Duke Nukem: Zero Hour (Sample, Nintendo 64)
Duke wasn’t through with the Nintendo 64 just yet after 1997’s Duke Nukem 64. A wholly new sci-fi shooter still radioactively glowed on the mushroom cloud horizon.
By 1999, the video game celebrity had been living the high life: a line of action figures by ReSaurus, Interact memory cards shaped in his likeness, his own Tiger Electronics LCD handheld. If he hadn’t already become a cash cow for his developers, 3D Realms, they certainly tied a great bell around his veiny neck by September of that year when the lunkhead was forced to hawk Monster Cables:
“‘I got a call from Noel Lee, the boss over there, he actually goes by the name The Head Monster, clearly this guy knows what he likes–in addition to making the best cables on the planet.’ Nukem grinned, ‘I can respect that.'”
The bizarre press release went on to say that 3D Realms ran on Monster Cables—that the premium-priced wires were the only ones entrusted to power the computers used to develop Duke Nukem Forever—and ended with Duke proclaiming, “‘Monster Cable. Come Get Some'” (link).
Duke’s questionable endorsements notwithstanding, his emergent global franchise was being pushed more and more aggressively. The previous year, a Hollywood movie based on the game series had been announced by Threshold Entertainment, the producers of Mortal Kombat Annihilation (link).
“Our marketing manager at our Duke Nukem publisher, GT Interactive Software, recently remarked that anything they slap ‘Duke Nukem’ on sells,” 3D Realms Founder Scott Miller admitted in an interview (link).
George Broussard, co-owner of 3D Realms, had plans to elevate “the icon and merchandising dream” to loftier heights: “Our goal is to make Duke synonymous with PC games (and gaming in general) like Mario is to Nintendo, or Sonic is to SEGA” (link).
All chips rested on Duke–literally, Broussard had gambling chips made with his chiseled he-man face on them–and the pressure was great, perhaps too great for even a self-described king to meet.
As part of another promotional drive, 3D Realms gave its blessing to a Duke Nukem-inspired soundtrack in August that featured a hodgepodge of disparate performers ranging from Megadeth to the Wu-Tang Clan. Miller later told an interviewer, “In hindsight, we should not have allowed the rap songs on the CD” (link).
Marketed as a “musical companion,” Music to Score By contained a $10 rebate inside as an incentive to get players to visit the music aisle before picking up the latest effort by Duke’s higher-ups to license him out to a home gaming console: Duke Nukem: Zero Hour (link).
A third-person action-adventure by Eurocom, the makers of Duke Nukem 64, Duke Nukem: Zero Hour takes advantage of the Nintendo 64’s optional hi-resolution Expansion Pak to make Duke’s world look graphically more impressive than before in fully three-dimensional polygons without a cardboard cutout sprite in sight. A custom version of the BUILD engine was used to support long draw distances, variable fog for ambient effect, and dynamic lighting on characters and weapon fire (link).
Keith Schuler of 3D Realms once wrote that the game began as a port of n-Space’s Duke Nukem: Time to Kill on the PlayStation, but Rob Benton, the lead artist on Duke Nukem: Zero Hour, remembered differently (link).
“No, I don’t believe we ever started out with the intention of converting Time to Kill? As I remember, our relationship with George Broussard and GT was good, and we were pretty much given free reign after our work on Duke 64 to develop something along the same lines, the connection being time travel and possibly some similar location themes. We also had access to their assets if we wanted… we didn’t.”
Benton said that the developers enjoyed creative freedom while designing the game, something that he pointed out is now highly unusual.
“Well, it was a fun project to work on and things were very different back then as we, a core team of around 10, were pretty much left alone to create it and that is a rare experience these days and has been for a while unless you’re independent and even then you usually still need publishers and there’s a lot more focus, rightly so, on their investments.”
The story goes that Duke must thwart an outer space menace from rewriting Earth’s history by blasting more than a century’s worth of alien asses over 22 levels, through present-day and post-apocalyptic New York City to the rough-and-tumble mining towns and settlements of the Wild West; the misty, lamp-lit, brougham-lined cobblestone roads and cemeteries of Victorian London; a moat-surrounded medieval castle in the rainy Scottish Highlands; and even historical disasters like on the Hindenburg and the Titanic, in which he retroactively sinks himself.
While the game carries the same violent streak as Duke Nukem 64, in terms of sexual suggestiveness, to quote Nintendo Power, “what a difference two years can make.” Technically speaking, stripper poles remain cold, but gentlemen’s clubs, albeit not very lively ones, have sprouted up.
