Shaq-Fu: The horrible son returns

20 years on, Shaq is back with a follow-up to the worst game ever. Here's why that’s OK.

Shaq-Fu: The horrible son returns
Shaq-Fu: The horrible son returns© Big Deez Productions

Gamers are a famously nostalgic bunch. Hey, remember the angry penguin mom in Mario 64? Ha! Hiding in the bathroom on Facility in Goldeneye? Groan. The 'private' movie booths from Duke Nukem 3D?

Er, kinda.

And hey, while we've got our rose-tinted goggles strapped so firmly in place, who remembers Shaq-Fu? 

Anyone? 

OK, that's a little unfair – but only a very merest little. People do remember Shaq-Fu. It's just that, by and large, they wish they didn't. For many who dipped the toe of their limited edition Shaq-branded sneakers into this 2D Genesis and SNES beat-em-up game, it's a painful childhood memory, like falling over in the playground or discovering the mall Santa didn't really live at the North Pole. Except in this case, it’s seeing legendary Orlando Magics star Shaquille O'Neal lend his name and likeness (sort of) to what many hold to be one of the worst games in history.

© Electronic Arts

If you're sitting there thinking, "wait a second, I've never even heard of Shaq-Fu", there's a good chance you're just repressing. If that's the case, allow us to snap on our surgeons gloves and drag the memory painfully back to your conscious mind: Developed in 1994, Shaq-Fu was a 2D fighting game that told the story of how the then-most famous basketball player on the planet came to be trapped in another dimension while enjoying a spot of tourism in downtown Tokyo. His only means of escape? Clobbering armoured Egyptian mummies, voodoo priestesses and undead wizards, of course. 

Which we'd be into, obviously, if the game hadn't been quite so unforgivingly difficult. Enemies' moves were often overpowered and nippy enough to interrupt your own Shaq Attacks – unless you spammed one particular kick over and over, which could generally be relied upon to carry you through the entire game without touching anything else in Shaq's latent kung-fu repertoire. It wasn't good. And with games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter already out on consoles and more advanced fighters like Tekken and Killer Instinct wolfing down our quarters in arcades, Shaq had nowhere to hide. 

Which, in a saner world, would pretty much kill, burn and bury the chance of a sequel. Two decades on, Shaq has retired from the NBA and the games it was competing with at the time have all gone on to become huge, genre-defining franchises. No-one is waiting for another Shaq-Fu.

Except the hundreds of people on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, who have so far stumped up around $150,000 for the sequel, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn, that is.

Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn
Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn© Big Deez Productions

"When I met Shaq he told me he wanted to get back into games," Matt Karch, CEO of developers Big Deez Productions tells Red Bull exclusively. "I told him he couldn't do anything until we addressed the massively pulsing sore thumb called Shaq-Fu."

There's no pretense from the team at Big Deez that the first Shaq-Fu was anything other than a disaster. In the game's pitch video, the man himself even encourages gamers to "get that [game] out of your head. Open up your head up, take that out and throw it away" before promising "this time we won't FU it up."

"We are dropping pretty much everything [from the first game] but that element of cheesy absurdity," says Karch. "Oh, and we are keeping Shaq of course. We might have a few cameos from new and improved versions of old characters, but that's about it."

What does that leave us with? The team at Big Deez considered many different ideas for what a triumphant return for Shaq might look like ("We discussed other options... but I don't think anyone would have really cared about a Shaq shooter," says Karch). The team eventually settled on a cartoon-ish spiritual successor – an "over-the-top fighting game that people won't take seriously". And while gameplay shots are limited, that's certainly in-line with what the studio told Red Bull about the kinds of scenarios Shaq will be facing down in this “definitely-not-a-sequel” (Karch's words, not ours).

In-game Shaq, whom Karch describes as "the real Shaq, with an 8-pack and huge pecs and delts, won't be limited to battering enemies one-on-one in Legend Reborn as he did in the first game. Instead, he'll be cracking open whole pallets of whoop-ass on waves of kung-fu-kicking enemies and more traditional beat-em-up boss enemies. All with the sort of po-faced seriousness you'd expect from a game about a dimension-hopping basketball star (though not the only dimension-hopping basketball star, Space Jam fans will be quick to point out).

