Where were you in April 1997? It's a little over 12 years ago. Perhaps you were still at university, or just starting your first job. Some of you won't remember at all.
Me, I fall somewhere in the middle. I was 16 in the spring of 1997, and I had finally convinced a magazine editor to let me write a couple of pages about videogames every month. Somewhere in my parents' attic, there's a dog-eared copy of that magazine turning yellow and crinkling around the edges. In it is the first page of copy I ever got paid for - including breathless reporting of two huge new PC games which had been announced almost back-to-back in the previous fortnight. Their names were Daikatana, and Duke Nukem Forever.
We all know about how Daikatana went off the rails. Most of us probably remember designer John Romero promising to make us into his bitch, but when the vastly over-schedule and over-budget game finally turned up in May 2000, it did so with a submissive whimper rather than a throaty, dominant growl. Nobody became Romero's bitch, with the possible exception of Eidos, who funded the whole mess.
Media and gamers alike made Daikatana into the butt of their jokes for months - but even as we rolled our eyes at Romero's folly, we were all casting nervous glances back at Duke Nukem Forever. Born from the same background in Texas' fertile FPS development scene, Duke Nukem appeared to share some of Daikatana's problems. A planned launch in mid-1998 had been greeted not with a huge splash at retail, but rather with a slightly understated announcement that the game, originally based on the Quake 2 technology, would now switch to the Unreal Engine.
OK, fair enough. We'd seen the Unreal technology at work, and my god, it was beautiful. Unreal sold 3D cards by the bucketload as gamers rushed to experience the world Epic had crafted. If the guys at 3D Realms had had the same shivers run down their spine when they walked out of the crashed spacecraft for the first time, or when the ominous Sunspire presented itself to be scaled, then who could blame them for wanting some of that magic in Duke Nukem Forever? Besides, Duke Nukem 3D was one of the most entertaining games of its generation - who were we to question the creative decisions of the guys who made that?
1999 arrived. When 1999 departed, the only things which 3D Realms had to show for it were a brief announcement about moving to another new engine (an updated version of the Unreal Engine, so not a big deal, we assumed) and a Christmas card featuring the Duke and strongly hinting that we'd see the game in 2000. The delays were amusing, but nobody was actually worried about the game - not least because the endless shenanigans at Ion Storm proved far more entertaining.
Daikatana turned up, as mentioned, in May 2000. Once we all stopped rubbernecking, however, all eyes turned back to Duke Nukem Forever. Announced ten days after Daikatana in 1997 and running similarly behind schedule, DNF felt like a brother in arms - so surely it, too, would finally make it onto retailers' shelves soon.
That was nine years ago. A year later, in the summer of 2001, we finally got a gameplay trailer - around two minutes of footage, released in celebration of Duke Nukem's tenth anniversary at E3. By today's standards, the video looks positively archaic, and even then - with games like Half-Life having raised the bar significantly for first-person shooters - it didn't look like a huge leap forward. Still, we reasoned, Duke Nukem 3D wasn't the technological leap forward that something like Quake represented, but it was still fantastic. Keep the faith.
That was the last time that any significant footage from Duke Nukem Forever would ever be released to the public. It was eight years ago. To date, it's the only official gameplay footage we've actually seen.
3D Realms has never been particularly keen on talking about Duke Nukem Forever. Unlike other studios of the era, which customarily released screenshots and videos in a steady flow throughout the latter stages of the dev process, bosses George Broussard and Scott Miller kept a lid on Duke's progress. Up to E3 2001, updates were sparse, but at least they were regular, and suggested significant ongoing work. After that E3, however, 3D Realms slowly but surely went dark.
The last serious bit of information came out of the studio in 2002, and concerned another, final, change in engine technology. Dropping almost every component of the Unreal engine, 3D Realms claimed to have rewritten 95 per cent of the code, crafting what was essentially a brand new engine from scratch. Then we heard nothing for nearly five years.
Every now and then, either Miller or Broussard would pop up to give an entirely content-free interview, or answer questions on a forum, which always seemed to suggest that the game was in the latter stages of development and just needed a quick polish before it would be ready to launch. So starved of information were we that even news about licensing a new physics engine seemed exciting, if only because it proved that the corpse still had a pulse.
Then, suddenly, in December 2007, a trailer! Heavens above, a trailer, an actual trailer!
Except... Well. It was actually just a long circling shot of an oddly proportioned Duke (seriously - he had a huge body and a tiny, tiny head) pumping some iron, with a couple of split-second clips of famous monsters from the series interspersed. They looked pretty decent, but unlike the 2001 E3 trailer, it's clear this wasn't gameplay. It's a teaser, not a trailer, and teasers generally don't imply the game is on the home stretch.
The past year and a half, since that teaser appeared, has gone roughly the same as the previous five years. We've had a tiny bit of camcorder footage on Jason Hall's online TV show, which showed a small chunk of a level and a handful of enemies and weapons - vastly more up to date than the 2001 footage, but literally only a few seconds long and showing little of how the game actually works. Various statements, mostly from Broussard, have continued to point at an imminent release - just like they have since 2002. There were a couple of screenshots hidden in the Xbox Live Arcade version of DN3D. Little seems to have changed at 3D Realms.
Until today. 12 years after the official announcement, perhaps as many as 14 years after Duke Nukem Forever commenced development, today's news is that 3D Realms is shutting its doors. As I write this, it's unconfirmed - but the silence from the company's usually vocal bosses is deafening.
So what could have killed 3D Realms? The studio ran on two commodities - money and patience. It could have run out of either of those things. However, despite online scuttlebutt, the fact is that long-suffering publisher Take Two, which ended up with the rights to Duke Nukem after taking over Gathering of Developers in 2001, couldn't have killed the project. DNF has always been directly funded from within 3D Realms, and publisher input seems to have been minimal, perhaps even non-existent - Take Two's job would simply be to take the finished game and put it on shelves. If 3D Realms has gone down, and DNF with it, then it's a decision which has been taken by Broussard and Miller, not by Take Two.
Even after all the jokes - Duke Nukem Forever and Ever and Ever and Ever, Did Not Finish, and a million other examples (my favourite is this huge list of things which have happened since DNF was announced), I never quite believed that Duke Nukem Forever simply wouldn't appear. Yet, even for those of us who remember Duke Nukem 3D fondly, it's hard to escape the fact that its strippers, dreadful one-liners and oh-so subversive depiction of the police as actual pigs seemed a hell of a lot more entertaining when we were teenagers, although others at Eurogamer would definitely beg to differ.
More importantly, if you're much younger than 25 or so, you probably don't remember Duke Nukem at all. Once, DNF could have sold itself on the strength of the brand - now it would face an uphill struggle to convince a whole new generation that this slightly twee self-parodying action hero is actually worth a second glance.
Of course, there's always the possibility that what 3D Realms has been working on for all these years is actually amazing - a groundbreaking, stunningly conceived and realised game that would kick the FPS up the arse (or rip its head off and you know what). We kept the faith with Duke Nukem Forever for years; for all the jokes and snarky comments in the past decade or so, we'd love a happy ending and a great new game.
Yet somehow, that fairytale ending just doesn't seem to fit with the story so far. Instead, I suspect that this may be my obituary for Duke Nukem Forever - my most-wanted game of 1998.