With flashy Hollywood machismo and a penchant for lowbrow fun, Duke Nukem is one of the most iconic video game characters in history.
Big guns, big explosions and big ego are what Duke Nukem is about, but for all his larger than life persona, this action hero had some humble beginnings, evolving from an obscure shareware platformer to one of the most innovative, landmark first person shooters in history.
The original Duke Nukem debuted in 1991 as an IBM PC-compatible piece of shareware – the iconic first level “Shrapnel City” was a favorite in the nascent era of PC gaming. At the time, it wasn’t even called Duke Nukem, though. Fearing copyright issues with one of the character names in Captain Planet and the Planeteers, developer Apogee Software retagged the 2.0 update as “Duke Nukum,” until they found out there wasn’t a trademark to worry about, anyway.
By today’s standards, Duke Nukem appears ancient. It’s 320×200 resolution, 16 color graphics referenced other classic side scrollers, like Mega Man, but it could only scroll 8 blocks at a time, instead of by individual pixels.
Duke Nukem II would also have this style of side scrolling, however better hardware in 1993 gave the game improved visuals, with 256-color VGA graphics, a MIDI soundtrack and fully digitized sound. The sequel was also a much larger game, with seven times more levels and all new enemies, backgrounds and gameplay elements, like the ability to hang off ledges (featured in the Game Boy Advance version).
However, when developer 3D Realms released Duke Nukem 3D in 1996, it changed everything about the IP, moving into 3D first-person shooting. Resembling most Doom-esque titles of the time, where players controlled a protagonist moving through 3D environments with 2D sprites of enemies to shoot at, Duke Nukem 3D’s ballsy, hectic pacing and over-the-top gunplay was an instant hit.
Duke Nukem 3D, like Doom and Castle Wolfenstein 3D, had a pop culture impact that couldn’t be denied. Lampooning action hero crass and depicting prostitutes and misogyny, Duke Nukem 3D was in many ways both shameless in its fun and shameful in its depictions, which led to more than a little bit of controversy.
But besides its racier elements, Duke Nukem 3D was a beautifully designed game, and despite the fact it built off of Doom’s pioneering FPS style, many aspects of Duke Nukem 3D were wholly different from its peers. Level designs were always curiously nonlinear, with secret passages and shortcuts sprinkled throughout, allowing players to find speed runs through levels and avoid enemy encounters if they wished.
Environments were highly interactive, too. Most objects could be destroyed or altered for some kind of advantage, and ubiquitous strippers could be tipped, eliciting a quote from Duke and of course some revealing content. Duke Nukem 3D was also one of the first games to have multiplayer, albeit only through LAN or modem. The game even had a level editor for fans to design their own levels, and players could complete the entire campaign in co-op mode, as well. Numerous expansion packs were released for Duke Nukem 3D.
3D Realms started promoting a follow-up to Duke Nukem 3D, titled Duke Nukem Forever, around 1998, but the company then fell quiet, announcing in 2001 that the game would be out “when it’s done.”
Duke Nukem Forever couldn’t seem to ever get done, though. By 2009, 3D Realms went into massive downsizing, cutting out the game’s entire development team. Publisher Take Two Interactive had had enough, suing 3D Realms for failing to finish the game.
Thankfully, developer Gearbox Software saved the title from development hell, but the victory would be a bitter one. When Duke Nukem Forever finally hit the shelves in 2011, it was a major disappointment. Dated, clunky and boring, Duke Nukem Forever simply couldn’t hold up against modern shooters.
Many elements that made Duke Nukem 3D memorable were wholly flattened, as well. Terribly linear level designs and a down-regulated weapon arsenal made the game a generic, bargain-bin experience. Even Duke’s infamously heavy-handed humor, still beautifully voice-acted by Jon St. John, unfortunately fell flat. The irony of time was clear: outdated pop culture references and shallow sexual innuendos didn’t make Duke cool, they made him shallow, compared to a Master Chief or Lorenzo.
Is there anything left for the Duke Nukem franchise? Gearbox Software announced they intend make a sequel, Duke Begins, after finishing Aliens: Colonial Marines. Don’t hold your breath, though. It could take a while.