If you read my Duke Nukem 3D historical legacy article, than you will know that I am a huge fan of the game’s innovative level design. It’s easy to see that these levels have been designed with heart and passion. There are pop culture references, news event related jokes and many level secrets. These maps can’t just be carelessly navigated. I have played most of these levels many times and I still have trouble remembering all the secrets and paths to take. Since there are around 40 levels in the Atomic Edition, I can’t remember where each key card is located and where each door leads to. However this isn’t an issue because I enjoy exploring the levels looking for the secret places and the jokes. Duke Nukem 3D managed to create immersive environments that are great for exploring. The devs didn’t need modern technology that allows huge open worlds, these small levels have a large amount content packed into them. There is a lot to think about, such as where each air duct leads to and where the keys are hidden. Some of these levels are relatable and hit close to home since some are based in general real world scenarios such as a post office, hotel, bank and many more.
If you haven’t played Duke Nukem 3D before and would like to see some of the great level designs, I have added gameplay videos below. These are videos of me playing my favorite 5 levels.
#5 – Flood Zone
Flood Zone is an excellent level due to it’s challenging sense of urgency, unique gameplay and mixed environment. This game takes place in a flood so you will have to use your scuba gear to dive under water. The oxygen tank will only last so long, so this forces the player to keep up a quick pace. There is also some rooftop combat that is above water. This level does a great job of mixing above and under water combat into the same level.
#4 – Hotel Hell
This level has two paths to take. There is a way to finish the level and battle more enemies by going the standard route. The second route is essentially a shortcut that involves going into the Hotel’s swimming pool and swimming through the pool’s waterfall style fountain, which is a portal. Things such as waterfall fountains becoming portals to transport you is very creative level design and is rarely seen.
#3 – L.A. Rumble
This level involves tall skyscrapers in Los Angeles at night and has some imagery that is reminiscent of Blade Runner; which makes sense since Blade Runner was filmed in Los Angeles. This level has a jet pack and allows you to fly through open windows to traverse from one building to another. Going from sky scraper to sky scraper with a jet pack isn’t a possibility in most other FPS games.
#2 – Duke Burger
Duke Burger is a fast food restaurant that has been hijacked by aliens. Aside from from the standard fast food kitchen and tables there are unique aspects of the level. For example you have to fit into a small air duct to complete the level. In order to shrink small enough to fit into the air duct, you will have to use the shrink ray gun and aim it at the mirror to shrink yourself. Scenarios like this are very creative and make Duke Nukem 3D one of a kind.
#1 – Hollywood Holocaust
Duke Nukem fans are probably rolling their eyes at me for placing this at number one, because it’s truly the most predictable thing about this article. This is the first level of the game and it is the most famous. This level has been remade for many other video games that allow modding and custom mapping. If a FPS game is released with a map editor, it will predictably end up with a Hollywood Holocaust remix at some point. This is the most iconic level of the franchise. Hollywood Holocaust is a movie theater themed level. You are thrust into action within mere seconds of the start of the level. You will have to jump down an air duct that is on the rooftop of a skyscraper. Right as you arrive at ground level, you are greeted with aliens shooting at you. This map also demonstrates the game’s use of real world event references, you will notice a billboard that says ‘Innocent?’, this is in reference to the O.J. Simpson case.
This map is a great intro for the game because it prepares you for the rest of the game. A huge part of Duke Nukem 3D involves finding secrets, some maps only have 2 or 3 secrets, meanwhile this level has 8. Another gameplay aspect visited throughout the game is the use of jet packs as well as air ducts to travel though some maps; both were introduced right off the bat in this level. A reoccurring gameplay choice throughout the game is choosing various paths. Right from the beginning you have the choice to either enter the back of the theater through the fire exit door or explode the front entrance of the theater with a RPG. The RPG method reveals that the game has many destructible objects.
This level is personal to me. I have great memories of playing this level as a small child. Before I owned the full version of the game, I would play the shareware version of this game and this was the first level I saw. I loved this level and will cherish it forever. I remember sitting on my Dad’s lap and playing this game back in the later 1990s on our old Windows 95 PC. I was born in 1992 and I believe I was playing the shareware around 1998 or so. I don’t have too many memories from my younger ages, but this level will be in heart forever. I know I will sound hypocritical since I played this game as a small child, but I don’t really recommend this game for small children due to the adult themes and violence.