For those of us old enough to remember, arcades held a very special meaning in the gaming community. More than just public gaming venues, they had a sort of mystique surrounding them, the dark rooms full of flickering lights beckoning any curious enough to enter. The Internet wasn’t as prevalent in those days, and without the likes of GameFAQs or Xbox LIVE rumors and mettle alike had to be tested in-person. It was like a world all its own, entirely separate from the one you traversed to enter it, and Skullgirls makes an honest attempt to recapture some of its magic.
The brainchild of professional gamer Mike Zaimont and artist Alex Ahad, Skullgirls could well be the most polished download-original fighter there is. Sporting gorgeous, hand-drawn sprite work, tight controls, and a deep-yet-approachable combat system, it mechanically bridges the gap between classic arcade fighters and their modern progeny while attempting to eliminate the barrier of entry inherent to the genre.
Set in the Canopy Kingdom – a place that looks, sounds, and acts remarkably like Prohibition Era America – each member of Skullgirls‘ all-female cast is on their own personal mission to track down the Skull Heart, a magical artifact said to grant the wish of any woman who obtains it but curses its wielder with a monstrous form should their wish be impure. Clichéd to be sure, likely intentionally considering the game’s heavily referential nature, but the mix of mafia, monsters, and martial arts is more than enough to give the game its own unique flavor.
As the product of a pro gamer, Skullgirls‘ engine naturally received special attention. This game plays like a blend of Street Fighter II and Guilty Gear or Blazblue, with a very flexible combo system that rewards experimentation over stark memorization and contains several features that keep the playing field relatively level (a built-in infinite combo failsafe most prominent among them). Elements of Marvel vs. Capcom also sneak in through the tag team system, though instead of forcing both players to agree on the number of participants each can pick any number they like with a corresponding handicap. The game’s training mode aims to quickly bring newcomers up to speed on these and other nuances of the game and genre, explaining basic theory behind each type of maneuver and moving along at a swift pace to force internalization of what was just learned.
While all this attention to the mechanics is definitely welcome, it appears to have come at the expense of some of the game’s much-vaunted luster. The fluid character animation makes it that much more jarring when the odd frame replaces a fighter with their neon green hitboxes, an issue hopefully easily patched soon. The loading times are another story, though. It seems the price for packing all this detail into a downloadable game is waiting roughly half a minute between selecting your character and actually playing her. Online multiplayer’s use of GGPO netcode earns some points back from this, replicating the nearly lagless online modes it offered in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition.
Skullgirls‘ focus on delivering a classic fighting game experience is certainly admirable, but some might argue that it can be just as harmful as beneficial: The fact that all eight playable characters have distinct styles based on roles defined in classic fighters doesn’t change the fact that there are only eight playable characters; A spartan collection of single-player modes makes sense on a quarter-guzzling arcade cabinet by design but can make a console game feel rushed or even unfinished; Even little things like not including a pause function outside of training mode (don’t worry, guide buttons still force pause) or not including a move list within the game straddle the line between quaint and annoying depending on your personal level of nostalgia.
Arcade games aren’t the only thing the creators of Skullgirls are fans of, though. Within minutes of playing it’s very plain to see that this game is the work of a generation raised on pop culture. References to anything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to the Touhou series are crammed into every nook and cranny of the game’s coding in any number of forms, coloring the already vibrant setting and characters with a veneer of anachronistic satire. Again, personal mileage will vary, but as a fan of schlock cinema I loved catching nods to The Room and Silent Night, Deadly Night in the heat of combat.
And speaking of service to fans, there’s no use ignoring the 34-DD elephant in the room; Sex appeal is definitely a considerable part of the character aesthetic, but it doesn’t drive the game’s focus like some of its detractors will insist. Only about half of the fighters fit firmly into cheesecake territory, and even then they’re no more provocative than anything you’ve already seen in the likes of Mortal Kombat or King of Fighters. The others… well, I know characters like mutilated schoolgirl Painwheel and shapeshifting eldritch blob Double must have their fans in this respect, but hell if I (or most people, I’d imagine) want to see what’s in their skin bins.
Skullgirls won’t convert those opposed to the fighting genre to its side, but it will help less skilled fans of the genre catch up to the pack a little. It’s an ambitious project overall that showcases which elements of a nearly bygone era of gaming have stood the test of time and which might have been better left in the past (or at least in the surviving vestiges of the arcade scene), and it stays true to this thesis absolutely. These and a few technical issues keep it from being a must-buy, but the promise of additional content down the line and the doors opened by its survival as a project make it well worth the attention of the fighting-inclined.