The ’90s were notorious for injecting the world with tons of “attitude”, whether it was characters like Sonic the Hedgehog, movies like The Crow, or an entire era of professional wrestling. Nobody, however, encapsulated attitude quite like the King himself: Duke Nukem.
This wasn’t always the case though. I bet some of you didn’t know that Duke had two games before his smash hit that we all remember fondly. Also, he was originally named “Duke Nukum” over fear that “Nukem” was trademarked due to the Captain Planet villain. The first two games were side-scrolling shooters and you probably don’t remember them because they weren’t that memorable. They were fine for what they were, but that’s not what we think of when it comes to Duke.
What we do think of is Duke Nukem 3D and holy crap this thing BLEW UP! Much like Stone Cold Steve Austin in the WWF, it was a case of “Right time, right place, right person”. Duke was blasting away aliens and checking out naked ladies with a rock soundtrack while spitting out Bruce Campbell-style lines and it was AWESOME! It was something unique, Doom was badass but you were the silent protagonist, Quake was also badass but another quiet hero, Duke Nukem was not only fun to play but it was covered in personality.
I knew this was something special from the very beginning, when your ship crashes in flames and Duke says “Those alien bastards are gonna pay for shooting up my ride”, it sets the tone for the kind of game 3D is. Kickass weaponry, putting the famous boot to the face of the pig-cops and throwing money at strippers to “shake it baby” (it was the 90’s). On top of a fun story there was the equally enjoyable multiplayer deathmatch “Dukematch” which only broadened the appeal.
Suddenly, the franchise and the character started popping up all over the place. Tons of expansions for 3D and a number of spinoffs happen. We also get the first rumblings of a Duke Nukem Forever game to be the kickass sequal.
So Duke Nukem Forever gets mentioned in 1997, and then 98…then 99…then 2000, and many years after. It became that game everybody kept talking about, while at the same time losing hope on it ever getting made (see: Half-Life 3). When 3D Realms laid off the development teams working on Forever, we all just assumed DNF would then also stand for “Did Not Finish”.
Lots of behind-the-scenes business happens, lots of people get involved, lots of people get their hands on developing Forever builds and optimism drains fast. I should know, I was there. I lived in this time where teases would come left-and-right about what the state of Duke Nukem Forever was. One minute, it’s in the pages of magazines and mentioned on forums, the next it’s scrubbed from the records. I got to the point of ignoring any hype and considered it dead in the water.
Finally, the rights were purchased by Gearbox Software, who is headed up by former 3D Realms employee and Duke Nukem 3D developer Randy Pitchford. This is where I finally start to believe. Gearbox is a stable studio led by a man who knows what Duke is all about and I really like the Borderlands franchise, so what better company to finish up this project over a decade in the making?
I preordered it, I got the special edition and was all excited. After playing it I realized, “Oh, this is bad”. Duke Nukem Forever is a bad game. It doesn’t look great, the load times are atrocious and the all-important humor and personality really falls flat. I wasn’t suprised, however. Forever was pretty much doomed from the beginning. All that hype and all that time switching hands with so many people working on different aspects of the game meant there was NO WAY it would live up to expectations. I’m glad it exists though. I’m glad something I was promised for so long finally came to fruition and I will keep my copy forever as proof that it happened.
Duke Nukem is not as big of a deal now as he was back in the mid-to-late ’90s, due in large part to how poorly Forever was received. Duke is looked at as a relic from gaming’s past.
I think, however, that there is room for Duke Nukem in the current gaming landscape. They shouldn’t try to make this a great shooter, since that market is severely saturated at this point. If Gearbox comes at this focusing on the humor, personality and character development and wrap that around a shooter that’s at least enjoyable, there can be great success. Think about it, TV shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park have been on the air for a very long time and deliver crude humor mixed in with enough smart humor to broaden the appeal. Humor can translate over a long period of time if done right. Also, with the resounding success of the recent DOOM and the upcoming anticipation for Quake Champions, now is the time to strike with older shooter franchises that need a little life.
Duke Nukem has come from the highest of highs, hit the lowest of lows, and I really hope he can rise again because he has been such an influential character for me personally and the landscape of gaming. Don’t give up on Duke.
Hail to the king, baby!