What Makes Skullgirls 2nd Encore an Amazing Fighting Game, and How it Deconstructs the Modern Concept of Tiers

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

Skullgirls is a unique fighting game, thanks to the way it learns from and builds upon the genre–but one feature of the game in particular is a large contributor to its success. That feature is custom Ensembles (assists), which allow players to choose any move a character has as an assist move. While the launch of the new IP was rocky, this mechanic gave Skullgirls the depth it needed to build a cult competitive following and leading to today’s revival of the scene.

Due in part to the game’s rough start, there are not many people outside of its community who comprehend the most basic aspects of the title’s team mechanics, or how they managed to successfully keep players coming back for the past five years. Today, I’ll do my best to break down what I believe is Skullgirls’ biggest saving grace: the custom assist, and how this feature lets Skullgirls stand out while still feeling familiar.

A lot of Skullgirls’ depth comes from its team mechanics. For those unfamiliar, players are allowed to pick teams of one, two, or three characters. They can do this regardless of their opponent’s team, so one could use a team of three characters against another “team” of just one character.

This is in part balanced with scaling health and damage based on team size, meaning the more characters you pick, the less damage you do and the less health you have. [See also: Capcom vs. SNK series. – Editor] More characters are less durable, but they are rewarded with more options overall. Should you pick a duo or trio, you have access to custom assists, which allow you to use nearly any ground move a character has as your assist move. Teams also have access to Stunt Doubles (Alpha Counters): on block they can bring in their teammate using their assist for one bar of meter, as well as Blockbuster Sequels (DHC), which allow one character performing a super to cancel into their teammate’s super.

This is Skullgirls’ systems as boiled down as they can be, but therein lies the vast majority of the game’s depth. Before moving further into why a thing like the custom assist makes Skullgirls a truly stand-out title, let’s get into how the assist mechanic traditionally works in the better-known Marvel vs. Capcom titles.

In MvC games up until now, characters usually have three assist types to choose from. Some characters have great assists overall, some have situation-specific assists, and others still don’t have very good ones to choose from at all. After being restricted to three developer-decided assists, the choice in assists is further limited by which point characters are good and can utilize the assist well.

These limitations placed on assist choices influence the game’s evolution, by dictating which characters end up getting used. Player choice narrows to good point characters and good assist characters, which ultimately influences the competitively-viable team choices. This type of influence is greatly deconstructed in Skullgirls, because with custom assists the players themselves can find what works best for their team and against their opponent.

While this is great, it is not immediately apparent what this feature does for Skullgirls as a whole, and what it means as far as tier lists are concerned. Traditional tier lists attempt to rate how effective a character is and how they stack up against the rest of the roster. In SG however, it is generally accepted that there are no weak characters, and few matchups are significantly harder to deal with than others.

While there are several games today that are balanced well and can be given similar descriptions, Skullgirls achieves this in a unique way: the game is balanced not because each character has all the tools they need to succeed, but because every character can find multiple assists with varying teammates that cover their weaknesses or amplify their strengths. The best characters in the game aren’t the best because in 1v1 they dominate, they’re the best because they work well with a wide range of characters.

Let’s look at an easy example in the form of Double. Double is considered one of the best in the game thanks to her options and reset game. For assists she has access to Hornet Bomber, which between the light, medium, and heavy versions can function as an invincible reversal, a mid-range pressure tool, or a long range poke respectively. She also has Cilia Slide, a mid-long range poke that hits low, as well as her Luger Replica which can act as an anti-zoning tool, or can make specific confirms for the point character easier.

She also has amazing supers, in both her uses for them and their DHC potential. Beast of Gehenna (BoG) creates a puddle that attacks approaching characters, which can be used before she tags out to protect the incoming teammate. She also has access to great DHCs; with Bella/Double for example you can reversal with Cerebella’s Diamond Dynamo, which if it hits can be DHC’d to BoG for a full confirm, or if it’s blocked can be DHC’d to Catellite Lives to stay safe and pressure the opponent on block.

She has a lot more options, but this sets the tone for her character. Every character in the game can find something in Double’s kit to use for their team, but not every character is blessed with great assists. Let’s look at another example, Painwheel:

Painwheel’s assists consist of essentially just Pinion Dash, a long reaching move that takes a while to start up, and c.mp, which functions as short range lockdown. She also has Hatred Install, a power-up super that lets her DHC in and be safe to act in every situation; while not gamebreaking, this setup brings Painwheel in while at advantage regardless of the scenario, and gives her access to her amazing neutral buff with the super activated. She’s the perfect example of a character that can’t be used on every team but has niches that she shines in.

The other aspect of custom assists that ensures diverse playstyles is the ability to call assist and use normally unsafe moves at the same time. This is a tactic that is used in Marvel games occasionally, but it’s a lot more widespread in SG. Certain moves that are otherwise very unsafe or hard to confirm off of become a usable assets in neutral with the right assists. Parasoul with Robo-Fortune’s H Beam can use Napalm Pillar as a reversal a lot more often with H beam both keeping it safe on block and allowing Parasoul to convert on hit. Cerebella can get a similar situation with Fukua’s H Platonic Drillationship assist, letting her go for Battle Butt more freely.

Lets take a look at a character like Eliza, who has a hard time getting out of trouble due to her reversal options being weak. Her meterless reversal, Upper Khat, can be grabbed and is unsafe on block, with her only metered reversal costing 3 bars of meter where most other characters get a reversal for 1 bar. Let’s pair her up with Painwheel, a unique combination to be sure; this setup sees Eliza with the option of increased lockdown and pressure once she gets in with Painwheel’s c.mp assist, and also sees her meterless reversal buffed slightly. If Upper Khat is blocked Eliza can cancel into super followed by a DHC to Hatred Install, which leaves a powered up Painwheel with a +21 frame advantage to do what she wants. This does cost 2 bars of meter to perform, but is a much better reversal option than any she had available to her before. Other than Upper Khat she also has her air super, which she can use when she’s in the air to DHC to Painwheelin more situations.

There are of course also the standard uses for assists, in choosing assists that cover spaces of the stage that your point character needs help with. Peacock for example makes great use of Big Band’s invincible reversal assist, Beat Extend, letting her protect herself from advances and discouraging opponents from approaching too quickly. Big Band can also make great use of Peacock’s George’s Day Out assist, letting him approach his opponent while being protected from approaches with the little bomb.

This fluid interpretation of how good a character and their options can be depending on their teammates is the main reason why tier lists just don’t apply to Skullgirls the way they do every other fighter. There are many synergy setups, with many more combinations that the community is still discovering, and there just flat out isn’t any bad characters. While the game is filled with mechanics that highlight player choice and decision making, the impact of the custom assist is one of the main reasons the game is still being played today and why–despite a rough start, and being an brand new IP–Skullgirls 2nd Encore is definitely a game that could be played and enjoyed into the next decade.