Energetically crowd-funded 2D fighting game Skullgirls absolutely exudes style. From the off there’s a classy jazz beat lain down to play out over the dark menu, entries listed in a unique typeface. Thought and time has obviously been put into the way options are enlarged, the selection cursor, the smoothness of transition from item to item. It’s polished to a tee, every surface smooth and shining its message to the world: I’m classy, I’m friendly and I’m intricately, lovingly designed. But can it carry this throughout? Does the biff and kick charm us with its clarity and cool?
The greatest strength of any game is being able to draw in a player. Even Dark Souls begins simple enough, teaches you its rules before climbing aboard the murder train. Fighting games seem to have missed this class, probably too busy in the playground throwing rocks at one-another and doing kick-flips off walls. Arcade origins meant that even explaining the basic button ‘n’ stick configurations for a fireball or uppercut was a no-no for years to get just a few more quarters. As home consoles (and PCs!) became the dominant force in gaming and the genre slowly made a transition that way, training modes and move lists were invented as a necessity.
But actual tutorials explaining game mechanics still fly way under the radar. Super Street Fighter 4 (the first reiteration) added functions to teach character-specific combos and moves, but never explained the mechanics behind them. Most don’t even bother, so Skullgirls’ elaborate, intricate tutorial system is an absolute godsend. Everything, from the very basics of moving to multi-layered combo strings combining normals, special attacks and super moves is gone over multiple times. There’s an obvious decision been made to make it possible for anyone to pick up Skullgirls and begin to learn.
There is a problem though: it doesn’t go far enough. It starts at the very beginning, but then doesn’t extend to the point it needs to prepare you for the online arena. Each character is given a tutorial, but all this does is explain their special moves and allow you to try them out. There’s no combo examples, no explanations of how these specials can be linked or best times to use them. Now, Skullgirls’ actual fighting mechanics are simple enough that knowing the over-arching links – light, medium, heavy, launch into air and jump, light, medium, heavy – is enough to get you started. This still leaves you totally unprepared for an online foray though, meaning it’s either back to training mode or time to spend many hours fighting the AI.
Tripping itself up at a final hurdle is, sadly, a little common. Story mode is short and sweet, but never manages to link the fights together in such a way that it feels like a narrative rather than background. Online play is sublimely handled with a dearth of options, but lacks the auto-requeue and easy transition of Divekick. Training mode has an approaching-infinite number of options for assisting veterans (seriously, if you know what you’re doing it’s everything you’ll need), but there’s an evolutionary step missing for noobies between the tutorials and that. However, where this is most obvious is the art and that really bears explaining.
Skullgirls characters are a perfect example of the difference between design and implementation. Every last one of them is so uniquely brilliant, such individually great ideas for larger-than-life people. A circus performer with a giant pair of living hands for a hat. A shape-shifter who starts battles by vomiting herself inside-out and can turn into a teacup. A girl with living hair. Each has such wonderful personality, such charm in their dialogue and backstory that you’d need to be cold-hearted not to smile. It is a shame this is wasted on such an exploitative art style.
There was an opportunity here. An opportunity for an entire cast of characters like Peacock, the sanely proportioned and thoroughly ridiculous robot-girl. An opportunity for fighting poses that are good for something other than predominantly showing bouncing breasts. An opportunity for a collection of stories that end with powerful women actually in control of their destiny, rather than a slave to a nameless god or mafia boss. An opportunity not to have fucking measurement statistics on the official character pages.
I didn’t want the art of Skullgirls to overshadow my writing on it, but it overshadows the game. It’s omnipresent, requiring actual effort to get a screenshot not containing someone’s heaving bosom. I would love to see these characters redesigned, super-heroine style, to be sexy but inoffensive. No matter what I may think of the final product, there is very obviously an incredibly talented art team here. From backgrounds to special effects, it’s lovingly rendered, I just wish it had been done with a little more respect.
If you’re willing to see past all that, Skullgirls is probably the best introduction to ‘real’ fighting games you’re going to get. It’ll feed an interest flared by Divekick well and requires many less Youtube tutorials and mechanics articles to understand than its peers. For those who may own it elsewhere, the transition to PC has been slick as you like. Netcode functions beautifully and, while I’m not adept enough to understand their quality, there have been a large number of changes balance and systems wise. I may not wholly approve, but I do recommend.
Skullgirls is available now on Steam.