 3D?
Skip this section if you already own Duke Nukem 3D from any source—just install it and read on. But if you’re new and don’t know your Devastator from your Freezethrower, there’s a couple of options to consider.
It’s surprisingly difficult to find the right version of Duke Nukem 3D. There have been at least three major re-releases since its 1996 debut, and only one is widely available today. Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour (opens in new tab) comes from current publisher Gearbox, and includes its own bespoke engine, plus an exclusive fifth episode featuring a new weapon and enemy type. Unfortunately this version has some issues, including sludgy mouse aiming. It also doesn’t include any of the original expansions.
My recommendation would be to get the far cheaper Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition, which includes the original DOS release plus all the original third-party expansions. While you miss out on Gearbox’s new episode, it’s honestly not a huge loss. Due to licensing shenanigans it’s no longer available on Steam or GOG, but you can pick it up from retro-themed upstart store Zoom Platform (opens in new tab). While not well-known, they are legit and have been updating lesser-known older games to play nice with modern machines, like how GOG started out. Plus it’s DRM-free, which feels right for a game from the ’90s.
Before you do anything else
It’s possible to play most releases of Duke Nukem 3D straight out of the box, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Install whatever version of the game you’ve got, then download the latest version of the EDuke32 engine (opens in new tab). Unless you’re running on ancient hardware, pick the 64-bit edition.
Like GZDoom did for Doomguy, EDuke32 drags Duke into the modern era with hardware 3D rendering, high-res graphics, better controls, and vastly expanded mod support. Thanks to the development needs of Ion Fury (which uses the same engine), there’s been some major improvements, allowing mods to push Duke further than ever.
Installing EDuke32 is easy. Just unzip it to its own directory and run EDuke32.EXE. In most cases it should automatically detect where you’ve got Duke 3D installed and hook into the required files. If it doesn’t, manually copy the DUKE3D.GRP and DUKE.RTS files from your Duke 3D directory to where EDuke32 is, and you’re good to go.
Installing mods is every bit as easy. Just unzip any given mod to its own directory in the EDuke32 folder. When you launch the game, pick your mod from the ‘custom game content directory’ dropdown.
The only hard decision is which renderer to use. EDuke32 has three options, which you can toggle via the in-game Video options menu:
- Classic: Retro software rendering. Chunky, raw, not-so-great for widescreen and doesn’t handle looking up and down so well. For purists.
- Polymost: What most mods are built around. Keeps the classic chunky pixelated aesthetic but renders it more accurately and efficiently. What I’d recommend.
- Polymer: Includes a full modern lighting engine, plus support for 3D models. Befitting its name it can look a little plasticky, and not many mods directly support it. Also vastly increases system requirements.
As an aside, there’s an alternate engine (from the lead developer of GZDoom, even) called Raze (opens in new tab). It’s solid stuff, but its mod support isn’t great yet. Everything below assumes you’re using EDuke32.
Chewing bubblegum: Smaller mods
High Resolution Pack: (opens in new tab) While not a personal recommendation (I prefer the chunky low-fi original look), it’s hard to deny the effort that went into this full remaster. If you want to flex that Polymer renderer, this is how you do it, with 3D models for all enemies and props and bump-mapped textures that let the lighting engine shine.
While I think this pack as a whole is too much, I do recommend the high-quality sounds and voxel packs available on the HRP (opens in new tab) site—they’re great.
WG Mega Pack: (opens in new tab) If you just want more vanilla Duke, you can’t go far wrong with this massive pack of levels by veteran mapper William Gee. There’s three full episodes here with wildly different visual themes, plus a couple standalone bonus levels and a bundle of deathmatch arenas if that’s your thing.
Duke Forces: (opens in new tab) It’s a rule that every ’90s FPS needs to have a big Star Wars mod. Duke Forces (despite being a relatively recent release) fits the bill nicely, providing a cheerful mash-up of Dark Forces and Duke gameplay. As well as a couple episodes of its own, Duke Forces also lets you play through the original episodes fully reskinned in Star Wars style. Use the force, Duke!
