Something that seems to get lost in video games is that video games are made by actual people.
Novels, traditionally written by one person, seem to get the most human recognition for their authors. J.K Rowling, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman are likely to have their name showcased on their works larger than the actual title, and, even though a Google search for “famous authors” returns a plethora of black and white images of white men that died centuries ago, there’s still a very firm “authorial intent” grasp around novels, magazines, and even blogs. Movies aren’t far off, but they’re primarily featuring the actors or directors, as opposed to the actual writers (or anyone else). What is Spielberg trying to say with Transformers 2? That he’s the executive producer and likes cashing checks. Television shows are even further down on that totem pole. A lot of shows just seem to… happen, and it’s only when there’s a dramatic hit that someone looks behind the curtain. Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston elevated Breaking Bad to lofty levels, but I can’t name a single director, writer, or actor from Malcolm in the Middle.
Video games, like movies and TV shows, require gigantic groups of people to produce a final product; but the sad thing is that there has to be a cut-off for the national consciousness. I have a hard enough time remembering the names of my second cousins and grand uncles, there’s no way I’m going to remember the name of the guy that worked as a key grip on four out of five of my top movies. Hell, I’ve got laundry to do today, I barely have the time to remember what a key grip is. So it’s no great surprise when even a remotely interested public can’t remember the name of that dude who translated half the games that came out of Japan for a year, or the woman that was responsible for modeling proper spandex textures for every Madden game. It’s a thankless business (and I’m talking about any media production here, to be clear) for anyone not distinctly at the top, and, even if your résumé is as long as your arm, nobody is signing up for your fan club anytime soon.
Which, seriously, is a gigantic shame when it comes to video games. Video games, as they’ve grown from “I whipped up a tic tac toe app over lunch” to “a team of thousands are here to animate Lightning’s hair” have also grown alongside the internet. The internet that was once a collection of nerds sharing risqué photos of Gillian Anderson over 28.8 has now become a pulsing wad of hypergeeks posting upskirt photos of Jennifer Lawrence. Wait, no. What I mean is that now, more than ever before, there is the possibility of connection between creators and consumers through the information superhighway, and that highway has done nothing but expand as video games rose to prominence. From a historical perspective, you’d expect this parallel growth could lead to VG creators becoming the rockstars of the cyber generation, but, no, we already have rockstars, and movie stars, and People Magazine, so, sorry, even with the internet, the Famous People Boat has already reached maximum occupancy, and it sailed out to sea a long time ago.
And to stave off any random comments to the contrary, yes, I am aware there are famous video game directors and writers and artists, but go ahead and tell me that Shigeru Miyamoto holds the same cultural clout as, I don’t know, Sammy Hagar. Tell me Hideo Kojima could have his own reality show. I’m pretty sure Stan Lee has had seven. Oh, wait, my bad, should I be naming more Western video game producers? Sure. Give me the name of someone that worked on Grand Theft Auto V. I just googled “grand theft auto 5 credits”, and the first three links are people complaining about the length of ‘em. “Rockstar Games made Grand Theft Auto”, okay, sure, who is Rockstar Games?
Why am I yelling at clouds over this one? Because Skullgirls is a damn treasure.
As has been discussed before, I like anime. I also like women. I’m a heterosexual male, and I am wired to appreciate the female form. I also was primarily raised by my mother, my father, and Voltron: Defender of the Universe. As a result, I’m a cat person, and I love color. Brown, gray, and off-brown are all fine colors, but you’re reading the words of a man that painted every room in his home a different, generally bright color. My “entertainment room” is deep violet, because I wanted something dark enough to create a “movie theatre” experience, but damned if I was going to paint the room black. And it allows me to call the place “The Violet Room”, which makes me chuckle to myself every time, even though no one ever gets it.
Point is that, out of the gate, the aesthetic of Skullgirls was going to appeal to me.
