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Skullgirls’ divisive panty-flashing visual style has seen it dismissed as anime fan-service, but it’s clearly also been inspired by the work of Bugs Bunny creator Tex Avery, and videogames of the 8 and 16bit eras, as much as it has by manga. It makes for a jarring mashup of early and late 20th century pop culture, perhaps best exemplified by one character’s story mode introduction. Soundtracked by lazy, late-night jazz, Filia sits at the counter in a diner, shot from outside in a nod to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Seconds later you’re staring at her from behind, buttocks escaping from her tiny underwear.
Valentine, the miniskirted nurse, celebrates victory by jamming a thermometer in her cleavage. Cerebella’s pendulous idle animation may have front-room gamers – and the odd troubled teenage boy, for different reasons – drawing their blinds. The influences feel forced: Peacock, the half-human, half-robot result of a mad scientist’s tinkering, is referred to in her own story mode intro, with sledgehammer subtlety, as Project Avery.
It’s a shame the visual design has sucked attention from Skullgirls’ true USP. Designed by competitive fighting gamer Mike Zaimont, it seeks to fix many longstanding genre flaws. Systems are in place to stop unblockable and infinite combos; button checks and colour selections are streamlined to help tournament organisers by reducing the time between matches.
Then there are the tutorials, which are by a distance the best in any modern fighting game. After covering movement and blocking basics, Skullgirls moves on to high-low mixups: an AI opponent performs random strings of attacks, alternating between high and low and forcing you to block accordingly. Later you’ll be taught the merits of poking with safe chains, using short combos that can’t be punished if blocked, but set up big combos if they connect. The lessons learned don’t apply solely to Skullgirls, but to fighting games in general.
Enemy AI is excellent, with none of the recourse to input-reading or cheap tactics found elsewhere. Instead, foes wait until you make a mistake and punish it with a combo that’ll have you taking mental notes so you can try it out for yourself. Sadly, as is so often the case, it all falls apart at the final boss. Like so many fighting games, Skullgirls arbitrarily ratchets up difficulty, and breaks some of its own rules, to provide a suitably formidable final opponent. She might not read player inputs like Street Fighter IV’s Seth, but Marie doesn’t recoil when hit; she soaks it up and carries on. Forget tutorials – all you can do is tap out a few blows before her next attack. How sad that, after fixing many of the genre’s problems, Skullgirls ambushes players with such an old trick.
There’s plenty of range in its eight-character roster, and more fighters are on the way as part of a post-launch support schedule also including downloadable move lists for smartphones, character-specific tutorials and spectator lobbies for its online offering. But it’s the tutorials that stick in the mind: Skullgirls’ real win is via Zaimont grasping that fighting games needn’t be easier to play, but should be easier to understand.