You might look at the cast of a game like Street Fighter 4 and think there’s a lot of variety and some seriously weird and distinctive characters on display. Once you play Skullgirls though, you’ll think that all fighting games contain a roster of dull and lifeless clones with no personality. Outside of the accident and emergency room in Glasgow on a Saturday night, you won’t meet such an eclectic and at times terrifying bunch anywhere else.
Who came up with this bunch of misfits, minx’s and utter maniacs? Well Skullgirls is the result of work by tournament competitor Mike “Mike Z” Zaimont and Alex Ahad. While Mike Z had been looking for a way to create a game that appealed to fighting games hardcore fans, Alex Ahad was already working on this zany bunch of characters and the strange world they all exist in. These two, along with the rest of the talented team at Reverge Labs, have created a game that manages to do the impossible. Skullgirls is a hardcore experience that will challenge professional player while it also teaches fighting games beginners what fighting game are all about.
From the opening moments of the game its clear that Skullgirls has some fantastically talented artists on staff. The all female cast are all very different and yet form part of a cohesive whole. The gorgeous sprites make this one of the most attractive 2D fighting games ever made, while the detailed animation and bright colour palette make it a joy to watch. The animation is ridiculously detailed and each of the characters has so many little incidental details included that you can only spot them all when you’re not actually playing. When you are playing, you will feel the smoothness and responsiveness of these animations, but the action is too frantic to take it all in.
The whole experience perfectly combines everything that is good about indie titles and major releases in one perfect package. While the line-drawn look of the visuals is gorgeous its also rough enough to give it an indie charm, but the musical score by Michiru Yamane has all the bluster and polish of a big budget AAA title. Best known for his work on the Castlevania series, the Yamane’s soundtrack is the perfect high energy accompaniment to the on-screen chaos.
That’s not where the major features run out either. Unlike many higher profile fighting games Skullgirls makes use of the cutting edge GGPO netcode. This revolutionary middleware was designed to help create a near-lagless online experience by Tony Cannon, co-founder of fighting game community site Shoryuken. This is a far more advanced form of netcode than used in the recent Street Fighter games. Even Capcom’s recently released Street Fighter X Tekken got this technology wrong and while it implemented some of the features of GGPO, it did so in such a clumsy way that the whole online experience was badly compromised. Skullgirls proper implementation of this technology is more evidence of its focus of how its a fighting game made by fans, for fans.
One of the best aspects of the whole game is the way that it teaches new players the fundamentals of fighting games. The detailed tutorial explains the basics of tick throws, hit confirms, roman cancels and more. Many gamers will have no idea what these terms mean and will only learn by through extensive research online. None of Capcom’s or Namco’s fighting games offer any support for players to learn what these terms mean, and as a result Skullgirls is not only a great game in its own right, but also the best game to play if you are looking for a way into fighting games. Its a gateway drug, but in a very good way!
When I started the game I found that I was very quickly picking up on concepts I had never truly understood that fighting game fans throw around a lot. I had some understanding of what hit-stun was, but it wasn’t until I saw its explanation in Skullgirls that I really got it. Crucially, Skullgirls tell’s you not just what these terms mean, but why they are important to winning. You might vaguelly understand what a hit confirm is, but its only after playing the specific lesson in Skullgirls on how to use hit-confirms that you will understand how and when to use them in a game. This is revolutionary; its like a magician coming out and telling you how all his tricks work. Games like Street Fighter 4 might tell you HOW to do a roman cancel (or FADC), but Skullgirls will tell you WHY you would do one. Its a shame that after doing all of that Skullgirls doesn’t also give you a move list for each character. As a result, you will STILL need to go online to learn each character. Thankfully there are already a huge number of videos by the games fans that can help you with this.
The best part of the game for me was choosing my character. Its exciting to have a whole new roster of fighting game faces to choose from. While the main fighting game franchises reuse and recycle the same basic archetypes over and over its great to see an entirely original cast. There are no near-identical shotos or ninjas here either, every character is unique and distinct. I can’t go into detail on the whole cast, but I’ll highlight two of the characters I liked the best from my limited experience of the game.
