Friday, May 30, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 7...

You can read the history of Carroll Shelby on Wikipedia but it will never capture the full measure of the man. Chicken farmer, Air Force pilot, race car driver, team owner, designer, philanthropist. These were just some of the words that could describe his occupation at any point in time. Shelby was one of the rare Americans that went overseas to show and prove that he was a real driver. Driving for Aston Martin (yup, the James Bond cars), Mazerati and Donald Healey as in Austin-Healey in a series of events and winning the brutal 24 Hours at LeMans with British driver Roy Salvadori in 1959. That same year he had to retire from racing because of a long-running heart condition. Think about the millionaire race car drivers of the modern era and how well off they are now. Shelby would sometimes go from work on the farm to the racetrack, still in his overalls, and win. In endurance racing he would drive with a nitroglycerin pill slowly dissolving under his tongue. There was nothing soft about his approach to racing and he had the trophies to show for it.

Shelby made a name for himself as a team manager and designer however. He took some lightweight British AC Cobra bodies and somehow managed to fit in a Ford Racing V8. His power to weight ratio was absurd, more so than what DeLorean would attempt years later. His Cobras became the stuff of legends and a partnership between himself and Ford was struck. Shelby demanded nothing but the best from his vehicles as he did from his drivers. He knew the importance of having a winning reputation, especially when he began to post Ford cars against Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche and Maserati.



The reputation of the US auto industry was at stake more so than the Shelby name. When he felt his drivers were not playing their roles for the success of the team he was not afraid to voice his opinion. Or in some instances to chase chase after them with a hammer. Millions were being spent to develop US cars that could compete on the international stage. Shelby was a name that was recognized the world over and would become a focal point for the next half century. Perhaps the rest of the world did not find the appeal of the US sports cars. They were by and large still brutish and unrefined compared to the Italian and British automobiles. What couldn't be argued however were how they stacked up in races. Westerners suddenly found themselves not always lusting after Ferraris when they could have a sports car at a fraction of the price made in the US. The perception that Carroll Shelby gave American sports cars may have been his greatest contribution. Whether he was working for Ford, Dodge or Oldsmobile at the time he made sure that fans knew he was putting his name on a car that would live up to their expectations. Even the Mustang became more enviable when it was badged with a familiar Cobra logo. When he was not trying to get his own businesses off the ground he was sometimes hired as an adviser on supercar projects. Not all of his designs went into production but those that did became legendary.



Shelby had a hand in the evolution of the Dodge Viper. It came along at a great time too. The US had lost a lot of traction to Japan through the '80s and early '90s in terms of auto sales and public perception. Ford and Chevrolet were having a difficult time having their Mustang and Corvette lines hold up against Ferrari and Lamborghini in competition. The US GT class needed a booster shot and Dodge provided just that. From concept car to actual production car the Viper became a sort of second coming of the classic AC Cobra. The car was heavier than the Cobra so the power output had to be much higher as well. Dodge engineered a V10 engine that could be tuned to well over 600 horsepower, enough to elevate it to supercar status. Over the mid to late '90s several teams used the Viper to score victories over in multiple high profile races including the 24 Hours at LeMans.

It might seem obvious that the auto industry in every nation would have to continuously pour money into R&D and then test that technology on the racetrack before showing it off at an auto show but that wasn't always the case. When times were good the auto industry would pay executives huge bonuses and take it easy on developing new lines. When times were bad, often because another country had surpassed them, then the companies would have to play catch-up and spend money on development and marketing of new vehicles. In the end of the 20th century the US seemed to react to the auto trends rather than predict where they should be going. This meant that electric and hybrid technology were an afterthought rather than a plan of attack for the Big Three. The Viper was a success because Shelby was lending his insight to the project, but for every one success story there were a dozen failures waiting in the wings. The next blog will highlight the rise and fall of the concept muscle car.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 6...