The hypersexualized humor visible in Duke Nukem: Zero Hour exposes Duke at his raunchiest–up until that point, at least. Billboards for Louinski’s All Natural Clam Juice with the attached slogan “America’s most powerful men swear by it,” a brothel by the name of Hunter’s Hoe House, a store called Herm’s Hardware holding a 50% off sale, liberally plastered cheesecake pin-up shots of g-string models requiring the jaws of life, advertising placards alluding to bodily fluid fetishes, genitalia, erections, and masturbation are but a sampling of the racy ridiculousness permeating throughout the game. And “ridiculousness” is the appropriate word here, because all of this tacky outlandish indelicacy seems less about constructing slummy environments that flippantly reflect modern-day realities, à la Duke Nukem 3D, and more about scattershooting frat boy-style hijinks at every dirty street corner–especially if that corner happens to fall on “69th St.”
Remarkably, the Entertainment Software Rating Board cited nothing more than “Animated Violence” and “Animated Blood and Gore” in its evaluation.
This screenshot from a preliminary build published in the February 1999 issue of Official Nintendo Magazine appears to depict David Hasselhoff sanctioning plastic surgery. “Tom’s Rhinoplasty” is a South Park episode in which Mr. Garrison has a nose job, which results in him looking like the former Knight Rider star. While the released game has a number of allusions to another television animated series, The Simpsons, this particular poster was taken down, presumably because GT Interactive didn’t want to hassle The Hoff (or his lawyers). “Yeah, it’s incredible to believe that things like that were even in there at all,” Benton commented, “we were all very young and naive back then and I don’t think many of us were that aware of copyright law or if we were we didn’t take it too seriously. There was a ton of stuff that didn’t go in, lots more South Park references. (Image source: OldGameMags.com)
The “Babes” return in Duke Nukem: Zero Hour, and they still need saving, though they’re missing Duke Nukem 64‘s covered-up tank tops.
And by the looks of it, their pants, too.
An early version previewed in Official Nintendo Magazine shows the “Babes” in slightly dressier attire than the retail game. (Image source: OldGameMags.com)
Not as helpless as these women is Duke’s tough-as-nails female co-star, a U.S. Special Forces lieutenant who acts somewhat like the narrator, moving what little plot there is forward via cutscenes. Her presence may sound progressive for the virile action game star until you get a load of her name: Kimberly Strokes. In all fairness, Lt. Strokes has about the same degree of character development as Mr. Nukem.
The eye-rolling comedy doesn’t end there, as parodies make a biting comeback.
They can range from the banal, like a pop cultural jab at the Spice Girls’ then recent disbandment, which is represented by a department store window showcasing a clearance sale of their signature touring outfits. The mannequin that resembles Geri Halliwell is headless. Her detached noggin is held by another dummy as a reference to the rift that occurred when she up and parted ways with the group.
The punches get personal when Eurocom takes aim at its main video game competition at the time with sex position and testicle jokes: “GoldenGuy 069” (GoldenEye 007) and “Monkfish is… Bolok: Alien Hunter” (Turok: Dinosaur Hunter).
The award for the most esoteric slam goes to a poster in the first Western level: “DRY TOWN BY ORDER OF SHERIFF TED NINDO.” A trenchant dig at Nintendo’s prohibition of alcohol in the games that grace its systems, I sense a cathartic underpinning by the English developers after the edited Duke Nukem 64‘s rigorous restrictions.
Signage and visual gags aren’t the only things lewd, as the audio pushes even more boundaries.
When GameSpot U.K. asked pointblank in 1998 if Duke is sexist, Broussard brushed off the question, saying, “Duke is Duke. That’s up to the fans to discuss. Duke’s women certainly don’t think so” (link). (Image source: RetroMags.com)
The ladies you save, for example, have some fairly provocative things to say. When I rescued one from the Old West, she yeehawed, “Reckon I’m gonna get a bang outta you!” Another was slightly more subtle in her remarks to me: “Oh, Duke, I knew you’d… come.”
Not to be outdone, Duke, sounding clearer than ever, recites some of his well-adored apothegms and a number of fresh profane turns of phrases. The bar of soap shoved in his mouth in Duke Nukem 64 mustn’t have worked, as he now mutters half-swears like when he sees a riverboat and comments “Looks like I’m in a world of ship,” and full-on expletives when he calls General Custer an “asshole” to his face before a shootout, though the f-word is bleeped. At one point, he picks up a fallen alien cyborg’s decapitated head and jests, “I was hoping I’d get some head.”
When the Renault’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’. Duke Nukem: Zero Hour carries the tradition of movie homages, like this steamy one from James Cameron’s Titanic.
As vacuous as these dopey puns may be, hearing them spoken in deadly serious grunts by Duke’s voice actor, Jon St. John, serves to create the impression that you’re on the set of some low-budget exploitation film that’s destined to become a cult pleasure.
Whether or not your sensibilities become offended will likely depend on if you find the game to be a convincing low-brow spoof or the very thing that it attempts to mock, either of which could be reasonably argued, as the staff reviews from Electronic Gaming Monthly prove; it can be simultaneously skewering of and slavishly inseparable to its own cliché trappings.
