GamesBeat

Skullgirls revisits the Golden Age of fighting games and animation (review)

Skullgirls is the result of a decade of work between artist Alex Ahad and tournament player Mike Zaimont, who were each working on their own separate fighting games until they decided to join forces. Developer Reverge Labs combined Zaimont’s gameplay engine with Ahad’s character sprites to create a downloadable title inspired as much by Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Guilty Gear as it is Golden Age cartoons and anime.

The plot is standard fare for the genre: eight women are hunting for the Skull Heart, a cursed MacGuffin that grants the user’s wish but eventually turns her into its destructive servant. That means battling through a mafia circus performer, a cat girl who tears herself limb from limb, a Tex Avery-inspired psychopath, and more.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Fast, customizable combat

Rather than basing the game around a new mechanic, Reverge Labs focuses on creating a solid engine inspired by classic titles in the genre. It’s a fast-paced affair with easy-to-chain combos, flashy special moves, and tag-team assist attacks. In a nod to the Capcom Vs. SNK series, players can create a team of two or three or use just one super-powerful warrior. The roster only has eight fighters, but they are all archetypes that do well in this environment. For example, the horrific Painwheel can absorb attacks and quickly fly around like MVC2’s Sentinel.

Most of the game’s unique features are subtle, like an infinite prevention system that allows the player to burst out of combos that repeat the same attack string over and over. A more visible innovation is the ability to customize teammates’ assists. This allows players to select the move that works best for their teams instead of having to work around what the game gives them.

Presentation

Skullgirls uses hand-drawn characters, and the results are worth it as each competitor has fun and detailed animations. For example, Filia’s standing Hard Punch makes her parasite hair morph into a pair of scissors, but you can see her look upward, and the back threads turn into pigtails during the motion. The film-reel-inspired effects and jazzy soundtrack infuse the game with a 1920s atmosphere.

Many have focused on the all-female cast and fan service, like panty shots during attacks, and some players will dismiss Skullgirls on face value alone. It feels wrong to single this game out when all of its competitors use their female casts as sex appeal, but the voyeurism does feel unnecessary.

Tutorial mode

Skullgirls has the best tutorial of any 2D fighter. Not only does it teach you the basics of combat, but it also instructs you on performing and blocking mix-ups among other high-level techniques. While it doesn’t go into character-specific tactics, you’ll have a better idea of how fighting games in general operate, and the mode is worth the price of admission alone for journeymen players.

Online play

Skullgirls uses GGPO, the acclaimed netcode system previously used in Street Fighter 3: Third Strike Online Edition. GGPO is the best at keeping track of your button inputs, ensuring that your attacks will come out properly. This can result in the screen stuttering during laggy matches, but you can adjust the ping settings to sacrifice input responsiveness for image quality or vice versa. Unfortunately, you can only create two-player unranked lobbies.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Glitches and missing features

Certain features that are taken for granted in the genre are mysteriously absent. The Training Mode allows you to see the color-coded hitboxes that actually represent your character, but you can’t alter the settings of the practice dummy. In-game move lists are also absent; although, you can find a wealth of attack data on Shoryuken.com’s wiki page.

Sometimes characters will turn into visible hitboxes after a knockdown. It isn’t game-breaking, but it is jarring. Developer Reverge Labs will patch this glitch and other issues and add in-game move lists along with balance changes and more characters. For the Xbox version, loading times are unusually long, which may be due to hard drive issues.

Lame end boss

Marie, the titular Skullgirl and final fight for Story and Arcade modes, is a disappointment. Her attacks are all variations of filling the screen with projectiles, which turns the battle into a boring war of attrition as you alternate between quick attacks and blocking. A little maid with a demonic vacuum cleaner is an interesting character but not an interesting boss.

CONCLUSION

Reverge Labs has created a vibrant world that feels fresh and unique, which is something the genre desperately needed. Meanwhile, it listened to player input throughout development, adding small touches that many have wanted from Skullgirls’ big-ticket competitors for years. The question now is whether the game can expand its audience beyond hardcore animation and genre fans. The game’s focus is on refining classic gameplay that worked rather than attempting something different to attract new fans, and some may be put off by the limited roster. At $15, however, Skullgirls is still a quality experience that deserves time in the spotlight.

Score: 80/100

Skullgirls was released on April 10, 2012 for PlayStation 3 and on the following day for Xbox 360.  The publisher provided an Xbox 360 download code for the purpose of this review.


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