You may have heard of Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn, a game where the title is decidedly ironic. It reboots the 90s game Shaq Fu which, to put it mildly, was one of the worst celebrity tie-ins video games had been subjected to (unexpectedly, as the developer was the otherwise-brilliant French software house Delphine International). The new Shaq Fu was crowdfunded several years ago by developers Big Deez Productions, has missed several milestones, but is releasing soon.
As part of the runup to release, today the 'free' bonus game that will come with physical editions of Shaq Fu was announced: Barack Fu: The Adventures of Dirty Barry. That's 'Barry' as in Barack Obama, the 44th and much-missed President of the United States. This bonus game is essentially replacing Shaq with Barack, which yeah could be amusing, but for me several alarm bells immediately started ringing – and as I watched what the developers had produced, they only got louder.
The first alarm bell was because of a real-life case of deja vu. The subtitle Dirty Barry immediately brought to mind a game that I played seven or eight years ago, called Angry Barry. This was an Xbox Live Indie Game on the Xbox 360, and was a humorous 2D beat-em-up where you controlled the then-candidate as he fought for truth, justice and the American way. Angry Barry is no hidden classic, it had a fast-and-loose kind of feel typical of many XBLIG titles, but I always remembered it for a few nice touches of humour – in particular, Obama's special moves and the game's bosses.
Dirty Barry is not a copy of this game, really, but some of the similarities are striking. Perhaps it's just sheer coincidence – with Obama we are, of course, talking about one of the most famous people on the planet – and we shouldn't forget that the name's also riffing on the Dirty Harry show. But perhaps someone at Big Deez also played Angry Barry, thought it was funny, and that no-one would remember an old XBLIG title so they could just lift the idea.
That's not what really turned me off Dirty Barry, however. It was the contrast between the two games, and how they approached the idea of sending up Obama. Angry Barry is tongue-in-cheek and shot through with humour about Obama which, and you have to remember when this was made, blows up the-then optimism around the man to silly superhero degrees. Bosses include Hillary Clinton (his main primary challenger), a floating John McCain clown face with 'chaos' stamped on the forehead, a satanic George W. Bush, as well as old white lady voters who poke Obama's eyes, and what looks like Dick Cheney in a tank. The game is poking fun at 'Obama the myth', in other words, but it's also about him taking on the Republican party.
Dirty Barry, on the other hand, seems utterly tone-deaf about both the man and America as it exists today. You can watch the trailer above, and what you'll see is essentially an encapsulation of a lot of stuff rightwingers say about Obama blown up alongside, which is to my mind the worst aspect, the ex-President endlessly killing people with guns.
It's the guns that really made my jaw drop. Maybe I follow US politics too much, but to my mind some of the defining moments in Obama's presidency were around the horror of gun violence. Following his choked words after Sandy Hook, the more despicable members of the American rightwing accused Obama of faking tears. Over his presidency he tried multiple times to introduce what he called "commonsense" gun legislation and close loopholes but, at almost every turn, was obstructed. America remains in the grip of gun horror, a country that looks insane to the outside world in this regard. Only yesterday five journalists were killed in Maryland. And Dirty Barry decides this is the time to show the world Obama not only toting shotguns and assault rifles, but shooting people point-blank in the face with them. "It's time for Barack to light these fuckers up" just doesn't strike me as a very funny line.
That's not the only example of bad taste, even if it's the most egregious. At the start 'Obama' says "I haven't seen this many unexplained deaths since the Clinton administration", which is the kind of joke you might expect from Sean Hannity. At the end we get a glimpse of Michelle Obama as she lies in bed enjoying a post-coital cigarette, barely covered by the sheets, begging Barack to stay.
What, exactly, is that a parody of? It just seems thoughtless. The only thing in Barack Fu that raised a smile was a line in the press release, which says you can call in "a 'Peace Prize' drone strike to flatten your foes in an instant." Nothing else seemed to really hit home, or even have much thought behind it.
I'm not even sure this is parody. I think it just mixes up Obama's image with a bit of Fox News propaganda and black male stereotypes for a cheap laugh: this game's Obama is a violent killer who calls people brother and is very virile. I imagine it'll go down a storm at the next UKIP conference.
But I don't know. I emailed to ask the creator of Angry Barry, Aaron McCray, for another perspective. McCray is a seriously impressive guy, accomplished in a wide variety of disciplines, and making XBLIG titles seems to have been something of an apprenticeship in his career. Even he seems surprised I remember "that old little game."
"I just watched some video of [Dirty Barry], and while I don't really care much about 'ripoffs' at this point; I agree with you that the humor for this game is kind of weird. It seems to be more about taking the U.S. right wing characterization of Obama and exaggerating those things, than using actual politics and political stances and turning them into absurdity, which I attempted to do at the time."
Perhaps the highlight of Angry Barry was a special move which I think was called the Patriot Punch. It always amused me because, when you hit it, the screen fills with the American flag and some background images of Obama in a strongman pose.
"I always wished Angry Barry could have been better," says McCray. "I was working with a programmer who didn't quite understand fighting game weight and physics and combo timing – and just had to settle with what I could get at the time. But I'm always still glad when someone enjoyed it."
McCray has, after a long hiatus in other fields, just recently started working on games again. He intends to focus on free browser-playable titles, and "hopefully have people enjoy them while playing. One of these that I have on the back burner at the moment...just check out the screenshot. Same kind of humor, different kind of game, but it's on hold for now due to the current political climate here being a bit too rough."
That's both a glimpse of a game I'd prefer to play, and a reminder of the wider context of Barack Fu. I still wonder whether I'm too bothered by it – after all, it's just a daft bonus game for an even sillier main title. Then I think about the horrors of modern America, some historical and some purely down to Trump: the near-daily mass shootings, the constant reports of young black men shot by police, the propaganda media networks that invent another world for their viewers, the border patrol separating children from their parents (then sticking them in cages).
Amidst all of this, Barack Fu takes aim at... the former president. It has lines that are direct rightwing talking points. It characterises Obama in what could be considered both an inaccurate and a racial manner. Most of all it just seems a bit ignorant and tasteless, like someone came up with the idea on a beer mat and, after everyone had laughed for a few minutes, they accidentally made it without thinking much more.
Bad taste isn't a crime, of course, and good thing too. But Barack Fu is bad taste in video game form.