Of course it was rudimentary and still is, and yes, many narrative games preceded it – Oregon Trail, Zork, Mega Man, and Commander Keen to name a few. And yes, Nukum’s stereotypical, re-hashed narrative left much to be desired. But it was there, and I was there, and it told me something that connected with me and gave me something I had yet, at that time, to grasp.
Binge Playing 101: The Episodic Lifestyle
Duke Nukem had episodes much like Commander Keen. But unlike Keen, I had the distinct privilege of actually playing them beyond the free shareware versions. I would play an episode over and over again as I waited for my father to bring home the next shareware floppy disc from work. I would wait patiently – and in agony – for that floppy to transfer its minute bits of data to our computer. And then I'd play for hours. It was the beginning of my addiction to bing playing.
Binge Playing 101: Episode II (It's Personal)
Naturally, the next step was to play Duke Nukem II.
Wait, what? Nukem? I thought it was Duke Nukum? They had changed the name; surely they hadn’t changed the game...
The day my father brought it home I eagerly, yet dubiously, loaded it up and sat poised for utter disappointment. I was scared and frightened. What if everything I loved about Duke was gone, thrown into some ephemeral digital dumpster and forgotten…
Suddenly, I was greeted with a…movie? I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a movie. Rudimentary and nothing like the full FMVs of games like Wing Commander and Command & Conquer – and Duke had a… voice? I watched, enraptured by the in-retrospect pedantic, silly storyline and paltry animations. But back then it was cutting edge, back then it was a new frontier. I leaned forward in my seat, started a fresh game, and dove into a novel new world.
Immediately, the improved graphic fidelity and quality wowed my eyes; it was still the same Duke Nukum (ahem, Nukem) that I remembered, but it was somehow different, invigorating, and gorgeous. The sound quality was stellar: every BAM, and SWOOSH, and EEK, rang out in what seemed like Dolby 5.1 surround. Duke could duck now and shoot up at the minions crawling jaggedly on the ceilings. There were power-ups more powerful than any in the original and in the very first stage nonetheless. There was rapid-fire and spiraling rockets and checkpoints. By God, the game had checkpoints…
I was in love.
I played nonstop until the fateful day my father came home, smacked a new, shining floppy disc on the computer desk, and said something along the lines of “Son, this is going to blow your mind.”
I stared at that bloated radioactive symbol plastered across the disc with the words DUKE NUKEM: 3D sprawled underneath it.
I think I choked.
3D? It had to be a typo. It must've been. I could no easier rationalize the concept of a three-dimensional Duke running and gunning down alien hordes and saving the most-certainly doomed world any better than I could rationalize that there was a such thing as Sasquatch.
But it wasn't typo. Like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Descent before it, Duke Nukem was 3D, engulfing, and frenetic. Duke 3D connected with me in some disparate way, some way that engendered in me a greater, deeper love for it than its 3D predecessors.
Perhaps it was the brief, rough-shot history my young self shared with the franchise as a whole. Or perhaps Duke Nukem embodied the steroid ridden action-hulk I saw on the big-screen in films like as Commando, Predator, and The Quest. Perhaps it was that I could finally play that hero. And be that hero.
Instead of some gruff, faceless, emotionless protagonist, I knew that behind the blazing guns was a tough-as-steel, blond-haired rogue, an urban scalawag that was never afraid of anyone or anything. Moreover, now The Duke spoke, a lot. He wasn't just some voiceless automaton. He had personality. His authorial personality bled into the diegesis of the game and endeared him and the world to me.
It wouldn’t be until much, much later that I could truly appreciate the Duke Nukem franchise, and especially Duke Nukem 3D for its more meta, provocative, and adult references. References to cultural icons such as Schwarzenegger and Van Dam I got. But other references to films such as Scarface, Blade Runner, and Die Hard, books such as Fahrenheit 451, and music such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, were utterly lost on me.
Back then, I was too busy blasting alien scum into oblivion.