Decade-old fighting game Skullgirls has been hit with more than 600 negative Steam reviews in just 24 hours because of a patch that mostly tweaks and removes artwork that the developers say doesn't reflect their current "values" or "broad vision" for the future of the game. The overall Steam rating for Skullgirls remains "Very Positive," but its recent review average has tumbled down to "Mostly Negative."
The Skullgirls "Content Updates and Revisions" patch was deployed on June 26, and affects the PC, console, and mobile versions of the game. The changes are summarized in a forum post by game director Charley Price, and target three aspects of Skullgirls:
- "Allusions to real-world hate groups" seen in the dress and iconography of Skullgirls' Black Egret army, particularly its Nazi-like red armbands
- Instances in which characters "are fetishized and/or have sexualization imposed upon them," with particular attention toward younger characters
- Some content "believed to be in poor taste" with regard to race
Some of the tweaks only affect artwork seen in galleries, where four pieces of fanart were removed and 15 official illustrations were modified, but a number of adjustments were also made to in-game animations and story mode art. The Black Egret armbands were removed wherever they appeared, for instance, and a story mode illustration showing Black character Big Band being beaten by police was removed.
Some non-artwork was changed, too: A "Soviet Announcer" voice pack was removed (there are a few possible reasons for this, but it isn't obvious which it is), and the combo counter phrase for 18-hit combos, which had been "Barely Legal," was replaced.
The full changelog can be found here, and the video below from LalitoTV documents the art changes with before-and-after comparisons. In many cases, the alterations are so minor that they're hard to notice unless pointed out. Several illustrations were tweaked to obscure a character's underwear without substantially changing the sexual content of the scene, for example.
In his explanation of the tweaks, Price suggested that the core Skullgirls identity hasn't changed, noting for instance that "Skullgirls is no stranger to characters that confidently express their sexuality" and that alterations made with racial sensitivity in mind haven't touched "playful references to pulpy themes" that the developers feel "respectfully allude to certain stereotypes."
Many of the negative Steam reviews complain that the changes, however small, are a form of censorship, with several invoking the specter of "wokeness." A number also note that Skullgirls was crowdfunded, and argue that, whatever the justification for the changes, the game they paid for has been retroactively altered for reasons they don't accept.
"The current devs (who were not the original developer team from 10+ years ago) thought they had to change what worked perfectly for over a decade and run the game's sprites through 4Kids-style censorship by removing such 'offensive' elements as armbands and panty shots, for the reasons and moral standpoint known only to them," wrote one recent Steam reviewer.
As that reviewer alludes to, Skullgirls has had a storied development history. Its original studio, Lab Zero, collapsed after lead designer Mike Zaimont publicly joked about the murder of George Floyd and was subsequently accused of inappropriate workplace behavior, which led to him laying off the studio's entire staff. The current version of Skullgirls is now maintained by the studio that made the mobile port, Hidden Variable, and a studio founded by ex-Lab Zero developers, called Future Club. Zaimont is no longer involved with Skullgirls, and for the past two years has been working as a programmer on another game.
The developers at Hidden Variable and Future Club anticipated the backlash to the patch, and don't plan to comment further on the changes.
"We of course realize that some members of the Skullgirls community may disagree with these changes, either in terms of how we chose to address them or whether they were in fact issues that warranted addressing in the first place," wrote Price in his forum post. "Please know that all of these choices have been made following careful consideration and lengthy discussion amongst all members of the current development team. Beyond this post, we do not intend to discuss the particulars of these changes further."
It isn't all backlash, with a number of Skullgirls players now using the Steam reviews section to roll their eyes at the flood of grievances, writing positive reviews that accuse the review bombers of being low-playtime astroturfers, too horny for their own good, or both.
"Leaving this positive review to counter people with 5 hours saying the entire game is now bad because it's 1% less horny," wrote one reviewer who has more than 2,000 hours in Skullgirls.
At the time of writing, 169 positive and 659 negative Steam reviews for Skullgirls have been posted since June 26.