Is there a following of martial arts in the black community? This story started, of course, when Bruce Lee arrived onto the big scene and ushered in an era of martial arts to the world. Shortly after, the shocks swept onto on our shores and created a period now lovingly remembered as the 'Blaxploitation Era'. This was a time when all kinds of black stars were kung-fu fighting their way on movie screens in cheap stereotypical roles. After this unfortunate period in movie history faded, a small following of martial arts fans still lingered. Movie theaters sometimes catered to these fans by showing horribly dubbed or subtitled releases on their big screens. It was then that a couple of kids walked into a Manhattan movie theater for the first time and saw a film called Shaolin And The Wu-Tang. They were quickly hooked after this first viewing and they soon had all their friends and family hooked as well. Their love and fascination was such that when they got together years later to form a rap group, they called themselves the Wu-Tang Clan and named each other by their favorite characters from that movie series. And with their hard work and successes, they have gone on to produce several successful albums and now even have a videogame made based on themselves. This, of course, is what we're most interested in.
Upon first viewing, Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style appears to be a game made solely for fans of the group. It comes with their trademark style of mixing martial arts with the 'streets.' Every member of the group is in the game and the game comes with three tracks made specifically for it. Some consider Shaolin Style to be a revival of the music videogame that found its way onto CD-consoles a few years back and, to a large extent, they would be right. Shaolin Style never does anything well enough to overshadow the fact that it's a gimmick; a game made solely for those hip enough to get the Wu-Tang history and motto. It starts with a story that sounds like a personal feat for the rap group to anyone in the know, but it falters big-time because there is more than a slight resemblance of it to the storylines of countless cheesy martial arts films, not to mention a famous band of mutant turtle ninjas who also habitually lost their master a few years back. And the cut-scenes, though handled in above-average, computer-generated full-motion-video, hark back to those days of stereotypical black and Asian caricatures. Sometimes, they come off as a spoof like Keenan Ivory Wayan's I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, but other times it's just a bit insulting.
Because of the lackluster story, the gameplay is thus called upon to carry the game through. And what kills me is that there was an opportunity here to do something really great. There are over 20 characters to choose from and each has a huge selection of moves and their own unique style, which adds a rare level of depth in this brawler. Shaolin Style is also the first four-player fighting game on the PlayStation, which should be another plus. Unfortunately, it isn't and, to be blunt, once they started the game, it seems as if no one took into consideration how four-player fighting would wind up. During the story mode, I would sometimes find myself in situations where I was outnumbered and oftentimes, I could do little but watch the computer double-team me with a barrage of moves as my character was lucky to even get a couple of hits in (let alone a combo or special move of my own). To make matters worse, pulling off moves in this game can require a level of precision that no brawler should ever demand of a player. Strategy in the game devolves to standing in the corner while hoping and praying that the enemies will forget about me for a while. When playing against friends in multiplayer mode, things got no easier. As you may remember from Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers, when the action begins, it's easy to forget your combos and just slug it out, but unlike Super Smash Brothers, Shaolin Style lacks any kind of strategy thanks to the oft claustrophobic stages.
This brings me to the second (but most publicized) selling point. Some of our hardcore gamer readers will see Shaolin Style as an answer to their prayers being that it is the first commercial release using the notorious Thrill Kill engine. For those of you who don't know, Paradox created a game called Thrill Kill a while back that allowed four players to fight onscreen at once. What got the most attention, however, was the sheer amount of violence and gore in the game. It was so extreme that it made Mortal Kombat and Kill Zone look tame, but like those games before it, it succumbed to the negative media attention and was never released. After playing Shaolin Style, it is apparent why: to put it plainly, Shaolin Style is a bloody mess. I don't mind blood flowing from a character I just slashed with a sword knife (then again, I wouldn't mind so much if no blood flowed either), but Paradox went to great lengths to make sure that the blood-flow never stops. For example, if you have only a little energy left, then it's a guarantee that the next hit you take will send your body parts flying to the four corners of the screen. Plus, something that I prayed would never come back, the fatality, is here in full force and is pulled off seemingly after every round to the point of just being trivial. Aside from the gross-out factor, the downside to all the gore and dismembering is that the backgrounds of all the levels had been reduced to their lowest form. This left the game with low-res textures and a truly uninspiring look overall.
Maybe it was the way the Wu-Tang Clan pushed the game onto publishers that got Activisions attention, maybe the passion they had for the game just came through and Activision jumped at the chance. Maybe Activision and Paradox came across some data that showed some sort of connection between rap fans and martial arts. Or maybe Activision just needed a reason (any reason) to use the Thrill Kill engine and found that this game was it. Whatever the reason, Shaolin Style ultimately comes off as a gimmick game. Like the blaxploitation films mentioned earlier, it doesnt stop to think how everything involved will make the characters look or impact the consumers of their product. With all eyes on this type of violence in videogames and the level of scorn that rap is under, I would think that the developers of a game like this would try to distract critics and the media away from those two elements. How about gameplay and stronger stories to make up for the baseness of the game? Instead, everything is overshadowed by the graphic content and shoddy play. I had high hopes for it but in the end, it should be buried right alongside the Thrill Kill game that spawned it.