That said, there are plenty of “anime fighters” out there. Seriously, check PSN sometime, and you’ll find not only luminaries like Guilty Gear and Blazblue, but an entire catbus full of lesser fighters that seem to be based off whatever may have been lying around the production office that week. Arcana Hearts is a continuing series based on schoolgirls battling it out for… some reason… and at least one of them is wearing a child’s swimsuit and manipulating a gigantic ball of ooze. Or there’s Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax, which is a dream match (literally, given the plot) of various manga/anime stars, featuring characters from series like Sword Art Online and A Certain Scientific Railgun. It’s not a bad game, just pretty haphazard with its kitchen sink approach to… well… everything. And rounding out ridiculous anime fighting games I can name right off the top of my head is Under Night In-Birth.Exe: Late, a perfectly competent anime fighter that reeks of “you’re supposed to play this forever and learn all the little nuances”, but doesn’t offer a single compelling character. Like, that’s cool an’ all, but I just don’t feel like dedicating my life to learning how to properly utilize Random Special Japanese School Boy #4,821 when Blanka is right over there. He learned how to generate electricity from eels! It’s kind of amazing that the “anime fighter” genre was so clearly and easily parodied by Waku Waku 7 approximately a million years ago, but here we are again, watching the same tired tropes battle it out for a piece of toast.
And you know what? There might not be anything original in Skullgirls, either. Filia has been plainly stated to be an “homage” to Millia of Guilty Gear, another follically-based fighter. Cerebella is equal parts Robin and Harley Quinn. Big Band is just a noir, cyborg detective with a penchant for brass knuckles. Painwheel and Soul Calibur’s Voldo are clearly pen pals. In a way, yes, this is just another anime fighter with cute girls beating up other cute girls in an effort to win one true wish. It’s practically Fighting Game 101, with a final boss that escaped from Castlevania.
But the devil is in the details. Like pretty much every other article on this site (give or take a Let’s Play), I’m tapping out this article while completely divorced from the game at hand. Yes, I’ve played it recently, but I’ve also done a number of things since then, so it’s not like I jumped over to the keyboard moments after putting down the controller. That said, without assistance, I could name and describe every last playable character in this game inside of thirty seconds right now. No cheat sheet, no missing Double, and even including the later DLC characters, I could hammer out a detailed list of all these girls (and two guys). This is important because I have approximately no memory for that kind of thing. Tekken is cool and all, but past “there’s a bear and usually a robot”, I can barely tell one karate man from another unless they’re right there on the screen in front of me. Skullgirls? I know the Skullgirls.
And the last time I could say that about a fighting game was Street Fighter 2.
(Okay, if I’m being completely honest, this is also true of the Persona fighting games, but there are mitigating circumstances.)
And, to be absolutely clear, this is not a result of Filia having just the right hip proportions or Marie being that visually distinct for a skele-creature. No, it’s not because I’ve run through story mode enough to convince myself I understand these characters. And, no, it’s not because of spending way too much time in versus matches against friends/online enemies. No, it’s not any one thing, it’s that all of these factors gestalt together into a tremendous whole that makes every last character in this game distinct beyond reason. I took a glance at Filia and Cerebella’s basic movesets just now, and, with the exception of one move (Princess Cut, incidentally), there’s not a single move that doesn’t distinctly belong to its owner. Down to the minutia of even move names, these characters are rigidly defined, so there’s not a generic “fireball” or “spin kick” to be found.
That’s even before we get into the insanity that is a myriad of endearing details. Like every Fighting Game, each character has a variety of color swaps available. Unlike every fighter, though, every single one of these colors has a distinct story or homage, and is not simply “let’s make Dhalsim blue now”. One out of a hundred matches will start with the statement that “the guerilla fate is yearning”, a delightful easter egg for anyone that’s played 10,000 hours of Blazblue with its one and only battle intro. Story modes actually involve stories, and not just two pictures and a paragraph that explains Mike Haggar went on to become President. Skullgirls is dripping with detail and facets upon facets.
And, yes, even without all the little things that make life great, it would still be a great, dependable Fighting Game, too.
And someone, sometime had to make everything here.
