Sometimes the best gaming experiences come from the smallest packages. If you need proof of this, look no further than Skullgirls — the long awaited fighting game from Reverge Labs, Autumn Games and Konami. While it is tiny and quite rough around the edges, especially compared to the bigger names in the genre, the game totes a rock solid fighting system and wonderful production values. Top that off with innovative game-play components and a smooth online mode and Skullgirls easily hits hard enough to justify its tiny price tag.
The first thing you’ll notice about Skullgirls is its unique graphical style. The game looks absolutely beautiful in motion, and the cartoony characters and art style are vivid. The developers worked very hard to create these striking visuals. Not only does Skullgirls feature the highest number of frames per animation of any 2D fighter ever made, but each of those frames have been drawn by hand. In motion, the game looks like a high definition, highly stylized cartoon that might burst from the screen at any given moment. It really is a sight to behold.
All eight of the playable characters are uniquely designed and highly detailed. Blockbuster attacks, special attacks, and even normal attacks, are all animated nicely. The stages are rather static and not nearly as impressive as the characters, but they get the job done. It won’t be easy to pay much attention to them anyway, what with fast-paced fighting that’ll be taking place in the foreground.
Not only does Skullgirls look amazing but it sounds amazing as well. The soundtrack is easily the jazziest I’ve heard in any fighting game. Sounds of big band, piano, saxophone and bass can be heard throughout. Much of it is beautiful, and it contributes to the rest of the distinct, detailed atmosphere of the game. This astonishing audio quality is unsurprising when you consider portfolio of some of the musicians involved with the soundtrack. Michiru Yamane has scored numerous Castlevania titles while Vincente Diamante is credited for scoring Cloud and the wave-making PS3 exclusive Flower.
The talents of the various artists can certainly be heard in Skullgirls’ phenomenal soundtrack, which is unique not only for a fighting game, but for a video game altogether.
Sound effects and voicing are spot on as well. Skullgirls’ roster may be tiny, but each of the characters are dripping with personality and style. Peacock’s design is inspired by early black and white cartoons such as Oswald Rabbit and Steamboat Willie; but this is apparent in more than just her appearance. Peacock’s distinct style and attitude can be seen in everything from her basic walking animation to her constant wise cracking, to each frame of her special and normal attacks. Every one of the characters is thoroughly and intricately designed and styled.
The game boasts a unique sense of humor and is constantly throwing jokes and one-liners about. Ms. Fortune yells “Berserker Barrage!” as she executes her Cat Scratch Fever blockbuster. Most fighting fans will immediately recognize this as a reference to the Marvel vs. Capcom series, which has clearly inspired this game in a number of ways. The fact that the game is practically always trying to make the player laugh and never takes itself too seriously contributes to the overall very fun, likeable nature of the game.
The story is less polished than all the other components of the game, but it holds up well. The appearance of the Skullgirl has drawn all of the playable characters together. Beating the Skullgirl means being rewarded with the Skull Heart and the Skull Heart can grant any wish. If a wish is impure though (or maybe I should say, not entirely pure?) then it will backfire and the victor may instead become the new Skullgirl. Each of the characters wants the Heart for a different reason, be this reason pure or foul. While it is very short and has a somewhat confusing ending, the story in Skullgirls holds up well as far as fighting game narratives go.
While the visuals and music come together to create a rather light-hearted, whimsical atmosphere in Skullgirls, one element of the game is quite serious: the combat. The fighting system in place is deep and intricate, challenging any preconceived notion the game’s price may have warranted. It borrows from various titles in the genre and brings all the elements together to create an airtight system. Game-play elements include wall bounces, off the ground attacks, aerial combos; the list goes on and on.
The overall system is comprehensive and it harbors a host of features that lend the game to high level competitive play. An example of this is the infinite detect system. If a player uses an infinite combo, the other player will be able to break free by pressing a button when their character begins to glow. This element is innovative for the genre because just about every fighting game has some broken, infinite exploit that can end a match as soon as it begins. Here, and at various other points, Skullgirls steps on the toes of its bigger, pricier competition. This is unsurprising when you consider that the game’s lead designer is none other than Mike Zaimont, a world-class fighting game tournament player.
