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The Evolution of the Duke Nukem Character

Updated on July 30, 2016
ANDR01D profile image

ANDR01D writes PC game reviews and shares his views on the video game industry.

Recently Duke Nukem 3D celebrated its 15th anniversary, and I thought of a way that I could join in the celebration of this milestone – achieved by the Godfather of first-person shooters, and likely one of the greatest and longest running series of all gaming history.

Not only is it the 15th anniversary of Duke 3D, but this year, in July, also marks the 20th anniversary of the first game in the series, too.

I came across an interesting idea while surfing through some Duke Nukem forums the other day. Duke Nukem as we know him now, wasn’t always as such. He gradually evolved into the character we know him as. Let’s take a look back at the various incarnations of Duke. Only games actually developed that have Duke in them in some form are taken in to account – fan art and such that isn’t canon… isn’t. Although some of those pictures are awesome.

Through our journey through the last twenty years, we’ll see just how Duke looked in the different titles released, and just where he first picked up all his cool gadgets and such.

Duke in Duke Nukem I.
Duke in Duke Nukem I.

Duke Nukem (1991)

This is where it all started. Nearly twenty years ago, in the early 90’s, Duke Nukem appeared on the PC gaming scene, in the form of a platform title. As soon as you see Duke on the title screen though, you’re looking at one mean, ugly son of a b*tch, it must be said. There’s Duke, with blonde peppercorn hair, and a nasty snarl on his mug – something that he’s kept for practically the last two decades. He obviously has a hell of a bad case of sunburn, which is covered up with the help of a garish violet sleeveless top of some sorts – under which is a white vest of sorts.

One thing that catches my eye when I look at this screen is the design on the title itself. It’s plainly supposed to be camouflage. Even though it’s explained in the story of the game that Duke is just an average guy who happens to hate having his soap operas interrupted by the goings on of Dr. Proton and his techbots, I think that this title tells a different story. Duke is obviously a young man – in his mid twenties – and is also ex-military. I imagine he would have served with the EDF (Earth Defence Force), or some such, seeing as that name crops up a hell of a lot in later games. This would also explain his knowledge of weapons and explosives. He is recruited by the CIA in the game to deal with Proton and his minions. If the CIA and/or military can’t handle it, then you don’t just call some soap opera watching blonde. You call Duke Nukem.

Still, Duke doesn’t so much look like he’s an ex-soldier as much as he does some thug or school bully who hangs around in back alleys waiting to waylay some unfortunate nerd taking a shortcut home from the library. He reminds me of an even uglier Vinny Jones here.

You’ll also note that Duke’s surname was spelled “Nukum” originally in the game, but he later changed it (in the real world, it was actually discovered that a character by the name of Duke Nukem all ready existed, so Apogee changed it. Then they found out that the name wasn’t copyrighted, so they changed it back).

Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure (1992)

Duke made a cameo appearance of sorts in this title, another Apogee developed game, the year after Duke Nukem came out.

In it, Duke wore a turquoise shirt, and also had on sunglasses too. Despite this, Duke didn’t wear them in Duke Nukem II, which came out the following year. Although sunglasses were among some of the collectible merchandise that Duke could pick up in order to score points.

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Duke Nukem II (1993)

Duke starts to take shape as the man we all know in this sequel to Duke Nukem. Gone is that ugly combination of shirts he once wore, and he now sports the classic red wife-beater. Interestingly enough, some original sprites I stumbled upon at one stage actually had Duke with a red shirt on, as well as having much darker skin, like a tan.

His face, at least on the cover, almost resembles a young Ron Perlman.

He also shows off two bicep bands instead of one, like in the prequel - seemingly made of metal, just like the Duke's balls. Despite the fact that the cover clearly shows Duke with boots on, slightly pointed too, which make him look like a character out of Unreal Tournament, while playing you’ll notice that Duke instead seems to opt for some white/grey sneakers.

Duke was far more mobile in this title than in the following game in the series. He could jump higher, do somersaults and other acrobatic manoeuvres. My guess is that he didn’t yet have a lot of excess muscle weighing him down.

In game, Duke at least had more than one method of defence this time, with the standard weapon and three other weapons you can pick up during play, namely the laser, rocket launcher, and the flamethrower – only one of which would make an appearance in some similar form in the sequel, and go on to be the weapon of choice for the Duke.

Duke Nukem 3D (1996)

You Think Those Sunglasses Make You Look Cool, or Something?

This is it. The most drastic, and lasting, in character appearance changes in the series to date. Duke retains most of his look from Duke Nukem II, but there are some losses and gains too. Duke gets gets rid of the bicep bands on the cover, but still wears them on the in-game model for some reason, and of course the most defining fashion accessory is there: the sunglasses.

