Obscure Retroness #5

March 30, 2013

Welcome one and all to another edition of Obscure Retroness. For those wondering about the massive gap in postings, there are many possible reasons I could claim. Sickness, injury, misadventure – all would be true or none of them. For you see, this very edition of Obscure Retroness contains a game that is quite possibly one of the most contentious of all time. A game that revisiting took so very much out of this sometime gamer’s being that it took six months to recover from the very high-octane intensity of merely glancing on it again. A game featuring one of the most recognizable sportsmen of the past twenty years, who also dabbled in a bit of rapping, reality TV and acting along the way….

Shaq Fu. Featuring Shaquille O’Neal. Multi-time NBA MVP, 6th on the all-time list of point scorers, star of Kazaam and Enforcer of Justice? It’s almost too much to comprehend that such an exalted being exists, but oh yes, he does. At least for a brief period in the 1990s in video game form.

For those not in the know, Shaq Fu (or should that be Shaq-Fu? Does that mystic circle in between the two words act as a hyphen or just a sign?) is a 2D fighting game. One day the man himself is stomping the grounds of downtown Tokyo, readying himself for a charity basketball match. Being that this is Japan, he of course manages to stumble across a kung-fu dojo right below a Pepsi sign. Once inside, he’s accosted by an elderly gentleman who believes Shaq is in fact a chosen one from the stars, and jostles him into a portal in his dojo’s back room to rescue a young boy named Nezu. Just who is Nezu any why is he important to the old man? Like a lot of things in Shaq Fu, it’s never really explained – unless you read the instruction manual, where it’s detailed that Nezu is descended of a royal bloodline who once stopped the game’s big bad Sett-Ra from dimensional domination. Quite obvious when you think about it actually…

Once you enter the second world told of in legend through the mysterious portal, you’re treated to an overhead map view where you can move Shaq around to different locales and take on a variety of foes that will make you scratch your head in earnest.  Besides the demonic mummy Sett-Ra, you have to contend with his shadow counterpart Beast, Kaori the cat lady, a voodoo priestess simply called Voodoo, the non-Prince of Persia Rajah and Mephis the orange-cloaked zombie. If you’re ‘lucky’  enough to play the Sega and Amiga versions, you’ll have even more characters to inflict harm upon your opponents (and possibly yourself): there’s orc-like Auroch, longshoreman Diesel, old martial artist Leotsu, amnesiac futuristic cyber cop Colonel an even an possessed version of Nezu,the scamp that Shaq is tasked with rescuing.

Accompanying each of these encounters is a brief segment of text banter where Shaq tries to get more information on his quest and is subsequently trash talked by whoever he is facing. It’s arguable that these snippets are some of the game’s true highlights for being of the so-bad-it’s-good variety. As an added bonus you also get another screen once you’ve defeated them, showing them disheveled and in some instances giving you some advice or coming to their senses and realizing they were brainwashed the whole time.  Because it’s nigh-on impossible  to put how incredible these small moments are it’s best to view for yourself with a screenshot. Unbelievable:

What’s also unbelievable is just how difficult it is to actually play the game. The excuse plot, character types and cunning script all have their charms, but Shaq Fu remains a hard game to actually play in the sense of actually pulling off moves successfully. Even if you have a full list of button inputs for special moves at your disposal, there’s a lot  of unresponsiveness inherent and sometimes outright glitches, such as attempting to summon the mighty Shaq-uriken only to do a simple flaming kick. It’s a real shame as some of the special moves do look kind of neat and are nicely animated, if not all that original.

In general the audio and visual elements of the game are kind of nice. The backgrounds are fairly well-detailed for the time and the special moves and characters are nicely animated. As well as this, the music and sound effects are generally well-chosen and seem to fit in more than the characters fit with one another. One other element that deserves some praise is the fact that Shaq Fu may very well be one of the first games to show progressive damage to its characters, in a sense. If you look carefully at the fighter portraits as the bouts drag on and more damage is taken, you’ll see them look increasingly weathered and despondent. In a game that gets a lot of things wrong there is but one element buried deep down that could be called well ahead of its time, with emphasis on the ‘could.’

The tale of Shaq Fu’s current collectible status is one of the more curiously unique ones in gaming, with people firmly divided on whether playing it was worth their time or something they wish they’d be able to forget, much like Shaq’s rap career. Simply having the Enforcer of Justice’s game in your hands is not enough it seems – what really counts is what you do with that cartridge afterwards. There are two movements on the internet dedicated to influencing just what people should do with their copies of Shaq Fu – over at shaqfu.com, their sole purpose is to liberate copies of the game – by destroying them in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, saveshaqfu.com is attempting to do just as its url suggests – rescue copies of Shaq Fu from destruction and preserve them for future generations to come. As of this writing, it remains to be seen which movement is going to win out.

And just as the outcome of the great Shaq Fu war is unknown, so too is the subject of the next edition of Obscure Retroness. Will it be Barkley: Shut Up And Jam or Michel Jordan: Chaos In The Windy City to complete the trinity of mid-90’s basketball-themed games? Shall another console great be deeded worthy of inclusion? Whatever that game may be, you’ll find it covered here in time…