I love fighting games. The genre has fostered such a passion in me that I buy fighting games to support the scene and familiarize myself with titles, so I can discuss them at tournaments or on streams. For a while, the Lab Zero Games-developed Skullgirls—a 2D, team-based fighting game—was a game I watched regularly, but I didn't get into it due to lack of interest in the original roster. That changed with the release of Skullgirls 2nd Encore, a $14.99 upgrade to the base $9.99 game. It contains the two wonderful new characters that pulled me into the game, Beowulf and Big Band, three other combatants, a fully voiced story mode, a new survival mode, and fresh challenges, trials, and character colors. For $25, Skullgirls Second Encore is packed with value and content, and really puts Street Fighter V, a full-priced game with a $30 season pass, to shame. Skullgirls is a PC game, but it's also available on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.
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Learning From Your Elders
Skullgirls takes cues from many highly regarded fighting game series. The team-based fighting utilizes a Capcom vs. SNK-style ratio system that lets you select up to three characters to battle up to three rival characters. This means you can choose two characters to go against three characters, or even one character against two. The ratio system balances the action by awarding damage and health points bonuses to teams with fewer combatants than their opponent's. For example, when the teams are not even, squads of three have 100 percent health and damage. Teams of two receive a 115 percent health and 130 percent damage boost. A one-fighter team has 205 percent health and 150 percent damage. If the number of fighters is the same on each team, it's a wash.
It would be wise for beginners to master one character before moving onto team play, but there's a benefit to having more than one fighter on your squad: assists. Like Marvel vs. Capcom, 2nd Encore lets you call in teammates to increase a combo's damage and create set up attacks. In a unique twist, Skullgirls grants you the ability to create your own assists. Such custom assists can be any attack that doesn't involve a jump.
Easy On the Eyes
It is rare that I call a game beautiful, but that's the only way to properly describe Skullgirls' visuals. The so-called "Dark Deco" art style is unique in the fighting game field. Alex Ahad, Skullgirls' main art and story director, created a visual theme that permeates the characters and stage designs.
Characters, such as Valentine (a masked, bone saw-wielding nurse) and Parasoul (a princess who's also the leader of an elite military squad), are alluring and deadly, while Painwheel (a school transformed into a bladed monster) and Peacock (a brash, bio-mechanical weapon) stand out due to their weaponry and peculiar appearances. Like the characters, Skullgirls' detail, colorful stages are vibrant and alive.
Though Skullgirls' roster isn't large, the characters boast many moves, each with unique and painstakingly detailed animations. Skullgirls boasts the most frames of animation per character of any 2D fighting game, even besting the renowned Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. The graphics are hand-drawn, a practice rarely seen in a contemporary fighting game. Watching Ms. Fortune's use her own head as a weapon is as great the 100th time as it was the first. Skullgirls is as great to watch as it is to play.
There are three series that have handled alternate character colors better than other games in the genre: Capcom vs. SNK, Guilty Gear, and The King of Fighters. Skullgirls does this just as good as any of those games. Simply put, the color palettes are stunning. They are also numerous, clocking in at roughly 25 per character. Over half the color palettes also feature minor visual tweaks to serve as homages to popular characters. For example, Beowulf has a color palette based on Alex from Street Fighter III. My favorite is the Captain America palette, as Beowulf's steel chair resembles Steve Rogers' iconic shield. They look awesome, and aren't done in an anti-consumer way like Street Fighter V's costume implementation.
Sweet Chin Music
Big Band is a prime example of Skullgirls' creative character design. Notably, Big Band is the first playable male character in Skullgirls' formerly all-female roster. Big Band is a one-man band who utilizes music and an array of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments in his combat. He's a slow-moving character, but has a high damage output. He also has a parry that, with great timing and a good read of your opponent's next attack, lets him transition from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. It's a risky move; you tap forward to parry mid- or high-level attacks and tap down to parry low attacks as you would in Street Fighter III. If you blow the timing, you eat an attack. Plus, Big Band still takes damage from the parried attack, though the amount is decreased. Throws and hit-grabs cannot be parried, but you can parry in the air by tapping forward.
Big Band's most distinct ability is one that lets you play a tune mid-combo by using the attack buttons to produce notes. Free Form is a medium punch attack that sees him pull out a trumpet and do damage by playing a note. If you choose, however, you can play additional notes for even more hurt.
When you unleash the Satchmo Solo attack, Big Band initiates his level five Blockbuster, Skullgirls' name for a super attack. Doing this freezes an opponent in place and depletes Big Band's Tension Gauge, the meter that governs Blockbuster use. During this time period, Big Band can play any notes he wants. In fact, you have up to seven seconds to style on your opponent and connect to the Satchmo Death Blow to finish up the Blockbuster for real damage.
