Why does this game exist, I asked myself as I booted Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn up, and I continue to ask it now that I’ve experienced it. The original Shaq Fu was a fighting game released in the mid-1990s that many consider one of the "worst games of all time", and it getting any kind of sequel or follow up baffles me. 1339 backers, donating an average of $340 a person on Indiegogo, and over three years of work led to a release across multiple platforms, and the product sure had a lot to live up to.
Set in an alternate universe, Shaq is found as a baby by a Chinese woman in a river. He grows up like the real Shaq, freakishly tall, and is picked on and made fun of for his exceptional height. A strange, little old man Ye-Ye takes interest in him, and teaches him to be a master of a martial arts called Wu Xing, until one day ninjas attack Ye-Ye. It turns out that he's a guardian of mankind, and Shaq was to be his successor. It’s left up to Shaq to go out and defeat the demons who have infiltrated the world in the form of celebrities, and save the world.
The plot is set up like a B-roll or grindhouse story. However, the writing is very much hit or miss. Interactions and acknowledgement of video game tropes are sometimes used to a great effect. For example, Shaq questions why missiles are being fired at him, and Ye-Ye responds that he’ll tell you that in a later chapter. There are some good interactions betweeen Ye-Ye and Shaq, with Ye-Ye in particular coming across well with a strong delivery by his voice actor. The good is outweighed by the bad, though, which often come across as mean-spirited, and against what character Shaq builds himself as in this universe. During the introduction, he being bullied mercilessly for his size is used as a defining factor in his backstory, but once it’s over, he starts himself insulting physical appearances of his foes. He makes a fat joke against one enemy, and brutally insults the work of another villain later on. It’s clear they were trying to have back and forth one-liners, but it comes across as hateful and rude rather than funny.
The story would have been more bearable and the spiteful “jokes” easier to swallow, had the gameplay not been painfully bad. Moving to the beat ‘em-up genre rather than making this a fighting game like the original, there's a framework in place to have actual fun. Starting with a single button, the game adds in a few combos and abilities to try and cause more damage, but they don’t do enough. Fights often are just mashing buttons almost randomly, with little to no thought.
Shaq Fu is weighed down by the lack of diversity in the combat, and the game quickly turns into a grind fest. What that means is your actions rarely start getting more unique, and there's no strategy that evolves as you play. Certain enemies require you to perform certain actions, or even not to perform some actions at all. Once you realize that an enemy gets stunned by a particular attack, there’s no reason to try anything else, and the combat devolves into a game of rock, paper, scissors. Dodging is not an option, as the game has only a pathetic roll to move through the layers of the map, and it doesn’t grant any invulnerability. I found myself unable to dodge attacks unless I started my roll way before the attack had even be telegraphed, the time I easily could have used to attack instead. This lack of protection was highlighted even more during boss fights, as it became a race to see whether or not Shaq could out smack the big baddie.
There are pockets of slightly unique moments, as Shaq is sometimes given power-ups altering his body and attacks. The first one you encounter is Big Diesel, which turns Shaq into a power suit-styled machine, able to throw a flurry of punches while also heating his body up and granting you the ability to vent an exhaust as an attack as well. It was fun while it lasted, but was hampered overall by being a scripted event. By not giving us control of when he could morph past the first use, it lost the charm and chance for creativity pertaining to the fighting. These sections could often last long past their welcome, becoming just as sloggy as the normal combat.
Visually, the game has a nice cel-shaded style, and the backgrounds can be fairly interesting. They tell a better story than anything else in the game, as they’re a journey to a destination. The second level, for example, has you storming the mansion of a Justin Bieber-inspired bad-guy named Baby Face. Moving from the docks, you battle your way through a pseudo-downtown California to his mansion, busting down his gate and making your way into his secret underground lair. It’s a rare treat that the game is able to show you more story here than it’s able to tell you.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn feels like a title that exists solely to revive a bad joke. It's quite self-aware of its legacy as the sequel to a notoriously bad game, and tries to use that to its advantage. There are some fourth wall breaking jokes that, while not Deadpool levels of over-the-top, are entertaining here and there. But the moments where Shaq is rude are just awkward, especially when you remember how he was supposedly made fun of for his appearance in his past. All that could have been overlooked somewhat had the combat been interesting, but clearly the focus was on trying to be humorous, and it failed. I can’t recommend Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn - it’s a joke that fizzles out quickly, and leaves a sour taste in your mouth.