Final Round. – Skullgirls

In our Final Round series, we take an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can!
In part 24, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 2012’s SKULLGIRLS

Year of Release – 2012
Developer – Reverge Labs, Lab Zero Games, M2
Publisher – Marvelous, Autumn Games, Skybound Games, Arc System Works
Platforms – PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Nintendo Switch, Arcade

When Street Fighter IV gave the fighting game genre the well-needed kick up the ass that it needed to become popular again, the 2D style of game quickly became dominated by anime-inspired airdash fighters such as the Blazblue series, the continued Guilty Gear franchise and a range of somewhat lesser known titles such as the Melty Blood games.

As great as many of these games are (and believe me, I have plenty to gush about when I eventually get to them in this series), it’s crystal clear that the market was- and, to some degree, still is- pretty damn saturated. It’s not that often that a game comes along with a unique style and the required “oomph” behind its gameplay comes along to make the genre feel refreshed again.

2012’s Skullgirls might just be one of those games.

The game’s development team is an all-star cast, pulling from various different areas in the gaming world. Fighting game veteran Mike Zaimont led the project, anime dub voice actress Cristina Vee handled the voice acting direction, Alex Ahad (known for his work for Studio UDON and the promotional art for the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World series) took on the art and Michiru Yamane (composer of almost all the Castlevania titles) handled music. It’s a mightily impressive “who’s who” of a development team that would seemingly deliver a fantastic product, no matter what.

The game’s engine and style is purposely based on the tag team/assist heavy action of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2: New Age Of Heroes (yeah, the character select music is stuck in my head now too), and allows players to choose to play the game in a couple of different ways.

The first method uses a single fighter that is more powerful and has more health than it would in a team, but this disables any chance of performing assist attacks.

Alternatively, players can choose to create tag teams of either two or three fighters, which allows tagging in and out during a fight to recover health and perform assist moves. The drawback here is that your health is lower, and your attacks don’t inflict as much damage as they would while going solo.


Promotional Material

Revealed at E3 in 2011, the game’s initial trailer showcases the original 8-strong roster in a striking comic book style, and music that’s a world away from the jazz-heavy sounds from the actual game itself.

The music for the game is absolutely fantastic, and is readily available to listen to on streaming services, and even had a limited release on CD. To celebrate the (currently) upcoming release on the Nintendo Switch, an exclusive vinyl pressing is in the works too.


Roster

Skullgirls is set in the fictional “Canopy Kingdom”, an art deco-infused land that is heavily reminiscent of 1940’s post-war America. In this corrupt and war-torn world, many individuals and organisations seek to obtain a magical artifact known as the “Skull Heart”.

Once every 7 years, the Skull Heart grants one woman’s wish. If the woman who asks for the wish has an impure soul, then the wish becomes corrupted and the woman is transformed into a powerful monster known as the “Skullgirl”. Hundreds of people have sought the Skull Heart’s wish, yet none of them have been regarded as “pure” enough to have their wish granted and spared of its horrible curse.

The game follows the journeys of a varied group of fighters as they seek to either destroy the artifact, or use it for their own personal gain.

Skullgirls‘ initial roster was just 8 fighters, but an additional 6 characters were made available as DLC content post-release.

Filia

A normal 16-year old schoolgirl who wakes up one morning with her memory wiped and a powerful parasite named Samson attached to the back of her head. In order to regain her memories, she must work alongside this demonic hairpiece and fight her way to the Skullgirl.

Filia is an effective rushdown character, as her small stature and high speed allows players to get in an opponents face with some rather impressive mixups.

The symbiotic relationship with Samson is also interestingto watch in action too, due to the fact that Filia herself doesn’t really do any attacks. Seeing Samson pull off some Venom in Marvel Vs. Capcom 2-esque manuevers is an absolute blast, as he morphs into various shapes and sizes.

Cerebella

A popular circus performer in the Cirque des Cartes, admired for her strength and beauty and known as the only person who can wield Vice-Versa, a Living Weapon hat.

