I notice there's kind of a stigma against smaller games these days, whether downloadable or handheld. There's a large and vocal segment of gamers that just assume with less budget comes less quality, that a small (but dedicated) team can't put out product as solid as a thousand-person team from a major developer.
Every now and then, though, we get a title like Skullgirls. Through a combination of incredibly tight, balanced gameplay and astounding visuals, this $15 download-only game stands out as--so far--one of the best fighting games of the year, if not one of the best games of 2012.
First, a confession: playing the game on Normal difficulty demolished me. This comes as a shock since I can usually sleepwalk through any part of fighting games where I play against the CPU--just using basic combos and tactics earns me victories on other fighters' highest difficulties. There's no such luxury in Skullgirls, as the game fought me like I stole its baby brother's lunch money. Right away, fighting game fans will be thriving in a challenging and competitive environment, both playing against the computer and against online opponents.
Skullgirls is all about skill, and it shows. There are only eight playable characters, but each character feels vastly different from the others, each requiring a different tactical mindset to play. Do you go for the fast, mobile, rekka-based Ms. Fortune? The "fill the screen with projectiles" insanity of Peacock? The high mixup potential of Filia? No matter which character you choose, you'll have to work for every win.
Similar to Capcom vs. SNK, Skullgirls lets you set up either a normal-strength three-man team, a team of two stronger fighters, or just one extra-powerful warrior serving as your "team." While it uses a six-button setup like Street Fighter, the simple controller motions work in the game's favor, making sure it's not a competition of who's able to pull off more complex inputs, but rather who's able to use their tools better and fight smarter. Practice really does make perfect... but only if you have the experience with fighting games.
There's no doubt that Skullgirls tries hard to cater to newer or more casual fighting game fans. Aside from a smaller, more focused roster, it also provides an in-depth tutorial mode that teaches mixups, identifying safe and unsafe moves, punishment, hit confirmation, and performing cancels. If all of that sounds like a bunch of gibberish to you, I'll be honest--the game's tutorials won't be changing button-mashers' ways anytime soon.
Through a combination of already-poor video game teaching (do something right once and you pass, instead of letting you practice it consistently until you're comfortable with moving on) and a rather sudden jump in tutorial difficulty (go from practicing quarter-circle motions to nailing high-low mixups) caused my "casual gamer guinea pig" to become frustrated. Even on the game's lowest difficulty, I have to pay attention and fight smart on what should otherwise be a cakewalk--so you can imagine what it's like for someone who hardly ever plays fighting games, or only occasionally mashes buttons for fun.
An unusual choice of Skullgirls' development team is that the character move list is not available in-game, but is available on the game's official site. While it threw me off, this isn't a deal-breaker for me--it's a real throwback to the late '90s and PS1 Capcom fighters, practicing with a printed move list next to me--only now I just keep this page open on my phone while I play. Also, for a game that I've installed on my hard drive, the load times are surprisingly long. They're not "Metal Gear Solid 4 chapter load/install" long, but they're long enough to be noticeable.
Of course, you can't talk about Skullgirls and not mention the amazing art of Alex "o_8" Ahad, which is the real star of the show. Vibrant and lively, the cast of Skullgirls stretch and deform as they duke it out, giving us some of the smoothest and most beautiful animation this side of Street Fighter III and recent King of Fighters installments. This is quite literally a playable HD cartoon. The music and heavily stylized menus work with the bombastic character designs to suck players into the popular "cutesy/creepy" kind of style.
Even with its few very minor missteps, Skullgirls is worth well more than its $14.99 price tag. If you're serious about fighting games and were looking for the next big competitive challenge, you shouldn't waste any time picking this up. For more casual fight fans, you may want to sit this one out... unless of course you're a masochist. I don't judge.