The US is a very young nation when compared to those in Europe and Japan. Even though the US was industrialized there were factories that were barely a generation old whereas in Japan and Europe come companies could be traced back centuries. This history gave those nations some sense of culture and refinement. They found themselves looking down on the US and its upstarts. Of course people like Henry Ford cared little for what foreign competitors thought of him so long as his cars were the fastest selling. The post war boost allowed US auto makers to go after every walk of life. The daily commuter, the executive, the farmer and even the performance driver had something to look forward to year after year.



The Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang were young and sporty brands. They could be used for the commute to work but were light enough and powerful enough to make driving fun on weekends. The two cars ran circles around the steel behemoths from a decade earlier. The Mustang and Corvette were the predecessors to the Muscle Car. By definition the muscle car was a mid-sized car with a full-sized engine, it generated far more horsepower than it actually needed. Sports cars also had excess horsepower but since they were lighter they also maneuvered much better than muscle cars. Stylistically the US sports cars were very unique. They did not really poach the look of overseas manufacturers.

In Europe and England the sports car was much more "refined." Often much pricier too! They often came with a more distinguished racing pedigree as well. If we were to compare body types between the nations then a British race car would be long and lean like the captain of the Oxford Rowing Team, while the American race cars were big and brutish like a football player from Alabama State. Enthusiasts from overseas did not always consider US cars to even be on the same level as their global counterparts. There was a class divide at play. The US had no aristocracy. They did not have lords and ladies, estates or palaces. The US would never recognize that only true gentlemen drove race cars (because they were the only ones that could afford to). The best people in the US could do was drive trucks on the farm and pretend that they were real racers.



The divide was even more pronounced when comparing the US to Italy. Italian sports cars were filled with fury and passion. Likened to a powerful woman running a gamut of emotions. The curves on the Ferraris were considered essential by the racers but sensual to the fans. It was hard to argue with the racing empires of Jaguar, Ferrari, Mercedes and the other manufacturers had built in over half a century. Ford, Chevy and Dodge had a long way to go before they could be considered rivals. The sports cars from overseas had performance and style in equal measure and this was something that Japanese designers found very appealing.

A single generations worth of time had passed since the end of the war. Despite the rapid recovery in Japan there was still not a large enough community to support a very expensive sports car. Compromises had to be made, or rather compromises were assumed to have been made. Many drivers desired a sports car that had the handling and looks of a European model but with the reliability of a Japanese daily driver. To borrow the classic metaphor Toyota stepped up to the plate and knocked it clean out of the park. The company came up with the 2000GT. It was a limited run car that met the demands of fickle audiences. It was expensive for its day but it featured the performance that was on par with the Porsche 911, considered one of the great all-time racing cars. The era of the Japanese sports cars (and one could argue the Japanese supercars) began while the US was creating the muscle car movement.



It took a large and powerful V8 engine to move around the post WWII steel body 4-door cruisers. One day a trio of people at Pontiac, including engineer John DeLoeran (of Back to the Future DeLorean fame) decided to shoehorn a full-sized V8 engine into a mid-sized 2-door car. It would become a non-standard option for the Pontiac Tempest. This option would go over well for performance enthusiasts while skirting the company policy banning divisions from involvement in auto racing. DeLorean was taking his beast directly to the people and had it badged the GTO after the classic Ferrari 250 GTO. The GT label was reserved for Grand Touring cars that were meant to be converted into actual race cars. DeLorean had the audacity to label his boxy monstrosity after one of the greats without it even being tested on the European circuits. As the Europeans cried foul the Americans wanted more. The muscle car era had been born. There were pioneers that were willing to show the rest of the world that the Americans were serious about sports and racing cars. The next blog will highlight one and see how he helped change the perception about the west.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 5...