She’s an orphan who seeks the affection of one man, Vitale Medici, a mobster who took Cerebella under his wing and is the closest thing to a father figure that she has. Vitale exploits this and makes Cerebella serve as a “leg-breaker” for the mafia when she’s not performing for the circus.

Cerebella is ordered to hunt down Ms. Fortune for a gem that she has stolen from the Medicis.

A powerful grappler thanks to the mega-hench Vice-Versa that sits atop her head, Cerebella has a number of throws and grab commands that will absolutely decimate an opponent’s health bar in no time at all.

Not to be outdone by her Living Weapon hat, Cerebella also has some effective tricks up her sleeves, such as some marvelous acrobatic stunts and hidden blades in the heels of her shoes.

Peacock

A war orphan formerly known as Patricia Watson, whose body was gruesomely mutilated by the slave traders that had captured her.

After being rescued by Dr. Avian’s Anti-Skullgirl Labs, she was rebuilt with a powerful arsenal of biomechanical weapons and augmented with an Argus system and an Avian unit, which work together to make her into a killing machine, focused on ending the Skullgirl.

The one thing that was unable to be repaired successfully was Peacock’s psyche, and her undying love of cartoons has helped to shape her weaponry into a motley crew of animated cronies; the Avian unit itself, Andy Anvil, Tommy Ten-Tons, George Bomb and Lonesome Lenny.

Peacock’s moveset is bizarre, wacky and endless amounts of fun to use against foes. She’s a fighter that will use absolutely any opportunity to attack an opponent, effectively filling the screen with projectiles and garbage so that they will rarely get anywhere near her.

Her moves include bombs, custard pies, cannonballs, floorboards that also have arms, an American football that she goes to kick (but misses, in true Peanuts fashion), cigar smoke, a magnifying glass laser, a banjo and a sledgehammer. There’s more, but this just gives you an idea of just how insane Peacock is.

As a huge fan of the old Tex Avery/Walt Disney cartoons (apart from, ya know, the incredibly racist crap that permeated a bunch of them), this unpredictability and complete disregard for reality ensures that Peacock is one of my favourite fighters in the game.

Parasoul

A princess of the Renoir family, the rulers of the Canopy Kingdom, and the leader of the kingdom’s elite military squad, the Black Egrets.

She wields Krieg, the living umbrella as a weapon, and, after her mother fell under the artifact’s influence 7 years earlier, has dedicated herself to destroying the Skull Heart so no one can repeat her mother’s mistakes.

Parasouls is effectively a charge character that makes good use of mid range attacks and takes complete control of any space that she fights in. While it is also useful in close range combat, Krieg, the living weapon that she wields, can place “Napalm Tears” throughout the stage, making it more-or-less impossible for foes to traverse the stage without taking damage.

The other brilliant aspect of Parasoul’s moveset is the utilising of her military squad. Soldiers of the Black Egrets will voluntarily throw themselves in harms way to protect the princess, as well as pull off a memorable kamikaze-style motorcycle ride.

Ms. Fortune

Nadia Fortune is a Feline Feral who is the only surviving member of the Fishbone Gang – a notorious group of thieves whose last mission ended in tragedy. The gang attempted to steal the mysterious Life Gem from the Medici family, but were ambushed by Black Dahlia, the mob’s personal bodyguard, and her team, which ultimately resulted in their deaths.

Before she died, Ms. Fortune managed to eat and digest the Life Gem, and the gem’s power rendered her undying, even if she was to be decapitated into several pieces.

She seeks revenge for her fallen comrades, and believes that the Skull Heart will help her bring them back.

Rushdown fans rejoice! Ms. Fortune is great for players that want to charge towards their foes at full speed and not give them a chance to attack properly. Thanks to the Life Gem that she consumed, she boasts regenerative powers, and can take a higher than normal amount of damage without too many issues.

