Can a game break the stigma that surrounds it? I know a lot of people, mostly from the fighting game community, who got very excited when it was announced that there would be a new Shaq Fu game coming out on modern platforms. But many review platforms haven’t given the latest offering in the Shaq Fu franchise, sub-titled “A Legend Reborn”, very high praise, and having played a good chunk of the game now, unfortunately having to take my sweet time doing so due to “life”, I’m not certain why it’s not getting higher review scores.
I’m somewhat convinced that a lot of this relates to the original 1994 SNES game from the basketball legend which is often mentioned in conversations discussing the list of worst games of all time. However, the creators at Big Deez Productions decided to move away from the original Shaq games’ fighting game genre, perhaps wisely given how saturated that market currently is in my opinion, and moved Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn into the realms of the arcade style 2.5D side scrolling beat ‘em up instead. Which I think was a brilliant move!
While many games filled my childhood, there are a handful that took up more time than most, and during the SNES/Megadrive days one of those top time consumers was Golden Axe, my next-door neighbour and I would sit and grind at that for hours and days on end. But unfortunately, it is a genre that seemed to fall by the wayside. And with all the classic games being remastered of late, I’ve often pondered why Golden Axe and other, similar, side scrolling beat ‘em ups aren’t really around anymore, let alone making a comeback.
And boom! As if by magic, a new side scrolling beat ‘em up drops in my lap in the form of Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn. We managed to play the demo at EGX Rezzed earlier this year, where Lefranzine and I really enjoyed it, and we jumped at the chance to get a review copy for the Switch (which ended up being a poor choice as it dropped at a time when we had a bajillion games to review on the single Switch we own…) and I must say I am really enjoying spending my lunch times playing it.
Sure, the graphics aren’t “Triple A” style graphics, it’s a much more indie art style, which is hardly surprising given it was a crowdfunded game. But they really suit the style none the less, they look to have aimed for a more American comic book art style, which, given the game’s humour etc, really works well.
The slight issue I do have, on the audio-visual front, is the cut scenes lip syncing is off. I’m not sure if it is just poorly done, or if it is intentional to represent the poor dubbing in ye olden Chinese martial arts flicks – but it seems not bad enough to come across as an intentional representation, so instead just looks poorly planned. But I like to think, given the game’s themes and style that it was intentional.
Keeping on the audio-visual side of things, I really like the soundtrack for Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn. While the hip hop scene perhaps isn’t always my go to music genre of choice, the soundtrack really hits me in the nostalgia bone for another game series that I spent many hours at university playing, which is the Def Jam “Wrestling”/fighting games.
The voice overs and sound effects, sticking with the humour themes, are also solid – even if, combined with the story, many of it is that “right on the line” humour between hilarious and offensive. It’s the kind of comedy that it gets away with because of how ridiculous it is.
The “plot”, as loose as it is, revolves around Shaq growing up in rural China, often being bullied for being an absolutely huge black kid in a village of scrawny Chinese kids and thus being trained in the ways of Kung Fu. But as an adult the village is attacked, and Shaq must use his training, size and raw natural talent to save the day – and then ends up having to save the world against tyrannical pop stars…
It’s not going to win any awards for storytelling, but the sheer ridiculousness and hilarity of it more than make up for it. While much of the humour is, as previously mentioned, “on the line”, a great deal of it references the previous games in the Shaq Fu series, poking fun at them, as well as at Shaq himself and even to the problems that were had in development for this title.
The final, main, thing to cover is the gameplay. This can be good at times and not so good in my opinion. It doesn’t have a huge amount of depth – but that is arguably a problem with the genre, they were often a “footsie” (fighting game terminology there) battle to get in on an opponent, and then mash the attack button until they die. This is largely the same, there is an attack button that does a basic combo, there is a “big boot” button, that does a big kick attack that varies depending on the combo meter, and then a special attack button. For the most part that’s all there is to it.
But that has always been a staple of the genre, just look at Divekick, that game only has a jump button and a kick button, sometimes the number of buttons isn’t really what is important. Golden Axe had an attack button, a jump button and a magic button – and I dropped more hours into that than most games I’ve probably every played! Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn does mix things up slightly though, sometimes (I’ve yet to discover the triggering mechanism) your first hit on a weak enemy will send you into a zoomed in “cinematic” kill. Which breaks up the gameplay nicely with a “oh sweet!” moment.
Similarly, some enemies break up the risk of falling into monotony by specifically stopping certain things. A perfect example is in the second or third “zone” there are enemies that will swat you out of the air, so my usual tactic of run, jump attack and cross up didn’t work. And the final way of changing things up, that I’ve seen so far anyway, is power ups. In a recent stage I picked up a “cactus” power up, which turned Shaq into a living cactus, so all of his attacks instead fired cactus needles across the screen – it was crazy fun!
That’s not to say that the gameplay is perfect though. I think some mechanics weren’t fully touched on in the “tutorial levels”. I found against the third or fourth boss “Diamond” that an effect happened, and the “Left Stick” icon appeared, but I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do for ages, I assumed I just had to wiggle like crazy, but that didn’t always work – I think I was actually supposed to treat it more like a rhythm game input and move the stick as it showed – but I don’t recall any such mechanics being shown prior – and the icon was quite small playing on the Switch in handheld mode.
Overall I think it’s a very solid game, it might be that the gameplay is playing on my nostalgic rose tinted glasses – I can imagine that with all those modern games with their complex inputs and game play options, that a single attack button might not cut it for today’s kids, but as someone who got excited when the Megadrive had 3 buttons instead of the NES’s 2 buttons… yeh…
Likewise the humour might not appeal to everyone out there, perhaps I just got lucky that I grew up playing many similar style of genre games and also happened to find it hilarious, but I certainly think it is a huge step up from the original Shaq Fu, even if A Legend Reborn isn’t going to win game of the year – I think it’s a game that delivers on what it set out to do, and thus, can’t be slated as hard as it has been by many.
It’s out now on most platforms, and already has a DLC available titled Barack Fu: The Adventures of Dirty Barry where your play as President Barack Obama through two new stages taking on the Kanye West – I’ve yet to play this one, as I wanted to finish the core game first, but the description alone sounds amazing!