At one point in time, Duke Nukem was an absolute pillar of the video game industry. When discussing adult-oriented first-person shooters in the 1990s, the three big players were DOOM, Wolfenstein, and Duke Nukem. Developed and published in 1991 by Apogee Software, the original Duke Nukem is a vastly different experience from its more contemporary counterparts. Duke's journey started as pixelated side-scrolling shoot-em-ups before settling on the more iconic first-person perspective he's known for today. Duke Nukem 3D was his first foray into the first-person, and after the game's excellent critical reception, the Duke Nukem franchise never looked back. Duke enjoyed relatively steady success throughout the 1990s, quipping one-liners and blasting his way through hoards of alien scum. The popularity of the Duke Nukem games in their early days cemented the ass-kicking muscle man as a gaming icon.
That is, until the disastrous development of the infamous Duke Nukem Forever. First announced in 1997, Duke Nukem Forever went through the textbook definition of "development hell." It took 14 years from its initial announcement to be released in 2011 by Gearbox Software, and when it finally did release, it landed with a resounding "meh." Middling graphics, outdated gameplay, a nonsensical story, and antiquated humor brought the long-awaited Duke Nukem Forever to its knees. We would never get the thunderous guitars, explosions, quips, and babes promised in that initial trailer released in 1997, with the game being lost forever to the annals of time and the ever-churning machine of video game development.
Or so we thought.
In December of 2022, the people at Mighty Foot Productions released a restoration of the 2001 build of Duke Nukem Forever, known as "Duke Nukem Restoration First Slice." This intense labor of love gives players the opportunity to experience an alternate reality - one where Duke Nukem Forever was released on schedule and took the world by storm, rather than dropping 14 years later and being relegated to an insignificant footnote. The first section of Duke Nukem Forever (9 levels in total) is now available, totally for free, in their entirety, to anyone who wants to give it a try. I decided to download this lost media and time travel back to 2001 to see if Duke Nukem Forever would have been as earth-shattering as initially predicted, or if the 2011 snooze-fest would have been Duke's ultimate fate all along.
Upon starting up Duke Nukem Forever, I was struck with a sudden and almost immediate realization; this is one of the earliest 2000's things I have ever seen. A compressed and bit-crushed guitar builds in your ears while Duke Nukem's trefoil logo explodes before the guitar thrashes into the most gnarly butt-rock you've ever heard. The main menu appears, and it's the inside of one-half of Duke's iconic sunglasses, displayed using his sunglasses' SOS system. It's all incredibly early 2000s X-TREME! and I genuinely can't get enough of it.
The game starts with Duke being invited on a talk show to discuss the release of his new book - the aptly titled "Why I'm So Great." As Duke sits down with talk show host Johnny O'Lenoman, an explosion is heard somewhere throughout the building. A panic sets in, and the crowd emphatically shouts "Duke will save us!" Duke makes his way backstage to see what all the commotion is, and he's met with a Lovecraftian horror - a man in an ugly Hawaiian shirt shambles towards Duke, large blood-red tentacles coming out of the orifices of his face. Duke kicks the infected monstrosity to death before retrieving a golden Desert Eagle from one of his housemaids, and from there he proceeds to kick ass and quip one-liners as only Duke Nukem can.
The regular quirks of retro FPS games are front and center with the original build of Duke Nukem Forever. The enemy AI is practically braindead and rushes the character at every opportunity, moving around sporadically and illogically. Despite the simplistic AI, the difficulty can be absolutely brutal - even on the easier settings - as enemy SWAT officers have precision accuracy and laser beam weaponry. Plenty of enemies will explode out of walls and roll around corners to decimate your fragile health bar with no warning, causing a game over. Autosave is nowhere to be found, and every death means back to the beginning of the chapter, so pausing to save often is imperative. Objectives are often not clearly defined or highlighted, resulting in a lot of hopeless backtracking while spamming the use button on all manner of potentially interesting objects, just begging for a switch to flip or a door to open. While this can be frustrating, it's far more a product of the general game design of the time rather than a testament to the game itself.