The pace at which the Japanese auto industry evolved and adapted post WWII was staggering. Small commuter cars helped get the nation back to work but after a generation the middle class had grown and were looking for more sophisticated automobiles. The designers at Toyota carefully studied the trends in the US and England and offered contemporary designs domestically in the '50s and '60s. The cars changed shapes and features almost as fast as they did in the west.



The Japanese were exceptional at copying the designs of competitors the world over. The total disregard to IP and in some cases even patents and copyrights helped turn many industries into international players within a few generations. The Japanese created a powerful presence by emulating the West just after WWII. Once they got into a position of power they began leveraging their own businesses and technology to put a run on western auto makers. It was interesting that China got a lot of flack for copying the products and IP from the west in the last quarter of the 20th century. They grew their own industries by patently stealing the products they were meant to manufacture. Now as a major economy they also look to take a slice out of the automotive pie as well as other industries.

If a person were to study the trends that Japan followed in the auto manufacturing they would find many parallels with what their competitors were doing overseas. Japanese drivers were eager to have cars with more performance but not necessarily a huge price tag. As such designers looked at what worked in the US and Europe for performance, cost and power. BMW had a long and distinguished run as a sports car manufacturer. The styling, suspension and even body type of the classic 2002 (production number, not year) model influenced Mitsubishi. They managed to marry German technology and styling with US performance design. Japan was able to catch the tail end of the muscle car movement and put the aggressive shapes into their own designs in the '70s. The Galant for example looked like some sort of hybrid between BMW and Ford. Since the Japanese were splitting the elements of design from muscle car to sports car they could have a less expensive V6 or even 4 cylinder engine to offer consumers. It would be a sacrilege for a classic MOPAR car to be running with half the horsepower of the other Dodge lines but this wasn't Detroit and gas was still a pricy commodity. The Japanese did what they had to in order to have the best of both worlds.



In the quest for performance and price the Japanese created their own version of the muscle car. Highly tuned smaller engines in lighter body 2-door cars helped keep the speed junkies satisfied. The Datsun 510 and Fairlady cars were early examples of Japan keeping pace with the rest of the world. Nissan got wise to the Japanese baby boomers and saw that they also desired a powerful alternative to the passenger cars that helped pull the country out of the war. The Skyline was born from necessity and in the early days borrowed plenty of elements from the West. Stylistically is was just a little bit behind the curve. Japanese designers were still reacting to the trends rather than thinking ahead. That mentality did not really change unit the end of the '80s, when they realized that they were the nation the world looked to for the next big thing.

The Skyline and it's cousin the GT-R would rewrite the book on performance and price. Supercars and Muscle Cars could in fact come from Japan. The import scene would be a long time coming but the threat to US and European racing domination was real. The gas crisis in the '70s and the rise of safety mandates for US auto manufacturers meant and end to the muscle car era. There would still be performance cars here and there through the '80s but the golden age of raw horsepower on big bruisers was done. This was not the case in Japan where tuning helped make the most of smaller engines and safety and even mileage were factors well before the performance cars went into production.

 

Japanese auto makers demonstrated that they had engineers and designers that could compete with the Big Three at every stage of the game. New methods of production and closer relationships between management and employees meant that cars could not only be mass produced but workers would become more loyal to the factories. The quality inexpensive cars that were a hit with the Japanese working class would also become appealing to the western working class. The US auto makers on the other hand seemed to have little motivation to change the way things had been run since the end of the war. There was a clear distinction between the workers and owners, each of whom had begun fighting for a bigger share of the profits instead of working together to maintain their position at the top of the industry. Innovation, quality and loyalty seemed to fall by the wayside. As such Japan and some European companies were able to get a strong foothold in the US market. Driving culture however was more than either economical cars or outlandish muscle cars. Some cars existed simply for the sake of being driven. Sports cars were every bit as important to the identity of each industrialized nation as any car. How Japan and the US differed in this regard will be explored in the next blog.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 4...

