I made a note of it. After all, it was a big occasion. 3:35pm, 9th June, 2011. The exact moment it became real, when a courier arrived at my door with a package it would be fair to say I'd been waiting some time for.

A week and a half, that is, since I'd filed the necessary legal documentation to secure the release of my advance copy of - gasp! - Duke Nukem Forever.

Despite signing my life away to 2K Games, the publisher apparently still didn't feel comfortable enough sending the game out until less than 12 hours before its general release.

Non-Disclosure Agreements and review embargoes are standard fare in the games industry. But Duke Nukem Forever, needless to say, is no ordinary game. As Eurogamer reviews Editor Oli Welsh quipped in a recent podcast: "13 years in development; one day to review it."

Anyway, there I was holding the actual box in my hand. "DUKE NUKEM FOREVER" roared the front cover in that unmistakable, chunky font. "THE KING IS BACK!" bellowed the rear. And yet I couldn't quite shake the feeling I was about to experience the punchline to the most elaborate joke in videogames.

Randy Pitchford understands: "You fire it up and you get a Rick Roll!" I meet Randy a month earlier in London over breakfast (he has bacon with his pancakes: it's what the Duke would want), during the final press tour before the game's launch.

Randy is one of gaming's Big Personalities, a charismatic public speaker, hyper-enthusiast and raider of the Miami Vice shirt rack. He's also an accomplished magician, but has surely never pulled off a greater trick than this, conjuring the couldn't-make-it-up curio back to life and onto store shelves.

"We should live in a world where we get to play Duke games," he says. "And we should also be able to play Duke Nukem Forever, because what they've done is incredible".

There's a near-religious conviction to his belief in original developer 3D Realms' "vision". It has become both mission and Mission for the man since his money and studio gave this flatlining fantasy a Saviour's kiss of life.

Gearbox is an independent, successful studio with a terrific reputation, well-earned with the likes of Borderlands and Brother In Arms on its CV. It clearly didn't need the attention that comes with the Duke. And while the rewards could be considerable, the potential pitfalls – both financial and reputational – were hardly trivial.

Gearbox, though, has always held close ties with its Texan neighbour 3D Realms. Pitchford himself is a former employee, previously working on Duke 3D, and has since claimed he owes his career to the series. Was this, then, a classic case of heart ruling head: the romanticism of Randy?

"That kind of thinking – that 'are you crazy?' – was never borne from any fair intellectual analysis of the situation," Pitchford counters. "It's only borne from a superstitious, emotional response to the feelings we had over all this time.

"All of the intellectual analysis of the reality of the situation - the situation in the market, the state of the software and the nature of entertainment that existed and entertainment that it should be - all of that led to the sound decision of, yes, this needs to happen."

Pitchford also notes that, despite his position as studio boss and obvious affection for the project, he didn't take the decision to acquire the Duke Nukem IP unilaterally.

"The entire studio was aware before the decision was made, because the culture at Gearbox is very transparent and so we communicated and discussed and examined that question together as a studio," he says.

Before that happened, though, Pitchford had to pitch for it. "I reached out to George [Broussard] and Scott [Miller – both co-founders of 3D Realms]. If the problem is, 'Duke is dead? Really?', then the goal is, 'Duke should live.'" The Mission, remember?

Due diligence was done as Randy, George and Scott talked it through at length, working out what needed doing and what could be – after over a decade the guiding principle was surely "realistically" – done.

This process only served to deepen Pitchford's faith and fervour. "It became more correct rather than less correct the more time we had to think about it," he says.

When the announcement came, many on the outside thought he was, well, a little bit bonkers. After all, we're talking about a game that, after 12 years in development, had cost tens of millions of dollars and produced little more than a few trailers and countless broken promises. Which suggests a project and a studio managed with the efficiency of Fawlty Towers.

Pitchford says he can sympathise with that notion, "Because it seems so absurd that anyone would spend this long making a game - there must be something really wrong." But he dismisses this analysis as ill-informed conjecture. "That's what we imagine. But we also have to accept that we're imagining that; we're making a lot of assumptions there."

This is a critical point to understand. Whenever Pitchford talks about the game he is careful to state that it is not his game, rather the creation of others he is realising.

"The attitude that I've had and the attitude of the studio - the thing I committed my studio to - was not to try to make it into something it isn't or something it shouldn't be or something that feels like ours rather than theirs," he says. "It needs to feel like it's the right one, the authentic, correct one."

A major reason this has been possible at all, he stresses, is continuity. "Did you watch the trailer from 2001?" he asks. "At the end of that trailer there's credits. If you go back and look at those credits, with the exception of one name, every single artist and designer listed in those credits had at some point over the past decade either landed at Gearbox or is now part of the project."

Video: The 2007 teaser. WE STILL BELIEVED.

In preserving the myth of Forever, Pitchford knows these details matter. But it doesn't answer a fundamental question: the concept may have been in place, but what state was the actual game in when Gearbox took it over? Pitchford is less precise here.

"I've seen the things that were the beats that they were kind of thinking about in 2007 and how they reimagined that again in 2008 and how they manipulated it a bit in 2009," he says.

