How do you make a one-on-one beat-'em-up work on mobile? It used to be the case that a developer would simply stick a set of virtual controls over an exact port and wait for the coins to roll in, but the results were rarely all that great.
More recently we've had much smarter, custom-built attempts like Marvel Contest of Champions and Injustice 2 which smartly tie the blocks, punches and special moves to various swipes and taps.
It's into this environment that we receive Skullgirls, which is a port of a console fighter, but one that's been carefully adapted for mobile play. I've been playing the soft-launched version available now on the Canada and Phillipines App Stores, and have been very encourage by what I've seen so far.
This is a smart and thoughtful conversion of a 2012 console brawler, to the point where you could swear it was an iOS original.
It certainly plays that way. Regular attacks involve a tap of the screen, while you can initiate a space-closing dash attack with a forward swipe, a strong attack with a sustained screen press, and a throw by swiping up with two fingers. Blocks, sweeps, and uppercuts are also worked into the mix, alongside special attack buttons and the ability to tag one of two partners in.
Somehow, despite the number of options at your disposal it all feels intuitive from the off - to the point where I found I had already guessed what the correct input for many of the moves was before the game's comprehensive tutorial told me.
It's still not as free-flowing or nuanced as even a half-decent console beat-'em-up, of course, but it offers a strong approximation.
Elemental, my dear Watson
It helps that Skullgirls's battles are about much more than ninja reflexes and prompt move execution. There's a Fire Emblem-like rock-paper-scissors system to consider, where fire elemental characters are stronger against air characters, which are stronger against water types, which are stronger against fire types.
You also get light and dark types, which are strong against each other.
Given that there's a hefty freemium character collection element here, this smartly encourages you to build balanced teams and to take time to level up all of your characters at a similar rate.
You also have a sizeable character progression system at play, with a vast branching unlockable moves tree for each of the characters you obtain from loot boxes.
But the most striking thing about Skullgirls - perhaps surprisingly for a beat-'em-up - is the strength of its world building. The twisted fantasy jazz age setting is quite striking, while its characters are a distinctive mish-mash of 1930s Disney cartoons, modern JRPG archetypes, and the just plain surreal. Check the big dude with a saxophone embedded in his body.
Some will quite justifiably be put off by some of the ridiculously sexualised female characters. On the plus side, though, the dialogue is whip smart, tongue in cheek, and genuinely funny.
It remains to be seen whether Skullgirls is half as smart as my initial impressions suggest. In its early hours the game comes across as a generously proportioned and richly rewarding brawler with a unique style, but whether it can sustain that remains to be seen.Skullgirls is set to hit the App Store and Google Play Store on May 25