The most unique aspect of her fighting style is the fact that she can remove her head and control it separately from her body. This self-decapitation makes the character feel slightly different to play as, and comes with its own particular handful of moves.

Painwheel

Formerly a normal schoolgirl named Carol, Painwheel was kidnapped by Valentine and delivered to the Anti-Skullgirl Labs, where she was implanted with the “Buer drive”, Gae Bolga parasites and infused with Skullgirl blood.

These experiments transformed her into a violent and unstable monster, but a safeguard was also installed, so she can be mentally controlled by the ASG psychic director, Brain Drain.

She is expected to kill and harm under the orders of her creators.

Painwheel is the only fighter in Skullgirls that has the ability of flight, and she can attack foes with some horrific spikes and some painful looking contortions that wouldn’t look out of place in a Junji Ito novel.

She also has a unique guard on many of her special moves called “hatred guard” which deals back damage onto an opponent as they attack.

Valentine

The lone survivor of the ill-fated “Last Hope”; a group of special Anti-Skullgirl operatives that worked for Lab Zero, performing recon missions, sabotage missions in addition to researching the Skull Heart & the Skullgirl phenomena.

Not much is know about her real nature and personality, and she now works for the current Skullgirl, Marie.

Valentine’s moveset is, as expected, heavily hospital-themed. Using a large bonesaw as her primary weapon, Valentine can also launch razor sharp scalpels at her foes like shurikens, can bash away at her enemies with a bladed IV drip and can administer different chemicals via a comically oversized syringe.

She’s lightning fast, and has a large array of aerial attacks that make up for the relatively low amount of damage that her individual strikes do.

Double

Double is a horrific transforming creature that works under the Trinity (a trio of godesses, we’ll get to them when we talk about the endings!), and is responsible for ensuring that the Skull Heart ends up in the right hands.

For much of the game’s story, Double takes the form of a nun that works in the Grand Cathedral of the Divine Trinity.

Double’s shapeshifting abilities are the main basis for pretty much every move in its command list. It can morph into several characters from the game across the course of a fight, making it incredibly difficult to plan against. If you’re looking to bamboozle your foes, you just might find success with Double!

It’s like John Carpenter’s The Thing mixed with Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat, and it’s bloody good fun to watch.

Squigly

Sienna “Squigly” Contiello is from a lineage of talented opera singers, and a family that were considered to be one of the Medici mafia’s most valuable clients. 14 years before the events of the game, Squigly’s mother, Selene, obtained the Skull Heart under strange circumstances. As a result of this, Lorenzo Medici orders a lethal attack on the Contiello family in an attempt to procure the artifact for himself.

Selene becomes the Skullgirl and revives her family as an undead army. Luckily, Squigly is spared from becoming a mindless minion, thanks to the intervention of Leviathan, a parasite that has been a longtime guardian and family friend to the Contiellos.

After a massive battle between Selene and the Medicis was put to a stop via the efforts of Squigly and a team of Anti-Skullgirl operatives, Squigly’s powers disappear and she is buried at Lorenzo Medici’s expense.

14 years later, the current Skullgirl revives Squigly…

Squigly is ideal for players that value long ranged attacks and high risk/high reward attacks. While her mid-ranged and crouched attacks are pretty slow and easily noticeable during a fight, connecting them deals a buttload of damage.

True to her character, Squigly uses her voice in battle too, in the form a huge musical note-like projectile that delivers one hell of a punch.

Similarly to Filia, Squigly lets her parasite do all the fighting for her, but this time around, things feel a lot more fluid and comfortable.

Big Band

A former New Meridian beat cop named Ben Birdland who ran afoul of a group of crooked police officers on his squad, who beat him to within an inch of his life and left him for dead.

Birdland was resigned to spend the rest of his days being kept alive in an iron lung until the Anti-Skullgirl Labs offer to rebuild him. He agrees to the procedure and becomes melded with the very apparatus that keeps him alive, along with a whole host of pneumatic weaponry at his disposal.

