With fighting games, you sometimes already have a niche audience to shoot for, despite how much the genre has grown throughout the past few years. Within the people that are fans of them because of simple enjoyment, you have an even smaller niche that enjoys the finer intricacies of the systems of a fighter. Things like DHCing, instant overheads, kara cancels, being able to pull off sick combos that take off half an opponent’s health.
This is the kind of audience that Skullgirls is largely marketed towards; the players that grew up playing fighters ever since Super Turbo, the ones who study hitbox data and frame data religiously, and practicing combos for hours at a time, learning what combos into what. The truly hardcore. Though that’s not to say there aren’t things that people outside of the genre can enjoy, many aspects of the game are specifically designed to cater to true fans of fighters.
At first glance, Skullgirls looks like a sleazy, all female fighter, the kind that one normally sees coming out of Japan. And, well, it sort of is, and the copious amounts of fanservice doesn’t really help quell that image. However, the game hides a very deep, complex fighting system that caters to fans of multiple titles from fighting history.
If you’re a Guilty Gear fan, then you’ll appreciate the free form combo system, which allows you to string together your own combos with ease, as well as pull off some interesting tricks with some experimentation. While combos are initially easy to perform, the true reward is finding the secret recipe to put the flashy, high damage ones together, which will take some time in training mode. To keep combos from getting too out of hand, Skullgirls also uses an ingenious anti-infinite system, where if a certain string of attacks is used too much, the attack visuals change, and the receiving character can burst out of it. This encourages players to vary their combo strings for maximum damage.
For the Capcom vs SNK fans, the team oriented aspects will feel right at home. While players can fight with a single, powerful solo character, they also have the option to fight as a two or three (wo)man team, using a ratio system that splits the total strength of your chosen characters. This kind of freedom allows players to either create their ideal team, or simply stick to one character they know best. Unlike in CvS2, however, where a three man team would have two ratios ones and a ratio two, Skullgirls keeps them even across the board, making sure everyone is on equal ground in a team battle.
In Marvel vs Capcom fashion, you can even set assists for your teammates, which effects what attacks they use when you call for them in a match. Again, Skullgirls advances on the mechanic by allowing players to either choose one of the preset attacks, or set a custom assist. For example, I tend to have Ms. Fortune pop in with her standing MK, since it’s a good pressure tool. You can also set her assist to standing HK for a launcher, or any version of her Fiber Upper as an anti-air. It’s all up to what you want for your team synergy, a freedom that is usually absent from other games that use an assist system.
That’s the beauty of all of this. While veteran fighting fans should be able to piece together all of the various inspirations for the game’s mechanics, everything is refined in a way that works beautifully. The game even has a unique pause function, where pausing the game instead requires you to hold down the start button for a few seconds before it actually occurs, a method to prevent accidental pauses during normal play. Going through how everything works, one can’t help but think “Why the hell didn’t they think of this before!?”
The game even includes tools to help ease new players into the game. The tutorial mode is surprisingly in depth, going over a lot of aspects, such as how combos work and canceling moves. The AI even adjusts itself in order to help teach you while you play. Getting too friendly with some of Peacock’s projectiles against a Cerebella AI? She’ll actually try to use her super armored moves to break right threw your spam and punch your face. This allows players to focus on adapting and figuring out different strategies, though the AI does still occasionally fall for some basic tricks and exploitations in their patterns.
As many tools as the game provides for newcomers, there are still some things that are missing to really help them out. The tutorial, for example, doesn’t go over all the aspects one needs to know. Concepts such as pushblocking, DHCing, and quick getups aren’t mentioned, resulting in an incomplete learning curriculum. Meanwhile, while Training mode provides some great options such as enabling visible hitboxes and hitstun graphs, it lacks other familiar options as well, such as opponent positioning and behavior. This can make it difficult to experiment things such as how effective your theorized mixup combos are, or pointing out where exactly your combo drops.
