Video Game Review: Skullgirls (Version Reviewed: XBOX 360)

Edit: This review is also posted on with some alterations at this link:

The recent release of downloadable fighting game Skullgirls has served as a good reminder of how genuinely difficult and potentially rewarding the genre can be; however, the game does everything in its power to help new players out, and that really sets it apart from most entries. If every fighting game had a tutorial as detailed, lengthy and useful as Skullgirls then there would be no need to make “more accessible fighting games” with one-button special moves or over-reliance on spectacle. The fact that it has taken a downloadable game made under the watchful eye of an expert player of the genre to even explore this, rather than simply provide customisable sparring partners and tutorials that merely show the inputs to canned chains of moves, suggests perhaps that developers have some way to go.

What makes learning a fighting game hard is the sheer number of variables that must be mastered; interactions between characters, interactions between moves, precise timings of inputs, and most of all consigning to memory the details of how a character works. One only has to go to any competitive fighting game players’ forum to see how in-depth this analysis can become; and Skullgirls ably avoids all of that in its tutorials. Instead it explains the concepts; what the terminology means, how it is done in the simplest form, and why it is useful. The player can then build their own strategies based on this knowledge, in matches against the entirely serviceable AI. As a single-player experience, it is a game that does little to innovate; one fights the AI. There is not much more that can be done with the 1v1 fighting game genre. As afficionados will say, though, it is the multiplayer that counts. Again the offerings are slight; one plays against other players. But at the core of it, fighting games are not about litanies of game modes, or gimmickry; they are among the closest there is to real competitive gaming – something players can get their teeth into, learn, master and compete at in genuine tests of skill and chance. One would not complain that tennis did not have enough game modes (real tennis excepted).

The main mechanical innovation in Skullgirls is the asymmetrical team system; one can pick either one, two or three fighters and the game adjusts itself to suit. It’s not the same relentless chaos as Marvel versus Capcom but at the same time it’s not the same staid one-on-one self-expression of Street Fighter. That set aside, the main fighting mechanics could be from any game; there is a bar which accumulates and powers up setpiece moves, there are combos and chain attacks and throw breaks. They’re well done; controls are responsive (although it rewards the use of an arcade stick) and the inputs will be familiar to anyone who has played a fighting game before.

That is the good; as an arcade-style fighting game, it does nothing wrong and the professional player’s input is clearly evident in how every effort has been made not to alienate new players while not compromising on any of the mechanics that ultimately define the genre. One must learn to master it, for sure, but it will always extend a guiding hand.

The bad, however, is yet to come. Firstly the online mechanics. The menus are largely intuitive, but inefficient; a failed attempt to join a server requires manually pressing cancel with no onscreen prompt to return to the online menu. There is client-set lag compensation which worked all times but once while reviewing this, but the one time it did not the game was unplayable. Server population seemed comparatively low, and those who were online were incredibly good at the game (although it is not an actual reason to criticise the game, it is a fair heads-up). Compared to how slick Street Fighter IV‘s online is, it seems clunky and irritating.

Secondly, the absolutely inexcusable lack of movelists for the characters. In most fighting games, pausing will allow the player to browse a list of inputs for special moves. Skullgirls instead directs the player to a website where they can do this – which is entirely useless, and needless complication. For a game which has tried so hard to make a rewarding experience for new players, to leave out such a fundamental piece of functionality seems an unforgivable oversight.

And finally, perhaps the most contentious point. The aesthetics. There has been an impossible-to-avoid debate recently about the inherent sexism of video games and fighting games especially, and Skullgirls, to be absolutely brutal here, is as male-gaze oriented, sexist and puerile as it comes. Normally it is possible to roll one’s eyes at, say, a revealing outfit or poorly presented female character. Sometimes it is evidently a parody, as with Bayonetta. But Skullgirls, if it is a parody, is a poor one. Perhaps it is trying to provide so much teen titillation as to be patently ridiculous – but it does it awkwardly and the end result is quite distasteful in the same way as Soul Calibur‘s gradual move towards sex appeal. Bosoms heave, underwear is flashed like one is at the Moulin Rouge and fetishes are pandered to. Buying the game is thus, arguably, tacit approval of this status quo; agreeing that it’s all a bit of fun, games should have hot chicks in miniskirts high-kicking. For a fighting game that does so much to break down barriers of entry to a foreboding genre, this ill-advised attempt at what can only be assumed to be parody of the sexed-up nature of games like Blazblue or Guilty Gear falls flat on its face. Indeed, it confirms the belief that any sufficiently advanced parody is indistinguishable from sincerity.

