Skullgirls has been shown and featured at many tournaments in the years before release, which speaks to Lead Designer/Programmer Mike Zaimont’s history with the competitive fighting game scene. Clearly it’s a game which was forged into a game that’s tailor made for tournament play, and it won’t be surprising if it’s embraced whole heartedly by the community of more hardcore players. What’s uncertain is if it will be able to strike a chord with more casual and neophyte fighting game players.
No matter who you are, it’s tough not to appreciate the unique art style the game is visually grounded in. Clearly a lot of inspiration was drawn from anime/manga, but filtered through the imagination of the initial artist/creative director Alex Ahad. The style resembles Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” comics, applied to some very unique character concepts. In the initial roster of 8 playable characters you’ll find a ninja nurse, a character straight out of an old cartoon, an umbrella wielding heiress and commander of a fascist regime, and more.
In line with the character concepts, each one has the moves re-enforcing the themes, all beautifully animated. It’s clear that close attention was paid to the animation, as it is some of the best seen in a 2D video game. Visual references to other games abound as well, from Peacock’s gun firing off Bullet Bills randomly, to Valentine upon losing in a timeout exploding into a non-proportional amount of bones reminiscent of some Mortal Kombat fatalities.
Complimenting the differences from an artistic perspective, each character plays distinctively from the next. Furthermore, there’s the option to choose to play with only a single, powered up character, or build a team of two or three. When choosing a pair of characters, they are somewhat buffed in health and damage. With the Marvel vs. Capcom 2/3-esque triumvirate option, will give you three “normal” powered characters. Picking a team will give you access to assists, and as innovative as picking your team size is, Skullgirls allows you to define any normal or special moves as an assist. This allows players to play the game how they would like, making it less alienating to people used to the classic Street Fighter 1 vs. 1 paradigm, while still appealing to Marvel players who love the more team style of play.
As open ended as the character/team selection options are, the game play shares that same quality. It seems to share a similar style of play philosophy as Marvel vs. Capcom 2. The system allows for a lot of creativity, which will ensure new and interesting combos will be discovered for years to come. With making such a wide open system, the game has another first, protection against infinite loops/combos. When an infinite is detected, the characters will flash red, indicating the player caught in it can press any button to break the combo and burst out of the exploit. In addition to the complexity of the game play, it also appears that, compared to modern Capcom fighting games, the window to input a special move is noticeably smaller. For more casual players, until they get used to the timing, it may be a slight source of frustration.
In contrast to some of the barriers to entry for beginners, the tutorial mode offers players a primer discussing game play concepts which Skullgirls uses, but in a high level and game agnostic way. Detailed explanations and statement of context are presented in text, and then to illustrate the point, the player is given the opportunity to put what they just read about into practice. This is invaluable information for the casual player, and can be applied to nearly any other 2D fighting game, especially Capcom games. Along the same lines of innovating features, the Training Room includes the option to see character hurt boxes and hit boxes for all offensive moves, and display a meter visually indicating hit stun deterioration. They are invaluable tools for all levels of players.
Unfortunately, the Training Room, at launch, is missing basic features like being able to set the training dummy to jump, crouch, and other simple behaviours. Along the same lines, there is no in game move list, which is a fairly head scratching omission. As of this writing, a list of special and super moves is available from the official site as a PDF, and there have been rumblings of move lists being added in a patch. Still it’s rather glaring for this minor feature to not be included, especially for download only title.
Another minor feature which will mostly only have an impact on novice players is how online ranked matchmaking does not include the option to filter out players drastically above your rank/skill. While finding competitors with good connections to you is paramount, for those just learning the game and without a lot of competitive fighting game experience, this is a recipe for frustration. This will most likely end up putting more than a few people off of playing random matches online. Non-ranked matchmaking does offer the ability to flag a room for beginners/practice, but I was not able to once find a lobby of those types. It seemed like most players playing with random people were using ranked matchmaking.
Those criticisms aside, the GGPO powered online game play is excellent. Unlike the online multiplayer of other fighting games, a “green” ping usually translates into a silky smooth connection. This game truly showcases the power of the GGPO framework when the game is built to fully utilize it, and hopefully will lead to it being used more in future.
For those interested in the single player, it comes in two flavours, Arcade Mode and Story Mode. Arcade mode is what you would expect in a fighting game, allowing you to use any kind of team, facing a random gauntlet of other teams before the final boss fight. Story mode will have you playing as a single character, and experiencing the Skullgirls’ story from that character’s perspective in the form of static cut scenes and text dialog.
Although not animated, the artwork is very nice, and the way the individual relationships between characters play out and are revealed is fairly interesting, putting the actual story a few steps above the standard fighting game story fare. Unlike the Arcade Mode, there’s no difficulty selection option when playing through a character’s story, so there’s some basic level of proficiency required in your defensive capabilities, and learning what is effective with each character. To experience and appreciate the full scope of the story, you will need to play through with each of the six “protagonists” and then the two “villain” characters which are unlocked after completing the other stories.
Skullgirls if anything serves as one of those rare examples where something that started out as a couple of individuals creating their dream game, has ended up an actual, fun to play game, released on major platforms. Furthermore, it’s clear that more than a few of the unique game play and options seemingly pioneered in this game are destined to be appropriated by some or all of the future games in the genre.
At its core is a fun and complex fighting game engine, distinct art style, phenomenal 2D character animation, and many features/options which go beyond the genre’s conventions. Although, it is missing some standard modern fighting game features, and a casual/beginner fighting game player will experience a steeper learning curve than they would in other games. Still, the negatives are easily offset by the remarkably low cost of $15/1200 MS points. It is truly a rarity that a game priced so low can stand, more or less, toe to toe, with the juggernauts of the genre.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the 360 version of Skullgirls.