When I first considered this article, I thought about basically what you’ve already read up to this point, and then realized, “Wow, I know nothing about the people that made this game.” Okay, that’s not completely true. I knew about Mike Z’s involvement, but that’s only thanks to random bleed from watching youtubed fighting tournaments. Beyond that, I just knew that Skullgirls came out of “Lab Zero Games”, which, like, Rockstar Games, could be anyone on Earth. And, yes, I knew about the kickstarters (not kickstarters) for this game, dlc, and other, future Lab Zero games, but, again, this wasn’t Mike Z asking an audience for funding. No, it was Lab Zero Games again, which is fine, but it’s about as “human” as complimenting Friend Computer. I don’t want to talk to Microsoft Support, I want to get Bill Gates on the line!
So you know what? Screw it. I’m tired of just writing about Skullgirls being great. Yeah, it’s subjective, and you might not be a fan of short skirts and long trombones, but this game tickles my fancy in all the right places, so I’m closing this article out with a thank you to the people that actually made this game.
Thank you, Mike Zaimont, for making this game move, and infusing it with more Fighting Game references than should be allowed.
Thank you, Alex Ahad, for sketching Filia in the margins of your notebooks until she became a real girl that can occasionally defeat eldritch horrors.
Thank you, Benjamin Moise, for stringing together enough if/then statements to allow a cat girl to break into pieces and come back together again, give or take a head.
Thank you, Michiru Yamane, for the training music that will likely be stuck in my head until the end of time.
Thank you, every person involved in creating Skullgirls, and all the people I likely ignored when I possibly misattributed tasks to the people already named. You made one hell of a game, and I’m nobody, but somebody should recognize you for it.
FGC #88 Skullgirls
- System: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, PC. No portable version? Meh, just as well. I’d probably destroy the poor Vita’s gamepad, anyway.
- Number of players: It’s a Fighting Game, so you can guess this one. Hint: It rhymes with “boo”.
- Port o’ Call: The different versions of Skullgirls, legal issues aside, basically exist as “Super Turbo 2: Champion Edition” progression, so I can’t say there’s any reason to go for an earlier version. I highly recommend the PS4 version (featured in this review), because the voice acting really adds a certain… believability to the talking cat robot.
- Memories: Even if this game wasn’t any good (which it is!), I’d probably still have fond memories of the thing, because it was released just as I was moving into my current abode. As a result of the move (before and after), pretty much my entire life was in boxes, and all my usual sources of entertainment boxed with it. A wonderful, detailed, downloaded game was exactly what I needed on my PS3, and that’s exactly what I got. I can still remember attempting to master Cerebella while sitting on over-stuffed apple boxes.
- Launch Woes: But it wasn’t all good! Skullgirls has dramatically improved over its iterations, and the initial launch definitely felt lacking. It didn’t feel bad, mind you, simply that things like team mode seemed woefully incomplete with only 8 characters. The art gallery wouldn’t be unlocked for years, and character move lists were available online… on a site that had already cracked under the pressure. But it got better!
- Favorite Character: Alright, I appreciate Filia’s character design, but I’ve never been a big fan of how she plays. I mean, I can see how she “works”, but it’s not my favorite playstyle, so I don’t traditionally use her. Fukua, meanwhile, I adore, and she’s a “my favorite color” swap of Filia’s design, so we have a winner. Yes, I know she’s a joke character, but I was also a big fan of Reptile back in the day, so it makes a certain kind of sense.
- Umbrella? I do not care for Umbrella.
- Did you know? Peacock’s two bomb buddies, George and Lonesome Lenny, are obviously a reference to Of Mice and Men (and any Tex Avery characters of the same names), but they were originally known as Little Boy and Fat Man, which would be the same names as the atomic bombs dropped over Japan at the end of World War II. Before release, someone finally noticed that this might be a tweak insensitive, but you can still find a reference or two to their old names floating about.
- Would I play again: I hate to say it, but this is my favorite fighting game of the PS3 console generation. Yes, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is right there, and that game is great for playing with people who have not dedicated hours of their lives to frame cancels, but when it’s just me, a controller, and a hankerin’ for a fight, it’s going to be Skullgirls. Why does that statement sound moderately embarrassing?
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Road Runner for the NES. That’s… odd. I remember the SNES version, but there was a NES game, too? Guess we’ll find out. Please look forward to it!