Duke Nukem: the success of the 3D macho hero

Some people might say that the real, and original, genius of Duke Nukem lies in the name. It combines a no-nonsense macho presence with the promise of truly epic levels of destruction. But it’s a relatively little-known fact that it was a name that couldn’t originally be used in its original form.

When developers Apogee Software first brought out the game way back in 1991 there were fears that the name Duke Nukem might already have been trademarked for a TV show prosaically titled Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The solution: a single vowel change to Duke Nukum. The later discovery that they were free to use the original spelling led to its use – and, luckily, their previous solution never had to be challenged in court.

But this seemingly insignificant story tells us a great deal about the whole ethos of the game’s creation.

Originally brought outin 1991 as a 2D platform game for PC with just three episodes, two years later it expanded fourfold into Duke Nukem II. But it was 1996 when the game really took off with Duke Nukem 3D, a great example of a first-person shooter of the era and one which owed a great deal to other games like Doom. It’s also a game that has gone on to have an extended life on many different platforms including both handheld and console games.

The long wait

But diehard fans had to wait a full fifteen years for the next version, Duke Nukem Forever that was eventually released in 2011 by 3D Realms, the developers who had evolved from Apogee and taken over the franchise. Throughout the intervening years there had been many teasers promising that the game was on its way, which only served to increase its legendary status.

Perhaps as an attempt to thank fans for their patience, or to boost sales of a game many thought might never appear, a special Duke Nukem Forever Balls of Steel limited edition was released at the launch. Costing the not inconsiderable sum of $99.99, this contained all manner of goodies including a bust of the hero’s head, a certificate of authenticity, a 100 page book containing Duke’s life history and a collectible comic book as well.

Perhaps most intriguingly, the set included a special set of poker chips and a deck of playing cards too. Although Duke never actually plays the game in his adventures, it’s all to easy to imagine him locked in battle in a tense face-off across the table, cigar clamped between his teeth and bluffing for all he’s worth. The poker merchandise has proved to be a hit with some older of the older fans of the video game series, who are delighted they can now combine poker with their favourite action hero.

The secret of his success

There has been much written trying to analyse exactly what the appeal of Duke Nukem could be, and it’s an imaginary scene like this that could provide a clue or two. After all, it’s never been the most highly polished of games but has built up a truly dedicated fanbase across the world. For many, the secret lies in the character of Duke himself.

Based very overtly on the movie heroes of the 90s in the Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger mould, Duke’s straight-talking, take-no-nonsense approach certainly struck a chord. The addition of the character’s voice over, superbly supplied by John St. John, also added to the appeal and helped to flesh out the character.

Admittedly, it’s a character that may have sat rather better in the 1990s than it does today with his frankly demeaning attitude to women and general macho-posturing. But as long as players are prepared to settle for the “things were different in those days” approach this isn’t too much of an issue.

The 2016 reeboot

The fact that the appetite for Duke lives on came in the form of the 2016 reboot of 3D with the rather unwieldy title of Duke Nukem 3D: World Tour – 20th Anniversary Edition that was released on Switch. It would be fair to say that reviewers were pleasantly surprised by the result.

The improved graphics and smoother motion were singled out for particular praise, the new chapter to the game made a very welcome addition and the feature letting players toggle between the 2016 and the 1996 graphics showed just how much the game had progressed. The ability to turn off Duke’s voiceover if required found favour, and the HD rumble support also added to the experience as Duke wreaked havoc.

The legacy of Nukem

One could also make the case for the game being an important steppingstone towards the games of today in which a fully rounded characterization has a far greater role to play. Yes, there have always been central protagonists, but by giving Duke his own distinctive voice it really was mould-breaking stuff.

At times, it’s also seemed like the story could have been moving full circle with the character originally designed as a parody of action film heroes set to become one himself. In the late 90s director of the Mortal Kombat franchise, Lawrence Kasanoff, was said to be working on a Duke Nukem feature film and, as recently as 2018, there were rumours that WWE wrestler John Cena was being lined up for the role.

Whether the movie will ever see the light of day is very much in doubt. But we can be sure of one thing: the legend of Duke Nukem, macho hero extraordinaire, lives on and continues to go from strength to strength.