At the very least, it’s hard to find anything quite as outrageous as this on the Nintendo 64, aside from Conker’s Bad Fur Day, which would not come out until a couple of years later. Duke Nukem: Zero Hour marked an historic shift in Nintendo’s loosening game content policies.
I asked Benton for his take on the Japanese company’s sudden about-face.
“I think there were a number of factors: Nintendo wanting to broaden its user base, GT putting pressure on and bargaining with Nintendo on what could and couldn’t go in. There was still a lot of content cut, and things they suggested we changed but to the point that it no longer made sense and so was dropped–shop signs, posters, etc. Ultimately, it was a case of give and take.”
On the subject of sound, arguably one of the weakest aspects of Duke Nukem 64, has become quite possibly Duke Nukem: Zero Hour‘s most impressive asset. Suitable music that actually plays during levels and various other atmospheric touches abound. You can hear the roar of the ocean and the cries of distant seagulls in Wet World. In the Wild West, Duke can interact with pianos in parlors, tickling the ivories to produce his famous medley. Jump on the roof of a parked car in Manhattan, and the alarm will go off. The development team managed to squeeze over a thousand words of speech and a thousand special effect sounds, which take up about half of the cartridge size (link, link).
And Duke’s arsenal would no doubt make any second-amendment-thumping NRA cardholder swell, with 10 standard weapons (M-80 Blaster, Claw-12 Shotgun, MP-10 SMG, AGL-9 Grenade Launcher, Pipebomb, Freezethrower, Gamma Cannon, Havoc Multilauncher, CTX-2000 Tripbomb, BMF Thunderstrike) plus nine alternate tools of destruction (Peacekeeper .45, Sawed-off Shotgun, .30-30 Rifle, Gatling Gun, Radium Cyanide Launcher, Volt Cannon, Magnavolt Tripbomb, Dynamite, Bomb) that rotate depending upon the time period. Then there’s the .50 Sniper Rifle, which is in a class of its own, completely overpowering the rest with a zoom feature to deliver a lethal shot to the head–or worse.
“You can shoot them in the nads,” Eurocom Director Hugh Binns bragged to IGN. “We’ve got specific animations for when they’re shot in the groin” (link).
There are nearly 30 types of extraterrestrial enemies for Duke to practice vasectomy on, from scaly Lizard Enforcers to fancy top-hat-wearing Capitalist Pigs and even evil clones of himself, plus four bosses, like the enormous well-dressed tank operator Boss Hog, a play on words with the voracious villain from The Dukes of Hazzard.
Duke Nukem 64 players will likely recognize the Simon Koe’s Gun Boutique storefront in Duke Nukem: Zero Hour. If you never got the joke before, read the part of the neon sign that isn’t burned out. Still haven’t figured it out? Let Benton explain: “As with a lot of the references in Duke, it was simply a play on words. ‘Si koe’ equals psycho.”
One of the biggest complaints that critics had was the lack of save points, commenting how infuriating it can be to have to restart from the very beginning when the levels are so sprawling.
Duke Nukem: Zero Hour wraps things up with a meaty multiplayer package. Battles are fought in the first-person perspective on 14 designated close-quarter courses, from a stony castle courtyard with sniping spots aplenty in Castlemania, to a radiantly neon arena with ice rink conditions in Cool As Ice, and a stacked stage called Chimera that pulls more than a little inspiration from GoldenEye 007.
The Chimera map once visually drew even more parallels to GoldenEye 007, which prompted Official Nintendo Magazine to call it a “cheeky GoldenEye copy.” Although the final release changed the textures, the design still retains an unmistakably similar layout to the Stack multiplayer board in GoldenEye 007. “I don’t think there was any legal concern at the time,” Benton said, “and if I remember rightly, the texture swap was purely down to association with one of the single-player levels.” (Image source: OldGameMags.com)
In addition to controlling Duke in his various period piece garbs, there are several other characters to choose from, 29 by my count, that unlock after more of the single-player game is completed. Each has his or her own individual ability, health points, and starting weapon. This factors into deciding which playing strategies to apply over the mindless running and gunning formula of Duke Nukem 64. Jack the Ripper, for instance, can naturally dole out heaps of melee damage when up close, while some aliens can breathe underwater if the above-ground action gets too hot.
Beyond standard Dukematch, Eurocom introduced four-player Team Dukematch, Last Man Standing, and King of the Hill to extend this mode’s longevity and to compensate for the loss of computer Dukebots and campaign cooperative play.
While much had been upgraded and added, Benton admitted that development time had been rushed.