Now a senior member of Lab 8, Big Band is seen as a father figure to the younger Anti-Skullgirl soldiers, and remains a steadfast believer in their cause.

In addition to being the largest character in Skullgirls, Big Band is the slowest character too. He makes up for this though with some of the most devastating attacks possible. He can also parry an opponents offense too, which proves very useful as you climb the ladder of difficulty.

Almost every move Big Band has is musical instrument-themed. His grab? a huge bell. His launch attack? A giant tambourine. His super move? An enormous french horn. This is possibly the most unique moveset I’ve seen in any fighting game so far, and it’s now the one to beat in the weirdness stakes.

Much in the same way that I appreciate the insanity of Peacock and her crazed cartoon-themed special moves, Big Band’s arsenal of jazz music-based assaults is absolutely hilarious and the Batman: The Animated Series/film noir aspects of his character add a layer of charm that are incredibly tough to forget.

He’s a silly addition to the roster, but I feel that the game would have suffered somewhat without his inclusion.

Eliza

Eliza is the star attraction of New Meridian’s premiere nightclub, Bastet’s Den. Behind the scenes, she is host to a skeletal parasite known as Sekhmet, and has been for an untold number of years.

She’s beloved by the general public for organizing various blood drive charities, but these actually serve to feed Sekhmet and to preserve her beauty.

The Medici family discover this, and blackmail her into pursuing the Skull Heart.

Eliza is possibly the most Darkstalker-esque fighter in Skullgirls, both in terms of her look and in terms of what attacks she has at her disposal.

Incredibly adept at rushdown tactics, Eliza uses hieroglyph-inspired mid-range attacks, attacks that make good use of her microphone stand (appropriately named “The Staff of Ra”) as a close range weapon and bringing in her two bodyguards, Albus and Horace, as quasi-assists to muscle down foes.

When she’s anchored to The Staff of Ra, Sekhmet comes into play. She’s a ferocious striker that can rack up high combos in no time, but this speed comes at the cost of doing as much damage.

Fukua

Fukua is a cloning accident from Lab Zero. She’s a highly intense and unstable version of Filia, and contains the souls of a warrior that was known for their brute strength in close combat, and a silent assassin that was reknowned for their skills with ranged weaponry.

She’s the only non-canonical character in the game.

In addition to looking like Filia, many of Fukua’s moves are the same too, though this time the fighting isn’t solely left up to the parasite (he’s named Shamone, by the way). Fukua has some punches, jabs and kicks of her own, and while she lacks Filia’s air dash capability, she instead has a double jump that comes in handy when facing opponents that like to use projectiles in their attack methods.

Fukua can also utilise shadow clones of herself, which changes her playstyle dramatically into a zoning beast. While these clones are useful in battle, if they stick around for too long they’ll start to eat way at Fukua’s health bar.

Beowulf

Beowulf is a former wrestler known for defeating the infamous Gigan warrior, Grendel, and having an illustrious in-ring career.

Although he had secured himself as a champion in the history books, an incredibly mediocre acting career derailed his momentum and people soon forgot about him.

Now, with the new threat of the Skullgirl looming, Beowulf enters the ring again, determined to relive his former glory and learn the truth about his past.

Chun-Li looks… ruff?

As a fan of professional wrestling, Beowulf as a character was always going to appeal to me. Almost every famous aspect of old WWF/WCW wrestlers is mixed in here, from the Hulk Hogan poses, the splash moves of the cruiserweights, even down to the extra colours that paint him up like the Ultimate Warrior, fans of the graps will undeniably enjoy this playstyle.

Beowulf’s moveset is heavily inspired by wrestler characters from Street Fighter (Street Fighter Alpha 3‘s Rainbow Mika and Street Fighter IV‘s El Fuerte) and Tekken (King), and can be powered up by a unique “HYPE” meter. Filling this up is achieved by taunting opponents, knocking them onto his trusty chair and dropping the mic (CM Punk style; PIPEBOMB!). If this is successful then you’re treated to pyrotechnics and a shower of confetti, and if you trigger the “Wulfmania” move during this time, you’ll pin your opponent, a referee will pop up and do a 3-count and deal loads more damage than usual.

