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Ben Hornsby Ben Hornsby
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Skullgirls:' because pushing buttons is cool

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When I stare the universe in the eye, fighting games are probably the only competitive videogames worth playing. The fighting game takes the mechanics and ideas of all of competitive videogame design, and it winds them up so tightly that it becomes some kind of proto-genre. We can talk about 'Counter-Strike,' 'Mario Kart,' 'Madden,' 'Starcraft,' 'Gears of War,' or 'Call of Duty;' if any of these games are any good it's because they manage to feel exactly like 'Street Fighter II,' just for the split-seconds between feeling like everything else.

Obviously you have those exercises in point-missing, fighting games that get caught up in unlockable characters, arcane button combinations and licensing soups ('The Coca-Cola Problem;' we meet again!). But, hey, they're all missing the point, anyway. Never mind them! They're the bad ones.

'Skullgirls,' though, is pretty good. As usual I can't take the hundred hours it would take me to get really good at it, but at least this time I'd kind of like to. Those split-seconds between deciding whether to attack high, attack low, jump or grab are as juicy as ever, and 'Skullgirls' seems to hang right at some perfect degree of complexity; the characters all feel different, they all match up interestingly and for that matter there are only eight of them. Yes: Restricting your fighting game to eight characters is the respectable move today.

Having a crazily unified aesthetic has always been the respectable move, and man, here it is. The characters can't really be described second-hand; the title of the game is probably about as much of a hint as I can give you. They're all girls! One of them has angry hair, and another has an angry hat, sort of. They are at least remarkable, and seeing them in motion is enough to get anyone to give the game an extra 3.4 points (out of 10). ('The graphics are the same quality you'd expect from a full-price retail release,' blah blah blah, 'current-gen,' blah blah.)

'Skullgirls' is one of the only times that I wish a game was a little more polished. That's kind of a dirty word in my book, but I only mean it in a couple really specific senses: I wish it was easier to get into games online; I wish I could spectate matches; I wish I could access an in-game movelist (though yeah, it's not the end of the world).

Anyway: Here's a high-five for being steampunk in a way that makes it clear that the developers roll their eyes every time they play a game that calls itself 'steampunk;' here's another one for the cute tutorial that tries to teach new players to understand fighting games, even if it doesn't quite make it; here's a third for listing 'Styrofoam sounds' under Painwheel's 'Dislikes' on the website. (Painwheel is the best.)

The bottom line is that 'Skullgirls' understands a lot of stuff that other games don't understand, though maybe you won't see it unless you already understand it yourself. That would take too many words to explain, so I guess I better stop typing!

three stars out of four 

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