RE:Play Duke Nukem 3D
It was an appropriately horrible way to start such a horrible game.
The first scene was Duke Nukem, clearly and obviously getting some mouth magic from both of the Olsen Twins. Given how long Duke Nukem Forever was in development, you can’t help but shudder at the thought of how young they had to have been when they were written in. I mean they were in school uniforms and everything. I won’t remind you how their story ended in the game, or what Duke said to them in their last minutes.* It was the lowest point in the history of the franchise.
Thanks, Randy Pitchford.
Duke Nukem started life as Duke NUKUM because Apogee found out about a Captain Planet character called “Duke Nukem,” and they were afraid of getting sued. Then they found out that Captain Planet forgot to register the trademark, so they sniped it. The first Duke game was a 1991, 2D platformer that did nothing to distinguish itself from any of the others released in that era. Although, I will grant it was better than Commander Keen. Which is a little odd because John Carmack helped them out with some problems they were having. Anyway, it sold about 70,000 copies so it certainly rated a sequel.
The second game, Duke Nukem II, was the first to use the proper(?) spelling of ‘Nukem.’ Apparently, it inspired them, because the second game is amazingly awesome. One of the best platformers of all time. And it was easily the best in its day, and it would still be great to play today if it was available but thanks to Randy Fucking Pitchford it’s not on Steam and I don’t trust Zoom. I’m not advocating piracy, but that said it is a great game and it is Randy Pitchford.
Anyway, after atomizing the alien menace, Duke jumps in a ship and returns to Earth.
End of Dukem Nukem II and the beginning of a legend: Duke Nukem 3D.
Except it would have been more accurate to have called it Duke Nukem 2.5D. As great as the Build engine was, it was great in the same way that a classic Alpha Romeo car is great. Sure, you love it and love driving it but very quickly you are made aware of its many fundamental flaws.
Don’t get me wrong, this game left Doom in the dust, Duke was an actual character and a pretty funny one. It was unbelievably groundbreaking from a technical standpoint. You could actually describe things you were looking at to another person, try doing that in Doom, it isn’t possible. Light switches turned on lights. You could drink out of broken toilets for health. Duke always had money for strippers, (and you knew he was just being polite, they were going to show him the goods anyway because he was Duke). The level of interactivity was a radical leap in evolution. You had a jet pack. A freaking jetpack! The game even had elevators that worked.
Okay, they didn’t actually work. Lets’ say back in 1996 you clipped into a wall, (I wasn’t cheating, it happened). So, you go into no-clip mode and discover the second-floor map isn’t on top of the first floor and the elevator doesn’t move. It turned out the elevators were a clever illusion. You stepped into an “elevator” and the door animation would slide up or down, then the hidden teleporter you were standing on would trigger and you would teleport to the next level where the door would already be (pretty much) seamlessly animating. The door would “open”, and you would step out of the “elevator.” There were a lot of tricks like that, that enhanced the gameplay experience.
There were vents you could crawl through. Walls you could blast that would open up the map. A workable swimming mechanic (bad ones were common back then but this one worked). The list of fun little touches went on and on.
The weapons were more advanced than Doom (the exception being the Doom II Super Shotgun). The pistol was actually useful. The shotgun had some decent shove to it. The rocket launcher would give you that great Build engine camera shake from the explosion, it was a near carnal pleasure in its day. The chaingun was good in early levels, not so much in the later ones. The pipe bombs and mines were as near as I can tell without precedent. The freeze ray was okay but not that good, you couldn’t really use it as a substitute flame thrower, it took too long to freeze an enemy, and then you had to switch to a real weapon to finish them. The Shrinker on the other hand more than made up for it, unless your enemy was a boss, you just shrank it, stomped on it, then grabbed a brew and babe because you were the amazing Duke Nukem. The Devastator was less game-breaking than the BFG 9000, it was supposed to be the most devastating weapon in the game but wasn’t.
The most powerful, unrelentingly destructive weapon was… Doors. Doors could kill anything in Duke Nukem 3D, most especially you. You accidentally hump a doorframe walking into a room and can’t get out of the way in time? Gibbed. You get distracted by a pig-cop hiding behind the door? Gibbed. A bit of lint fowls your ball-mouse? Gibbed. Any kind of delay getting through automatic doors would turn you into an unidentifiable mass of bloody chunks. Admittedly this was a “feature” with all the early Build games. Upside, if you could lure an enemy monster into one, it was just as deadly on them.