The first is a fiesty Princess called Parasoul. From the Canopy Kingdom, Parasoul has a younger sibling called Umbrella. She makes use of a Parasol (obv) in combat as well as calling on her legions of royal followers to aid her in the fight. She’s (as far as I can tell) a zoning character with charge moves similar to Guile’s. Littering the arena with explosives that she can then trigger at will, she is great for players like me that enjoy playing at a distance and controlling the pace of the game. Her special moves often involve calling in sidekicks. Particular highlights include a bodyguard who jumps into play and absorbs projectiles and another who allows her to roman cancel and perform longer combos. One of her supers sees her call in a sniper shot to take out an enemy, and is represented by a crosshair appearing on screen and hitting them no matter where they are. Littering the arena with bombs, calling in suqads of bike troops to knock enemies away and shooting with her parasol, she can control the fight at a distance and is great fun to uses, though tricky for a beginner like me. Her character design is great too. Reminiscent of a spy or secret agent, she has a snobby bitchiness which is endearingly nasty. She isn’t too mobile, lacking a double jump or air dash, but this suits her icy personality. She is a royal and won’t rush for anyone!
The other character that I absolutely love is Valentine. I say love, but there’s something genuinely terrifying about just how well realised and vicious this naughty nurse is. While she might be slightly over-sexualized with her bouncy boobs, this is offset somewhat by the sheer horrors she inflicts on her enemies. She’s a ninja of sorts and plays somewhat like Guy. She even has a version of the Inazuma drop, albeit she mummifies her opponent in an inescapable body bag before smashing their head into the ground. Other moves of hers are similarly demented. She carries a hack saw that is used to remove limbs in surgery, and one of her attacks involves sawing her opponents throats with it. For some reason though, her most unnerving move is a throw. In fighting game terms this throw causes a crumple allowing her to follow up with a throw. What she actually does though is grab her opponent from behind and force a mask onto their face before gassing them unconscious. There’s something unnerving about seeing involuntary anaesthesia result in someone being beaten senseless. Its entirely possible that one of the games designers has a bizarre medical fetish, but Valentine’s unnecessary surgery super-attack and combination of pharmaceutic themed attacks makes for a brilliant and original character theme.
Every character in the game has some brilliantly designed and attacks. It certainly shows that fighting game fans made this game. At the most basic level, there are little tricks like a low attack that moves a characters hit box away when she moves her leg back, making it a brilliant counter to footsies. More complex attacks from our homicidal heroine Valentine include the ability to load up her syringe projectile attack with different poisonous effects. These include increased hit and block stun for the victim to allow Valentine to perform longer combos, or a control lag effect that puts the victim at a disadvantage against quick mix ups or throws. Genius.
If you have even a passing interest in fighting games then Skullgirls is pretty much essential. Our resident fighting game expert Esler already reviewed the game and recommended it highly, but I had to come back to it again and make sure you all knew about it. From the 1930’s style film presentation to the gorgeous art throughout the game, its pretty much essential. In some ways it plays as much like MVC as it does Streetfighter with its comprehensive air combos and (optional) tag system, and those are aspects of fighting games I don’t normally enjoy. Despite this though, Skullgirls remains a game I recommend highly. Although the underlying fighting gameplay is rock solid and brilliantly refined, its the sheer variety and exuberance of the character design that won me over. Skullgirls has more original ideas in its roster of characters in this one game than most franchises have come up with in the last ten years. Whether its an inside-out nun, a girl with a parasitic hair monster or a character with giant muscled arms on their hat, SKullgirls has crafted a solid cast and everyone one of the characters has enough personality to start in a game of their own. They would all make some amazing Halloween costumes too and I predict we will see many of them this year.
I played Skullgirls off the back of Diablo 3, and while the games couldn’t be more different the contrast between the two showed me one thing for certain: character design doesn’t have to be generic, safe or sane. Massive budgets can dilute the impact of the creative, inspired designer or artist. If you need to rekindle your faith in the unbridled creativity of designers and artists working in games today, play Skullgirls. Play it today.