This was the first Duke Nukem game where Duke actually wore them, even though he was present in Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure, wearing them too. Also noticeable is that Duke no longer sports the pompadour hair style he had in Duke II. He now has the iconic flat-top. This is where a lot of the speculation started that the character was based on former NFL superstar and actor, Howie Long.

Duke also gets rid of the plain old belt he once wore in favour of a harness, complete with a buckle bearing the nuke symbol on it, which no doubt carries all of Duke’s ammunition and keycards. Duke doesn’t do backpacks like in other games of its time.

Speaking of guns, at no point does Duke actually wield either of the guns on the box art that I can tell. Duke shows up with only a pistol with a busted laser sight (some say it’s supposed to be a Glock), in order to take on the alien bastards – he must have lost the rest of his gear when his ride was shot down.

No surprise that Duke immediately starts looking for some better guns. And there are plenty around to choose from, such as the shotgun, ripper (or chaingun cannon), and the RPG, plus several more, including some alien weaponry. Goodness knows how he carries all that metal around - but this is the Duke, after all. And one thing you’ll notice about him is that he is partial to gulping down large quantities of steroids, which probably explains a lot as regards to some of the feats he’s able to achieve in the game.

There’s also plenty of items that Duke can use in the game besides weapons, such as the famed jetpack.

Duke Caribbean: Life's a Beach (1997)

This game doesn’t really contain any lasting additions to Duke’s character, but it’s still a canon game (although not developed by 3DR), so I might as well cover it. Duke Caribbean is probably on the most popular of all the official and unofficial expansion packs that were made for Duke 3D.

Reasons for this include the fact that instead of just a few new levels for Duke to play, a lot of things were changed in the game, to the point where it could almost have served as a TC of sorts. Duke’s weapons from DN3D were changed to include water pistols of various shapes and sizes. Duke himself dons a Hawaiian-themed shirt for the occasion, as well as some sun tan lotion on his nose which makes him look like a cricketer. He also has parrot on his shoulder.

That’s it. Oh, and you’ll notice than instead of a mushroom cloud in the background, it’s a nice tidal wave. I don’t believe I’d actually noticed that before.

Duke: Nuclear Winter (1997)

Another official expansion pack. Nuclear Winter refers to the predicted extreme cold that would follow a nuclear war, with dust and smoke blocking the suns rays.

Duke is prepared, as he has brought along his scarf and earmuffs.

Are we done here?

Duke Nukem 64 (1997)

Bolt like a Colt

You might be a little disappointed to see that the Golden Eagle which was carried by Duke for a few years has been replaced by the Golden Colt M1911 in DNF. But this isn’t the first game to feature the M1911.

Enter Duke Nukem 64, released back in 1997. It was one of, if not the most impressive ports of Duke Nukem 3D, for the Nintendo 64, despite its shying away from sex and nudity.

Most people, when they think of weapons from this port, probably think of the twin sub machineguns (likely MP5s). The pistol from the first game was also in there, but instead of looking like a Glock (I don’t know who brought that up. It only really looks like a Glock in the HRP), it is apparently designed to look more like an M1911. It’s not Golden, but neither was the first Desert Eagle, which I’ll get to next. Oh, and the laser sight was still busted.

Duke Nukem: Time To Kill - PS (1998)

Time to Kill was the first Duke Nukem console spin-off to have ever been released that wasn’t just a port of Duke Nukem 3D.

As I was saying earlier, it was this game which first introduced the Desert Eagle, witnessed on the cover. Many think this to be the one that best suits Duke, rather than than the M1911 or the “Glock”. It’s big, heavy, with a small clip, but it’s deadly and good for taking down some pretty big creatures, or aliens.

The Eagle wasn’t yet customised with a Golden-plated look – that only came a couple of years later.

Give ‘em the finger

Another feature that debuted in TTK was the fingerless gloves, which have since been in several other games in the franchise, like Manhattan Project, as well as most builds of DNF, excluding the earliest one based on the Quake II engine (yes I know that 3DR played around with the Quake engine before that, but screenshots that were taken for a magazine were really just bullshots, blah, blah, blah).

Duke Nukem: Zero Hour - N64 (1999)

This is probably one of the most popular incarnations of the Duke, and likely one of the most popular in the extensive list of console spin-offs, too. The cover shows Duke is his typical getup, apart from two or three new additions. First, he wears a badass tan trench coat, as well as a hat – minus that hat, he kind of looks a bit like Max Payne. And this was long before said game even arrived. Interesting, don’t you think?

