When it comes to video game icons who are blatantly anti-role model, there’s no finer example in the history books than Duke Nukem. While not without a heap of controversy, it’s safe to say this muscle-bound, alien-slaying mercenary enjoyed his days in the spotlight of notoriety. From his origins on the original 1991 PC release to the recent infamy of Duke Nukem Forever, there’s no denying his astonishing impact on the gaming industry as the lovable egocentric maniac with an affiliation for the crude and bloody. Let’s take a look at the industries poster child for all things unashamedly controversial.
Duke Nukem had his “humble” beginnings much like any iconic hero in the early 90’s as a simple 2D side-scrolling shooter. However, what set the title apart from the likes of Metroid and Mega-Man was its crude level of immaturity. While mostly tamed up until its third installment several years later, the crude humor gave Duke Nukem a concrete identity to separate himself from the more marketable competition. At a time when Mortal Kombat was about to make waves in the news as the prime suspect of video game violence and the negative effects on children, Duke Nukem and it’s also less innovative side-scrolling sophomore effort, Duke Nukem II, seemed to mostly slip under the radar until the dust had settled, and Duke Nukem 3D would take the shooter genre by storm.
Now fully optimized with the 3D graphics engine that put Doom and Wolfenstein on the map at the time, Duke Nukem 3D arrived with a vengeance. Widely regarded as one of the most innovative first-person shooters of all time, it also placed its star protagonist, Duke, at the center of the gaming world as a foul-mouthed force to be reckoned with. The impressive 3D technology allowed Duke to take a new, more defining shape and form. His physical traits, which came off like a Saturday morning cartoon hero in the veins of Action Man, gave him the iconic appearance of a ripped, blonde everyday bloke sporting sunglasses and an arsenal of weapons that would make Doomguy blush. Duke Nukem had arrived, and the world collectively cheered at the sight of this demoralizing anti-hero, which was surprisingly a breath of fresh air.
Duke Nukem was not without its fair share of controversy either. The bumbling new mascot was pointed out for his crude, sexist sense of humor, which for the time was mostly taboo when the gaming industry was still dominated by Nintendo and largely enjoyed by kids. This included a parade of strippers, literal alien pigs in police uniforms, and enough violent imagery to give Jack Thompson a hernia. Clearly, Duke Nukem 3D was not a game geared towards kids, and it was damn proud of that fact. In the mid-90’s, Duke Nukem was plastered all over the news as the reason why video games could never be considered art and were actually harmful to children. In a charming way, its immature handling of the free publicity was artful. Curiosity meant people eventually paid attention, and cemented Duke Nukem’s image as the official bad boy of the gaming world.
Since 1996, the demand for more Duke Nukem rippled through the years, with several projects to continue the series being cancelled or abandoned. It wasn’t until 2011 that Duke Nukem Forever finally arrived after 15 years, and the anticipation was at an all-time high. Unfortunately, it was simply a case of a little too late, and Duke Nukem’s once praised controversial humor buckled under the weight of its time period. The jokes came off as uncultured and crude (but not in a good way). The humor that might’ve worked back then ultimately failed to an audience of gamers desensitized, ironically, by the very clones Duke Nukem had spawned. Forever was the nail on the coffin, and Duke Nukem was simply a shell of his former morning glory.
Although the anticipated, rocky road leading up to Duke Nukem Forever will (excuse the pun) forever be tainted in the memory of gamers hoping that Duke would reinvent the wheel once again, the impact of its 1996 release was enough to solidify the iconic anti-hero as a cult figure and leave an everlasting imprint on the controversial side of the gaming world. Without Duke, I assume games wouldn’t have that spark of immature genius and social satire that made Saint’s Row and Grand Theft Auto such tremendous successes. There’s a silver lining somewhere in the rise and fall of Duke Nukem, but one thing is for certain: video games wouldn’t be where they are now without this blabbering idiot. Take that how you will.