In a sane world, Shaq Fu is a game that shouldn't exist. What kind of lunatic thinks it's a good idea to make an overgrown basketball player the star of his own fighting game? It's a crazy idea that is ripe for mockery. For years I've seen people list this as one of the worst fighting games of all time, even going as far as to destroy cartridges in protest. I guess I must be going mental, because I had a really good time with this unorthodox fighter.
Before you light the torches and dust off the pitchforks, I beg you to hear me out. I realize that Shaq Fu isn't a great fighting game. It's certainly not on the level of Street Fighter II or Samurai Shodown. I also realize that it's a goofy concept that seems even more ludicrous two decades later. But that doesn't keep it from being an enjoyable adventure full of interesting characters and good looking backgrounds.
Think of Shaq Fu as Flashback: The Fighting Game. Because everybody at Electronic Arts was high that day, they decided that Delphine Software International should be the team that brings the Shaquille O'Neal fighting game to life. Up until then, Delphine had made a name for themselves by developing rotoscope adventure games like Out of This World and Flashback: The Quest for Identity. This was their first foray into the world of fighting games.
It's easy to see Delphine's past in Shaq Fu. The game prioritizes fluid animation over good gameplay. The result takes a little getting used to. The way the characters jump and how they move feels like they come from a pre-Street Fighter mindset. The long animated moves and imprecise movement can be maddening at first, leaving a lot of players cold. But anybody that sticks around long enough will find that there's a rhythm to the madness.
You play the game as Shaq, who has recently been sucked into a different dimension and forced to fight for his life. He runs across an impressive assortment of characters, each with their own unique special moves and background. The world is beautiful to look at, full of large gates, flowing waterfalls and pink wastelands. Even the ugliest background (a meth lab in the middle of the slums) has an eye for detail.
The characters are an impressive lot. There are twelve in all, ranging from a cat-woman named Kaori, a mummy named Sett, Colonel the cyborg, Diesel the boxer, a witch named Voodoo, Mephis the Grim Reaper lookalike, and Rajah the offensive Indian stereotype. This is a solid line-up even without Shaq. The character animation is fun to watch, especially once you've gotten a handle of the game's controls. It's easy to see the attention to detail that went into each frame of the animation. This is what Delphine does best.
Regardless of how good the game looks, it all comes down to the gameplay. I liked that Shaq Fu wasn't just another Street Fighter II clone; it has its own unique style. Some might call the gameplay broken; I prefer to suggest there's a steep learning curve. Either way, this is not the easiest fighting game to play.
Shaq Fu works as both a single and multiplayer game. It's not perfect and the gameplay may turn some gamers away, but adventure is long and I enjoyed the detailed backgrounds and memorable cast of characters. I also think the animation looks incredible, even two decades later. Guilty pleasure or not, Shaq Fu is a lot of fun.