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Skullgirls, the American “Anime Game”

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"Letters from the New York Otaku"

By David Cabrera


#29: Skullgirls, the American “Anime Game”


Today I have a solid excuse to talk about one of my other loves: fighting games.

American fighting game players very widely use the term “anime game”. It's all but official terminology! When we do so, we're talking about a very particular sort of game in the genre: games descended from Darkstalkers (Vampire), Guilty Gear and their ilk. This is both due to particular technical details, and the fact that this kind of game-- from Blazblue to Aquapazza-- seems always to be adapted from anime or merely look like it. It's a game style that's popular in Japan, but not so much here, where Street Fighter is king and always was.

American anime fans love these games, especially Arc's Guilty Gear and Blazblue, but they are generally ignored or shunned among gamers at large, who tend to prefer darker, violent, more hyper-masculine aesthetics: see Gears of War. There is something of a stigma on the anime aesthetic among many geeks, in all non-anime/manga pursuits. Another story for another day.

In an extreme, related case, Examu's aggressively moe Arcana Heart is widely acknowledged as an excellent title by genre fans... but the aesthetic is so “gross otaku” that players aren't willing to be seen playing it, much less take the game up seriously. Even I feel kind of dirty when I play that game.

Last week a funny thing happened: an American “anime game”-- which doesn't look much like anime-- came out to high sales and universal acclaim. This high-definition, hand-animated labor of love is called Skullgirls (see skullgirls.com), and it had been years in the making. According to creator Alex Ahad, it is directly inspired by doujin soft games from the early 00s like Eternal Fighter Zero and Melty Blood, which threw famous moe heroines into battle.

Like those games, the roster is composed only of pretty girls... but the art is distinctly Western in appearance and the general aesthetic is more horror, jazz and art deco rather than moe. The main heroine's hair is possessed by a monstrous parasite, for example, and an undead cat-girl can detach her own head and throw it around like a bowling ball.

Game design is handled by one of the strongest western tournament players for “anime games”, Mike Zaimont, and the play resembles both Guilty Gear and Marvel Vs. Capcom (2, not 3) with several completely unprecedented new ideas. As a fan of the genre I'm utterly absorbed.

With “anime” in its blood, and with constant nods to the geek culture that inspired it-- among them the “yukkuri” gag character from Touhou, the steamroller from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, and battle dialogue taken directly from Pokemon– Skullgirls nevertheless adds up to something truly unique.

Completing the full circle of cultural exchange, Japanese Xbox 360 owners are angrily petitioning the publisher for a release as we speak.
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