James' RETROCITY look back on Skullgirls

Ah, Skullgirls. When the gaming media flipped the eff out over your announcement, I was stoic. When the tourney scene took to you like a fish to water, I was apathetic. When Steam decided to list you at $5.00 during a holiday sale… I couldn’t say “no.”

Finding myself in the possession of one of the most over-hyped pieces of software entertainment I could think of within a reasonable amount of time (most overhyped since Daikatana… sick burn), and having recently discovered that my SFIV Arcade Fightstick is recognized by Windows, I decided to give you a try.

Congratulations, you won yourself a convert.

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Skullgirls [only PS3 and PC as of this writing]
Developer: Revenge Labs, Lab Zero Games
Publisher: Autumn Games, Konami, Marvelous AQL
Release: 04/10/2012
Words: James Bacon

This game was the brainchild of Mike Z., a well loved member of the FGC tournament scene, and Alex Ahad, who had allegedly been cooking these particular character designs since he’d been in high school. I said “was,” because Konami recently took Skullgirls off of both PSN and XBLA without any telegraphed warning whatsoever. Something having to do with their arrangement with Autumn Games, Skullgirls’ ‘handler,’ going South. There are few details, and what’s there is confusing to an outside onlooker, but since Konami is the publisher, they can do whatever the heck they want with it. Lab Zero, the developer (actually, this is the reorganization of the original development company, Reverge Labs – same guys, new name, and assuming all development responsibility) had promised it would go up again soon thereafter, and with free bells and whistles; but that’s not the point, here. The point is: the game is everything it’s cracked up to be.

Borrowing HEAVILY from Marvel vs. Capcom 2, the game doesn’t hide the fact that it’s an evolution in the VS. Fighting genre. While maintaining mechanics that are familiar and that work beautifully – completely avoiding the weird space that Tatsunoko vs. Capcom occupies – Baroque Canceling is like X-Factor, guys; why you LOVE it in MvC3/U, and hated it in TvC, I’ll never know… same goes for the 3-button layout, but I digress. Tag teams and assists, snapbacks, delayed hyper combos – Skullgirls was a textbook carry-over from the well entrenched Vs. series, and the visuals only helped to push it over the edge with the community.

The control, likewise, is as tight as any tournament fighter should be. There’s really nothing more to say about that.

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I never thought the game looked remarkable. Staring at static screens, you might think that the concepts are cute, and the characters kitschy – which is exactly what I thought – but seeing the game in motion will make you a believer. Small gestures and drawn-on details make each character a unique personage, and exemplify why the game was nominated for Best Animated Video Game at the 2012 Annie’s.

The plot follows my most favorite formula: short, sweet, and devoid of any convolution. Once every seven years, the Skull Heart appears in the Canopy Kingdom (part 1920’s America, part WWII, part fantasy setting complete with magic) to grant one female her deepest desire… but should she be impure of heart, she will transform into the Skullgirl, wreaking havoc across the land. Each character in the cast is after the Heart for a different reason, and all of the others stand in the way of any one of them succeeding… so, you know, they fight.

If you haven’t given this game the time of day up to now, I’d recommend you go ahead and purchase it on Steam or PSN (the XBLA version still isn’t available as of this writing). It’s like an old friend you haven’t seen in a while – familiar, able to pick right back up where you left off so many years ago, and DAMN! Did he lose some weight! Looking good!

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PROS:
1.) The excellent, familiar mechanics that beat Tatsunoko v. Capcom at it’s own game. New game systems are difficult to execute well, especially in a niche enthusiast community (unless you’re Arc System Works), and Skullgirls knows it. To wit, it effectively cannibalizes established mechanics in order to both appeal to long time fighting fans and maintain a complex level of play. It succeeds.

2.) The story is cohesive, interesting, simple, and it informs the gameplay in a very comprehensive manner. There is a natural reason for these characters to be fighting one another, and not some silly, contrived “I wanna be the very best” nonsense. Yeah, I said it. Ryu’s motivation is nonsense.

CONS:
1.) The game is HIGHLY unphotogenic. This is a trivial issue, I know, but but for a medium that relies on visuals to sell itself (and let’s not beat around the bush, here – they’re called VIDEO games; half of the appeal is what they LOOK like), that ends up being a real detriment. It’s one of the things that enabled my initial ho-hum attitude.

2.) Eh… as much as I hate to say it, the familiar mechanics really make the game feel dated. In an era of X-Factors, auto-tag air raves, auto-doubles, linkers, and three button control schemes, borrowing from the past without looking toward the future – or even the PRESENT – tarnishes Skullgirl’s gilded sheen with a thickening layer of rust right out of the box.