Skullgirls is in the difficult position of being an indie title in a genre where players are still going to compare it to retail games. Players aren’t going to give it a free ride because of its lower budget or the lead designer being fellow tournament player. The obvious, tough question is: “Why should I play this when I already have several quality fighting games with more characters to choose?” Fortunately, Skullgirls has an answer. It isn’t strictly better than its peers, but it is able to hold its own with them and covers several niches they don’t. It has to, because being pushed onto Xbox Live and Playstation Network when it needed a little time to polish up a few issues does Skullgirls no favors.
It’s best described as a mix of Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s team fighting mechanics and BlazBlue or Guilty Gear’s wild character designs, without going to any of their extremes. Much like those games, you can do lengthy combos full of bounces, off-the-ground hits, air dashes, and all sorts of other impressive feats. At the same time, the play speed is a bit lower than either of these games and the emphasis seems to be on relatively damaging combos without being excessive.. This ‘controlled madness’ approach gives Skullgirls an unusual pace to its fights, and is one of its two most distinct traits.
Matches use a team system similar to the one found in Capcom vs. SNK 2, albeit with some Marvel elements. Players pick teams of one, two, or three characters and each arrangement has its own advantages. Single characters have extraordinarily high health and damage output, while using two characters gives you more match-up versatility, the ability to tag out, and call an ‘Ensemble’ assist attack at the cost of less health/damage per fighter. Using three characters is similar to two, though they take an even higher ‘stat penalty’ in return for having more options. You can even define a custom assist for each character, though the game suggests some default choices if you’d prefer. These trade-offs in building your team are both a key part of strategy and a lot of fun, even with a limited roster.
The tutorials deserve special mention for making a real effort to help even a complete beginner understand advanced fighting game concepts. It starts at ‘press up to jump’ and ‘push buttons to attack’, but quickly moves up to defending against mix-ups and doing hit confirmation for your combos. Ideas like poking with fast, long reaching attacks and properly using throws are also covered, along with a few things specific to Skullgirls. Playing these tutorials obviously won’t turn you into a tournament-dominating god of war, but they’re still an excellent tool for teaching newcomers.
Once you understand the basics, you may wonder what training mode offers. Unfortunately, it’s a mixed bag of brilliant ideas alongside some very strange omissions. Among its better choices are the ability to display hitboxes and a hit-stun bar, plus the usual attack data window. On the other hand, major features such as input display, dummy recording, and setting the dummy to certain states (jumping or crouching, always block, etc.) seem to be missing. These are strange omissions, and one can only hope they’ll be addressed in a patch.
With only eight characters available at launch, each one needs to be interesting. Thankfully, they are. It’s immediately obvious that the team wasn’t afraid to give each character effective tools, sometimes trying very unusual things. Cerebella is a great example of expanding on an existing style, as she’s a hulking grappler with a double-jump, armored attacks that move her forward, and even a command run with multiple follow-up attacks. Ms. Fortune is indicative of Skullgirls’ more creative designs; she initially seems like just a ‘Rekka-chains’ style rushdown character, but can also detach her head(!) and have it attack independently of her body. There is a decent mix of familiar and bizarre fighting styles, so most players should find something to interest them.
Online play is important, and Skullgirls has opted to use GGPO netcode. While players normally have to read up on how it works to get the best results, Skullgirls offers suggestions on a per-opponent basis. For the most part, online play works fine. Most of my matches were advised to run at 2 frame delay, which ran smoothly the vast majority of the time; only one opponent produced significant lag. Even opponents in Canada (the reviewer is in the southern US and was averaging 100ms ping time to them) provided good results, with both of us able to effect a coherent game plan and fight mostly as we wanted to. You have to understand that GGPO is not a miracle netcode that will make all lag vanish forever and there will be occasional issues, but for the most part it works great!
Despite doing so many things right, Skullgirls has some problems that stand out. The most obvious is the current lack of an in-game move list. The developer has already issued a statement about it and you can easily look the moves up online, but this is still silly. Sound bugs and various other little quirks also make it clear someone rushed Skullgirls to market, even though many of these flaws probably could have been fixed with just another week or two to clean up. None of these are show-stopping issues, but they are jarring.
On the other hand, there are some very smart design choices. Skullgirls offers button config at the select screen, of the ‘push button for this action’ type rather than scrolling through several buttons to pick the one you want. Pausing requires the Start button be held rather than just tapped, a nice safeguard for competitive play. You’re also given two buttons to map to whatever combination you like, though the game defaults to having them call your assist attacks. Some infinite combo prevention measures have been included as well, along with mechanics aimed at preventing truly unblockable attacks. Time will tell how well all of these features work out, but they certainly look promising.
While single-player options probably aren’t why you should play Skullgirls, some basic ones are present. Story mode takes you through a tale for each character, told in a form similar to BlazBlue: A cutscene tells you what’s going on, you fight, then get another cutscene, then fight again and so on until you’re done. An arcade mode that generates random teams to fight with no story getting in the way is also available, but it loses its charm quickly. As you might expect, versus matches against other people are the real reason to play.
There is one other thing that has to be discussed: the art style. While it’s very well drawn and detailed, it’s also exaggerated and tends to provoke a love-it-or-hate-it reaction. Some people dislike it so much that they don’t even want to try the game, but I feel they’re missing out. Look past the weird graphics and you’ll find that Skullgirls is a lot of fun to play!
Skullgirls definitely has the odds stacked against it. This is a budget title going head to head with retail-disc peers, and it appears to have been published before full polishing could be done. It has to be asked: Are you willing to live with various bugs, some omitted training mode features, and other problems, bearing in mind this game costs far less than its competition ($15, or 1200 Microsoft Points)? If so, you’ll be rewarded with an interesting cast of characters and a well designed engine. Don’t buy it just to “support the community” as some have urged; get Skullgirls because it is a legitimately good fighting game.
Additional Reading: Our wiki offers Skullgirls move-lists, engine analysis, and more!