Let’s journey back to 1994. The original PlayStation console was unleashed onto the world, as was the less-successful Sega Saturn; the world-wide phenomenon of Friends made its television debut; the British-pop invasion was all the rage with iconic bands, such as Oasis, dominating the airwaves. These phenomenons may have defined pop culture in 1994, it would be negligent to omit Shaq Fu – the iconically terrible martial arts video game starring NBA legend, Shaquille O’Neal.
While the original Shaq Fu game has maintained a cult following throughout the years – primarily due to its terribleness – Mad Dog Games and Big Deez Productions (a new development studio created by Shaq himself for the project) wanted to make the game better; make it the way that the original game should have been. Though there are some painful points throughout the game, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn ultimately succeeds on its attempt to improve upon the original with humorous dialogue and fun fighting mechanics reminiscent of other '90s-era side-scrollers.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn retells the tale of an orphaned Shaquille O’Neal, who grows up to become a master of an ancient martial arts style known as Wu Xing. Following the death of his trainer and mentor, Ye-Ye, Shaq embarks on a quest to rid the world of demons hell-bent on destroying the rest of humankind. Shaq travels from his hometown in China, to the celebrity and plastic-surgery meccas in the surrounding areas of Hollywood, to the pits of Hell itself, fighting hordes of demons that take on the appearances of “Gym Douche” thugs, “Bloodsucker” lawyers, and “Fascist Goon” soldiers, just to name a few. Shaq also faces off against powerful bosses as he makes his way through each level, leading up to the final epic battle against the head demon, Yen-Lo-Wang.
The game is quick to admit that its story is “convoluted and full of holes” – as Shaq literally states in the first piece of in-game dialogue. He is not lying. The story is a familiar one of vengeance that eventually leads to self-discovery, as Shaq uncovers the truth about his past. However, what the game lacks in substance, it makes up for in humor and social commentary. The dialogue contains the typical one-liners and banter than one might expect to be in a martial arts movie, but the game also throws in random gems that are sure to catch players off guard, such as Shaq “quickly figuring out” how to fly a private jet himself just from reading a manual, not to mention the hilarious mentions of Shaq’s real-life sponsored products, including Gold Bond and Icy Hot. Ultimately, the story takes a backseat to the game’s fighting mechanics, and that is a good thing.
Fighting against the multitude of enemies in Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is an all-around fun and satisfying time. Performing combos against enemies as they surround Shaq feels fluid and becomes second nature immediately. More often than not, enemies are likely to overwhelm Shaq, which are the perfect times to unleash special moves, such as a ground pound that pushes back anyone nearby, or unleashing Shaq’s size-twenty-two shoe which sends enemies flying into the background. Power ups, including one that turns Shaq into a cactus, help aid in crowd control as well. Some of Shaq’s normal attacks randomly trigger slow-motion special moves, such as massive uppercuts or pile drivers, which are fun change-ups during the fast-paced, chaotic battles.
As fun as the fighting and battle system is, the sheer number of enemies that have to be defeated in order to progress to the next part of a level is Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn’s primary pain point. While facing scores of enemies is arguably a distinctly '90s-era fighting game feature, it becomes monotonous in Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn. This is especially true in the game’s later levels. In some instances, Shaq faces off against more than five waves of villains before moving on to the next part of the level. The game has a fun moment addressing this, in which Shaq breaks the fourth wall to tell the game developer to stop the random villain redundancy. Unfortunately, wave after wave of enemies continue to come, including during the final boss battle, making the fight a bit trickier to navigate. For all its faults in this regard, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is able to overcome the monotony thanks to making its boss battles worth the time and effort.
As previously mentioned, the humor in Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is its crowning achievement. Beyond the toilet-humor (in some cases literally) and funny quips, the boss characters, specifically, fuel the game’s funnier moments. This is accomplished thanks to the boss characters being modeled – rather unsubtly – after recognizable real-life individuals, such as a robot political figure controlled by a demon, a demon hotel heiress with a famous “low budget” night-vision movie, and a social media star who is literally a giant, floating buttocks.
The game pokes fun at its characters, but no more than Shaq makes fun of himself. However, the self-deprecating remarks are all endearing and in good fun. One of the funnier lines made light of Shaq Fu’s reboot, questioning if Steel – a 1997 film that Shaq starred in, which was also met with unfavorable reviews – would be the next Shaq-inspired thing to be rebooted.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is not intended for players who may be easily offended. The off-the-cuff remarks and social commentary tip-toe a line between offensive and hilarious, but end up working well with the campiness of the game.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is not revolutionary by any means, but it is an entertaining, roughly three-to-four hour game that brings back all of the things that made titles like Streets of Rage and the X-Men arcade game fun to play. Had the original Shaq Fu been anywhere close to the game that Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is, it no doubt would have seen an increase in success and positive reception.
While we may never lose the sour taste from 1994, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is an all-around enjoyable experience that succeeds in doing justice and improving upon the original game.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is available now for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
3 out of 5 Stars