(Note: Duke Forces has its own pre-packed EDuke32 configuration. You’ll need a DUKE3D.GRP file. Also, turn on the Polymer renderer, as this mod requires it.)
[Special Mention] Duke Smoochem 3D: (opens in new tab) Not released yet, but well worth bookmarking. Previously featured on PC Gamer, it’s an ambitious ‘leftist interactive shitpost’, aiming to capture the unhinged state of British politics through the medium of Duke Nukem. Development keeps getting extended because stupid things keep happening and need to be included.
Kicking Ass: The Big Three
The Duke Nukem 3D mod scene is nowhere near as huge or diverse as Doom’s, but it makes up for that by concentrating an astounding amount of passion and talent into a small space. Specifically, three massive full-game-length projects that share development talent between them, all of which (coincidentally enough) add light RPG elements to Duke 3D’s formula.
Note: Alien Armageddon comes with its own pre-packed EDuke32 configuration. You just need to add the DUKE3D.GRP and DUKE.RTS files to it.
Alien Armageddon is the most ‘vanilla’ of the big three, but still staggering in scope. Effectively it’s three massive mods in one. First, it’s a remixed version of classic Duke 3D’s campaign, allowing you to play as Duke, his female counterpart Bombshell, or a tag-team of the two with AI controlling whichever you aren’t. There’s new enemies, new weapons, a basic experience and level system (which also applies to the enemies, giving them new perks over time), and a weapon store to customize your loadout.
While the original four Duke 3D episodes have only seen relatively minor changes, the Duke It Out In DC and Duke Caribbean: Life’s A Beach expansions have been heavily remixed and rescripted. They’re largely fresh experiences, even if all of the new gameplay mechanics make them a little wilder and messier. Frequent quicksaves are never a bad idea.
The second part of the package is Alien Armageddon’s own campaign, which currently weighs in at three wildly varied episodes, with more in the pipeline. The first episode is mostly classic Duke action, but fully integrating the tag-team system. Sometimes Duke and Bombshell will have to split up, sometimes to a whole character-exclusive level.
The next episode drops the heroes into a galactic gladiatorial tourney to fight for Earth’s freedom. While there’s a few traditional levels, most of the second episode is simulated deathmatches, capture the flag, horde survival and other pseudo-multiplayer battles. All rigged, of course, with the (gloriously smarmy and capably voiced) alien emperor ‘evening up the odds’ if you find yourself in the lead. Between matches you get to wander the coliseum complex, completing sidequests and chatting with the characters. Endearingly goofy stuff.
The third episode is more standard, with a new character and arsenal. Wes Wolf is Wesley Snipes as Blade with the serial numbers filed off and the ability to glide short distances. While Duke and Bombshell are off on their arena adventure, Wes is fighting against occupiers trying to summon a Space Dracula, which is apparently a thing. Once completed, this episode unlocks Wes for use in every other mode and campaign.
The third big feature of Alien Armageddon is War Of Attrition, a roguelike-ish mode that draws on a pool of over 200 community-made levels to generate a semi-randomized episode every time. Turns out that Duke is like a box of chocolates.
By itself, Alien Armageddon can easily soak up 20 or 30 hours of your life, and it’s still growing. There’s at least one more story episode planned, and two more playable characters in the works, including a Boba Fett knockoff and a rebellious alien princess. We’re deep into fanfic territory and new lore here, and there’s no turning back.
Demon Throne answers the burning yet somehow seldom-asked question ‘What would a Duke Nukem isekai (opens in new tab) adventure look like?’ Duke’s spaceship has gone and exploded (probably should have taken the extended warranty), but thankfully a wizard from a generic fantasy world summons Duke from the freezing void, imploring that the legendary ‘Duke of Nukem’ mulch some demons before returning home.