"My favorite weapon right now would have to be the angry cat," says Karch. "Thrown as a projectile weapon, it face hugs whatever it hits and then proceeds to claw the living daylights out of it. Others prefer swinging a set of giant 'hammer-chucks’, while some stick with the classic pool cue. There’s something for everyone!”

Shaq-Fu
Shaq-Fu© Big Deez Productions

"In terms of bosses, I’d have to say that we’re most excited about the Black Star Ninja. His identity is still a secret but we can’t wait to come clean on who he really is. He’s an awesome boss and is both a lot of fun and a huge challenge to defeat. We know how to have fun on the Shaq-Fu team and we love the room for invention we have when you make a game like this. We know people are going to love what we’ve come up with."

But despite citing Devil May Cry and Street Fighter as influences, the pitch steers clear from bloody violence – this isn't Mortal Kombat: Shaq Edition. While the developers were candid in admitting that the first game was essentially a cash-in – trading on Shaq's brand as a sports star, actor and even rapper – the second game still has to stay true to the Shaq persona.

"Shaq has a well-deserved reputation of being a good family-friendly guy and having him tote guns around doesn't really match his image," says Karch. "We will be going for more of an over-the-top thing than a gory thing. As much as I would love to see Shaq rip off a head and pitch it at a second enemy, I don't think it's in line with Shaq's image. Expect exaggerated physics and ragdolls galore, just not copious amounts of gore."

But no matter how many muscles Big Deez can strap onto Shaq's character model, the question remains: 20 years after the first game was released, when Shaquille O'Neal was the biggest name in sports, does he still have the power to shift a video game by himself?

"[That] did cross our mind," admits Karch. "But Shaq is very much an international figure and also has considerable appeal among young people in the US. That hasn't changed. Our hope is actually that the game will stand on its own merits and introduce Shaq to a whole new generation of fans. Shaq's legacy off the court – with all of the acting, broadcasting and charity work he does – has a chance to be as big as the one he left when he retired."

Shaq-Fu
Shaq-Fu© Big Deez Productions

It certainly won't hurt that Shaq is personally on board with the project, pitching in on the creative side of development (Karch says the team is “planning on creating a live action sequence with Shaq that sets up the game”), playtesting the game as it comes together and, naturally, fronting the PR campaign. Donate $250, for instance, and not only will you receive the game, but a personalised voicemail message from the legend himself. 

“Shaq plays everything, but is particularly enamoured with fighting games. You should see the controller in his hands – though I can't figure for the life of me how he plays so well with such massive fingers!” Karch jokes. 

The project also seems to be avoiding that trap that many crowd-funding projects stumble into: promising too much, overreaching and then disappointing your backers. As such, ports of the game for everything except PC are all down as stretch goals - $450,000 in backing gets you A Legend Reborn on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U.

Backers also get first dibs on the DLC, which – even with so little of the main game on display – will run the regular gamut of extra levels, characters and weapons. According to Karch, the details are still being hammered out, but "a lot will depend on fan feedback".

So, to recap, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is a crowdfunded successor to a game that even its developers admit was a disaster. It's squaring up against some of the oldest, biggest franchises in gaming history. It's aiming to launch across PC and two generations of consoles. And it's already talking DLC. You couldn't tape together enough yardsticks to measure how crazy it all sounds in theory. Yet there's something about its balls-out, grinning-car-salesman pitch and the team's unwavering faith in the man himself that makes the promise of Shaq-Fu intriguing. It's an underdog that should never have existed, and yet here it is, rolling on the carpet and wagging its tail.

"I could say we are the guys to do it because no one else wants to," says Karch. "But the truth is that we have the ability to bring on the best talent possible to make it really good. We continue to bring on the best people that we can. Shaq is behind this and is willing to do whatever it takes to support it and make it happen. I don't want to be the guy telling Shaq that we failed."

Don’t want the team to face the wrath of a seven-foot man with a series of fighting games based about him? Get yourself over to Indiegogo to help make the game a reality now.