Duke also seems to have ditched his rubbish pistol from DN3D in favour of two new ones. In one hand he holds what looks to be the Desert Eagle (which looks kind of like a crappy plastic light gun you'd see at an arcade, instead) and in the other hand he means business though, as he grips a revolver – nice touch, seeing as he’s going with the whole western theme.

This look with Duke Nukem was so popular that was even reused for the cover of the album, Duke Nukem: Music to Score By, released about the same time as this game. When I look at Duke in this picture, I see more a Jake Busey look to him. You don’t know who he is? Better that way, probably.

Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes - PS (2000)

The Man with the Golden Gun

As was said earlier, Duke still carries the Eagle in this game. But so began the reign of the Golden Eagle. This gun carried on serving the King most notably in Manhattan Project, and even one or two early builds of Duke Nukem Forever – particularly the one based on the Unreal Engine back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.

Duke Nukem: Endangered Species (Cancelled)

This would have been interesting to say the least, it it were ever released. But it wasn’t. It was cancelled back in 2001; a decade ago. The plot made practically no sense, but since when has Duke ever cared about that? If there are some dangerous prehistoric creatures roaming about, and you want them taken out, who you gonna call?

Duke heads in to the jungle, with a twat hat on that gives him a bit of Australian look. You can also see that Duke wields what looks like… could it be? A knife? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Duke with a bowie knife. Jesus, G’day Bruce!

And a little above that, on his wrist, he has on a sweat band. A nice compromise between a bicep band and a fingerless glove, I suppose.

Resting on his shoulder is a hunting rifle, by the looks of it. It’s not fully automatic, which is more Duke’s style, but it’ll do. Probably the most prominent feature besides all these is the baggy camouflage trousers.

Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project (2002)

The cover image of Duke is this one is practically identical to the one from Duke Nukem 3D, six years earlier, apart from a few details. Firstly, the harness with bandoliers seems to have changed from brown to black. This and the Duke now has on some fingerless gloves, which debuted earlier on in the series.

Duke still carries the golden Desert Eagle. Some call this the Golden Eagle, or Golden Deagle. This also isn’t the first game in the series to use this either however, as it too debuted earlier on in the series.

Things that have stayed the same include the red wife-beater, which looks as though it‘s in desperate need of a wash and some ironing. Duke doesn’t do ironing you see. And that’s the one drawback of not having a wife… or at least a steady girlfriend (what happened to Lani, anyway?). The golden buckle on the harness, likely just gold plated, is more prominent than ever here. That and those black pants. I can’t get it why they see fit to put black pants on Duke on the cover of Duke Nukem 3D and MP, seeing as he always wears blue jeans in each game, to my knowledge. I mean, not that black jeans wouldn't be a bad thing, but especially on the cover of MP, they look like friggin’ suit pants like you’d wear to the office or something, kind of like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I’m getting images of Duke sitting in his office with his secretary going to work under the desk now.

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Duke Nukem on the cover of the DNF E3 2001 Trailer promo. Some say he looks like Drew Carey in this picture.Duke Nukem in the 2007 DNF Teaser.Duke Nukem in Duke Nukem Forever concept art from the 2009 media leak.Duke Nukem Trilogy
Duke Nukem on the cover of the DNF E3 2001 Trailer promo. Some say he looks like Drew Carey in this picture.
Duke Nukem on the cover of the DNF E3 2001 Trailer promo. Some say he looks like Drew Carey in this picture.
Duke Nukem in the 2007 DNF Teaser.
Duke Nukem in the 2007 DNF Teaser.
Duke Nukem in Duke Nukem Forever concept art from the 2009 media leak.
Duke Nukem in Duke Nukem Forever concept art from the 2009 media leak.
Duke Nukem Trilogy
Duke Nukem Trilogy

Duke Nukem Forever (2007 - 2009)

We all know that Duke Nukem Forever has been in development for years upon years – right since 1997 (some say 1998… idiots). The name was basically recycled from yet another platform title which looked like utter rubbish (and this was after DN3D). Thank goodness that one was canned.

We all saw the trailers shown at E3 1998 and 2001. We were all blown away by the latter, even though insiders who worked on it claimed none of it was actual playable stuff. But we didn’t see much of the King himself.

It was only much later in development that we started to get a glimpse at what he would look like. We got a teaser trailer in late 2007 that did this. Screenshots were taken and distributed across the world wide web. Here was Duke, and he was looking pretty good, working out as one would expect. He’d arguably put on more muscle than the somewhat slimmer version from Manhattan Project – especially around the biceps and triceps. The veins were getting more prominent with age and less overall body fat, too.