Picking up from the previous blog which talked about a post-WWII Europe...a now divided Germany was getting on as best they could. The Volkswagen Beetle went into production before the war. In fact at the request of Adolph Hitler who wanted an inexpensive commuter car for the Germans. It was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, of the Porsche car company, whose simple and elegant engineering made it the longest-running car from a single design platform in history, easily eclipsing the numbers posted by the Mini. Thankfully the Beetle outlived Hitler by some 58 years and helped demonstrate German automotive resilience on top of exceptional engineering quality.

 The Germans and the rest of the world actually embraced the Beetle. It became a cultural icon. Like the most popular cars the fans could not wait to customize it, tune it up, chop it down and make it their own. It proved to be every bit as durable if not more so than the Mini at races. It could take on any terrain and come back for more. It helped the German populous get back to work and begin rebuilding their nation. Exports of the car helped mend industrial ties with the rest of the world and helped get the economy of the nation rolling once more. Those that drove the car in North America, some of the first environmentalists, saw tremendous benefit in the car. It used less natural resources to produce than a comparable US passenger car. It also used less gas and oil as well. On top of everything it was also an aesthetically pleasing car and could be considered the peaceful Yin to the aggressive muscle car Yang.



The best cars were not only remembered by the home country but also by the rest of the world. Like a classic song or timeless piece of art, a great car transcended borders. It became part of the driving culture wherever the car ended up. It could wind up covered in stickers like an old suitcase, covered in layers of cracking paint or missing body panels and still retain its identity. In the history of cinema few cars could be argued as scene stealers but those that were would live forever in the hearts of movie goers. The original Italian Job featured one of the best getaway sequences ever committed to film. It would never have worked without three tricked out Mini Coopers. The film became part of pop culture and helped influence a generation of artists. Blur used to play the theme song, the Self Preservation Society before many of their concerts. It always went over huge in England.

Then there was the fable that Disney created with a sentient Beetle in the hippie-laden film Herbie the Love Bug. These diminutive rides were as impressive as the gadget-laden cars from James Bond and had more personality as well. They turned out to be the stars of the pictures and helped carve out a place of social and historical importance.



Similar things were happening in Japan with the Subaru 360 and in Italy with the Fiat 500. They were the little cars that could. The underdogs that people could always count on to come through. These little cars were tremendous fighters on the track. It was thrilling to watch them race in early grand prix footage. These cars were also completely accessible and not some sort of expensive luxury brand. The will of the people seemed to turn these small cars into champions. They helped provide distraction from the horrors of war and restored a sense of pride within each nation. It was the little cars and not the big sedans that got the rest of the world moving again. If only the US had come to this realization much sooner then perhaps the Big Three would not have found themselves in dire straits at the start of the recession. So what were some of the lessons that the US missed while the rest of the world had focused on smaller cars? The next blog will explore this question and offer some answers.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 3...

Technology for production automobiles had received a bump following World War II. The "Big Three," General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had converted most of their factories to create weaponry, aircraft and vehicles for the military. During that time they tended to work closer together by sharing technology and innovations than at any other point in history. Following the war they changed operations back to automobile manufacturers. The cars they released reflected the status of a "victorious" nation. When compared to previous models the new cars were larger, more powerful, more stylish and some would even compare them to rolling works of art. These vehicles were often packed with features that would only be found on luxury automobiles a decade earlier. Some design cues and patents were stolen from the upstart Tucker with some help from the US government by way of contracts during the war.



The grand cars from the US following WWII were all-steel behemoths. The US had the fortune of being on the winning side of the war and did not waste any time showing that off. The nation had more resources, more technology and more manpower at its disposal than just about any other nation that saw combat. Unlike Great Britain it did not have to spend anything to rebuild its infrastructure from the German bombing campaigns. The US did not suffer nearly any number of casualties that the Russians, Chinese, Koreans or Japanese had either. The psyche and economic repercussions favored the US greatly in the two and a half decades following the war. As such it can be argued that the Big Three had become complacent with their status. It was a sort of microcosm of what was happening to the nation. Public education standards seemed to be on the decline and the next generation of engineers and designers would not have the necessary tools to compete against their global counterparts. Piece by piece the Japanese, Germans and Italians would not only catch up to the US in auto production and innovation but surpass them in some regards.

