Full disclosure: I received a download code for Skullgirls from Autumn Games for the purposes of a GamesBeat review. You can read my take on this game here.
Fighting games are like tennis: It's fun to play one-on-one, but some people prefer a doubles partner to help them out. For over a decade, teamwork meant controlling multi-warrior teams in classics like Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes. A hallmark of that game is the assist system, where off-screen teammates will pop in for a quick attack. Now two titles are approaching the mechanic from different perspectives: the Marvel vs. Capcom 3 games and the up-and-coming Skullgirls.
While all 56 combatants in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 had three assists to choose from competition whittled the number of viable options down to a handful. Captain Commando’s Captain Corridor and Psylocke’s Psyblade were so good that it was worth adding the characters to your three-man team for their assists, alone.
The ability to force your opponent to tag using a "Snap Back" attack also leads to interesting strategies. Do you take out the Magneto and Storm in front of you and clean up Psylocke once she’s by herself, or do you bring the ninja in and finish her off to make fighting the others easier? Adding to the chaos is the Double Snap, a glitch where if you can land a Snap Back on both the point and assist character, you can combo the latter to death.
The top teams have a ton of nuances to learn, but only a third of the cast stood a chance in a competitive environment. When Capcom finally created Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds a decade later, Ryota Niitsuma's development team designed the game around the idea that everyone could be as “broken" as MVC2's best, but drastically changed how the engine handled assists.
Double Snaps are gone, but partners take much more damage than usual if the opponent catches them. No assist has invincibility properties besides Haggar’s Double Lariat, which costs health to use, and Hsien-Ko’s techniques if she has her Rimoukon “Gold Armor” super activated. Most characters have at least one decent assist, but even the game's best aren't as strong as those in MVC2. Still, “get-off-me” techniques like Tron’s Gustaff Fire were dominant, and top formations like EVO-champion Viscant’s Wesker/Haggar/Phoenix and the She-Hulk/Wolverine/Akuma trio used by the pros at Team Evil Geniuses emerged to exploit them.
The sequel, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, nerfed most of its predecessor’s strongest assists. A very early patch also removed the invincibility from Phoenix Wright’s assists during Turnabout Mode; the Ace Attorney's upgrade takes several steps to activate and is the saving grace that makes up for his huge weaknesses. It's telling that the developers didn't want a dominating partner move — even if you have to earn it.
The all-women cartoon brawler, Skullgirls, also draws inspiration from MVC2's team mechanics. While back-up teammates are vulnerable right when they come in to help, any invincibility associated with their attack activates quickly. A variation of the Snap Back glitch is also in effect, as you can combo assists without triggering the game’s signature Infinite Prevention System.
Another interesting change is that you can customize your warrior's assist, equipping her with any ground normal attack, special move, or even throws. Parasoul’s Napalm Pillar, Double’s Hornet Bomber, and other techniques are much better than their suggested ones, and through this system almost everyone has a strong back-up attack. You can also choose from having one super-strong combatant, a tag team, or a band of three, but having a dangerous assist gives you an added edge.
How do the two compare? Skullgirls’s system can be frustrating to deal with if you don’t have MVC2 experience, but it does create extra breathing room for players. Many complain that it's too easy in MVC3 to land deadly combos off of random hits, and forcing players to think before they move alleviates that issue.
Of course, that also puts players on a slippery slope when they lose teammates, which isn't as bad in MVC3 with its weaker assists and X-Factor power up. Allowing customization is also a huge risk if someone discovers an especially dangerous set-up, though the developers planned ahead by preventing “unblockables” that involve using a high and low attack simultaneously.
Ultimately, it’s a difference in philosophies. In MVC3, each character plays a specific role, but Niitsuma's team doesn't want anyone to act as a glorified button. In Skullgirls, powerful assists are OK as long as everyone is strong and has the freedom to choose what they want to back them up. Let's reconvene 10 years from now and see how well these decisions fare against constant tournament play.