Too sweet!

Robo-Fortune

Robo-Fortune is a creation of Brain Drain (based on Ms. Fortune), built to demonstrate loyalty, cunning and superiority. Unfortunately, Robo-Fortune fails to deliver on any of these, and is a wildly unpredictable, yet somewhat gullible killing machine.

She sets out on a mission to hunt down the Skullgirl and “engage in easily avoidable conflicts”.

As she is based on Ms. Fortune in looks, she also shares a handful of the character’s moveset. Obviously with being a robot, she has a few unique extras at her disposal too, such as lazers, homing torpedoes and the ability to generate several detached heads to aid her in battle.

Perhaps the most interesting technique of Robo-Fortune is her “Systemic Circuit Breaker” move. In what is essentially a self destruct maneuver, it allows her to briefly move faster and sprinkle in a few extra properties to her normal attacks while the countdown is on. Once the timer hits zero, the move damages her, but also causes considerable harm to the opponent too if they happen to get caught in the blast.

Marie

The main antagonist of Skullgirls (and non-playable fighter) is Marie.

Hailing from an area outside of the Canopy Kingdom known as “No Man’s Land”, Marie was a war orphan who was sold into slavery by the Medici family. After becoming the latest Skullgirl, she wreaks havoc on the kingdom and threatens to destroy anyone in her way.

As a boss, Marie is pretty much a throwback to the absolutely ridiculous and unfair SNK fighting game bosses. She’s a three stage nightmare that constantly throws fiery skull projectiles, shadow demons(?) that flash across the screen in all sorts of directions and summoning skeletons that either serve as obstacles or shoot you down with a tommy gun.

A massive step up in difficulty, even on the easiest settings.


Levels

Not only does Skullgirls have some of the nicest looking character sprite animations in the genre, the stages in which you’ll be battling are incredible too, each brimming with gorgeous artwork, extra characters and several references to almost any other famous game you can think of.