 Foreign auto manufacturers, especially that those that fought against the Allies during the war did not bounce back with rolling works of art. Those whose plants were not completely destroyed found it difficult to get the manpower, capitol and resources to start up again. Many companies folded or were restructured simply for the sake of staying alive. Some moved into other industries to pick up the slack. Subaru for example was a company that made planes during the war but had to find a new source of income. Their engineers followed the cues from Europe during reconstruction and made a small, inexpensive unibody car with a small 2-stroke motor called the 360. The Japanese auto industry was demonstrating that they were not only keenly aware of what was happening in the rest of the world but were willing to keep pace even during the hardest of times.



While the Americans were enjoying enormous rides and suburban expansion the rest of the world was trying to dig itself out of a financial, cultural and industrial nightmare. The first thing that the major European players did, whether they were for or against the Allies, was to get people back to work. Rebuilding the roads and bridges that connected the continents together was a top priority. The cars that would use these roads had to be sturdy and inexpensive. Even England could not avoid the fact that they needed a utilitarian car that was small, inexpensive and durable. People had to get to work and families had to travel as quickly and independently as they did before the war. Subaru found success in the 360, nicknamed the Ladybug, as England did with the Mini, Italy did with the Fiat 500 and Germany did with the Volkswagen Beetle. These tiny cars had the most basic features, did not require high tech components, were solid daily drivers and could be mass produced. While they may not seem as fancy as what Ford, Dodge or Chevrolet had on the road at the same time they certainly made up for it in sheer volume.

 The boomers from overseas grew up with the tiny cars. They embraced their simplicity and durability. Part of the appeal that the cars brought to each nation had more to do with what they were capable of rather than they were built locally. Part marketing and part British stubbornness were the Minis that became race cars. While they lacked the raw horsepower that the US had in NASCAR-type stock cars they made up for in performance. Hill climbs, rallies, dirt, asphalt, snow, none of that mattered to the drivers. With a little ingenuity the horsepower could be bumped up, frames and shocks strengthened and potent racers be made out the cars. By competing in and winning several high profile rallies, including the famed Rally Monte Carlo in 1967, England demonstrated that their auto industry was very much alive and well.



The British Motor Corporation rode the Mini to great success for a decade before merging with the Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968. The car lasted until 2000 when the Rover Group decided it was time to retire the car. Advances in technology, safety and manufacturing had made the car nearly obsolete. Something new would have to replace the car that won the hearts of several generation of Brits. Ironically it would be German engineers that came to the rescue. Germany had also taken a long road to automotive success. We'll look at this in the next blog.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 2...

The Ford Mustang was one of the most reputable performance cars but had begun to stagnate in the ‘90s. Once the envy of adolescent boys the cars had begun to look dated against the crop of imports that were tearing up the streets. The 1965 Mustang that my father grew up admiring was much more impressive looking than the ones I saw in 1985. All of the attitude seemed to disappear in the generic shapes that seemed very popular in the '80s automotive designs. Thankfully the “Pony” was given a new lease on life at the turn of the century. The fifth generation Mustang made its debut in 2004. It brought back the styling cues of pre ‘80s Mustangs, the aggressive stance and horsepower as well. Like the Nissan IDx I had mentioned in the previous blog there were enough cues to harken back to a racing legacy while still keeping everything street legal. Sales picked up and became a steady source of revenue for Ford. By 2014 a sixth generation would be introduced, again preserving many classic elements while updating the technology behind the ride. Ford was not the only US auto maker that went back to a legacy.



