Let’s cut the suspense- Skullgirls is a letdown. It’s a project of big dreams, and it would be a hell of an understatement to say that it didn’t quite reach its goals. For every good idea, there are two bizarre omissions, and in the end, what we’re left with is a fighting game that just isn’t what it’s supposed to be. For all that, though, I’m glad it exists, and hope that the few lessons it has to teach the rest of the genre are heeded.
Skullgirls is the production of Reverge Labs, and more specifically the brainchild of two men- Mike Zaimont (aka “Mike Z”) and Alex Ahad. The story goes that Alex Ahad, a character artist, drew up a bunch of designs for fighting game characters, and liked them so much that he decided that he had to get them their own fighting game. At the same time (roughly), Mike Z used his experience in the fighting game community as a professional player to create the basis of a fighting game system, and was looking for someone to help him with the non-technical parts. They met up, and Skullgirls happened… eventually.
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. The game was in production for a long time, was delayed, and when it was finally released, it was still early than its makers would have liked. It’s remarkable that an indie developer even managed to make and release a competitive game in a genre exclusively dominated by bigger studios. But as one digs into the game, it’s clear that they didn’t quite have their priorities straight.
The game is launching with eight characters- a far cry from roster lists like Street Fighter x Tekken’s fifty-five, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s fifty-two or even BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend’s rather meager nineteen. I feel that this would be pretty easy to forgive given that it’s a fifteen dollar downloadable title… except these characters are rather inconsistent in quality. Valentine, a ninja nurse, feels like a fully realized character- she has a command throw, projectiles, various poisons she can apply to the enemy, six different supers (called Blockbusters in Skullgirls), and a range of interesting normal attacks including fighting with a bonesaw or a cadaver. She is one of the game’s best characters- interestingly animated, with a variety of tools and interesting combos.
On the other side, we have Filia, a character with three specials, three supers… and that’s all. In a game with only eight characters, Filia feels ridiculously shallow- when you actually count her moves list, she has fewer moves than Ryu, who is perhaps the most simple fighting game character in a competitive game. It may have been an intentional decision to make her simple, but given how incredibly complex the game’s many systems are, one has to wonder what the point of that would be. There will always be systems that new players won’t have the hang of, would it really be a bad thing to give this girl a few more moves that weren’t completely necessary to playing her so she wasn’t so stunningly dull to use?
Those complex systems are pretty inconsistent as well. The much-touted Infinite Prevention System was supposed to prevent massive combos by detecting when players were using infinites, and allowing the player being hit to break out when one was detecting. It doesn’t work. Sure, the game can detect out -and-out repetition of the same moves over and over, but make even the slightest variation to your combo, and the system will not detect it as an infinite. There are already combos out there that can win an entire round with one combo. They require a lot of meter… but if this is where we are two weeks after release, I shudder to think what will be discovered in the coming months.
Then there are the bizarre omissions. The game has no movelist for its characters- a feature that has been genre standard for more than a decade. Nowhere in the game does it tell you how to execute the majority of the moves- it tells you, in fact, to visit their website for that content. No, Skullgirls. I should not have to visit a website to learn how to control your game. That is the kind of shit that you put in the game itself. The developers have said that they intend to patch a movelist in “if the game sells well”. I find that even more infuriating. So it’s not even that you didn’t think of it, you did, and you decided to try to hold it ransom for sales? Are you out of your minds?
Allow me one paragraph about the single player as well- it’s a joke, and not a very funny one. Each character’s story mode consists of a handful of fights against the members of the cast with text and still images in between explaining the paper-thin plot. It’s not that I’m not used to terrible single player content in fighting games- of course I am- but even by fighting game standards, this is ridiculous. The final boss is terrible- not even hard in a challenging way, just a “find the boss AI’s one weakness and exploit it endlessly.” This from a guy who thought SFIV’s Seth was a good final boss. If the story mode is going to be so laughable, I would honestly suggest they not even include it, just have arcade mode.
It’s even more of a shame because the game actually has a lot of life. The character designs are intricate and enjoyable, with a shapeshifter, an acrobat, and a delightful girl who fights in a manner reminiscent of old black-and-white cartoons. It really has a style all its own, with great presentation, animation, and lots of great little details. Characters vary their attack shoutouts so that you don’t hear the same “Hadouken” a million times in a row, they comment on their opponents, you can custom-set your assists to any command that your character has. You can choose to play with one powerful character, two medium-strength characters, or three weaker characters.
The netcode uses GGPO (a special netcode designed for 2D fighting games), and it works great. The characters all feel unique, and the controls are very intuitive, getting rid of bizarre inputs like the 720, the Raging Storm, and all those other ones that I’ve complained about in the past. In many ways, you can tell that this game was made by pro gamers- it has very logical solutions to little things that have always bugged me and others about the genre.
But you can also tell that this game was made by pro gamers, which is to say that there are bizarre holes in the design. Reverge Labs is a new studio, and it shows, because all the areas where the game is lacking feel like areas where they just didn’t have their priorities straight. It wasn’t that they were idiots or anything like that, they simply didn’t have the necessary experience. They didn’t playtest enough, they didn’t prioritize getting the most basic features done first, they just didn’t go about the game’s creation in a very logical manner, it would seem.
It’s great to see an indie developer enter the scene on the fighting game genre, and I’m really pleased with the good ideas that the game does have. But solid fundamentals are a must, and sadly, Skullgirls just doesn’t nail those. I’m not sure if I’d ever want to see a Skullgirls 2, but I will be keeping an eye on Reverge Labs. For all the mistakes they made, there’s some promise here, and this genre is desperate for a little progress.
Originally published for Press X or Die on April 21, 2012.