Written by Will Uhl .
The majority of fighting games are content to quietly iterate their core ideas. Skullgirls breaks new ground, creating one of the most impressive examples of the genre of the past five years.
Every fighter is distinct. To break past Peacock's barrage of cartoon bombs, bullets and anvils, reassembling cat-girl Ms Fortune can toss her detached head and dash in while it gnaws away. If undead opera singer Squigly overwhelms sadistic nurse Valentine, the medic can slow her attacks with vicious poison. Where other games stuff their rosters with variants on the same few character types, Skullgirls' dedication to diversity is refreshing.
The downside to this is a meagre roster of just nine characters. The game permits teams of up to three, so a more ample lineup would seem like a must. Three new crowdfunded fighters are currently making their way into the game, but until they arrive the character pool is going to feel sparse.
Inspired by '30s and '40s cinema, Skullgirls' art style is gorgeous: lavish environmental ornamentation mixed with murky amber hues. Thousands of frames of hand-drawn animation bring a spirited smoothness to each character – such as the liquid ripples and twists of shapeshifter Double. This deft presentation turns the combat into an elaborate dance that looks just as smooth as it feels.
Despite the sophisticated art style, almost every fighter is awkwardly sexualised. In a more crass brawler it wouldn't be surprising to see femme fatales with copious cleavage, but the way Skullgirls splices panty shots with elegant attacks is incongruent with the maturity of the design elsewhere. It might be a plus to some, but it comes across as an attempt at juvenile titillation, making the game hard to take seriously.
The developers' experience in the fighting game scene pays off in Skullgirls' tutorials and training mode. Where other games are happy to rattle off lists of combos, here a comprehensive suite of lessons imparts basics and advanced concepts alike. The training room is similarly full-featured, providing the complex frame data and hitbox info that top-level players need to improve their game. It's a great entry point to the genre for new players.
Online play lacks automated matchmaking, but a simple lobby system enables you to find sparring partners the old-fashioned way. Impressively, the netcode supports ~200-ping fights without a hiccup. Low player counts can be an issue, but can't be blamed on the game's online implementation.
Skullgirls' flaws are ultimately outshone by its achievements, particularly in reaching out to new players. It does a better job of making fighting games accessible than any of its competitors, and there's real skill in the execution of its dashing art style. Issues aside, it's deserving of a place in fighting game history.