Dodge actually resurrected a car that it killed off in 1974. The Dodge Challenger was synonymous with the muscle car era of the late ‘60s early ‘70s. It was big, fast and brutal. It took a few years before Dodge tried to bring back the name. Between 1978 and 1983 Dodge sold the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda under the Challenger label. The four cylinder engine and boxy shape were nothing like the muscle car of old. It faded away, especially once Mitsubishi gained a foothold in the US and could sell and distribute its own cars. Dodge was adrift for years and only recently had found its stride once more. It began by bringing back the Charger, the sister car to the Challenger in 2006. Dodge made it clear that they were going back to their roots when they announced that the Charger would not be the last muscle car to be resurrected. The third generation Challenger debuted in 2006 as a concept car but went into production in 2008. The Dodge Dart which last saw action in 1975 would also be brought back. In 2013 the Dart would replace the sporty Neon and Caliber passenger cars. The Challenger was a flagship muscle car and seemed to get the strongest push. It was modeled on the classic 1970 R/T Challenger. When it was previewed it received a strong reaction from the public and press, as much so if not more than when the IDx was unveiled in 2013.



The designers at Dodge had managed done a good job bringing back the classic styling of the Challenger. The devil was in the details; the lines of the body, headlights, hood scoops and stance were very familiar. This was nothing at all like the Mitsubishi Galant that Dodge had tried to pass off as a Challenger two decades earlier. This was an honest to goodness remake of an icon. Fans that missed out, or were not even born during the first wave of muscle cars were experiencing a renaissance.

The Muscle Car became a part of the American identity in the mid to late '60s. The powerful production car appealed to many baby boomers as they were entering adulthood. An entire cult of speed and power seemed to rise up overnight. The cars from that era pulled the fledgling NASCAR out of the golden era of pre-WWII rounded bodies with white wall tires and into more streamlined and more powerful performance vehicles. The Daytona, named after the famous racetrack in Florida, the Superbird (a modified Road Runner), the Challenger, Barracuda and Charger became synonymous with speed. Each manufacturer offered its own special performance packages to take already powerful car to absurd heights. Dodge for example had its in-house MOPAR brand, the MOtor PARts for performance. MOPAR was to Dodge what NISMO was to Nissan. These cars became branded with bright colorful decals to let everyone on the street know what they were up against.



The Super Bee for example was a limited production car based on the Coronet. It was meant to rival Plymouth's Road Runner line. Dodge and Plymouth were sister companies and their respective performance groups MOPAR and SRT (Street and Racing Technology) were constantly trying to come up with better performance packages. Dodge had a "Scat Pack" which appealed to drag racers. It included changes to the engine, exhaust, frame and suspension which made the brutal muscle cars even more menacing. The Super Bee logo was derived from the Scat Pack Bee logo. The iconography of the cars of that era, from cartoon Road Runners, to Cobras, racing bees and even the word HEMI became ingrained in US culture. A few decades later there was a new beast on the block. Dodge created a Ram Truck with a powerful HEMI motor and decorated it in the livery of the classic muscle cars. The result was the Rumble Bee, a perfect marriage of the new and old. There were two "Swarms" of the truck released, the 2004 and 2005 models, and then quietly discontinued. By the time the driving community was catching on it was too late. The limited production muscle cars had returned in a way and those that got on board were rewarded by the exclusivity. Dodge used the positive reaction to the Rumble Bee to build a case with the parent company, then Daimler Chrysler, to pursue a return to the Charger, Challenger and Dart as well as the performance packages. It was a long time coming and would have arrived sooner if not for the sluggish reaction that the US auto industry had during the '80s. When it came to the evolution of the automobile the rest of the world was not asleep. Japan, Germany and Italy had adapted to change quickly. Those nations had to especially as they were rebuilding from the ravages of World War II. How those nations forever changed the landscape of car culture will be explored in the next blog.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 1...

