It was exciting and surprising to see Duke Nukem alive and in development at PAX 2010. Unfortunately, neither the gameplay nor the game’s overall ‘look and feel’ did much to convince us that Duke has a future. Duke Nukem Forever could be Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford’s Daikatana if somebody doesn’t turn the boat around.
Don’t get us wrong—we want to see Duke come back in a big way. But our initial excitement and nostalgia inspired by the initial game presentation quickly warmed over with ‘meh’ after spending 15 minutes with the game. If Duke is going to strike a successful chord with ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ gamers alike, Duke Nukem Forever needs to evolve. Fast.
In the old days, Duke was fresh and funny
When Duke Nukem appeared in the early 90’s in Duke Nukem 3D, his ballsy, raunchy schtick was new to PC gaming, and the 80’s action movie icons he caricatured were still fresh in our minds. 3D shooters were still a fairly new and rapidly evolving genre. And Duke, for his time, was at the forefront.
Backed by Duke’s one-liners—largely stolen from B-movie actor and cult pop culture icon Bruce Campbell—Duke Nukem 3D was a breath of fresh air for the FPS genre. And it had boobies, too.
Coming out of retirement
Fast forward 12 years later to PAX 2010. Duke is still spouting the tough guy one liners, but to be honest, they just aren’t funny or new anymore. The cheesy action movie icons Duke satirized long ago are long dead. And the game’s raunchy sexual overtones and humor? In truth, not nearly as clever or funny as what you can catch in virtually any episode of Family Guy or Southpark.
And then there’s the gameplay. In a word: tired.
If twenty-something gamers who cut their teeth on games such as Halo, Crysis, and Modern Warfare 2 don’t like the game play, and Duke isn’t even as funny as an episode of Southpark, he’s not likely to find many fans--new or old alike.
Even to someone who fondly remembers Duke Nukem 3D, the simple fact is that Duke as a character and the game play in Duke Nukem Forever just don’t hold up any more. The game will certainly inspire nostalgia, but if it isn't any better than what we saw, that will last about 15 minutes, after which you may be reaching for something else.
Evolving Duke Nukem
If Duke is to come back as a prominent video game icon, Gearbox needs to go beyond merely resurrecting him and plopping him into a shinier graphics engine—assuming they don’t want him to wind up in the $9.99 bin two months after release.
There are countless ways Duke could change as a character and become interesting again, but if he's to survive in the modern age, he needs to change. At the very least, he needs to be self-aware and self-effacing, or just the opposite: clueless in a world that thinks he’s an idiot. Here are a few other possible ways Duke could come back and maintain a shred of relevance and humor (any/all of which could be easily mixed and matched to varying degrees) :
- Duke is old: Duke is 12 years older in this game—maybe even in his 40’s or 50’s now. He’s still a tough guy, but one who recognizes he’s not quite what he used to be. The opening sequence in the urinal (where you’re instructed to “Press X to pee”) could be followed by a pathetic dribble and Duke cracking a line about his prostate being the size of Idaho.
- Duke is insane: Duke returns as the insane tough-guy-talks-to-himself-funny-haha-not-funny-strange kind of way. Maybe he only came back to protect the naked female mannequins at a supermall and got caught up in the alien invasion. Maybe he’s insane and old (see above). Maybe he’s been living in a hut on a tropical island with 100 cats for the last 12 years. Maybe he’s a clone of the original that didn’t come out quite right.
- Duke is dumb: The world realizes he’s a dinosaur and calls him on it. Sure, he saved the world and all 12 years ago. But now everyone realizes what a schmuck he is or was. Modern soldiers in powered armor make fun of him (and his one-liners). Duke can still be the hero, of course, if only to wipe that smug look off their faces.
A potentially good character model for the ‘The New Duke’ would be the comic book/movie character Hellboy. He’s rough and tough, smokes cigars, and he’s always quick to jump into the fight—only to realize (right before he utters “Oh Crap”) that maybe he should have thought first and acted later. Regardless, he always comes out on top, and he’s a big likeable schlub with everyman underpinnings. He also likes cats.