Observing Two Developing Metas – Dissecting Four Years of Growth Between US and Japanese Skullgirls

Note: Originally uploaded on ShoryukenPost has been slightly altered from original upload.

Japanese players have always occupied a special place in the fighting game community. Many of the most respected and dominant competitors hail from overseas, so it’s no wonder that our collective heads tend to turn to see how our favorite games are being mastered by Japanese hands. The same holds true with indie fighter Skullgirls 2nd Encore.

To give a short bit of backstory on Skullgirls in Japan, it’s important to have a timeline of when the game became available. The title didn’t hit Japanese arcades until October 2015, quite a while after the 2012 release in the US. Many consider the arcades to be the ultimate proving grounds for fighters in Japan, so the arcade release could be said to have been the moment Skullgirls truly arrived there. The arcade port created a surge of attention, both stateside and abroad, even though the game had been available on Japanese consoles since about a year after the US version’s release.

The attention garnered by the arcade port was compounded by Skullgirls getting a PS4/Vita physical release in Japan on April 14th of this year, courtesy of Arc System Works. This release came with several videos from ASW, helping explain the game to newcomers. While players had a chance to get into the game before now, it’s important to note that the general Japanese audience Skullgirls is popular with is still relatively new to the game.

That’s the basic timeline for SG in Japan, leading up to today. While seeing this game experience a resurgence overseas is fantastic news for anyone wanting Skullgirls to do well, it is obvious that at every turn US players have had a lot more time to develop and learn the game. This has created a skill gap, one that hasn’t yet been overcome. Of course, this leads to the question of how play in the two regions compares.

One of the most interesting things to observe when comparing the US and JP is how the meta has evolved at both ends of the world. Skullgirls as a game gives players a lot of freedom, letting people decide how they play, which has interestingly led to two very different metas developing. In the US, from day one, play gravitated towards three characters and touch-of-deaths. This is most likely due to the US “Mahvel” background in MVC2, a game Skullgirls drew so much inspiration from. Many of the best teams included Parasoul, Valentine, or Fortune, characters that could rack up hits and make the best use of the then-lenient Infinite Prevention System (commonly shortened to IPS). US play slowly grew and adapted, largely due to the game changing and removing TODs and lengthy combos, but this was where the idea of how to play the game started.

As an example of what some of the more powerful characters could do, Ms. Fortune has the ability to remove her head, making it act separately from herself by pressing fierce. The head has a move called “Nom,” a hit-grab that holds the enemy in place, leaving Fortune herself free to move. This move was quite good because it let her easily rack up damage without losing positioning of the head or screen control, and could easily loop back into itself repeatedly. Parasoul has a lot of space control and a great assist. Her Napalm Pillar assist was one of the best, and it caused knockdown, which was amazing because assist0based knockdowns let the point convert nearly every time. She was as silly as many characters back then with crazy IPS combos, but her Napalm Tears did more damage than they were supposed to, and her command normals let her get more reps than most other characters. She could easily and repeatedly combo into Napalm Shot to rack up a lot of extra damage. Valentine was very mobile, and made excellent use of any assist, turning many stray hits into minute-long combos. Luckily for everyone, these and other problems with Vanilla Skullgirls were fixed to make the game more fun to play and more enjoyable to watch.

skullgirls

Japan’s meta started off where players would almost exclusively play solo characters. Without the 10+ years of background in “Mahvel” that the US had, the assumptions and preconceptions of the way to play the game weren’t there. There were actually some tournaments in SG arcades that saw playing more characters as unfair, and such events even went so far as forcing someone who picked the larger team to let one of their characters be killed before starting the match. Only recently has Japan been collectively shifting its meta and understanding the advantages and strengths of picking more characters.

As far as tournaments go, the first appearances of a Skullgirls player flying straight from Japan was Inuchiyo 5131. Inuchiyo made a showing and earned 5th place at the Evo 2013 SG side tournament. The next year the playerbase for the game dwindled from the spotlight, but began to rise the closer the game got to its complete version, what is now known as Skullgirls 2nd Encore. Another Evo side tournament was still held in 2014, where Inuchiyo made a return appearance, but he couldn’t make it out of top 16. After that tournament, US SG players started looking for an alternative place to gather. Some hiccups with the stream at the time made some players feel like they needed a tournament more suited to them. With this, the following year saw many diehard SG players make a new destination in what would be the first Combo Breaker. You may already know how important Combo Breaker is to Skullgirls players, but this was the first time that excitement was discovered.

Up to this point, Skullgirls had seen several revisions. Sweeping changes were made to IPS, changes that made SG more of a two player experience than a combo video. With these changes, duos started to become more desirable than trios. Due to the frail nature of trios, having less health and doing less damage than every other team size, many players stopped seeing the point in playing them. The meta was in a transitional period, with many players still operating in the early mindset of optimal combos with few resets, while others were still trying to adjust and find their feet mastering the new way to play. At this stage, players were moving away from traditional teams with Valentine, Parasoul, and Fortune.

The budding new meta that emerged from the drastic changes to SG began to revolve around Cerebella, Fukua, and Double. I don’t think the community as a whole really understood the appeal of these characters, but players naturally started gravitating to them because they were easy to learn. Their combo and reset options weren’t complicated, they could confirm easily off of stray hits, and they generally had good matchups versus most of the cast.

Japanese players had more time to catch up, with noticeable changes to how they played the game. As their meta evolved, certain characters become very common. Parasoul, Eliza, Big Band, and Painwheel are the characters most often seen on Japanese teams up through today’s game. These characters have strong space control, something many Japanese teams revolve their whole game plan around. Controlling the sky, the ground, or poking from a distance became the way of Japanese play.