Friends, welcome back to the beginning of a very long tangent. I have been on a racing, driving and general car kick over the past few months because a concept car shown a year ago was announced as actually going into production. It may seem obvious that the things that I am most passionate about get the biggest write-ups on this blog. I did mention why I did that in the About section of my blog. If you don’t care much for cars then just tune out for the next few weeks. I’ll get back into fighting games eventually. To get back to the subject at hand, Nissan showed off a fun little two door called the IDx at the 2013 Tokyo Auto Show. Both a street version called the Freeflow and a sport/racing version dubbed the NISMO (after the Nissan Motor Parts Racing Group) were unveiled. The announcement of a new concept car may seem insignificant, especially since just about every major manufacturer shows a new concept or pre-production car at every show. There can be dozens or even hundreds of new models at any one event. Audiences do not always have the time or patience to sift through them. However the response for the IDx was immediate. The general public and the press were all over the car, spreading images and articles online like wildfire. It was one of the strongest reactions that any company had gotten during a debut. The reason why may not have been obvious to everybody but those in the know recognized that Nissan was going back to a legacy design.



The IDx was a nod to the 1968 Datsun 510. Nissan phased out the Datsun name in 1986 although the recently brought it back in smaller markets, but I digress. The small car was popular in its day and predated the smash hit Fairlady-Z. The 510 was a cultural touchstone for the parents of people from my generation. Seeing it remade immediately brought back a sense of nostalgia. However there was also a sense of awe to go along with it. The IDx captured the essence of the classic 510 but included the modern conventions one would expect. Bigger wheels, sharper body angles, high tech electronics, engine and suspension that couldn’t have been possible 46 years ago were now available to the general public.

What Nissan did right by the IDx was apparent from the get-go. They did not simply call it the 510 and let the nostalgia critics tear it down. They would have too. The lights were not right, the grill was not right, the body lines were not right and the accents were not right for it to be a “true” remake of the classic 510. Instead Nissan wanted to demonstrate that their designers were going with a new idea but were also free to take cues from the company legacy. These designers had the freedom to make editorial decisions with the car and not put out another boring design based on sales numbers, as was the status quo for the industry. In fact Nissan reached out to the community and asked about 100 teens, the children of my generation what they were looking for in a first car. These were not run of the mill kids either but those that loved cars new and old. They loved the classic Datsun designs yet also wanted a car that was easy to customize, like something out of a videogame. From lights to fenders, seats and wheels, just about every component on the car was designed to be easy to swap out. The spirit of the classic two-door remained despite the radical ideas. The badge and color of the NISMO package in red and white livery gave car buffs a reason to do a double take.



The past was reborn and remixed in Tokyo that night. The decision to go ahead and turn the IDx Freeflow and NISMO into production cars filled my heart with hope. Car design was finally becoming fun again. It had been boring for the first half of my life. From the late ‘70s through the ‘80s there were not many cars, except for the exotics, that seemed to spark my imagination. I was crazy about cars as a kid but also knew that there were some bland cars that were as boxy and lifeless as my early drawings. Cars that once had formidable reputations like the Mustang and Corvette had fallen behind the curve. Something had to change and something did change when a wave of awesome imports hit the US. Whether they had better gas mileage, were more reliable or cost less than US automobiles it was apparent that America was embracing foreign autos. It took a long time for Detroit to take notice and even longer for them to do something about it. By the time the Great Recession hit the US auto makers were in too deep with the old modes of production and design. Change was the only thing that could help the industry and thankfully it was already happening. Nissan was not the only company that used a legacy design to re-launch a brand, if anything they were one of the last to do that. The next blog will look at how the muscle car was reborn.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fighting Layer, return of the dragon, final post...

This series began by looking at the film Enter the Dragon and ended by exploring the game Fighting Layer which was created by many of the same people that developed Street Fighter II. Fighting Layer had many of the same elements that made Enter the Dragon unique. There was a powerful and dangerous host that had gathered fighters from around the world. The competition was held on a private island in international waters where no government could intervene. An entire underground complex that housed lethal surprises was waiting for competitors. Even the dragon motif that was featured in the film made its way into the game.


