Back in 1996, when I was yet to turn 12 years old, experiencing Duke Nukem 3D became a defining moment for me in regards to videogames. After enjoying the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, here was a game that felt like a quantum leap. Gone were the flat, lifeless corridors of Phobos and Hell; in their place, a series of levels based around cinemas, strip clubs, fire stations, movie sets, restaurants and countless other locales that felt like they could actually exist in the real world, all boasting a seemingly unprecedented degree of interactivity. Everyday objects like toilets, drinking fountains and vending machines were both destructible and advantageous to the player if utilised correctly, while scripted events sprinkled an extra dose of drama and excitement into proceedings. My brother and I both shared a mutual passion for creating our own maps via the Build Engine, playing each other’s creations and often collaborating on others. In short, after falling in love with videogames five or six years prior, Duke Nukem 3D further cemented my passion for the medium and remained a firm favourite of mine for many years…
Until Duke Nukem Forever.
Initially announced in 1997, 3D Realms spent the next four years revealing and subsequently deferring release dates for the game before, in 2001, finally proclaiming that the increasingly ambitious sequel would release “when it’s done” and going all but radio silent on the matter for what felt like an eternity. Titbits of news and information would occasionally come to light in the years that followed, including innumerable reports regarding changes to the game’s engine and lawsuits filed by publisher Take-Two Interactive over 3D Realms’ failure to finish development. Between 2009 and 2010, the case between the two companies was settled, Take-Two ceased funding the project and 3D Realms’ already significantly downsized staff halted all work on Duke Nukem Forever. Even as a lifelong fan of Duke, the years of delays gradually wore me down and all interest I once had in Duke Nukem Forever waned entirely. That was until September 2010…
In an unforeseen turn of events, Duke Nukem Forever was not only re-revealed at PAX but also playable. Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford - himself having worked on Duke Nukem 3D expansions and Duke Nukem Forever prior to founding Gearbox - had been approached by nine ex-employees of 3D Realms who, despite the company no longer working on the title, had continued development of Duke Nukem Forever from their own homes and formed a new studio, Triptych Games. This fledgling studio would go on to collaborate with Gearbox in order to get Duke Nukem Forever finished and released the following year, published by Take-Two subsidiary 2K Games; furthermore, Piranha Games had been hired to develop the online multiplayer suite and port the once PC-exclusive game to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. I pre-ordered my copy without hesitation and waited - albeit impatiently - until 10th June 2011, when my copy of Duke Nukem Forever for Xbox 360 dropped through my letterbox, alongside a cool as Hell keyring that played some of Duke’s trademark one-liners. I was, put plainly, ecstatic.
In retrospect, Duke Nukem Forever’s protracted and deeply troubled development cycle in excess of a decade should have been a skyscraper sized warning sign, the end result being exactly what I should have expected from a game that been made in a bubble for 14 years; a hodgepodge of limp shooting mechanics, downright ugly visuals, woefully outdated pop culture references and a multiplayer component that could charitably be described as “there”. 3D Realms and Triptych had taken almost no notes on the myriad ways first-person shooters had advanced since 1996 and Duke Nukem Forever felt like tired and archaic as a result, universally panned by critics despite miraculously managing to sell adequate copies to generate a profit.
However, the pleasure those financial gains will have brought to all involved parties are of stark contrast to the disappointment and hollowness I felt in the wake of playing Duke Nukem Forever. The only solace I was able to glean from having put so much faith and importance in a game that proved to be so profoundly disappointing was that I still had the source of my excitement for Duke Nukem Forever; Duke Nukem 3D was and still is available on many, many platforms and surely returning to one of my all time favourite games would yield only positive results. Alas, after playing through it on both Steam and PlayStation Vita, I’ve found that something is now missing; the warm fuzziness I once felt when reminiscing about the first time I killed that alien on the toilet, bounced a shrink ray shot off a mirror in order to pass through a tiny gap in a wall or faced off with the Cycloid Emperor has diminished somewhat. Likewise, the iconic and admittedly often puerile one-liners of Jon St. John no longer bring the smile to my face that they once did, despite my still being an immature cretin at heart. At least I still have that keyring, though, and surely for Duke Nukem the only way is up from here, right?
But that’s the thing: I no longer care. Whereas in years prior the prospect of another Duke Nukem game would have had me bouncing off the walls with anticipation, should a new instalment in the franchise be announced tomorrow, I dare say that my reaction would equate to either mild curiosity or profound indifference. The endearment I once held for Duke’s past adventures is now a husk of its former self, while my eagerness to experience any further exploits has died.
Just like the batteries in that keyring.