I suppose I could review the plot, but what plot? Duke Nukem arrives in LA and starts shooting aliens and saving the babes… Wait a minute. Now that I think of it, Duke didn’t save a single babe. Both in Duke 3 and especially 4. Unless they were strippers shaking it for Duke, the babes always died and died pretty horribly too. In Duke 3D they were begging you to kill them, and if you did, a bunch more aliens would teleport in. So, you were NOT rewarded for doing violence to women no matter how much they were begging you to end their horrific existence as alien parasite incubation chambers. Also, it wasn’t always easy to avoid killing them, they only had only 1 hp of health, so the slightest splash damage would gib them. It’s a little hard to refute the charges of misogyny against Duke 3D, so just do what I do and ignore them.
Jon Saint John absolutely nailed it with his voice work as Duke. He brought The King to life and that was critically important. Because here was the critically important thing about this game, this is what it really brought to the table. It wasn’t the improved graphics, or cool weapons, or funny one-liners. No. This game made you feel like Duke Nukem when you were playing it.
You were thee 80s action hero, a roided-up bastard son of Sly, Arnold, Ash from Evil Dead and the guy from They Live** blasting your way through legions of alien invaders all by yourself because you knew you were the most unstoppable man on Earth. You walked off injuries that killed lesser men. Titanic alien warlords plotting humanity’s demise would girlishly shriek, “OH SHIT, IT’S DUKE!!!” When you strutted into the room. When you walked out of that now-empty room you blew it up behind you because that was how all the levels ended in Duke 3D and that was the amount of fucks you had to give as the Lord of All That Is Trully Masculine. All men who gazed upon you cursed their miserable existence and all women threw themselves at your feet. Playing Duke 3D made you feel like the greatest man in the world. You had balls of steel.
The sales were unbelievable, 3D Realms was a major player overnight and Duke Nukem was a top-shelf franchise. There were a ton of add-ons levels that kept Duke Nukem popular.
For a while.
3D Realms had every intention of producing and releasing a sequel that excelled the original in every way it possibly could. That was the problem.
The CEO appears to have Peter Principled himself beyond his level of competence as a boss. He was fine, perhaps exceptional as the manager of a small-cap gaming development company. But he had no business running a large one.
He was determined to make Duke Nukem Forever the greatest game of all time. The issue was that a new greatest game of all time would come out every year and leave whatever build of Duke Nukem Forever 3D Realms had going in the dust. George Brossard was always sending Duke Nukem Forever back to square one. The feature creep was insane and the scope of the project was completely out of control.
Another major game that was in development for 3D Realms, Prey, was in its own multi-year production hell. When Prey was finally launched it sold poorly despite being a very good if underrated game. 3D Realms had needed Prey to win big to keep the lights on. When that tanked the restructuring began but the company was still convinced that Duke would sell as soon as it was “ready.”
For a decade and a half, it was never ready.
Needing money, 3D Realms walked into a trap, they sold the publishing rights to Take Two. When 3D Realms breezed past the delivery date, as everyone damn well knew they would; Take Two sued.
I’m of two minds about Take Two’s takeover of the franchise. On the one hand, it was sleazy and underhanded and on the other hand, Gearbox produced an appallingly shitty game and the franchise has been about as badly managed as Star Wars ever since.
Duke Nukem Forever was a franchise-killing disaster of Last Jedi proportions. The team that produced it was honestly trying but they were given very little in the way of resources, and an eight-man team was way too small for that level of a project. I would have to spend another fifteen hundred words going into all the ways it was bad, but the biggest issue was that it in no way made you feel like Duke Nukem.
The last game to do that was 2002’s platformer; Duke Nukem Manhattan Project. This is the only game… The only one where DUKE SAVES THE BABES!!! They were pretty happy to make their gratitude known to The King too. My favorite line is everyone’s favorite:
“I’m not gonna fight you. I’m gonna kick your ass!”
It was recently pointed out to me that it has now been twenty years since Duke Nukem had a line that good.
Okay, I’m done here.
*I felt so bad for Jon Saint John for having to read that line. He’s an ordained minister IRL.
**I had to throw him in. Rowdy Roddy Piper was where they stole Duke’s tagline, “I’m here to kickass and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of gum.” No getting around it, Jon Saint John wore it better.