What you get is a bizarre but compelling fusion of Duke 3D, Quake, and Heretic, with elements from all three, a few neat ideas of its own, and a second playable character—a medieval knight with an assortment of high fantasy weapons providing an interesting counterpart to Duke’s arsenal of new (but satisfyingly high-powered) firearms. Both characters also have some light RPG mechanics, including gold for shopping, XP for beefing up, and a Limit Break gauge you can cash in to completely (and cathartically) break an encounter over your knee once in a while.
There’s a distinctly fresh vibe to Demon Throne. It doesn’t quite feel like any other Build engine game, its combat walking an interesting line between arcadey and technical. It leans as far into the high fantasy setting as possible too, the first episode opening aboard a magical flying pirate ship. It’s stuff Duke’s original developers would have scarcely thought possible, the result of modders building up decades of experience.
Demon Throne is a hefty game, featuring three lengthy episodes plus several sets of guest levels. At times it can feel like a game entirely made out of borrowed parts (many of the enemies are on loan), but that helps keep the combat fresh. While technically complete some time ago, an update added a whole new guest episode and several other levels to the mix. I’d not be surprised if there’s more to come.
Demon Throne is a completely standalone release, no assembly required. While that’s probably not 100% above board considering the number of borrowed sprites and sounds it contains, Duke 3D is so old nobody seems to mind.
Last but in no way least, we’ve got The AMC Squad—an absolutely monolithic production of seemingly boundless ambition featuring content from almost the entire Duke Nukem fan-scene. Once again a standalone, this time set after the apparent death of Duke Nukem. Earth is still the galaxy’s punching bag, so an Avengers-esque band of independent heroes, The AMC Squad, is formed. These 10 playable characters with their own weapon loadouts and abilities include a poundland James Bond, a grumpy Warlock, a corporate cult-leader cyborg, and even a pair of fursonas. Together, they fight everything from organized crime to alien invasions and supernatural threats.
This could have just been a regular FPS. You could have gone from mission to mission kicking ass and taking names, but no. The AMC Squad has ideas. You begin in a massive explorable compound, each hero having their own room that can be further decorated by finding collectables in missions. There’s an armory where you develop mods and alternate fire-modes for each character, and a research lab where you spend money on upgrades for gear, characters, and even NPC allies. Milestone research projects have little FMV cutscenes detailing exactly what new tech you’ve unlocked and its key applications. Some even expand your base with new facilities, opening up even more upgrade options.
Once you’re geared-up and ready, you pick missions from an interactive world map that somehow zooms all the way out from Earth and into the galactic rim. Oh, and if you’ve got resources to spare, you can use the map screen to invest in terrestrial and offworld mining facilities to further increase your per-mission income, letting you research even more stuff.
Yes, this is still a Duke Nukem 3D mod. Bear with me.
The missions are as varied as the playable characters. There’s horror-tinged claustrophobic tunnel crawls, all-out war scenarios with drivable tanks and mechs, weird interdimensional adventures, even a bit of time travel. Many missions span several maps, and there’s secret objectives, hidden levels and easter eggs all over the shop. Despite the wildly varying styles (each mapper has their own), there’s a convoluted story tying everything together, though it struggles to maintain a consistent tone.
As if that isn’t enough, there’s a whole mountain of optional missions hidden away. Visit the lunar colony of New LA and the EDF office there unlocks dozens more missions based on assorted community-made maps, adding many more hours if you want.
Being such a massive collaborative work, there are some rough edges to The AMC Squad. While recent versions have improved things, the voice acting is charmingly amateur. The quality of the levels is also variable. Some are spectacular showcases of everything the EDuke32 engine is capable of, a few are overly finicky or poorly balanced. Thankfully most of the weaker levels are optional.
Probably the most ridiculous thing is that The AMC Squad is only half-finished despite dwarfing DN3D in scope already. There are a total of six planned episodes, with three available now. The fourth was originally due in 2023, but the developers assure me that things are ahead of schedule, so expect the new release before the end of the year.
