Monday, June 16, 2014

Fighting Game Camps: Skullgirls, Part 1

I don’t pay much mind to a lot of indie games.  It’s true that creative ideas can come of them, but too often they end up being 8-bit, pixilated, platformers lacking in sufficient polish or all three, unlike the big-budget super games I usually play.

I want my tax dollars to go into that thing!

That’s not to say I just brush indies off entirely.  Indie games have allowed for some great titles reminiscent of an earlier age without going as far back as the archaic age of 8-bit graphics.  I had a lot of fun with Shank 2 and Castle Crashers, and even with its pixilated presentation Retro City Rampage’s clever humor and gameplay flow kept me in the experience.  However, as fun as indie games have been, none of them have absolutely wowed me.  They’ve always been at least good, but not great.  7s out of 10, but not 8s.  Recommended, but not must-buys.

I got this for Christmas.  That Phil always knows what to get.
I say this because there may be points in this article that come off as complaints or condescension by comparing it to the other much bigger-budget games.
Part of the reason for this may be because Skullgirls is not exactly a big franchise yet.  Not counting its update, Skullgirls Encore, there has only been one game.  With the other franchises, all the many games that have come out have had their ups and downs that can be glanced over in the grand scheme of things, but with Skullgirls, we have only one game to go over, so in a manner of speaking, what I say about it applies to every Skullgirls game there is.

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like Skullgirls.  It’s a game made by fighting game fans for fighting game fans and it has a very strong, dedicated camp of its own, especially in Japan.

Yes, believe it or not, Skullgirls is a major hit over in Nippon.  So much so the game is getting a disc and arcade release there as opposed to the digital versions you have to download in other countries.  Well-known artists have made their own fan art of the game’s characters and well-known Japanese game alumni have expressed fondness of it, including Mr. Badguy himself.  Even George Kamitami, artist for Vanillaware, made his own piece you can view in the game’s gallery.

As for what makes Skullgirls such an underground hit, that is what I am here to tell you.


Skullgirls takes place in the Canopy Kingdom, a fictional nation styled in the ‘40s that is largely under the thumb of the extremely powerful Medici Mafia crime syndicate.
The plot revolves around the Skull Heart, a magical macguffin that can grant the wish of any girl who obtains it, provided they are pure of heart.  Those who are not are corrupted by the Skull Heart and turned into a magical being of undeath and destruction, the titular Skullgirl.


Many years before the game takes place, the Canopy Kingdom was at war with two other nations.  After trying to use the Skull Heart to stop the war, the then-queen of the Kingdom became an all-powerful Skullgirl that took the combined efforts of all three nations to defeat.

Now there’s a new Skullgirl, and different people of different factions and associations are out to defeat her and obtain the Skull Heart for their own ends.

Like most fighting games, it’s a rather simplistic plot with the depth and conflicts added by the characters, which in this game is almost entirely made up of females.


Giving the label of “hero” to any of the characters is difficult and even subjective, since the official ending has yet to be specified and all the characters want the Skull Heart for their own reasons that don’t benefit everyone involved.

The closest thing to a main character Skullgirls has is Filia.

Very little is known about Filia’s history other than that she is related to someone in the Medici Mafia.  She doesn’t remember much of her life and she has a rude, mean, toothy parasite on her head named Samson.

In the Skullgirls universe, parasites like Samson are sentient creatures that attach to human hosts and aid them in battle.  In Samson’s case, he morphs and hardens Filia’s hair into various shapes for melee combat, and can even enlarge his size in some instances.

Samson and Filia don’t get along very well.  Samson’s mean, selfish behavior clashes with Filia’s politeness and overall good attitude.  Though they fight together in battle, they only do so because they have to, and sometimes Samson attacks others against Filia’s will.  Their relationship is a vitriolic one.

