Something is happening over at dukenukem.com – there’s a countdown clock that has less than a week before it expires – and the rumor mill can’t seem to agree on if it’s counting down to a new Duke Nukem game or if it will simply be a re-mastered version of Duke’s biggest hit. With the recent spate of re-masters hitting the physical and digital shelves, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was the latter. But are we ready for more Duke? Has the bad taste Forever left in our collective mouth faded yet? Will people look at his dated humor and Alpha Male persona less critically and more for the parody that it is? Until we get those answers, let’s look back at what got us here.
In the early part of the mid-90s, starting around 1993-94, I ran a dial-up BBS that lasted until mid 1997 or so. It was nothing great and was only online from 10pm until around 6am since we only had one phone line. The Internet hadn’t really taken off yet, so BBSes and online services like Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online were new grounds to explore. One of the coolest things you could find were “shareware” games that were limited in the amount of gameplay you could test drive. If you wanted more, you paid some money and got an unlock code which – this should come as no surprise – unlocked the entire game. Unless you ran a BBS and users uploaded cracked versions of the games to gain favor and more access. Now, I don’t know if there’s a statute of limitations on software piracy, so I’m not going to publicly admit to anything – but I WILL say I got to play a lot of Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake. All three were great games, each one upping the ante from the previous one, not only in graphical horsepower, but gameplay and even story. You were the hero of the game – it was YOUR point of view, after all – and using all manner of weaponry you were tasked with saving the day.
The initial couple of first person shooters to hit it big were Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom, both of which were developed by id Software and published by Apogee Software using the shareware distribution model. It wasn’t long before id struck out on their own and, in 1996, had yet another hit with Quake. Back at Apogee they had created a new trade name, 3-D Realms Entertainment, which was intended to showcase their “3-D” games moving forward and shortly after Quake came out, 3-D Realms unleashed a sequel to a couple of side-scroller, platform games featuring a character named Duke Nukem. I didn’t need to play much of Duke Nukem 3-D before I was sending money off and buying the full version – I didn’t want to wait until some jabronie uploaded a cracked version to the BBS. Heck, I COULDN’T wait.
Like the trio of id’s games that preceded it, Duke Nukem 3-D took things up a notch. Wolfenstein’s protagonist never spoke and the Space Marine from Doom only grunted every now and then, but Duke… Duke spoke! He had a Devil-may-care attitude with confidence dripping from every word as he blasted his way through and endless parade of Predator-looking aliens and pig-cops who looked a little like Beebop from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sure, about 98% of Duke’s one-liners were cribbed from action movies, but those that use that as a critical tick against the franchise is missing the whole point that Duke WAS every action movie hero. He was the balls (of steel) to the wall “everyhero” that we wanted to be when we pictured ourselves mowing down bad guys with an Uzi while saving the hot chick with the 80s hair style. He was our Id on a steroid cocktail made from the blood and sweat of Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, et al, Sure, Duke was a bit of a misogynistic pig with a penchant for dick jokes and scatological humor, but it was part of his charm.
Duke was a critical and commercial success, garnering very favorable reviews and moving upwards of three million copies. It wasn’t without its fair share of controversy, though. The game was incorrectly accused of promoting violence towards women (Duke loves women, come on!) and that it promoted murder and violence towards police officers. Australia initially refused to classify it, effectively banning it, until 3-D Realms permanently enabled its parental lock (which was possible to turn off thanks to a patch that 3-D Realms made available), while Brazil DID ban the game outright. Of course, like anything tagged as “taboo”, its appeal increased and those that actually played the game never, according to 3-D Realms, complained about the content.
In April of 1997, just a little over a year after Duke Nukem 3D was released, 3-D Realms announced the next game in the series, Duke Nukem Forever, and a year after that, at the 1998 Electronic Entertainment Expo, the first video footage of the game was shown. It was around this time that the initial specs for the game were released and I, having been working and making good money for about a year at that point, decided to use the optimal specs to build my own computer. After having played 3-D on a less-than-adeqaute computer, I was going to rock the hell out of Forever and be the envy of everyone.
And then the game was delayed.
And then delayed again.
This went on for a number of years with the party line being “[It will be ready] when it’s ready”. To keep the brand alive, the fans happy and to make some money, Duke branched out onto consoles and, eventually, mobile platforms. The late 90s saw Time to Kill and Land of the Babes on the Playstation while the Nintendo 64 got Zero Hour and then, as the 20th century ended and the 21st began, the Gameboy Advance and mobile phones saw their own versions of Duke Nukem games, none of which were really what fans wanted, but were still entertaining.
And still we waited.
In 2009, twelve years after the initial announcement of Duke Nukem Forever, 3-D Realms withered and in a move that shouldn’t have surprised anybody, was forced to lay off nearly all of their employees including the Duke Nukem Forever development team – a move that effectively killed the project. It looked like we’d be stuck playing ported versions of Duke Nukem 3-D on our Xbox’s and Playstation’s. Then, unexpectedly, in 2010, it was announced by 2k Games that Gearbox Software had purchased the rights to the game and that Forever was back in development and scheduled for a May 2011 release.
And then it was announced that it would be delayed again. Seriously, I’m not making this up. You couldn’t write a crueller joke if you tried and… oh, wait – it was only delayed a month. Which, okay, wasn’t that big of a deal since we’d been waiting for 15 YEARS at that point. With cautious optimism we checked off the days on our calendars and then, despite time having seemingly slowed to a crawl, June 14, 2011 arrived. While that computer I built specifically to play Duke Nukem Forever had probably been recycled five times over, the world’s most iconic and infamous piece of vaporware had became a reality. Boy, was it a mess.
The gameplay was archaic, the controls were bad and Duke just seemed a bit long in the tooth. Unlike wine, the Duke Nukem 3-D experience didn’t age well. What was fast and innovative was now clunky and tired. Ironically, the first person shooter genre that Duke had played such an important role in had evolved so far in the style and mechanics that it offered that it simply couldn’t keep up. People were unhappy, review scores were not kind and the sales of the game were (appropriately?) in the toilet. Was it because the game had no chance of living up to 15 years of anticipation, or did it really, truly suck? While it was more than likely a little from column A and a little from column B, there was one thing that helped to keep Duke down more than anything else and that was Duke himself. A lot had changed in 15 years, not the least of which was society’s realization that some things were just better left unsaid. Without going too far into the political world and leaning too far to the left or right, suffice it to say that the humor that made Duke Nukem popular had died off during the time he’d been away. Shock jocks who had dominated the radio dial were no longer “shocking” – they had become stale and routine sometime during the early 2000’s and people’s taste in humor (for better or for worse) had changed a lot since that time and it wasn’t enough to tell potty jokes and strut around like Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay with a Colt .45, a grenade launcher and a shrink ray.
It’s been 20 years since Duke Nukem 3-D changed the way we looked at video games and the first person shooter and now Gearbox Software is hoping that five years is enough to change the way we last looked at Duke. Hail to the king, baby.