“Yeah, we were always rushed and you always end up cutting stuff that you believe would have made it so much better. Certainly the Dukebots would have made a good addition. We were up against it though, and we got all we could out of a heavily modified BUILD engine. There were talks of it, but realistically a co-op mode would have probably required specific level creation as the single-player levels were already struggling under the weight of content we were adding. There were additional enemy types that were dropped, including Cyborg Pigs that visually matched the Cyborg Enforcers and also augmented Parapsyches.”
Duke Nukem: Zero Hour has garnered a small but loyal following over the years, with some calling it one of Duke’s finest hours, which unfortunately for any still lingering fans of the character isn’t saying much. The game seems to more closely resemble its Duke Nukem 3D action-oriented roots than the third-person offerings on the PlayStation, which suffer from pokier exploratory Tomb Raider-contrived mechanics.
A few months after Duke Nukem: Zero Hour hit stores, GT Interactive folded and was acquired by Infogrames, which then became Atari. The North American release of Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes in 2000 would be the last major game published on the company’s label after the buy-out. The publishing of the European version went to Take-Two Interactive Studio.
In early 1999, Rockstar Games, a Take-Two subsidiary, and Gathering of Developers announced that they had secured the rights to publish a next-generation system Duke game (link). Later that year, in November, more details emerged that n-Space would develop it for the upcoming PlayStation 2 (link). The title was later revealed to be Duke Nukem: D-Day, also known as Duke Nukem: Man of Valor, and had the lady killer travelling back in time once more, now to the events of World War II. The initial hope was for a 2000 release, but according to The “Official” Apogee FAQ, the software was laid to rest in 2003 “due to [a] lack of sufficient progress” (link).
As for Eurocom trying its hand at another Duke Nukem project, Benton said, “No, there was nothing planned, but had 3D Realms been slightly more productive with their output, who knows.”
Rather ominously, during Duke Nukem: Zero Hour‘s credits roll, Duke poses as the Statue of Liberty, holding up a “Duke 4 Ever” tablet. Duke Nukem Forever had been in progress since before the release of Duke Nukem 64. I suppose Eurocom imagined that the sequel’s completion wouldn’t be long.
They would only be off by 12 years.
Duke Nukem: Zero Hour Sample
Followers of GameSniped are likely aware of Nicola Ferrarese and the service he started there of sharing interesting online gaming auctions. What you may not know is that Ferrarese has a large collection of his own in his home country of Italy. Besides being the only person I know who owns a Goomba head from the Super Mario Bros. movie, he’s also a veteran video game prototype aficionado who in past years has parted with several of his amassed pre-production prizes. I had purchased a Duke Nukem 64 beta only a month before he listed his Duke Nukem: Zero Hour prototype on eBay in May 2009, and so I couldn’t help but complete the set.
I contacted Ferrarese to ask how he came in possession of such a rare item. He said that he had bought it years ago from a European game development collector named Simon Band, the very same person who had sold me the aforementioned Duke Nukem 64 (once again, I did not receive a reply from Band as to this game’s origin, either).
The Duke Nukem: Zero Hour prototype is housed in an NUS-16F32SB-256M+256K Nintendo 64 flash ROM development cartridge.
The circuit board inside has a storage space of 256 megabits, or 32 megabytes, which corresponds to the actual size of the game.
The board contains 16 flash memory sockets, eight on either side, with each one being able to hold 32 megabits, and 256-kilobit static RAM backed by a CR2032 coin battery.
The mailing label on the front of this development cartridge lists the Salt Lake City address of GT Interactive, or “Interactrive” as it’s spelled here.
175 W. 200 S. Ste 100 Salt Lake City, UT 84101-1413 (Image source: Google Earth)
According to a 1998 press release, GT Interactive once owned real estate in Salt Lake City, Utah; Seattle, Washington; San Luis Obispo, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The company was headquartered in New York City.
Patrick Struhs, whose degree is in electrical engineering, is not found anywhere in the Duke Nukem: Zero Hour credits. He, however, worked as a game tester at GT Interactive in Salt Lake. According to his résumé, he was promoted to the position of build and release engineer four months after joining the company in April 1998.
The job of a game tester is to spot bugs and crashes and report them. Build and release engineers, on the other hand, prepare the final release and also distribute pre-release versions internally to departments like marketing.
Struhs left the gaming industry in June 2000. He’s come a long way since Duke Nukem, from machismo to Mormonism, having gone on to take a senior engineering role at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (link).
Another property label can be found on the back.
This cartridge was issued a unique handwritten ID number for the purposes of cataloging and tracking its safe return to GT Interactive offices. Clearly, things didn’t go swimmingly.
I turned to the Nintendo 64 hacker “Zoinkity” for his help after battling the GameShark Pro for hours on end in an attempt to successfully dump the data, and he was able to see that the checksum of the released North American Duke Nukem: Zero Hour (“04DAF07F 0D18E688”) matched the backed-up ROM image of this “prototype.”