All out of gum? General tips and tricks
Duke Nukem 3D has a distinct feel to its combat and level design that not many other modern or retro FPSes match. As such, here’s a few general tips, and a few more specific ones for each of the big three mods.
- Make sure you bind an easily accessible key to Use Medkit. Duke offsets its slightly stingy health pickup placement by letting you carry up to 100hp worth of emergency healing. It’ll do you no good if you’re dead, so top up frequently. Similarly, binding a panic button to Jetpack can save you from otherwise deadly drops.
- If you’re really low on health and hitscan enemies keep sniping you, see if you can find a toilet. Taking a leak heals 10hp (doable once every minute or so), and you can drink from broken fire hydrants and toilets (ew) to heal 1hp slowly. Unhygienic, but you can fully recover with a little patience.
- Pipe Bombs are the solution to many of life’s problems. And in Duke, too. They’re the most common explosive weapon, and you’ll need things that go boom to break into a lot of secret areas—keep an eye out for cracked walls. Twitchy pig cops and lizardman gunners can chew through your health if they have line-of-sight, but bouncy pipe-bombs clear threats safely.
- Duke 3D maps, official or otherwise, like to hide important switches in obnoxious places. Always look under desks, check behind shutters on walls, and make sure you smack every cracked-looking wall with at least one explosive shot.
- [Alien Armageddon] The moment you’ve got enough money, pop open the weapon store and invest in an energy shield belt. They need a shield battery to run, but those are common items, and effectively double your health bar or more. Also if you’re playing as Blade, I mean Wes, the upgrade that lets him block projectiles with his sword is cheap and incredibly powerful.
- [Alien Armageddon] Unlike regular Duke 3D, you can rescue the captive ‘babes’ from their alien cocoons. Or even just save ones that are standing around. You’ll need a rescue spray item, but they’re usually easily found, and you get tons of money for saving them.
- [Demon Throne] Every enemy in this game explodes into a colorful pinata of treasure. You can waste a silly amount of time trying to pick every last bit up. Don’t feel pressured—you can trade a tiny bit of health at greed statues (usually a couple at key points in each level) to summon every dropped piece of gold to one place.
- [AMC Squad] Your PDA does more than show your mission objective. The Scanner mode shows you the combinations on multi-button locks, and scanning corpses you didn’t create (the environmental storytelling type) rewards you with weapon upgrade resources. You can also research extra tech by scanning signs and posters with QR codes.
- [AMC Squad] Ammo types are surprisingly important on Normal mode, and their effects even more pronounced on Hard. Hollow Point bullets will wreck unarmored enemies but tickle targets in full armor. Some enemies like pig cops have bulletproof bodies, but vulnerable heads.
- [AMC Squad] One of the early research projects lets you convert excess healing items to portable medkit charges if you’re already fully healed. This is practically mandatory. Do not skip it. Some mystical research requires Acupuncture—a technology found by scanning a poster for it near the start of New LA. Just point your scanner at it.
- [AMC Squad] Research the MIA Gun ASAP and equip it on every character. While not much use in a fight, many enemy types can be teleported back to your lab for study, unlocking new tech. Watch out, though—after about 10 seconds, the enemy will be returned to where you stole them from. It’s also the key to an alternate ending to Episode 1, if you use your head.
- [AMC Squad] Investing early can make you a ton of cash. Buying satellites around the solar system reveals more mining locations on the world map, and those can bring in huge amounts of money and resources. Enough that you’ll never have to worry about research costs again.
- And lastly, the most universal of all tips: engage the Mighty Foot! Make sure you’ve got a reachable button bound to Kick. There’s a whole world of breakable objects, some containing ammo. Give them a quick kick. Plus, the horrible alien slime monsters that grab onto your screen seem strangely vulnerable to kicking. Weird and crude, but it works. Much like Duke Nukem 3D itself.