And, to my surprise, the game itself is excellent. I was taken aback by just how detailed Duke Nukem Forever 2001 is. Back in the early 2000s, realistic physics engines were all the rage. Your game wasn't worth a damn if objects didn't go flying after an explosion or scatter as you feverishly careen your car through a barricade. The problem with this, however, is that a lot of the time the physics just ended up being a little bit off. One of the first games to really nail the physics - and subsequently the first-person shooter genre as a whole - was Valve's masterpiece Half-Life 2, released in 2004. That made the effectiveness and smoothness of Duke Nukem Forever 2001's physics engine all the more surprising. Practically every object you see is interactive, with most of them being able to be picked up and thrown. Each object has health attributed to it and can be destroyed. Each object reacts to gunfire. Glass panes break apart according to where you shoot them. Enemies will become dismembered relative to shot placement, sometimes writhing on the ground wounded as they bleed out (they're all taken over by an unknown alien host, so it isn't as brutal as it sounds.) The level of detail is astonishing for a game that's 20 years old, and I was astounded at the similarities between Half-Life 2's engine and the one used in Duke Nukem Forever 2001, despite being three years its predecessor and unfinished.
Graphically, Duke Nukem Forever delivers in a way only a 20-year-old game can. It's hideously ugly by today's standards: every character and object is a mess of sharp polygons and awkward, early motion-captured animations. The environments are nothing but blocks and angles, with muddy textures and questionable building architecture. Looking a little below the surface, however, exposes extremely detailed and atmospheric level design.
The biggest games to release in 2001 were Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, Grand Theft Auto III, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Halo: Combat Evolved. Some of these games certainly look better than others, but none of them look great by today's standards. But if you put yourself into the shoes of a 2001 gamer, Duke Nukem Forever looks pretty fantastic. There are tons of things going on on-screen at once - large rooms full of obstacles interacting with each other, rain effects, military equipment ramming into buildings or launching missiles, blood effects, reflections, and good lighting effects. On top of this, there are working mirrors everywhere (which is harder than it sounds), allowing the player to not only see Duke in all his steroid-riddled glory but even interact with the mirror to hear Duke quip about how handsome he is.
Seeing a pixelated, low-render Las Vegas is extremely charming, and despite the 20-year-old quality, it's obvious and discernable where you are and what you're doing or looking at. It looks exactly like what it is; a two-decades-old shooter. By 2001 standards, though, it's incredibly impressive.
Now let's address the elephant in the room - Duke Nukem himself. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, video games were seen to be largely the pastime of children, and not something adults should "waste their time" on. Because of this, along with an overall understanding of what constituted humor two decades ago, games that were made for adults tended to swing the pendulum too far in the "edgy" direction. Many games geared towards adults of this era are full of crass, rude, offensive, misogynistic toilet humor utilizing the lowest-hanging fruit possible.
Spearheading this movement was the King himself. Duke Nukem represents what humor was in 2001. He's an idiotic womanizing steroid-addicted ultra-patriot obsessed with violence, sex, and being "badass." Duke Nukem Forever 2001 is filled to the brim with degenerate humor - satirical posters mocking popular movies at the time adorn the walls, Duke has the ability to urinate in toilets and on enemy corpses while spouting disgusting one-liners (such as "Ah. My balls feel lighter"), gratuitous female nudity involving the baffling inclusion to shoot the bras off of the infected women working in Duke's casino, and more childish innuendo than you can count.
The world has moved on from this sort of lowbrow vulgar humor - for the most part - evidenced best by the response to the 2011 release of Duke Nukem Forever. Looking at it with modern sensibilities, it's easy to get offended by the utter inelegance of Duke Nukem. When this game was set to be released, however, was only one year before the movie Jackass took the world by storm. In 2001, this was top-tier comedy.
There's some debate online about whether or not the character of Duke Nukem was put forth as an individual who was meant to be taken seriously or rather a caricature of what the media and entertainment industries saw as peak masculinity at the time. Playing Duke Nukem Forever 2001, it's hard to believe that anyone would have taken this flat-topped meathead as anything other than satire, but the world was in a different place 20 years ago. While none of that is an excuse for the way that Duke Nukem Forever 2001 handles its humor, it's important to keep the context of the game in mind if you decide to play it.
I think that the people at Mighty Foot Productions did something really special in restoring the original Duke Nukem Forever experience. Preservation of lost media is an extremely important facet of art creation that often gets overlooked, and the fact that we now have the beginning of this game available to us for free is an incredible achievement. When compared to the dumpster fire that was 2011's Duke Nukem Forever, Duke Nukem Forever 2001 has a passion behind its engine and lore that feels as much like a love letter to the franchise up to that point as it does a well-rounded shooter that (despite its age) is genuinely still fun and intriguing to play today. Duke Nukem isn't for everyone, and his brand of brash bravado has certainly gone by the wayside in recent years, but it's fascinating to step back into his combat boots and see what could have been had things gone a little bit differently 20 years ago.
Hail to the King, baby.
Sign in or become a SUPERJUMP member to join the conversation.