The nineties were an era for many things, one of the main images that sticks in my mind is the extreme attitude of the decade, for a brief period, everything was bold, take no prisoners, and in your face. Nothing was more indicative of this feeling than Video Game protagonist, Duke Nukem. Since 1996, he had a 15-year hiatus while his next game was scheduled to come out, but it was in 2011 that the Duke had finally returned, baby!.
Duke Nukem Forever starts off giving us a quick recap of how Duke spent his time off since defeating the aliens from the last game… merchandising the heck out of his image. He has his own casino, video game franchise, talk show deals, lots of women, and his own penthouse apartment. All is well for Duke until aliens show up for a rematch, and committing the most heinous crime, stealing Duke’s babes. Now Duke is on a journey to counteract the alien’s threat from Las Vegas to the Alien’s home-world.
The game has spent an impressive 15 years in development, and this is evident in the design of the levels even down to some of the pop culture references that Duke makes, The whole game is a document to reminiscence, re-capturing the fun of gunning down aliens and galloping pig cops, there’s a smorgasbord of blood, gore, futuristic weapons, and comical upgrades. Drinking a beer makes you temporarily invulnerable, taking steroids turn your punches into meat tenderisers, that reduce the enemies down into offal. These additions are indicative of a level of irreverent fun that separates it from the shooters at the time.
But this is not all, you can be shrunk down, and Duke has to pilot some areas as a tiny version of himself and it’s with these puzzle segments that the charms of Duke Nukem Forever really shine. From piloting an RC car to knock over a power cell, to actually shrinking down and driving the car yourself. The game is not afraid to throw the players into interesting scenarios that modern game franchises have seen reluctant to subject the user to. Letting gritty-realism be dammed! I’m not saying that one experience is better than the other, just that it is nice to have some options.
Duke Nukem Forever is filled with a tremendous amount of detail, there is a mega-ton of in-jokes and references, even in the posters and the decor, showcasing the staggering level of world building. Alongside this, scattered throughout the fifteen levels, is the hallmark of the franchise, the secret interactables, that are not only fun to seek out, but serve to build up the health meter. Everyday items can be used for fun or as weapons, and this is where the physics engine is a welcome addition to the Duke arsenal. Not everything is new and improved, Duke’s iconic voice actor, Jon St. John, makes a welcome return and fills Duke’s quips with a level of attitude, that makes them stand out tenfold and a joy to listen to.
Duke Nukem Forever has a firm grasp on the elements that make the character enjoyable and does a lot to embed them into the modern tropes of game design. The game is loaded with commentary on the then current state of pop culture and a humorous send-up of the macho-seriousness that can be found around 1996 and to this day. It’s a game that fundamentally doesn’t take itself too seriously. One minute your crawling through a dark ventilation shaft, trying to sneak up on an alien, the other you are punching an obnoxious talk show guest. As I said earlier, Duke Nukem Forever is a nostalgia piece, reminding us of a state of untethered fun that games are supposed to inflict. I’d say if there was a king it would be Duke Nukem and as Duke says, it’s time to “bow down to the king, baby!”
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