Monday, July 02, 2012

Review: Skullgirls

I found the target audience for Skullgirls in a basement facility near a video game shoppe in downtown Toronto. This gentlemen’s club was sort of a modern day arcade, where tournament-caliber fighting game fans can ply their craft at the expense of people who wanted to be tournament-caliber fighting game fans. One guy asked me to do repeated Sub Zero low kicks so he could decide which Kitana attacks were best suited for countering said low kicks. You know, that kind of crowd. Well Skullgirls was the new hot dame at the club and people were smothering the various monitors of this facility, attempting to learn what attacks chained into what, what cancelled where and how to get away with the longest combos without the game’s “infinite breaker” telling them to stop.

Many of my attempts to challenge these eager students resulted in extended periods of me sitting down, palms on cheekbone, waiting for Miss Valentine’s combos to end on my once promiscuous female combatant of choice. The practice and determination of these enthusiasts had certainly paid off. Granted, I turned the tables when I had asked to throw down in the less combo-friendly Street Fighter Two, and these combination fiends were helpless against such tools as “fire ball” and “pile driver.” But alas. If those gamers converted their Skullgirls skills into boxing skills, they would have no hope against Floyd Mayweather’s unexciting counterpunch strategy, but that’s neither here or there.

But the point is that Skullgirls is a fighting game for people that mechanically love fighting games. Well, I think it is, anyways. I know for sure that it’s a fighting game for people that dream of being people that mechanically love fighting games. To get the most out of your Skullgirls experience, you must be the kind of person that has the willpower to study frames of animation, damage properties, stunlocks, roman cancels, roman catholic cancels and other fighting game terminology that enters my left ear and flies out the right.

If you are not that person, then don’t listen to the lies that you may have heard about Skullgirls having in-depth tutorial designed to teach you how to properly play a fighting game. It has a lengthy tutorial, alright. And said tutorial does use some flowery fighting game language. But it seems the game arrives with about half of the material that the developers would have intended. The technical bits that make a fighting game a fighting game are explained, but none of the psychology of how to win, how to use certain characters, how combinations of characters match up against others. They don’t even give you the move lists! My first hour of play was spent with Cerebella, a girl with giant arms sticking out of her hat. I never clued into the idea that she had some 5-6 throwing attacks, and that she was meant to be a Zangief-styled throwing character. Maybe it was the lack of chest hair that kept me from making the connection.

Or maybe the developers intended all along for players to do all the research themselves. Treat Skullgirls like a 90s arcade game, where fools easily parted with their quarters spent their money, toying with various button presses because a friend told them the secret to playable Kano and Sonya in Mortal Kombat 2.

Regardless, Skullgirls definitely works within its singular focus. The 8 character roster seems small, but each character is so vastly different from the one before it, demanding (I think) completely different play styles and strategies. You can elect to play either with one strong fighter, two not-so-strong fighters or three pantywaists with full Marvel vs. Capcom-styled tag abilities, and that seems to be the approach to success. Further encouraging freeform combo self-expression, you can even choose any single attack or special move as an assist attack.

And you’ll want to express yourself against other live players. The online netcode uses GGPO, which does complicated math-things that I don’t understand to make matches feel lag-free. Match-making is also usually a quick procedure. Or at least it is quick to pair me against players much, much better than me, eager to get me better acquainted with their fists in sets of 20-30.

To be frank, either playing online, locally against other humans, or practicing your favourite air juggles for use against other humans is really the only way to play Skullgirls. There’s an arcade mode, but saying Skullgirls technically has an arcade mode is like saying a porti-potty technically has a toilet. You fight people, often the same people repeatedly because the roster is small, you waltz your way to the credits screen. There’s a story mode that puts dialogue and pictures of the girls getting touched in places in between the fights, but not much of note is worth experiencing.

This is definitely a game that I wanted to appreciate more. The art is nothing if not provocative, contrasting overtly-sexualized female characters with some more grotesque anomalies and several dozen video game references. The music is kind of catchy in a way I want to listen to in my every day life... just not within the context of a fighting game. Think a less unintentionally ironic rendition of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, not wanting to be taken for a ride but maybe more a casual stroll down the Harbourfront.

But Skullgirls is a picky lass, only wanting to be admired by those willing to obsess over its every minute detail. The foods it likes, the jewelry it makes you buy, the stunlock properties of its low-cut top. Devoted fighting game enthusiasts who enjoy doing their video game homework will be supportive and put up with Skullgirls’ bitchy attitude and desire to be driven everywhere. Me, I prefer something a little more level-headed, so I’m going back to my long term relationship with Street Fighter 2.