The implication of Pitchford's words is startling: that, after a decade of development, the game was in a form where one could only see what "they were kind of thinking about".

One thing Pitchford is at pains to make clear is: "There's a tremendous amount of George in the game. [He's] a very capable, experienced game developer and certainly no-one was more committed than him to the objective of making sure Duke Nukem Forever was a worthy sequel to Duke 3D and a wholly entertaining, great experience."

Broussard, despite relinquishing the rights, has remained very close to the project. "He emailed me three times last night," Pitchford grins, describing an exchange that followed his BAFTA talk earlier in the week.

"I sent him an email yesterday evening saying, 'Hey, you know, I was kind of having fun with this audience talking about some random things? Like with the whole gay robot thing, and apparently that's become a story, heads up!'"

"And he's like, 'Yeah, saw that, that's the power of the Duke! People, anything they can latch onto, they're just having fun talking about it. That's the power of the Duke, baby!'"

Gearbox, 3D Realms and 2K will find out just how potent the Duke's powers are from today, with the game now on sale. Pre-order indications suggest they have little to worry about initially. Which may go some way to explaining Pitchford's possibly hubristic remarks on reviews.

"You're just missing out on a ginormous aspect of videogames history if you fail to participate."

"We know the game's great. Any journalist that decides to try to go... To lowball it is gonna be held accountable by the readers.

"It's also Duke frickin' Nukem frickin' Forever. One could not be a gamer in this world without consuming that and having that experience. You're just missing out on a ginormous aspect of videogames history if you fail to participate.

"This game's gonna ship and we're all going to be there, so it doesn't matter what the score is."

Pitchford does, at least, acknowledge the unique challenges the game presents to the media. "I would not want to be a journalist on this one, though. I would not want to be a critic. It's going to be tough." Not least, one might argue, when a publisher gives some press no reasonable chance of hitting the embargo.

Duke Nukem is no stranger to controversy. 1996 release Duke Nukem 3D was banned or censored is some territories, while stirring up a hornet's nest of moral outrage in others thanks to its adult, sexual content.

"It's sexist, degrading filth!" cried the critics. "It's harmless, tongue-in-cheek fun!" blasted back fans.

15 years on and the same arguments are raging once more. The "strong violence, sex, nudity, language & drug references" in the 18-rated game, detailed by the BBFC, are exactly what fans want and would expect. But where does Duke fit in the modern world?

"There's this line somewhere where on one side of it nobody even raises an eyebrow... And then on the other side there's, 'Oh those people should be in jail'," says Pitchford.

"The line itself is okay, the line is a fuzzy, amorphous line and that's where Duke lives. He lives in that realm there between what is absolutely wrong and what is not even in question."

In the context of the fiction, it may seem absurd to raise serious arguments of moral impropriety over a game whose sense of humour is so knowingly, coarsely adolescent, whose very first gameplay action involves pissing into a urinal, and whose first Achievement involves faeces. You either buy into that wholesale, or find it idiotically puerile.

But the game's portrayal and treatment of women has sparked a very specific debate. In particular, a multiplayer mode named Capture The Babe. At the very least, this was surely designed to provoke a reaction?

"It's not supposed to be provocative, it's a Duke play on Capture the Flag, so the name has to be derived from Capture the Flag," Pitchford argues, not entirely convincingly.

But it's the mechanics of the mode, specifically the on-screen prompt to "spank" the Babe when she's thrown over the player's shoulder, which have provoked the fiercest criticism.

"Duke is absolutely a playboy kind of character."

"Duke is absolutely a playboy kind of character," says Pitchford, clearly exercised by this issue. "He's like Hugh Hefner meets Superman. I realise there's going to be some people in the world that have a problem with that, but the minute you try to suggest that Duke would himself commit an act of violence against a woman just because she's a woman, or advocate that, that's offensive to me.

"Duke is... Absolutely not a Chris Brown kind of character. I think Duke would kick that guy's ass. That guy's not a man, he's an asshole. And I think Duke would hate a guy like that. That's where I'm actually offended by the association some have tried to make."

Controversy alone won't stop the Duke juggernaut. What matters now to the fans who've loyally clung on to hope for so long is that Forever is finished.

"It's not just finished, but it's worthy," insists Pitchford. "It succeeds at its goal. Which is astonishing, if you think about it. So much better than the other story, which was, 'It's over and that's it', and it fizzles out."

Video: The launch trailer: better late than never, right?

Crucially, the myth, the legacy, and the game in this improbable saga are now out of Pitchford and 3D Realms' control. The public can, at last, judge whether the journey was one worth taking.

And so thoughts turn to the future. "Imagine what could happen if we were treated to great Duke Nukem games at a more frequent pace," Pitchford muses enthusiastically. "But right now we have Duke Nukem Forever and we'll see what the future holds.

"Hopefully we won't have to wait another 15 years to spend time with the Duke again. But just in case that turns out to be that case, we should enjoy this moment. This is a rare moment in gaming history and we should enjoy it."