The fact that we’re still talking about Shaq Fu twenty years after its release is interesting. It displays how much unbound hatred there is toward the original Genesis/Super Nintendo game, one of the worst of its generation. As one of the first notable titles to use a celebrity as a protagonist, Shaq Fu became the poster-child of everything from terrible controls to bizarre premises to ways to permanently damage an athlete’s career. But we still talk about it; there’s still a sense of fascination with Shaq Fu. That fascination is what eventually led to the confirmation of a follow-up to the “classic” Genesis and SNES fighting game. Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn has been pitched for crowdfunding, and from what’s been shown and discussed thus far, it looks to be a true labor of love, and that love is hating Shaq Fu.
During the 90’s, hot on the heels of Shaquille O’Neal’s impressive basketball career, video games were steadily becoming used as marketing material for pop culture icons. Seeing a video game with a real-life celebrity as the main character wasn’t anything too new, with games like 1990’s Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and a number of games featuring martial artist Bruce Lee already being released, so Shaquille O’Neal’s presence as a video game character wasn’t met with too much negativity at the time. Shaquille O’Neal’s gaming debut might have originally been in NBA Jam in 1993, but his most prolific role in gaming has been that of 1994’s Shaq Fu. Shaq Fu was distinctive in that O’Neal’s role wasn’t directly related to his basketball career. Unlike NBA Jam, Shaq Fu was a fighting game, one where Shaq is transported to a Mortal Kombat-esque otherworld where he must fight supernatural martial artists. Shaq Fu was a fighting game that, despite earning a mixed reception upon its Genesis/SNES release, was critically panned over the course of gaming history for its terribly unresponsive controls and generally pointless inclusion of Shaquille O’Neal himself. The game has frequently been referred to as one of the worst games ever made.
Since the game’s “heyday”, Shaq Fu remains one of the longest running jokes of the gaming world. Its innumerable detractors constantly hate on the game, and really, it’s for good reason. Shaq Fu is not a good game. So when a suspiciously blasé announcement of a sequel from Shaq himself was recorded and shown online by GamerFitNation, the gears of speculation were brewing. Personally, I took Shaq’s announcement as a passively delivered joke; in the video, Shaq never spoke with any sort of enthusiasm toward the project, so I expected it to simply be a witty stab at those who actually wanted a sequel to Shaq Fu. However, this announcement steadily proved its legitimacy as domain names were registered, pointing toward a potential sequel. The curtain was fully removed when Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn appeared on crowfunding site IndieGoGo with an official trailer and Shaquille O’Neal’s certification of involvement. The sleeper had awakened: Shaq Fu was getting a sequel, courtesy of Big Deez Productions.
But despite the original game’s reputation, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn doesn’t seem to follow that suit, and I’m not talking about the gameplay (we haven’t even seen an in-game trailer, for crying out loud). In the days of the first Shaq Fu, the original was essentially a form of product placement, a way to capitalize on Shaq’s popularity and market his image. It showed Shaq’s athleticism and tough guy attitude in a fighting game, but it always felt shallow and disturbingly goofy. Shaq Fu, for what it wound up being, took itself way too seriously. The sequel, on the other hand, never emits that vibe. Everything about Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn looks goofy and over-the-top; it knows that the first Shaq Fu was bad. Why else would your game’s tagline be “This time we won’t FU it up!”? The interview trailer features a number of big-name developers like Rick Raymo (Duke Nukem 3D) and Matt Karch (Halo), all of which intentionally take jabs at the original’s quality. Raymo himself names off a number of turned-down “ideas” like Bioshaq, Shaq Ops and O’Neal’s Fortune. O’Neal himself acts like a complete goofball on camera, citing the technology as something from the future before gnawing on the straw in his drink. It’s clear as day that Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is not a game that aims to take itself seriously; everyone on board embraces the original’s crappiness and looks to keep the goofy premise’s humor out in front instead of tucked away on the bench.
Even the teaser footage possesses a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that the original game simply did not have. Shaq possesses techniques straight out of an arcade game like Street Fighter IV and environments that embrace all of the stereotypical themes of any martial arts-based fighting game. Moves like the “Shaqwave” are blatant parodies of fighting game staples and Shaq’s over-the-top martial arts are presented in a stylized and goofy aesthetic reminiscent of games like Double Dragon Neon and films like Kung Pow: Enter the Fist or Scott Pilgrim VS. The World. Even the opening scene with Shaq squaring off in darkness and pumping his fists, ultimately leading to his goofy, toothy grin is downright hilarious. It’s a game that addresses the absurdity of its concept and finally takes that absurdity to heart. It’s not about Shaq acting tough in a video game to preserve his athletic image anymore; it’s about taking a downright ridiculous idea and treating its ridiculousness with a remarkable amount of respect.
And that’s why I believe Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn has promise. Aside from the fact that Big Deez Productions have a lot of creative development pedigree swirling around their team, the sequel to Shaq Fu is looking to be a much less awkward endeavor for its development house, the gamers, and Shaq himself. Shaq Fu was a badly designed game, but its shallow use of Shaquille O’Neal’s image made the entire game a disturbing ordeal to play. It tried to make Shaq into something soulless, a basketball player fighting martial artist thugs, and took itself far too seriously while doing so. It was a stupid, dumb and completely out-there idea, but A Legend Reborn doesn’t possess that awkwardness in the same light. Big Deez Productions make no effort to justify the first Shaq Fu’s quality; like the rest of us, they know it was bad. There are ways to make something ridiculous and absurd into something charming and fascinating; games like Octodad, Katamari Damacy and even Kingdom Hearts have proven that a weird idea can become something cool if tuned the right way. Big Deez Productions appear to have tuned Shaq Fu to the proper frequency, a setting where seeing Shaq fight ninjas is legitimately funny instead of a recipe for countless facepalms.
Will Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn be what Shaq Fu should’ve been? It’s impossible to tell right now, but I can say that I want to play A Legend Reborn infinitely more than I want to play the first Shaq Fu. That’s a good starting point, I’d say.