Filia has a clone named Fukua, who was created as a joke in real life, but was nonetheless made a playable character, albeit one with no relevance to the story.  Fukua’s basic attacks are the exact same as Filias, but her special and super attacks are exclusive to her and separate Fukua from her source.

Though never officially tagged as a hero as far as I can tell, one could consider the character Parasoul to be a hero of the story too.  At first she may not look like it, with her seductress-esque visual style and suspiciously Nazi/Helghast-looking soldiers, but once you actually play the game, you see that she’s one of the more selfless characters.

Parasoul is the princess of the Canopy Kingdom along with her bratty younger sister Umbrella.  As the current Crown Princess, Parasoul rules over the kingdom and commands its elite army, the Black Egrets.

Her goal is simple: destroy the Skull Heart and anyone who wants it to prevent repeating the tragedy her mother caused as the previous Skullgirl.  In story mode, this proves to be more difficult than she thought, as Umbrella has some sort of resonance with the Skull Heart that attracts her to it.  She’s a prim, proper, caring lady, kind of like Elizabeth Blanctorche.  She even speaks in French, but that means it’s also possible Parasoul was inspired by the Persona series’ Mitsusu Kirijo.
What a rip-off!  They should be making original characters, like K9999, Fei Long and Baiken!
The Egret troops along with Parasoul’s living, napalm-shooting umbrella weapon Krieg are her main means of attack.  The faceless Egrets are used similarly to Sprocket’s biankies in Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble, except unlike the biankies, the Egrets really like their leader and show a lot of expression even though you can’t see any of their faces.  It’s pretty entertaining to watch.

"Noooooooo!"  It's even possible for one of them to say it in slow-mo.


The heroes aren’t clear-cut in Skullgirls, but the villains sure are.  Obviously, the main villain and final boss of the game is the current Skullgirl, “Bloody” Marie.

It’s unknown how Marie got a hold of the Skull Heart or even what her story is.  All that’s known is that she hates the Medici Mafia for their crimes, including mutilating her friend, the character now known as Peacock.  Her rampage specifically targets anyone and anything involved with the Medicis.  That hatred for them is so strong, it’s apparently what’s keeping her from becoming completely mindless like the last Skullgirl.

You would think targeting the bad guys specifically would make her a hero, but she targets even people only tangentially related to the Medicis and disregards anyone in the way, meaning the collateral damage and innocent deaths pile up fast.  She even wants to kill Filia just because she’s related to them.

As a villain, Marie could use more establishment, but as a boss, I love her.  The fight with Marie is much more like a beat-em-up boss than a fighting game boss, kind of like Apocalypse in X-Men vs. Street Fighter, except Marie has three forms she changes into as her health goes down.  As you may expect, there’s a lot of skulls.

She starts with a large crowd of skulls around her while launching swarms of skeletons at you, then is assisted by a large shadow that can strike from any position in addition to her skull summoning, and then she’s reduced to a cloud of bones circling around the Skullheart that sends out more skeletons than ever.  The entire time you need to hammer her to chip down her ludicrous amount of health while guarding and jumping to avoid the attacks she litters the field with, including one that can strike from any position, kind of like when fighting Magaki in KOF 11.  The entire time she doesn’t even attack.  She orders everything else to attack.  I love it.

Marie has two other villainess’ assisting her, both of whom she insists she doesn’t need, but they help anyway.  One is Valentine, a former member of a special force made to combat the skullgirl.  After the rest of her team was killed, Valentine dedicated herself to carrying out Marie’s will.  I guess it was out of some sort of code for serving the strongest, but she seems to have her own agenda.

Valentine uses a variety of surgical tools for all her attacks, including scalpels, her bone saw, syringes she can fill with poison, nitrous oxide and body bags with multi-limbed monsters to strike with.  All of them are combined with impressive, ninja-like speed and precision to cut into her opponents with sometimes bloody results.