VERDICT: Were there even the slightest concessions to moderation in Skullgirls’ aesthetics, and a few small but fundamental UI changes, it would be a superb entry-level fighting game which allows a player new to the genre to leap in, and through practice become a master. But as it stands, the relentless sexuality on display is ineffective as parody and serves only to reinforce the belief that games are designed for young men who read FHM.


  1. Digibro

    Now see, I don’t know anything about whatever sexism debates are going on, but I in no way understand how this game is sexist. I don’t understand how women being sexy is somehow offensive. And as a matter of fact, I think the game does a great job of not being all sexy women—look at Painwheel, who is a god damned zombie, and not a hot, sexy, zombie, but a grotesque, green, falling-apart zombie. Look at Double, who is some kind of Eldritch abomination. The game never suggests to the player that we are supposed to find these characters ugly and the others hot. It never suggests that they are less worthwhile or less interesting because they aren’t attractive.

    I just don’t get how this says anything negative about any women. It’s a game about girls who kick massive amounts of ass. What’s not to love about this? I feel like the only offense to be found here is one that the gamer goes in looking for.

    Will this game offend women? Only if they are women who get offended by seeing sexy women for some reason. So far, I know one woman who is a big fan of the game, and her instant reaction was “I want to cosplay Filia.” She adores the game’s art. So, not offense, but in fact, admiration. What could be wrong with that?

    The game has gorgeous art, gorgeous character designs. They say that “the girls in Skullgirls are hot, and even when they aren’t, they’re still badass.” Where… is this bad?

    • r042

      It’s because as part of a trend in gaming – and other nerd media, ESPECIALLY anime and comic books – it stands out as a particularly notable example.

      The trend is that men in games tend to be designed to appeal to male ideals, and women as well. It’s not so simple as “sexy designs are bad” it’s that the whole medium is based around what men want visually.

      • Digibro

        Are there not innumerable exceptions in each of these mediums? If it’s all designed for men, then why are there so many women who love these designs? Who draw them, design like them, and cosplay them, etc.? It’s not like women can’t enjoy the designs in Skullgirls, and indeed plenty of women can and surely do find them every bit as badass as men do. Likewise, there are as many men who will dislike them as there are women.

        I can’t speak in broad terms, because I don’t have hundreds of friends, and I proportionally have a lot more male friends than I do female. However, among the women I know, their tastes in design are usually either similar to mine, or even more extreme. (Take for example the anime blogger Chii who likes her sexy girls kicking ass even better than I do.) I know as many men who share my tastes as I do women, but I also know a lot of men who have totally different tastes.

        Moreover, I don’t think the designer for this game did nor should have had gender politics in mind when he designed these characters. I think he drew what he liked the way he liked, and that is his own unique style, which I have nothing but respect for.

        • r042

          Less than you’d think – try thinking of some female characters in leading roles who aren’t drawn to first and foremost appeal to what men want (attractiveness, athleticism) and then appeal to women as a sort of extension of this (presenting an ideal for them as being a male fantasy +, not a strong character in their own right).

          Case in point the female Shepherd box art for ME3 – it was done by an appearance poll, purely a “which of these women is visually most appealing”. Why does that even matter? Couldn’t EA have, like they did with male Shep, just gone THIS IS FEMALE SHEP, SHE’S AWESOME?

          • Digibro

            They could have, and I’d agree it’s a weak move on their part, just as I would their decision to change the ending. I like what Yahtzee wrote about this:

            From a business standpoint, appealing to the masses makes sense, but it also robs creative power from the creators, since as Yahtzee says, as soon as they do this once, they’re opening the floodgates to meet every demand and turn the game into the players’ fanfiction. I get all that.

            But we aren’t talking about EA and their bad decisions. We’re talking about Skullgirls which is a game with a strong creative backing of real artistic control, which deserves respect for actually having not only excellent designs, but even varied ones.

            I’ve linked to this post on twitter and opened up a discussion with a lot of my followers, so I’ll post about this on my own site soon when I’ve rounded up their responses.

  2. Pingback: Skullgirls is Sexy, Not Sexist | My Sword Is Unbelievably Dull
  3. Nicholle Young (@NicholleSoft)

    Actually as a 25 year old woman who loves fighting games, I never thought anything about this as I played it. I loved their character designs and I have a certain closeness with Valentine especially since I have that name as my PSN name not to mention I love her look. Considering the art direction of the game overall, it reminded me of characters such as that Nurse from Animaniacs, Betty Boop, and Jessica Rabbit and the usual “anime” characters that got turned on it’s head. Double stands out like this and also Fila too. I am not offended by a mere cartoonish depiction of a half Hello Nurse/half Ninja Lady. There are more offensive things out there to me but this game is too silly to even have something like that mentioned in a review as if it’s some incredible piece of information that the world must know but of course considering the negative eye cast on the Fighting Game Scene/Community currently in the gaming journalism world it’s really easy to associate yet another “bad” thing with it. A “kick the dog” mentality if you will.