  • BATH OF TEFNUT – Eliza’s stage is a lavish and extravagant bathhouse filled with references to Ancient Egypt, and can transform into the “BATH OF SEKHMET“; which changes the water in the background into pools of blood.
  • LAB 8 – Home to the Anti-Skullgirl soldiers, and the laboratory that is responsible for the augmentations of Peacock and Big Band. Dr. Avian and many of his colleagues can be seen overlooking the fights, but there is also a variant of the stage where things have been destroyed and there’s nobody around.
  • CLASS NOTES – The training stage of Skullgirls, which draws similarities to the ones found in later Street Fighter titles, with Ms. Victoria standing beside a chalkboard. Nothing too fancy, but a familiar sight all the same.
  • GLASS CANOPY – A ballroom where many of the Canopy Kingdom’s elite mingle, including the royal family.
  • GEHENNA – A barren underworld that is filled to the brim with squelchy veins, eyes and teeth, and appears to be the domain of Double.
  • UNDER THE BRIDGE – A change in style to the regular bustling colourful streets of New Meridian, where several members of the Anti-Skullgirl team look on in the background. Other variants of the stage showcase the various New Meridian vagabonds that crowdfunding supporters contributed to the game.
  • STREETS OF NEW MERIDIAN – The busy streets of the city aren’t much to look at structurally, but the revolving cast of NPC characters that appear in the background is fascinating. My personal favourite? An appearance of Galaxy Fight: Universal Warriors/WAKU WAKU 7‘s Bonus-Kun!.
  • ROOFTOPS ASSAULT – A brilliant look at the sheer scale of the damage that the Skullgirl is doing to the city, with fires ablaze and a massive chunk of the building being held precariously up in the sky. Incredibly detailed, and one of the best stages in the game.
  • NMO ARENA – Beowulf’s stage is a wrestling ring, set in an arena with flags for each of the game’s fighters hanging from the rafters. The two variants here allow players to fight in front of a huge crowd, or an empty arena (remember when Mankind and The Rock did one of those matches?)
  • RIVER KINGS CASINO – Like a mix of Glass Canopy and the Streets of New Meridian, this is a busy area with card tables and slot machines aplenty. Oh, and a dog dressed like Street Fighter II‘s Chun-Li.
  • MAPLECREST – Filia’s stage showcases a nice suburban neighbourhood with many of what seems to be her school classmates standing around in the background.
  • LITTLE INNSMOUTH – The waterlogged pier area of the game is where you’ll find Ms. Fortune and her friends, the Dagonians (long story short; they’re fish people). Playing this level’s daytime variant reminds me of Street Sharks (WHERE’S MY REBOOT?!).
  • NIGHTMARE CREST – A spooky version of Maplecrest where the residents are now blurry shadows that would be welcome in a Fumito Ueda game, and the sky is now blood red with ominous black clouds speeding by. Fukua’s stage is messed up, but it fits perfectly.
  • MEDICI TOWER – The headquarters of the Medici mafia, beautifully decorated in an art deco style with the family’s patriarch Lorenzo either conducting business in the background, or sat looking bored (depending on which variant of the stage that you choose!).
  • MERIDIAN AREA RAPID TRANSIT – Ever wanted to fight on the top of a moving train? Then you’re in luck here! This stage includes a few stowaways sat in the background (hello again Bonus-Kun!), and gives players a good look at the city of New Meridian in the background.
  • FINAL ATRIUM – Your showdown with Marie takes place here, and is a crackling mess of debris from the surrounding buildings and enough skulls to keep Glenn Danzig happy for a millennia.
  • GRAND CATHEDRAL OF THE HOLY TRINITY – Double’s other stage is an extravagant church with colourful stained glass windows and a busy sermon ongoing in the background. The alternative version of this stage sees this vibrant, holy place transform into a cold, morose and empty building.

Bonus Round!

Skullgirls contains a handful of extra modes, such as Survival, Arcade and Training, but the standout bonus mode here is “Marie 300%”; a faceoff against a megapowered version of the game’s final boss.

If you thought Marie was tough before, then this mode effectively pulls the rug from underneath you and is an insanely difficult undertaking.

Certainly not for the faint hearted.


Victory!

The majority of Skullgirls‘ endings revolve around the final battle with Marie, and showcase each fighter’s decision once they come into possession of the Skull Heart. There’s the heartbreaking (Painwheel returning to her parents, who scream in terror and disown her), the heartwarming (Filia’s decision to transform Painwheel’s life), the uplifiting (Beowulf’s return to glory both in-ring and on TV) to the straight up confusing (it was all a game that the goddesses Aeon and Venus Lovelace were playing?!).

It’s a great mix that fits well with the charm of the cast, and continues to show off some more gorgeous artwork.

There is no canonical ending to Skullgirls, and the only way that this could happen is if Marie was made into a playable fighter.


Overall Verdict

GREAT

Skullgirls is an absolute delight across the board. With a truly impressive game engine, some of the best 2D animated sprites in the history of fighters, easy access for newcomers to the genre and some rock solid challenges for fighting game veterans, all wrapped up in a gorgeous “Darkstalkers & Marvel Vs. Capcom-meets-Scott Pilgrim” art deco style package, there’s so much to love here.

Ok sure, it doesn’t really reinvent the wheel, and many of the features here are now par for the course in fighting games (and yeah, some of the sexualisation of the game’s roster is slightly too much at times, though it’s arguable that it is no worse than many of the anime fighting games available), but overall, Skullgirls is still an essential addition to any fighting game fan’s collection.


Have you played Skullgirls?
Let us know in the comments below, or send a tweet our way!

2 thoughts on “Final Round. – Skullgirls

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