The one working with Valentine is even more mysterious.  She only goes by the name of Double, and for good reason.  She often takes the appearance of a nun, but Double doesn’t seem to have any definite form other than a mass of teeth, bones and flesh.  She’s kind of like Yu Yu Hakusho’s Elder Toguro, in a way.

Double appears to obey the Skullgirl out of obligation.  She answers to a trio of god-like figures in the Skullgirls universe called The Trinity and that’s all that’s known about her, really.

In battle, she twists and morphs her body in all kinds of different ways, but not into simple weapons like Street Fighter’s Twelve or a temporary character change like Shang Tsung.  Double morphs into the different Skullgirls characters for almost all of her attacks, from a simple jab as Filia to a luger shot as Parasoul.  She has a few abominable-looking forms for some moves, like her grab, but most of her repertoire is made up of imitation, including her super attacks.

Seeing Double constantly morph at lightning speeds for each and every action she does is amazing to look at, and makes her my favorite character design in the game (though not my favorite overall).

Her incredibly detailed introductory animation, wherein she goes from her nun form to her monstrous form, is one of the best in the entire game and was animated by none other than Dave Smith, artist of one of my favorite webcomics, GG Guys.  By an amazing coincidence, the date of this post is on Dave's birthday, so a big Happy 29th Birthday goes out to him. [Update: Since the writing of this article it was brought to light that Dave Smith is in fact thoroughly horrible, pathetic garbage that should not be given any support.]

The Other Guys (almost all of which are actually girls)

Several other characters of varying monstrosity are out to get their hands on the Skull Heart too.  The most monstrous of them come from a secret Medici Mafia-funded organization of mad science called Lab Zero.  Lab Zero is a secret part of an anti-skullgirl weapons development chain of laboratories and is led by a scientist cyborg known as Brain Drain.

He should have a cereal named after him.
The characters of Peacock, Painwheel, and Big Band all owe their freakish appearances to these Anti-Skullgirls laboratories.  Peacock was taken in by Lab 8, given two special synthetic parasites to boost her combat abilities, and crammed with all sorts of weapons she styled after her favorite cartoons.

Lazers, bombs, guns and more are all a part of her arsenal alongside with a little help from her cute cartoon sidekicks, all of whom have silly names like Andy Anvil and Tommy Ten Tons.  Her bird’s name is Avery, for obvious reasons.

Just like cartoons from the golden age of animation, Peacock fights by defying reality, pulling out gag items from an unseen hole in her back, and contorting in ways only a toon could when hit.  No wonder she’s a fan-favorite.  She’s like the daughter Faust never had.

Painwheel is practically Peacock’s opposite, more resembling a masked monster like Leatherface after she was forcibly changed and given two parasites by Lab Zero to combat the Skullgirl.  One parasite is in her body and allows her to protrude spikes and the other is the rather conspicuous tail-like appendage on her back.  Both of them are painful for her to use.

Brain Drain also seems to have seen it fit to give her Skullgirl blood, and god knows what that did to further destroy her.
Lab Zero’s modifications basically brainwashed Painwheel and she is extremely mentally unstable.  She mostly fights the other girls both out of mindless rage and Brain Drain’s psychic manipulation.  Once again, in contrast to Peacock, who rather likes the person who made her, Professor Avian, Painwheel actively hates Brain Drain and constantly fights him.

Big Band was given his artificial brass body by Lab 8 to save his life after a mortal injury during his life as a cop.  Now he’s a one-man band and a one-man army, not to mention the only playable male character at the time of this writing (the second one, the wrestler Beowulf, hasn’t been released yet).  Big Band comes equipped with trumpets, tubas, saxophones, a tambourine, and even a giant kick pedal, all weaponized.

People who funded $1,500 toward the game's crowdfunding campaign appear in the backgrounds.  There were a lot.

The other characters in the game are Cerebella, the Medici-funded circus performer/strongarm with a super-powerful hat of unknown origin pictured above, Miss Fortune, an immortal cat lady whose gang was killed by the Medici Mafia, and Squigly, a polite opera-singing zombie with her own parasite in her head named Leviathan.  I’ll go over Squigly in more detail later.