To take it even more difficult for beginners, movelists for individual characters are no where to be found in the game, instead being relegated to being downloadable from the official website. While one can argue that this was a method to help cut down on the file size for the game download, it still doesn’t seem like a simple menu showing specials and supers would take up that much extra space. It’s a confusing decision, at the very least. Although anyone with an internet connection can find and download the character guides, it’s still a bit of an inconvenience.
Skullgirls does provide numerous game modes to choose from. Traditional arcade mode and Versus are present, and there’s even a Story mode, which uses a visual novel style presentation similar to BlazBlue. Unfortunately, the lack of voice acting during the story parts (or any sound at all other than background music) doesn’t help to get players immersed into the plot. There is also a heavy lack of major details, and the story paths themselves are fairly short. Most of them should take you within 10-15 minutes to clear depending on how you do in the fight segments. Still, the dialogue is well written, and helps players understand the web of relationships that exists in the storyline.
Online mode is also present, using GGPO technology to help provide smooth online play. The online holds itself very well during playtime, with hardly any noticeable lag in most conditions. It’s not perfect, unfortunately, mostly minor details such as not being able to see the username of your opponent during a match, the game instead opting to keep both of your identities hidden. It creates a sort of awkward situation where you feel like you’re fighting against a faceless individual.
The main issue with the online, however, is the human element. Not necessarily an issue with people being poor sports, but rather the issue that not as many people are playing online as they should be. This could be an issue that’s more related to the Xbox 360 version of the game, as the PS3 benefits from faster load times and less chances of random frame rate slowdowns during a match. As a result of these differences, it’s possible that more players just happen to be on the PS3. Then again, I may have also just tried doing online on off days or something, but it’s definitely something you take notice when you spend ten minutes just trying to find an opponent in a ranked match in the middle of the afternoon and keep getting nothing. Hopefully activity rises in the coming weeks as more people get in on it.
That’s not to say these concerns are anything that make or break the game. It’s still an incredibly solid fighter, with a small but surprisingly varied cast, and gameplay elements that work like a dream. Just goes to show that having a competitive gamer like Mike Z help develop your game is actually one of the best ideas you could have (although that’s probably also why Cerebella, the token grappler character, is so damn good).
All of this is also accompanied by an incredible 2D art style that not only looks stylish, but also smoothly animated, even giving KoF XIII a run for its money in the visuals department. Everything you see, from Ms. Fortune’s muscle tendons that stretch out from her attacks, to Double’s constantly morphing figure, are done in such great detail. Watching Double’s idle animation alone is about as hypnotic as watching a lava lamp.
These visuals are also paired with a great musical score, courtesy of Michiru Yamane, responsible for the music of numerous Castlevania games, particularly Symphony of the Night. You can especially hear that Castlevania influence in the intense music for the final boss battle (the final boss herself being an incredibly cheap bitch). Combined with a plethora of references to pop culture, television, movies, and even other video games (many of which those in the competitive fighting game circle should be able to point out with ease), helps seal the fact that Skullgirls truly is a love letter to fighting game fans, and even fans of video games as a whole.
The thing that’s probably missing the most from all this, however, is replay functionality. Such a thing has been making a stronger presence in fighting games all the time, and to see it absent in Skullgirls is a bit of a surprise. It’s especially saddening, since I was able to hit an opponent online with Peacock’s steamroller item drop (a reference to the move used by Dio Brando from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), causing instant hilarity. Upon realizing that I didn’t have a method of saving that glorious moment, profound sadness crept in. Hopefully this is something that can be patched in at a later date at the very least.
With amazing animation, a brilliant soundtrack, tons of references begging to be explored, and an incredibly deep and fluid gameplay system, Skullgirls is great addition to most anyone’s gaming library, even with the borderline obnoxious amount of fanservice present. Those that are new to fighting games, however, may have a more difficult time getting a grasp on the various intricacies because of the lack of information, but should still be able to make some headway if they decide to stick around. It’s definitely designed with the veterans in mind, though, and if you are a true fan of fighting games, then you owe it to yourself to check this out.
FINAL SCORE: B+