245170_screenshots_2013-09-30_00042

One area that Japanese players consistently had trouble catching up in seemed to be assists. Assists tended to be called for space control, but were hardly used in conjunction with the point character. They tended not to be used to protect the point during mixups, and they weren’t used often to let the point character get in. The integration of an assist into play didn’t seem nearly as natural as US play, again the primary reason behind that most likely being the US head start in the Marvel series. Unfortunately, this means that while the US meta was just learning which team comps would work best and how to apply them, the JP meta had to learn that and the very premise of using assists and applying them correctly.

This brings us to SIG, the next Japanese player to make a showing at a US tournament. Like Inuchiyo before him, SIG made Evo his destination. After making it to Evo 2015, he took 3rd place in the Skullgirls 2nd Encore side tournament, after Swift-Fox Dash and cR|SonicFox. Unfortunately, the US playerbase’s shift to Combo Breaker saw to it that SIG’s showing missed some of the biggest SG players in the game.

After this, the next presentation of Japanese ability in the States was at NorthEast Championship 16. SIG made a return to US soil to compete with a more accurate sampling of Western skill. There were many exciting matches, with SIG’s unique method of play dominating many of the US veteran players. After blazing a trail through the bracket, the JP powerhouse finally clashed with one of the Titans of SG, dekillsage. cR|dekillsage vs. SIG was one of the most intense matches of the event, and it’s easy to see why. The set came down to the wire, with dekillsage managing to just narrow out a 3-2 victory. After falling into losers, SIG was eventually bested once more by the second Titan of SG, cR|SonicFox. After everything was said and done, SIG still managed to place 4th despite the higher level of competition.

This brings us to the current stage of the meta. After the final transition of the game to SG2E, US play eventually began leaning towards heavy setplay through resets and duo teams. A main part of the duo meta right now is crafting universal appeal teams, solid cores that are capable of dealing with many situations regardless of team order.

One example of a team that would fit into the current US meta is Double and Cerebella. Both characters have excellent assists with multiple applications, as well as great DHC synergy. Double on point has the chance to easily tag in Bella; she can do so by creating space between herself and the enemy, then using her Monster super before tagging in Bella. Monster creates a puddle on the ground that automatically attacks opponents that move over it, protecting Cerebella from nearly all forms of attack as she comes in. If she can’t make space, an overzealous opponent can be caught if the Double player Alpha Counters into Cerebella and then spends a second bar for the 360 grab. This is an almost unavoidable consequence of predictable offense for 2 bars of meter.

Regardless of how Cerebella comes in after Double, she immediately has access to an especially powerful option. One of her supers, Diamond Dynamo, is fully invincible, so using it as a reversal then DHCing out can be hugely beneficial, especially with a character like Double behind her. If Dynamo hits, she can DHC into Monster, letting Double continue the combo and press the advantage. If blocked or whiffed, Cerebella can DHC into Double’s Catellite Lives (commonly called Catheads) to keep herself safe. On block, Catheads gives Double free pressure and the chance to mixup her opponent, as well as letting her choose to make space from the opponent if she wants to. Much like with Double in front, for two bars of meter Cerebella can get out of many sticky situations, though using these options recklessly can deplete resources and negate some of the synergy.

245170_screenshots_2015-07-08_00214

As SIG showed at both Evo and NEC, Japan’s meta has evolved substantially since its early days. Their play seems to function around the concept of counterpicking the opponent and the tactic of going for hard knockdowns over resets. Functionally, hard knockdowns and resets are very similar. Both techniques give an opportunity to pressure the opponent and potentially open them up. SIG proved that resets aren’t actually required, and the benefits of resets can be obtained in more traditional ways of hard knockdowns and okizeme setups. The more traditional method of getting these advantages is again likely due to Japan’s background in games like Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and Street Fighter.

Another aspect of JP play that shouldn’t be ignored happens on Steam. A well-advertised 10 vs. 10 took place February this year between the best from US and JP, and despite playing online the matches were very playable according to players. The final score in that event ended up being 8-2, or 7-3, as the result of the final game was debatable. The final game was a rematch between SIG and cR|dekillsage. Viewers of the exhibition watched at home, but unfortunately the room “broke” during a match. The match wasn’t interrupted for the players, but the spectators, and thus the stream viewers, were removed from the room and missed the conclusion of the match. While both players reported SIG’s victory, Japanese players felt that the match should be replayed. The fight continued to be a close set, but ultimately ended 3-2 in dekillsage’s favor. Regardless of the debate surrounding the final match, US had won the majority of rounds, proving themselves to still have the edge over their overseas rivals.

SIG doesn’t seem to be making a return any time soon, despite him placing higher than his predecessor Inuchiyo. That doesn’t mean he has given up playing, and his online play shows his skill has improved by leaps and bounds over what he showed at NEC. Despite SIG’s absence, Japan will not be without representation this year. Fan favorite 159man made a name for himself on the PC version of SG2E, and is set to make an appearance at Combo Breaker this month, which again will be the largest exhibition of SG play of the year.

Seeing the skill gap between these two regions close little by little over the years is exciting, leaving many players wondering if 159man will be bringing home the Combo Breaker trophy. That head start the US got on the game between the background in Marvel and the earlier release of SG definitely shows, but the skill in Japan is worthy of respect. As a spectator, it would be exhilarating to see an upset like this occur, so keep your eyes peeled this month to see how the next chapter of the US vs. JP saga will unfold.