Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant center in the NBA during his tenure. And there was a period in the 90s when he was one of the most famous celebrities in the world, with a rap album, his own sneaker, and movie roles.
He even had a video game: Shaq Fu was a mediocre fighting game about Shaq stumbling into another dimension and fighting his way to save a young boy. It’s remembered for its kitsch factor, and since we’re in the middle of a wave of 1990s nostalgia, it shouldn’t be surprising that Shaq is returning to the video game medium.
In ShaqDown, a $1 universal iOS app, a zombie outbreak has apparently destroyed most of the world’s population. Instead of dying out, the zombies evolved to be sentient mutants…which makes them both zombies and mutants, I guess. So there’s that.
The point is, Shaq, the “Justice Bringer”, is the only one that can stop these villains. The game has nothing to do with the previous Shaq-centered game, but that’s ok—Shaq Down is plenty strange as it is.
With a premise involving zombies and world domination, you’d think that Shaq would be fighting his way through hordes of mutant zombies. Not so. Shaq Down is really just a thinly disguised side-scrolling platformer in the Canabalt/Robot Unicorn Attack tradition, with the occasional boss battle to break up the monotony. Shaq defeats most enemy zombies by simply running into them, and the majority of the game is spent swiping your finger to move him around the screen to avoid huge zombies he can’t kill. You’ll also be launching a “free throw” basketball to weaken unstable zombies before Shaq can run into them. Unlike in real life, though, Shaq’s free throws are quite accurate.
To the developer’s credit, the game plays like a combination of platformer and bullet hell (a type of shoot ‘em up where the screen is packed with enemy bullets) games, where dodging enemies must be balanced with timely attacks. Shaq has a couple of super power moves that must be charged by running into enough zombies: one behaves like a Mario star power up and lets you run through enemies with invincibility, and the other is a huge hadouken-like power beam that, if this were real life, would have made fouling Shaq a much more entertaining experience.
The maps are all fairly similar, and while the art has a comic book feel, the cut scenes and plot are afterthoughts, which is a real shame. Shaq Down had an opportunity to be an over-the-top kitsch fest, full of references to Shaq’s famed career, quotable lines, and his alleged martial arts prowess. Instead it’s a rather underwhelming and bland game that gets old after about five minutes.
The boss battles represent a missed opportunity, as they have a potential to be epic slugfests, showing Shaq’s apparent strength as the “Justice Bringer.” Instead, they become insanely tough bullet hell sessions. Thankfully, while there are no real checkpoints in the regular stages, if you die during the boss fight, you can restart at the fight.
There are several achievements to unlock, but nothing you won’t automatically attain after running through the game for a few hours. You can unlock different jerseys that will change the game rules slightly: a faster pace but weaker boss, for example.
While I can only speculate, there’s plenty of evidence to assume that Shaq was selected as the game’s title character after the developers failed to secure some other celebrity. With the bull-running mechanic and references to the character’s speed, was the game originally supposed to be “Adrian Peterson Saves the World,” or “Marshawn Lynch Versus the Zombies?” Just curious.
There’s a spectrum of celebrity basketball players in video games, from genuine if overly-serious fandom best exemplified by Barkley: Shut Up and Jam, Gaiden to the absurdist distraction of Dikembe Mutombo’s 4.5 Weeks to Save the World.
Shaq Down occupies an unfortunate middle ground: with game-play elements that include zombies and super-powered basketballs, it can’t be taken seriously. But its wafer-thin plot and lack of intentional humor make it a bore. Whether regrettable cash-in or novelty item, Shaq Down doesn’t even hit the rim.