Her head is detachable.
Skullgirls doesn’t have the busloads of characters other fighting games have (yet), but you can see why it’s so loved regardless.  The character designs are remarkably imaginative, original, and unorthodox.  What other fighting game character is made entirely of musical instruments?  What other fighting game character is a weaponized Merry Melodies cartoon?  What character in any type of game punches with their hat?
Skullgirls’ distinctive cartoon art style and literally hand-drawn character sprites also sets it apart from the fighting games with traditionally human-looking characters and digitized sprites.

The same level of creativity and detail goes into their fighting styles.  In my look at Blazblue, I said that Arc System Works really went the extra mile in putting special touches into each and every character, and I can say the same for Skullgirls.
Although there are buttons for punches and kicks, at least half of them are actually something else when used, depending on the character.  For example, Peacock’s medium punch is thrusting a pie forward (which also acts as Double’s medium punch).  Filia’s heavy attack while ducking turns her hair into a tail and thrusts it overhead, Big Band’s grab is a giant bell he traps his opponent in before vibrating it and Squigly’s heavy attack while moving forward has Leviathan spewing fire on the ground in front of her.

Other fighting games often replicate real martial arts moves and combine them with fictional powers and impossible acrobatics and physics.  The characters of Skullgirls emphasize the powers and impossible side much more.

There’s some real voice talent behind the characters as well, from both big names like Liam O’ Brien and Cristina Valenzuela (the voice of Noel), and smaller names like Danielle McRae and Rich Brown (long-time voiceover narrator for GameTrailers).  I think it’s great to see lesser-known actors get big roles, and I hope these ones help them land more in the future, because they’re all fun to listen to and deserve more work.

And if the characters don’t impress then the rapid-fire barrage of memes and references will make any internet-dwelling fighting game nerd clap like a happy monkey.
I didn’t state that Skullgirls was made by fighting game fans for fighting game fans just because it’s a clichéd idiom.  In addition to one of the lead designers being a well-known player himself, the game has shout-outs coming out of every hole in its metaphorical head.

Just to list a few:
  • The announcer can say several lines that are variations on other announcer lines from other fighting games or straight quotes, as is the case with Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Capcom vs. SNK 2.  Also, if you barely win, he’ll say “Cut cut cut!”  Much like in Viewtiful Joe.
  • When using her pistol special attack, Peacock sometimes yells “Garbage daaay!”
  • One of Big Band’s introductory lines is “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!”  A line from Robocop.
  • When reeling in an opponent as Squigly using Leviathan, Leviathan might say “Get over here!”
  • Double sometimes calls her opponent a miserable pile of secrets after she wins.
  • One of Filia’s victory stances is actually Samson’s, in which he wears Filia like Ryu’s headband.

And there’s no way I could ever fail to mention this:

And on that note, Valentine’s scalpel-throwing super attack is suspiciously similar to Dio’s knife-throwing one.

But those are only the beginning!  The alternate colors for all the characters reveal even more references!  They must have had a special team design the alternate colors, because 9 times out of 10, they’re designed to make the character resemble something or someone else.  Valentine has a color set that looks like Mai Shiranui’s, Painwheel has ones that look like Street Fighter Alpha’s Vega and Samurai Shodown’s Basara, Parasoul has one that looks like Kula Diamond, Big Band has Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal suit and Squigly has a color set resembling Zozo from the 3DS game Code of Princess as well as one resembling Litchi Faye Ling, who shares Squigly’s voice actress!

Try to guess what each one is supposed to be.

Even if it doesn’t have quite as much content as other modern-day fighters, the effort and attention to detail in every aspect of Skullgirls' design makes it just as enjoyable in its own special way, and it's only getting better and better as more is added.

But the visuals and characters are only half the reason Camp Skullgirls loves this game.  Read Part 2 here.

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