Revitalizing a Genre with Skullgirls

The good folks over at Reverge Labs have done something wonderful with Skullgirls. They’ve built a fighting game that is, for all intents and purposes, gimmicky on almost every level, yet retains the same charm and sophisticated gameplay of the very genre and numerous titles it lampoons and invokes. In the case of Skullgirls, the “gimmick” is its unapologetic approach to being as referential as possible, from the all-girl roster (a popular trope and arguably it’s own sub-genre in many Japanese fighting games) to its numerous allusions to pop culture, gaming and otherwise. From the moment I heard the jazzy music of the title and character selection screens and saw that I had the option to select up to three interchangeable characters, I was immediately reminded of the fun matches Drew and I used to have playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 so many years ago. I was even more pleased as I began to work my way through each character’s move-set (a habit I developed from playing so many fighting games over the years) to see just how diverse the developers attempted to make each character. As I played through the Arcade mode, I became more and more impressed with just how much care was put into the mechanics and the aesthetics of this game, and it quickly became clear: Skullgirls is just about the perfect love letter to the fighting game genre.

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Let’s start with the aesthetics, since that’s what initially grabbed me. Firstly, it’s a 2D fighter. And I don’t mean any of that 3D graphics with a 2-Dimensional plane nonsense. I mean an honest-to-goodness 2D fighter complete with beautifully detailed animated sprites and a top notch art director and team. The game is bright and colorful, the backgrounds are living and breathing, and the jazzy soundtrack (a quality shared with MvC2, but which was largely viewed as disjointed by many fans) feels appropriate for the deco qualities of the game. All of this works toward providing a fantastic sense of atmosphere and setting and while the fact that this game is so darn pretty to look at might seem inconsequential, it’s a nice step back toward more creative territory.

Like animated films, the majority of video games these days use 3D rendered graphics (smart phone apps notwithstanding), and while they may look amazing, this seems to limit the creative components of the visual presentation. As technologies improve, things begin to look more and more realistic, and so it follows that the goal shifts toward realism instead of the quirky or esoteric. If we look at initial concept art (which is often hand-drawn) for a variety of different games, we will see a vastly different set of ideas and moods evoked through the artist’s style and personality, but when the time comes to build the game, we get games that look, by and large, the same. Had Skullgirls been a 3D game, we would miss just how interesting the characters are to look at, and how much their stylized appearance adds to the game’s charm. Other studios are sometimes able to pull this off. Double Fine, for example (Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, Iron Brigade), is always able to provide character models with personality and distinction, but even they lack the stylized nuance that can only be fully realized with the unfiltered vision of the artist. In the case of Double Fine, their models, while wonderful, are the translation of the original artist’s work by the good folks whose job it is to build and code, which means there is a certain level of filtering going on. With traditionally 2D animated games (like Skullgirls), that filter is almost nonexistent, as all of the character designs and animations are done by the same artist, while the coder merely puts them into the game engine. For my money, this approach has always been more interesting, and it provides a more personable quality to the game’s environment.

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Then there are the actual mechanics of the game. Well, the game definitely delivers. The fighting engine is fantastically built, and feels like an amalgamation of several different games (most notably MvC2 and the King of Fighters series). It feels well balanced and encourages a pretty diverse form of gameplay, which is particularly important since the game only boasts 9 playable characters as of this article. A player can select one, two, or three different characters, and depending on the number, the strength of those characters is distributed accordingly, a mechanic popularly seen in SNK Playmore titles. One character nets you a very powerful fighter, with the opportunity for newer players to learn the game and their character and also stand a chance against the onslaught of a tag-team. Two or three characters nets you more (but weaker) characters to play as and is ideal for more seasoned players to change up their fighting styles and keep things dynamic and interesting with tag-team play. This gameplay mode is very much borrowed from MvC2, and the execution is top notch, with seamless change-ins and change-outs between characters and assist attacks that flow perfectly with the primary fighter’s attacks.

Also similar to most other fighting games, the developers allow the aesthetics to play heavily into building fighting styles. Each of the girls has a unique personality and design, and it’s very fun to see how their visual cues lend themselves to their respective gameplay. For example, the cool and commanding Parasoul moves with a delayed and purposeful pace when crossing the screen, and her attacks rely more on opportunity, strategy, and timing. On the other hand, the highly kinetic Ms. Fortune can run straight at an opponent, with an attack focus on keeping your opponent discombobulated with constant attacks (her dismembered head and body can attack separately, for crying out loud). While the combo system itself isn’t all that complicated (Light attacks>Medium attacks>High attacks is universal for each character and really all you need to know to do well enough), I greatly enjoy that the special moveset for each character varies widely, and you really do need to commit some time and energy into mastering the full effectiveness of a given character. All in all, I would say the game lends itself to players who enjoy casual fighters, but if the game is allowed to keep growing, I have no doubt this team could build and tweak it toward being a top-tier tournament game.

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Skullgirls is very much a breath of fresh air. Many of the fighting games being released today are safer and more sterile versions of the games that came before, whether rehashing old ideas or the literal repackaging of old games with one or two tweaks. In the wake of AAA gaming sales, it’s increasingly becoming a liability to build games that aren’t as accessible as previous titles, and so the niche enthusiasts suffer for it. A game like Street Fighter III: Third Strike, which was released in 1999 and is still widely considered the premier fighting game, is hard for people who are unfamiliar with fighting games to play, let alone to use as a jump-off point. It’s a fighting game built for fighting game enthusiasts, and a fighting game of that caliber hasn’t been seen in a long time. That is not to say that Skullgirls isn’t built for fighting game enthusiasts, rather it’s built for those of us who are and for those who might be interested in picking up their first fighting game, and to me, that is particularly exciting because I want fighting games to keep getting made and I want them to keep making them interesting. I hope that the necessity of attracting more newcomers pushes developers to consider what aesthetics and, dare-I-say, “gimmicks” will draw people’s attention toward a game they might not have otherwise considered, and I hope they do it while maintaining the core qualities of what makes old fighting games great and how they will make new fighting games even better. I, for one, will happily accept a solid fighting game that focuses on accessibility in the hopes that Skullgirls gradually works its way toward fighting game perfection.

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