In the trailer, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what Bryan “Dexter” Holland looked like years ago (minus the muscles), while in the concept art, it was clearly evident they were going for an Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator look.

And all the while he was sucking on a cigar. Real men don’t smoke cigarettes.This wasn't the first game to feature cigars though. Time To Kill supposedly had them, from what I've read, and they shorted your health when you smoked them, too.

Since MP, Duke had gotten some badass fingerless gloves with the radiation symbol on the backs. Those were the coolest gloves ever, in any game. They were worn from good use, mainly from working out, shagging and the likes, probably, seeing as there had been a dry spell for him for some time. I'm referring to the kicking of alien rear ends when I say that.

Then in 2009, after the massive media leak, we saw even more of the Duke. No, not like that, perv. I mean we got to see the lower half of him. Get that image out of your head, again. Duke had on some faded jeans, perhaps the same that he’d worn in years prior. This topped off with some leather boots that were equipped with some steel toe caps. Don’t remember those from DN3D or MP, but he probably would have needed them to protect his little toesies from all that kicking of pigcops in the face.

And you would also have noticed that after years of being laughed at for tucking his jeans into the top of his boots, instead, he now did the reverse: tucking his boots under his jeans – probably a bootleg, for this reason. You also can’t see it, but I guarantee you that they have laces, unlike the wellington style boots he had on in Duke 3D and the likes. Again, another source of much ridicule, which damaged the Duke’s new ego bar (debuted in Manhattan Project).

I also noticed that Duke’s harness had more slots for ammunition towards the top as well. It looked to have pistol ammunition of some sort. Perhaps .45 seeing as we all know that Duke stopped using the Desert Eagle, in favour of the All-American Colt 1911. This is also gold-plated, and it also has a functioning tactical laser sight too. Nifty.

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Duke Nukem Forever (2010 - 2011)

Then after the media leak and all that madness with the court case that followed, finally Duke was saved from Limbo and the reins were taken up by Gearbox. Yes, we know about Triptych and how they went on finishing the game prior to this, and how Randall Pitchfork (MS Word spelling correction. How did that get in here?) the second (or is it third?) claimed most, if not all of the credit.

Anyway, Duke was given a makeover, and a bit of a change in apparel too. Instead of the awesome gloves he wore in the previous incarnation of DNF while it was still under 3D Realms, he now has these black and red gloves. They’d be cool if it wasn’t for the friggin’ Velcro strap around the wrist. It just strikes me as a bit naff.

His old jeans have also been thrown out, and he now rocks something more fashionable: sort of like a cross between jeans and cargo pants, with the pockets and nice stitching and all that on a pair of faded bluish grey jeans. They look all right – but don’t ever tell me that the pants can be turned in to shorts by unzipping them above the knee. Never.

The red wife beater is still there, but this time it has a navy blue lining going along the neck and down the sides. WTF? Nowadays Duke looks more like something out of Mirror’s Edge.

The sunglasses are no longer his old Raybans, but now some sort of modern sunglasses - the ones that don’t let the light in as much, and make you look like a total eyeball-less freak.

And that buckle on the harness is no longer gold. It’s just plain old metal by the look of it. Where’s all the bling gone? Even those 40 mm grenades he has strapped to his chest used to be gold-plated too, for Christ’s sake.

Duke has also had his hair cropped a bit, so it’s kind of halfway between a military crew cut style and a flat-top. He also looks younger in the face. Perhaps Botox? Plastic surgery? I know that Duke is meant to be a lot like the old fashioned, muscle-bound action heroes of the 80’s, but come on… he’s not that old. Speculation seems to say that he’s in his early to mid forties by now.

But the real story behind all this is that some say that they wanted a younger looking Duke to appeal to a wider audience, rather than the die-hard fans who don’t mind a middle-aged Duke too much.

2011 -

So where to from now?

I think Duke can go one of two ways. The one path is a prequel to the existing series, which Gearbox was working on (called Duke Begins) at one point reportedly before “saving” DNF. Here I can imagine Duke looking something like he did in the first or second Duke game, without all the fancy gear he later acquired (and hopefully without that ghastly purple shirt).

As for a sequel in the series in the future (as in after DNF), I personally see Duke wearing some sort of bullet proof armour (possibly under the red wife-beater), with some knee and elbow pads too, perhaps. And why haven’t they put some tattoos or piercings on Duke yet? God help us…

It must be said that I’m rather not in approval of the changes they’ve made to Duke over at Gearbox, and I just hope that they don’t start changing the character too rapidly and excessively, otherwise they’re going to screw up Duke… even more than George Broussard did (allegedly).

What is your favourite version of the Duke Nukem character?

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© 2011 ANDR01D


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