It's rather amazing how gaming trends come and go over the years. Take the fighter genre that seems to have risen back into popularity all of a sudden after the "big guns" started releasing new versions of their beloved franchises. I got my first taste of fighters back when arcades were still relevant and developers started making them accessible to home consoles. I have had a love hate relationship with fighting games over the years as I'm no expert at them yet I have a resolve to keep trying to conquer them long after my friend's have had their fill. While the big fighter franchises bring back their well-loved back for repeat tours, small companies Reverge Labs are releasing their refreshingly original fighter, Skullgirls for the Xbox Live Arcade.
Skullgirls is a rather unique and fast paced 2D fighter that does a good job of setting itself apart from the rest of the pack. From the first few moments of loading up this downloadable game I came to realize two things. One, this all-female anime-styled fighter is a huge fan service that features several somewhat scantily dressed fighters. The other is that this game is as finger-crushingly hard as some of the best fighters that started the genre. This doesn't mean that itís only for the hardcore of hardcore fighter fans though. Even novices can get into Skullgirls with a little practice and a little help from a few surprising features.
Skullgirls features a rather limited roster of only 8 fighters but what it lacks in numbers it makes up with diveristy and unique fighting styles. For instance, players can choose to play as the sassy cat-burglar Ms. Fortune. Thanks to swallowing the Life Gem she stole, this catgirl can fight without her head attached and is very agile with her attacks. On the other side of the spectrum you have the powerhouse circus performer, Cerebella, whose living weapon in the form of a hat can lay on the heat with bone jarring punches.
Skullgirls follows the legend of a mysterious artifact known as the Skull Heart. This item that has been sought after by many a young woman because of its ability to grant their wishes. The downside is that if the woman should be impure of heart it will transform them into a terrifying beauty known as the Skullgirl. One of the playable characters, Parasoul, known what can happen as her own mother was once a Skullgirl before being defeated by another seeker of the Skull Heart. Each of the 8 fighters in Skullgirls has their own back-stoy and reasons to go after the Skull Heart. It's rather fun to play as each of the characters and learn about their sordid tales, and Ms. Fortune's is easily my favorite.
When you get right down to the actual fights in Skullgirls, you soon realize that this is not just another cartoon fighter. A lot of care was meticulously taken to make Skullgirls a tournament class fighter that even the most hardcore of fighter fans would enjoy. The reason Skullgirls functions as a solid fighter, even on the introductory level, is that its lead gameplay designer and programmer, Mike Zaimont, is a veteran fighting game tournament player himself. Mike Z, as he is known, took the time to give the novice players a leg up in a world where jargon like Mix-ups, hit confirmations and infinite combos are spoken fluently and can be overwhelming to those coming to the game unprepared. There are some other nice features that Skullgirls contains but I will get to those soon.
For those familiar with the fighting genre, especially that of Street Fighter, the controller layout is much the same utilizing 6 buttons to pull off the customary high, mid and low kicks as well as their punching counterparts. Now I will easily admit that I am far from the ideal player when it comes to the fighter genre but Iíve played enough to the get the general grasp of things. The controls function decently with a traditional 360 controller, but I found that if you have an arcade stick like the Mad Catz Arcade FightStick then I would easily recommend using it. I saw my fighting performance jump drastically when using it over the controller. I didnít die nearly as many times when I switched over to the arcade stick and trust me I died a lot before.
From a technical standpoint, Skullgirls is a very complex fighter with a myriad of combo rules, attack cancellations and even a detection system in place to prevent something known as an Infinite combo. An Infinite Combo in theory is the event in which a player uses the same attack or series of attacks in a looped cycle. When this happens the opponent can potentially be stuck on the receiving end of a lot of pain with no hope to escape if the loop were to remain in action. The infinite detection system implemented in Skullgirls actually recognizes when an infinite occurs and give the opposition a chance to use an Infinite Breaker by pressing any button on the controller to get free of the attack. This is a really smart design and it keeps the match on the up and up.
But probably biggest feature that I liked about Skullgirls is how they balance out fights both on and offline. Players in the Arcade mode and over LIVE can choose to fight with up to 3 characters on their team. So if one player wants to test his skills in a 1óon-3 battle with another player, the game has a built in ratio system that makes the game a bit fairer. The player with one character has a higher health bar and is generally tougher than the 3 man team. The person with 3 characters will have their health and attack strength proportionally weakened to be accumulatively just as strong as the other playerís single character. Players also have the ability to do traditional mono-e-mono fights as well as 2-on-2, 2-on-3 and 3-on-3 matches. There is also the very good possibility that you will encounter mirror fights depending on your opponent choices over LIVE.
Reverge Labs also covered the online aspect of Skullgirls with the use of the official GGPO netcode that allow for lag-free smooth matches. Of course the system needs a little fine tuning to optimize the fight based on your opponents internet ping but itís a small price to pay for having a butter smooth experience against another real player. Timing and tactics are everything in fighters and Iím glad Reverge took the time to address these critical areas.
As I mentioned before Skullgirls is a bit of a fan service in the visual department given some of the fighters more shapely figures and interesting attire, but despite the obvious Skullgirls has a really unique look to the world, its inhabitants and the set pieces in which you fight. The whole experience plays out like a Dark Deco showtime extravaganza. There is something deliciously wrong about the world that these fighters live in. As you dive into each characters story there is talk of paramilitary squads, mad scientists, death, torture and kidnappings. All of this stuff is presented in still animation segments between fights in a way that feels like an old black and white film thatís in color instead.
The detail on the characters and their surrounding are quite good. There are a few characters in the game like Ms. Peacock that just made me laugh at the sight of them. Peacock looks like she just stepped out of an old but rather twisted Mickey Mouse cartoon, but believe me she is a pain to fight. I particularly liked the story and visuals surrounding Ms. Fortuneís arc as it is easily inspired by Lovecraft lore. The dialogue between the characters when you get ready to fight is actually quite funny particularly when Fortune and Peacock are squaring off. The Dark Deco vibe is ever present with the great jazz and showtime musical pieces that you will hear while playing.
As a fighter there is the potential for a good deal of replay in Skullgirls, especially for the real hardcore crowd. Once you finish the story mode there is little incentive to return there other than to show your friends. As far as the arcade and Xbox LIVE playability, I can foresee a good deal of play there with the only downside being that this tournament caliber fighter doesnít have a tournament mode. You can only put your skills to the test against one other person at a time. The other issue that I had with Skullgirls is the ridiculously long load times between fights and even menus. Itís not as painful as some but still annoying.
Unlike most fighters, Skullgirls does have one really good redeeming feature in the form of its extensive tutorial. Here newcomers to the fighting genre can learn all the ins and outs that you could possibly want to know in a way that isnít so mind boggling confusing. There is even a training room that allows you to try out the things youíve learned so that you can have a fighting chance against some of the veteran players out there.
I have to give props to Reverge Labs for making Skullgirls a really solid fighter that has the potential to rival the bigger fighting franchises. The gameplay is tough, but with the proper willpower, strategy, and in my case a good arcade fightstick, you can have a lot of fun with Skullgirls. The characters are interesting as is the music and atmosphere of the game. If youíre looking for a fighter that is truly unique then I definitely recommend downloading Skullgirls for Xbox LIVE Arcade today.