Big Band is great, but the aforementioned Beowulf is my favorite Skullgirls character. He's a homage to professional wrestling and the fighting game community (FGC), two things that I hold dear. His nomenclature and backstory are linked to the legendary Old English epic poem of the same name. He's a wrestler who uses a steel chair called The Hurting and Grendel's huge arm, as well as incredible strength and wrestling techniques. Beowulf's moves vary depending on what he has equipped, which creates a deep moveset and showcases many terrific animations.
For example, you can place The Hurting in the stage to create set ups where you can, for example, knock your opponent into it for increased damage. As a result, The Hurting changes your opponent's tactics and limits offensive options. In addition, Beowulf can jump off The Hurting, or knock it around the stage to injure enemies. Of course, this removes The Hurting from your arsenal until you pick it back up and that cannot be done immediately. The act of picking up The Hurting is itself a move called Take a Seat, one that can be used to cancel other special moves' recovery times.
Beowulf is a grappler through and through, having several throw move set ups. Some of his throws let you assault your opponent while holding them, reminiscent of games like Streets of Rage and Super Smash Bros. To do this, Beowulf must not have The Hurting in his possession.
What really pushes Beowulf over the edge is his Hype mechanic, which will ring familiar to fans of Street Fighter V's Rainbow Mika. When Beowulf appeals to the audience, they cheer and toss confetti, so think of Hype as a power up that lets him feed off the crowd's energy. Hype has three levels, and Beowulf can build levels in many ways, including taunting, slamming opponents onto The Hurting, or executing a CM Punk-style mic drop. The Hype level dictates the number of actions Beowulf can perform during a Blockbuster and increases the damage output. Performing a max-level Blockbuster lets you pin an opponent, after doing a Wulfmania Body Splash or Alpha Maul Body Splash, when the foe has low health. It's an amazing sight gag as a referee appears for the three count!
School of Hard Knocks
Skullgirls deep gameplay may overwhelm novices, but the game boasts a wonderfully thorough tutorial mode. The folks over at Lab Zero Games put a lot of time and effort to make the tutorial well-paced and engaging. In fact, it's the best tutorial I have seen in a fighting game series since Virtua Fighter.
Street Fighter V, Mortal Kombat X, and many other fighting games include tutorials that teach players the very basic fighting game theory, such as blocking, positioning, and attacking. Skullgirls, on the other hand, goes way deeper in teaching newcomers and veterans alike. It explores the game's engine, the dynamic differences between characters, hitboxes and how they affect moves, hit stun, and the impact of reactionary defense and blocking.
Using the beloved character Mrs. Victoria as an instructor, the tutorial is both necessary and fun. You will find yourself going back to it again and again because it is actually useful. Skullgirls' tutorial alone is enough reason for people to pick it up and play. It will actually install fundamentals in you that carry over to other fighting games.
My Skullgirls complaints are minuscule. While I greatly enjoy the game's music, I do wish there were more genres represented. Considering that Skullgirls was influenced by games with varied musical styles, it's a surprising that there isn't more variety.
In addition, there are just eight characters in the base roster. Five DLC characters were added in the Skullgirls 2nd Encore upgrade, and a joke character, Fukua, was added due to fan demand. That 14 character roster is disappointing; even the troubled Street Fighter V launched with 16 characters.
Weapons of War
Skullgirls can be played on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows machines. The system requirements are lower than those of other notable PC fighting games, so you don't need a dedicated gaming PC. Your computer simply needs a dual-core processor and 2GB or RAM. A modern computer or laptop will run the game fine. Online play works amazingly well, too, thanks to GGPO, middleware that enables a near-lagless online experience.
Skullgirls boasts arcade stick, controller, and keyboard support. I had no issues mixing it up using a Mad Catz Xbox 360 Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition stick or a Hori Fighting Commander 4 Controller. In fact, Mike Z, one of the game's creators, built a system that makes PlayStation 3 controller and fightsticks compatible with PlayStation 4.
Skullgirls is a must-play game for people looking to get into fighters, or people well experienced with the genre looking for a deeper experience. You can tell that Lab Zero Games' creative team grew up loving fighting games as much as the fans who play them. There's just so much care on display in the character designs, animations, and mechanics. In fact, there's even a built-in system that automatically stop infinites, annoying combos that never end. Skullgirls is a fighting game made for everyone, and that puts it in rare company.