Mike’s background means that he knows fighting games very well, perhaps better than many developers in the genre. Another innovative aspect in the game is the ability to use mismatched team sizes. My team can consist of one character and my opponents’ can consist of two or three or one if you choose. The health and other stats of the characters are scaled appropriately.
For example, if you choose only one character, that character will have high stamina, attack, etc. But if you choose a team of three characters, those characters will have much lower stats than if you had only chosen one of them. While choosing one character will certainly give you the strongest individual character, choosing multiple characters opens doors to new strategies and techniques. With two or three characters you can use assist attacks and chain together blockbuster attacks.
Skullgirls innovates once more with its custom assist system. Instead of just giving you a couple of assist attacks to choose from, you can choose practically any of your assist characters attacks as their assist. This means that if your second character has a normal or special attack that you’d rather use as an assist than the two attacks they suggest, you can simply choose custom assist and execute the input for the desired attack. Imagine how much deeper Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would be if you could choose custom assists or mismatched team sizes. Right now, the online mode is dominated by one character teams, but I think this will change once the meta-game has time to evolve and the endless possibilities of these systems are realized.
The smaller roster of eight characters may be off putting to fans of recent, bigger budget titles such as Street Fighter X Tekken, but it still quite diverse. In addition to being stylistically unique, each of the characters also has a distinct play-style. Don’t think that just because the roster is tiny that you won’t have a variety of ways to play. Each character wields a wide array of techniques, and all of the fighting game style staples are intact, including zoners, grapplers, and rush down.
For the online mode, the developers have implemented GGPO netcoding. GGPO utilizes a fairly new “rollback” method to hide lag, and when it works it works well. The online play holds up beautifully when you can find someone with a good connection, but I didn’t find those individuals often. You can tinker with the settings a bit before each online match to improve your experience depending upon the other player’s connection, but a red connection will result in lag no matter what setting you choose. Once you run into a green connection and choose the appropriate setting, the game will run perfectly smoothly.
Unfortunately, online options are quite limited at the moment. Currently, lobbies can only hold two players, there is no spectating, and there is apparently no rank gaining or leveling up of any kind. Player handles aren’t even shown during the online matches. These omissions are quite glaring and obvious, but they aren’t too hard to forgive with everything else the game brings to the table. I’d also complain about the general lack of traffic online (I spent more than fifteen minutes trying to find an unranked lobby in the US), but this is hardly the fault of the developers.
Skullgirls’ training and tutorial modes also go above and beyond those in some of the full priced fighters. The training mode possesses a host of features that might interest players looking to reach tournament level, such as the ability to view frame data and hit boxes. Even though it has all of this, what the training mode doesn’t have is character command lists. This means you’ll need to either get on the internet to learn all your character’s moves, or you can figure them out yourself old-school style. The tutorial mode covers several facets of the game-play, from the very basic essentials (moving around, blocking, and double jumping) to the more advanced and dangerous techniques (hit confirming, mix-ups, chaining).
All of the tutorials are presented in an interactive way that promotes the actual learning and using of the various techniques. Then there’s the gallery mode, which is absolutely and completely empty right now, but promises content later. Don’t really uh…have much to say about that mode at the moment. Lots of things are supposedly on the way in patch form, including an update that will add command lists to the training mode, player handles to the online mode and contents to the gallery.
In summary, Skullgirls packs a hell of a punch, especially for its price tag. The art design, graphics and music are all stunning. The addictive game-play is a culmination of the last fifteen or so years of 2D fighting games, executed fabulously. The characters are awesome, the netcode is strong, and the value is enormous. Sure the lack of command lists, gallery contents and a comprehensive online suite are detractors, but these are small blemishes on huge game. At just $15, you’re practically stealing this finely crafted, very functional and highly entertaining fighter. Everyone from hardcore competitive players to casual genre fans should make the inexpensive trip to Canopy Kingdom.