The 16-bit era saw the release of plenty of games that would go on to be considered all-time classics, whilst others are remembered for being just plain bad. Unfortunately, 1994’s Shaq Fu – a 2D beat ‘em up published by EA – falls squarely into the latter category. Flash forward some twenty-odd years and, thanks to a successful campaign on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, the game’s spiritual successor makes its way to all major platforms in the form of a side-scrolling brawler subtitled A Legend Reborn.
The game’s opening cutscene recaps basketball megastar Shaq’s fictional backstory: found abandoned in a handbag on the shores of a Chinese village. Growing up Shaq is teased by the other children for his size and is taken under the wing of kung-fu master Ye Ye and is trained in the ancient Chinese art of self-defence. Following an attack on his village and the death of his mentor, Shaq sets out on a quest to avenge his master and learn the secret of his abandonment; in order to do so, he must vanquish a cabal of six evil celebrities.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is set across six different stages, each one with their own distinct look. From Shaq’s village of Hung Low to Los Angeles to Fiji, each stage is well presented with lots of detail in both the foreground and background. The story is told with tongue firmly in cheek, with plenty of humorous lines and sight gags.
Cutscenes throughout the game are stylised to resemble an Anime cartoon, which suits the theme well. Shaq looks like a younger version of the man himself, with the celebrities also looking like their real-life counterparts (though I’ll touch on this in a little more detail later in the review). The in-game dialogue is over the top in keeping with the cartoony vibe, with the big man himself lending his own voice to proceedings. Music in-game is a constant hip-hop beat, and being a nerd for all things connected with basketball in the mid-90’s, can confirm the tracks are mixes that include some of Shaq’s rap back catalogue.
As one would expect from a side-scrolling brawler, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is a button-bashing affair, with waves of enemies attacking Shaq from all sides. Combos can be chained together by pressing the same button over and over, culminating in a final big move (whereupon the camera zooms in to capture the action in more detail). These combos also build a special attack meter, which can, in turn, be used to deal more damage to any nearby enemies.
Should Shaq’s health begin to run low, green orbs left by fallen enemies or by destroying crates and barrels dotted along the path can be absorbed to replenish his health bar. Certain environmental objects such as kegs and street signs can be used as melee weapons for a limited amount of time. Shaq can also pick up power armour, which gives him semi-invulnerability and increased punching power.
The enemies are varied, from lower order fodder that can be quickly despatched to stronger tank-like brutes and ranged attackers that hurl missiles toward Shaq. The stronger enemies often require different methods other than straight up button bashing to overcome them. I found that it was best to deal with the specialised enemies first, with the basic enemies less of a concern (as they deal less damage), swatting at them occasionally to keep them at bay whilst I focussed on their stronger cohorts.
As with the majority of side-scrolling brawlers, the end of each stage is bookended with a boss fight, which in Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn’s case, comes in the form of a “douchebag” celebrity. Obviously wanting to avoid any legal issues the developer has changed their names, though it’s instantly apparent who the celebrity is supposed to be. The bosses will attack in a certain pattern, with a certain degree of strategy required in order to overcome them; in fact, one of the battles involves a Dance Dance Revolution-style rhythm sequence, which caught me a little off guard.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn is a great improvement on its ancestor; however, the game does have its own set of issues. The most obvious flaw is mainly down to the genre itself, as side-scrolling button bashers quickly become repetitive. It quickly becomes apparent that enemies are a palette swap of ones seen in earlier stages of the game, reskinned to suit the current theme. Shaq Fu’s humour comes off as forced at times and can be a tad sophomoric, relying on material that may easily offend certain players.
There are also some collision detection issues, especially when the camera zooms in to capture a combo finisher, with Shaq or the enemies’ limbs disappearing completely into the floor or background. Also, the button mapping on the Switch version is a little odd, with the jump button (a necessity in stages where constant movement is required) assigned to X, which felt really awkward. My final grumble is that the game doesn’t actually take all that long to complete and having completed the game there’s very little in the way of replay value.
Whilst Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn does help to erase some of the mistakes of the past, it will only appeal to nostalgia nuts like me who played the original, or fans of side scrolling beat em ups. Don’t get me wrong, I personally found the game to be a short-term blast, but I have to be critical and admit that not everyone will appreciate the game’s humour or will be willing to overlook its repetitiveness. So, unless you’re old enough to have played the original or just dig button bashers, keep your money in your wallet.