I spent several hours last night hanging out with a man I'd known well in the '90s—a blond narcissist who makes no secret of his lust for attractive women, his cavalier attitudes toward money and guns, and his deep desire to rid the world of aliens. It's not Donald Trump, it's Duke Nukem, the full of swagger and Jon St. John-voiced vim, whom Gearbox Software resurrected for its recent Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour.
A lot has changed in 20 years. This much is apparent from the graphics, which are still muddy enough to make finding key objects a bit of a chore despite tweaks to textures and lighting. Critics tend to dismiss Duke himself a relic of sorts, particularly since acceptance of his brash attitudes and his crass proclamations of love for "babes, bullets, bums" supposedly went out of vogue in recent years. He arguably was already old in his time, as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero had already lamented the passing of the Rambo type three years before Duke Nukem 3D even launched.
Gearbox itself is aware of the inanity of it all, as they released a teaser trailer for the game a few months back using Trump quotes like "I like people who weren't captured" as something Duke would say.
All of this makes me feel slightly guilty for enjoying Gearbox's remaster, as much as my moral half wants to slap myself silly for it. Duke Nukem 3D works so well in part because the humor isn't as forced as it was in 2011's disappointing Duke Nukem Forever, but instead takes a backseat to the gameplay which in turn manages to be almost as strong and appealing as it was in 1996.
It's fun partly because contains a whole new episode with eight chapters crafted by original designers Allen H. Blum III and Richard "Levelord" Gray. They take Duke all over the world, whether it's to smoke weed in Amsterdam or battle aliens in Egyptian ruins, scrapping much of the backtracking of the original levels in favor of focusing on the fast-styled gunplay that's seen such as strong revival in games like this year's Doom and the just-released Shadow Warrior 2.
The shadow of Trump looms over it all. Back in the 90s I could enjoy all this as absurdist escapism, but now we have a guy on TV who's very close to running the country—a blond narcissist, no less—demeaning women and threatening to toss out all kinds of laws. In his rise I see some of this machismo and sexism made flesh and what that kind of thinking can lead to in the read world, and it makes me a tad ashamed to enjoy myself here. Escapism should remain escapism, the experience seems to say. When it inches too close to reality, we're probably in trouble.