In the adorable and carefully honed Skullgirls, eight is enough

, | Game reviews

There comes a time in some games when something so irresistible happens that you can’t very well not like it. Skullgirls has a few of those. When Ms. Fortune’s severed head latches onto an opponent and you first pull off a move called OMNOMNOM. Or when sexy nurse Valentine defibrillates back to life one of her fallen teammates. Or when Parasoul’s biker gang of commandos charges across the screen. Or when Peacock does pretty much anything that Peacock does.

After the jump, all the ladies in the house say ‘hey!’

The best thing Skullgirls, a moderately demanding fighting game, has going for a fighting game dilettante like me is the character design, which focuses its considerable creativity and love on a few characters. These eight girls are all unique and adorable. Even the creepy Painwheel is adorable in her own misunderstood way. And Double is the adorable version of a heap of adaptive protoplasmic goo. Sort of like John Carpenter’s The Thing meets Hello Kitty.

Frankly, I’d rather have eight distinct characters than 32 familiar licensed characters, much less 32 licensed characters I don’t know from Adam. Even BlazBlue’s delightfully wacky smallish cast of characters can be overwhelming, with a bit too much inscrutable anime in the mix. In comparison, Skullgirls is a best case scenario of less being more. I’m reminded of the difference between Need for Speed: Shift and Forza, both technical racing games. But the former features a handful of cars that are meaningful because there are only a handful of them; the latter has so many cars that almost none of them matter.

The basic concept of Skullgirls is a cast of fighters for those of us who think watching cute chicks fight is much better than watching beefy dudes fight. Put on a shirt Maxi. Me and my buddies are sitting thigh-to-thigh on the couch and we don’t really want to watch you grappling with Voldo in his bondage gear. What Skullgirls avoids, or perhaps glosses over with its excellent artwork and considerable personality, is the leering excess of boob physics and panty shots. Not that those things are absent. Peacock is the only character without conspicuously bare thighs, and that’s because she’s prepubescent. Not to mention a cyborg assassin. Think Little Orphan Annie meets The Terminator in the style of an early Disney cartoon. Otherwise, whether you characterize Skullgirls’ aesthetics as cheesecake, objectification, or empowerment, you can’t deny its creativity, cleverness, and charm.

Not to minimize the seriousness of the fighting. This is, as near as a guy like me can tell, a serious fighting game for people who think fighting games are serious business. But it’s not overly technical. It’s got the same splashy friendliness, color, and cheer of Marvel vs. Capcom. It’s perfectly accessible for casual thigh-to-thigh couch play. And it’s got its share of unique gimmicks. You can take one character with all the hit points, or divide the hit points among two or three characters who can swap in and out, tag team style. As any Marvel vs. Capcom player knows, the advantage of multiple characters is that the offscreen characters can heal damage and provide assist attacks. Skullgirls lets you choose premade assists or even store inputs for customized assist attacks. I know a hardcore feature I’ll never use when I see it!

I wish there were more ways to play Skullgirls, which suffers from a dearth of single player stuff to do. Skullgirls, built by and mostly for serious fighting gamers, wants you to go online. But a sad fact of fighting games is that there’s no viable way to go online unless you’re really good. This isn’t true of shooters, or even real time strategy games. Skullgirls has tutorials and a training mode, neither of which tells you about the characters. You can’t even peruse a list of moves. What kind of fighting game doesn’t include a command list? Instead, Skullgirls refers you to a file you have to download from a public hosting service. The overproduced PDF file lists very basic information about moves and not much else. Once again, a fighting game made by and for the people who already know how to play it. Capcom would be proud.

The difficulty level, which includes an option for sleepwalking that is anything but, is consistently punishing. This is great if you want to get good. It’s not so great if you just want to faff about with the characters. Or learn how they work. I have yet to beat the final boss. But it speaks volumes that I keep trying, not necessarily because I care about beating the boss. I’m here for Peacock’s toys, Parasoul’s army, Filia’s carnivorous locks, Cerebella’s crazy hat, and Valentine’s pharmacological shenanigans. The final boss, the eponymous Skullgirl, is just one of the things on the way to figuring out how they work.

4 stars
Xbox 360