If you're a serious fighting game player, you probably have some contentious opinions about the people that make and play them and the genre overall. It's hard to avoid having strong opinions, especially when the games pit players against each other in the rawest of forms, where people are getting beat up on-screen in close-up fashion. This style could possibly be the core of everything that's good and unique about competitive culture in fighting games. And while the genre was always alive, it was on life support from the perspective of new games, and with it back in full force, and everyone is throwing their entries in.
The latest of these attempts is Skullgirls, a 2D fighting game from Reverge Labs, an independent studio born from the community itself to make what they hope is the perfect game. While it may be difficult to imagine that a game like this could stand alongside the AAA efforts by bigger publishers like Capcom, Namco, WB, and SNK Playmore, they've done that - even if there are a few bumps in the road on the way.
It starts with an interesting style of anime art that gets combined with BioShock's brand of art deco, 90s-Capcom-inspired jazz music, and a wildness in character design taken from many places (but maybe the Darkstalkers fighting games more than others). Sure, the ridiculous amount of cleavage in low-cut dresses and the gratuitous panty shots on rather young-looking characters can be enough to put off some gamers (or maybe their significant others), but I don't feel like this game exceeds the boundaries of its Teen rating - even if it does push them just a teeny bit. Throw in gameplay that takes some of the best from Street Fighter III, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Guilty Gear, and Mortal Kombat of all things - and even a few new ideas like infinite combo detection - and we have a mashup of so many genres, styles, and gameplay elements that it's hard to call this game anything but an original mix of great ideas. Sometimes you'll be reminded of the tight, precise controls of SFIII, and at other times you'll see high-flying combos with dozens of hits that you often see in the Marvel vs. Capcom series.
The execution is fantastic, too: the roster of eight playable characters is admittedly small, but each character is so unique in how they move, fight, and interact that I don't feel like anything functional is really missing - especially for a $15 downloadable game. You can choose one, two, or three characters for each team; each fighter you add makes everyone a little bit weaker, but you're also gaining flexibility in fighting styles and in deployable assists, so there are some interesting trade-offs that are made. Despite the challenge in doing all of this, the game feels fairly balanced to me in the relatively little I've played it (and in the few hours I've seen high-level players streaming it), but I won't be winning any tournaments anytime soon, so maybe I'm not the best judge. Only the community at large over the course of weeks or months can play enough to really expose imbalances and problems, and there's no guarantee that'll happen for a downloadable game with relatively little advertising. But I do hope that it will happen, because Skullgirls has an excellent presentation and wonderful fighting game mechanics - along with some very unique-looking combos and moves - and many times, that's all you need to get people started in earnest on playing it.
No, Skullgirls isn't going to be a main game at EVO this year or anything like that, but I think it has a chance at getting a damn good following anyway. The game ships with GGPO, the netcode that was custom-made for 2D fighting games, and I found the online action to generally be smooth and enjoyable with the only problems coming when playing against people that were having obvious and severe connection issues - and in those cases, no amount of netcode is going to make things run amazingly. Still, the few combos I learned came out mostly intact most of the time online during those few times when I wasn't getting completely stomped by the already formidable players that are getting very good at this game quickly. Unfortunately, the online implementation is rather bare-bones, with only ranked and unranked matches to play in; no lobbies, no replays, no quarter mode. I don't know if that's enough to tank the game altogether for some, but hey, the original Marvel vs. Capcom 3's online mode survived on a barely-bigger feature set than this.
The tutorial mode is quite good, though, and it gives you a ton of information not only on basics like moving, attacking, and blocking, but also takes you through high-level techniques like option selects, mix-ups, and putting together big combos. The way Skullgirls explains advanced techniques is much better than the challenge-type modes you see in other, more expensive fighting games, and while I really like how the hitboxes are shown in the free training mode, it would have been helpful for the developers to include a proper input display in there, too. Still, I really like the training mode in that it gives you access to strategies and the like that you can use on all characters - rather than just drilling you on the few pre-set combos set on a short list.
The developers did wind up with a few glaring issues and oversights, like the complete lack of a move list in-game, which the developers are trying to make up for with an online version (I like Shoryuken.com's Wiki move list the most). Still, there's really not a great excuse for this, and while an update is forthcoming for a bug related to Rock Band-type controllers interfering with Skullgirls gameplay on 360, let's hope they can sneak in a quick move list, especially since the tutorial mode doesn't actually take you through each character's moves either. On top of that, load times are just a bit long on 360, which I found to be strange since this game runs exclusively off of the hard drive, and I did see a few crashes that I don't think was just related to my particular 360. Beyond that, I haven't found any other real issues.
What Reverge Labs has done with Skullgirls is prove that even an independent developer can make a slick, fun, and unique fighting game amongst the eight-figure budgets seen in the rest of the genre. Because of a few mildly annoying problems, it remains to be seen whether the community gives this game the exposure I think it should get, but I remain optimistic. Hopefully, we'll see some Skullgirls on tournament streams with some big names in the community behind it, because this game deserves some serious attention from both pros and casual fighting fans.
Disclosure: This review is primarily based on a 360 review copy provided by the publisher.