Bill Gates, Bill Schmates. The real multimedia pioneer of the ’90s, the individual whose capacity for cross-platform innovation is matched only by his height, is the Shaq himself, Shaquille O’Neal. Why do I say that? Well, besides being able to annihilate glass backboards in a single bound, the Orlando Magic’s 7-foot-1-inch, 300-plus-pound center has recorded two rap albums, written an autobiography, made gobs of television and film appearances, and showed up in who knows how many TV commercials and print ads. Now he stars in his own video game, Shaq-Fu.
This latest product from the NBA’s biggest star is the result of a convergence of two image-oriented, endorsement-heavy industries — team sports and sports video games. Up until now, Electronic Arts has thrived on its personality-driven sports simulations, such as the John Madden Football series. The company has been much less successful in the action genre, where — as every player knows — the real video-game money is. O’Neal, meanwhile, seems bent on expanding the perimeter of his activities to places lesser basketball luminaries could never hope to reach. You get the feeling that lending his formidable imprimatur to a basketball simulation would be too ordinary — something, say, David Robinson would do. In Shaq-Fu, O’Neal doesn’t do anything so mundane as play basketball. No, no, he’s a kung fu warrior. But he finds himself in the middle of one dreadfully ordinary war.
It says quite a bit about the lack of imagination in today’s video-game industry that Electronic Arts has used so dynamic a gure as O’Neal in such a dull and obvious premise: On a trip to Japan, Shaq enters the Second World, where he goes mano a mano with a series of bad guys and gals in a quest to rescue the child-god Nezu. (If that sounds like a bad movie, it is. Remember The Golden Child starring Eddie Murphy?) And true to bad-movie form, even the briefest bits of dialogue are stilted, conveying none of Shaq’s ebullient personality. A sample exchange:
”Be careful, prince. You might hurt yourself with those swords.”
”My swords will make you think twice about that comment.”
What about the real point of the game — the action? It only goes to prove that years after the arrival of Capcom’s Street Fighter II, rival software companies still have no idea how to program a fighting game. Although Shaq himself is digitized competently enough, he’s a relatively small, unintimidating onscreen presence, and some of his opponents (especially in the Genesis version) are downright minuscule. Adding to the aggravation factor is the unrealistic play: Shaq and his pals tumble through the air so hyperkinetically that it’s difficult to get close enough to opponents to strike a blow.
Plus, the music is all wrong. Shaq is a rap star, right? So wouldn’t it have made sense to have a rap soundtrack — or a vague approximation thereof — rather than the techno-dojo sludge that clutters so many similar fighting games? When you have talent on hand, use it. (At least the Genesis version comes bundled with a CD single from Shaq’s second album, Shaq Fu-Da Return.) All that said, what’s saddest about Shaq-Fu is the squandered opportunity it represents. With a little effort and some legal maneuvering, Electronic Arts, which already has a promotional relationship with the NBA, the NFL, and Major League Baseball, could have produced a no-holds-barred, intrasports fighting extravaganza. Imagine Shaq squaring off against Lawrence Taylor, Lenny Dykstra, and George Foreman, then girding himself for a final battle with the biggest boss of them all, John Madden. Now, that’s the kind of game that would make Shaq loom really large in this arena. Both versions: D