  4. moe sizlack

    What do you think of Peacock in comparison to the rest of the cast? She is a character before she is a female because her body (and any secondary gender characteristics) are not the focus of her design, but her overall cartoony craziness is the focus. What if the entire cast were more like her? By the way, it is very relieving to see someone with a sound awareness of why these character designs are sexist: these women are females before they are characters because their sex appeal (and secondary sex characteristics) is the focus of their designs. Even the nun’s character portrait managed to squeeze in a distasteful panty shot, and the painwheel girl has a heteronormative body shape. The artist behind this is basically a Japanese otaku inside an American man’s body, if you were to look at his deviantart page, and having the girls be messed up or monstrous in some way does not change the fact that they are still sexualized-it only makes them more interesting sex objects, in the same way a sexpot movie character is made strong or smart to be a better prize for the male hero in the end of the movie as opposed to just making her a screaming damsel in distress.

    • r042

      If more of the characters were straight caricatures rather than, as you say, “pretty girls + some identifying feature to hit a fetish” (and yes, from having seen things online which have led to almost Event Horizon-esque responses, even being undead is a fetish in the eyes of some), I’d certainly have not been so down on it; I say so in the review. The trouble is as a parody or statement it’s too indistinguishable, in my eyes anyway, from what it’s supposed to not be doing.

  5. moe sizlack

    Here is some food for though regarding such an issue:
    Here are some comments:What bugs me about “sex sells” is it’s always implied that SEX = naked WOMEN. If “sex” was truly was sold, we’d see more naked flesh of all genders. But we overwhelmingly see women. And not just any women, but those presumably conforming to the standards of heterosexual men. Why does SEX = WOMEN to most people? Male nudity is more often played for laughs, female nudity rarely is. Males may be included in the steamy scenes, but the camera lingers on their bodies a lot less. I’ve even heard both men and women claim that more female nudity/sex is the natural way of things because we women are just so much more beautiful and sexual than men. SEX = WOMEN, WOMEN = SEX.

    It might sound like a compliment at first, and may be mistaken as “love for women”. But, if you buy into the idea that WOMEN = SEX, what you are really buying is the idea that sex is what women are FOR. No matter what role they play, we all must be continually reminded that she is a woman and her primary function in life is to provide sex. To BE sex.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be sex. I want to be human.It’s a google search I did for “sexy models”. (DOn’t worry, SafeSearch was on!) I didn’t put a gender qualifier on models, but the results are overwhelmingly female. Only on page 4 is there the hint of male flesh and after that it’s still few and far between.

    It supports my previous observation that for this culture, sexy = female by default. You have to specify if you want men. If we truly lived in a sexually equal, “sex sells” kind of world, models would be any gender and “sexiness” could be represented as such.

    • r042

      This is what I try to explain to people – that overwhelmingly, especially in popular male-oriented media like anime, video games, Western comic books and roleplaying games, the men conform to male ideals (athleticism, muscular bodies, general Adonis-ness) and the women to male ideals (strong but lithe, any physical strength manifesting as agility which doesn’t interfere with their slim and visually appealing looks).

      Indeed, perhaps I’m over-reaching here, but this “strong female = agile ninja” stereotype is perhaps linked to a desire for athleticism in sex acts? Might be a step too far but it’s worth putting forward.

  6. lynerdskyrind

    What’s worse is that the lechery happens in the story mode too:
    Filia’s story mode begins with her getting groped, and as she fights off her attacker, the viewer is treated to a clear shot of her small underwear with her skirt being blown off(this is the worst possible time for fanservice!). Parasoul’s “sonic boobs” are poked by her own little sister (the male writer apparently wants some way to oogle her without it being an actual case of sexual harassment). Cerebella ends her story with her sitting in her “papa’s” lap in a playboy bunny outfit, and Minette is harassed as well. If one were to look at the forum topics about this game, most of it consists of the following filth:
    “About the bust sizes” [listed on the official character website no less]
    “Valentine’s boobs”
    “Parasoul got her ….poked”
    “Guys can we not do the immature perv stuff?”

  7. Pingback: Is “Geek Culture” Really Mainstream? « Ideas Without End

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