Fighting Layer mixed much more mysticism into the story than any other version of Street Fighter. Although he looked human the host of the tournament was some sort of creature of darkness. He had apparently been alive for centuries and was capable of defying physics and logic. People that lived in the rural areas of China and Japan spoke in superstitious tones about the cursed island in the Sea of Japan. Villagers living near the coast had gone missing for generations. They had been taken by the "dragon" that lived on Zausu Island. Not all of the tournament competitors were familiar with the legends but when they set foot on the island they could tell there was something odd about it. Some fighters were so foolhardy and so confident in their fighting prowess that they welcomed any challenge. When tested against animated suits of armor and man eating tigers they learned quickly that the island would take their life if they stopped fighting even for a moment. Of course the other competitors were just as lethal as any wild animal and willing to do whatever it took to become the greatest fighter ever.

 

The diversity of characters provided in Fighting Layer was broad and different than those in other fighting games. Although they were set in fantastic circumstances the characters didn't really have the same mythical "fireball" attacks of the Street Fighter characters. Not to mention that the characters had more believable proportions unlike the Street Fighter lineup. This mix of realism and fantasy was unique to the genre. The game offered hidden moves, unique branching paths, secret bosses and alternate endings. The amount of control and gameplay features for the title made it one of the most robust fighting games ever created. Multiple animals that had faced martial arts masters in the comics were for the first time playable against and as. Finally manga geeks or otaku could settle the debate as to what would win in a fight, a shark or a tiger.


The animals and cursed Knight in the game were not half as colorful as the characters and bosses themselves. Each contestant brought with them a unique story and a reason for fighting. Some wanted to prove themselves in the ring, others wanted riches and notoriety. Some were even looking to assassinate the host and bring peace to the villagers on the mainland. Each of the main characters got a piece of the story if they defeated Vold Ignitio. The truth could only be known to players that beat the game with every possible character. Vold was a master of illusions. He could make himself appear like any contestant and even use their own techniques against them.
 

If he were defeated he might tempt the winner with riches. Players would find out that the treasures he offered were traps. More often than not he would try to attack players from behind when they were distracted by a prize. Several characters were powerful enough to stop him in his tracks while others fell for his lies and got knocked into the underworld. Sometimes he would hit an opponent and simply run away. Those that broke through his illusions saw the character fall to the ground and burn into a ball of bright light. His shadow would be left burned onto the floor. For one character the source of Vold's power was revealed. Tetsuo Kato, the main character saw Vold burn into the ground. He left behind a large crystal containing a DNA double helix. The blue and red strands mirrored the red and blue dragon logo of the tournament. Perhaps it was dragon DNA that gave Vold his powers, bloodlust and longevity. Kato did not succumb to temptation and shattered the crystal with a punch.


The sub boss characters were not as fortunate as the main characters. Not one of them made it off the island as it collapsed. Some of the endings were bittersweet. The assassin Preston Ajax was almost killed in a bomb blast. He had been pieced together with the remains of his brother, who was a mercenary killed in the explosion. He owed Vold Ignitio his life however cursed it was. The character could hear his brother speaking to him in his mind. Both knew that Vold deserved to die for his crimes against humanity. Ajax fought his way to the top in order to kill Ignitio and bring his island down on top of him. The wrestler Clemence Kleiber died of his own arrogance. He wanted to prove to himself that he was the greatest wrestler that ever lived. If he defeated Vold then he stayed on the island and celebrated, oblivious to the fact that the curse that held the island together was broken. The castle came down on top of the one-eyed wrestler as he waved to his adoring fans. Almost as melancholy was the character of Joe Fendi. The boxing champ had a flair for showmanship. He wore expensive jewelry and watches as he battled and would often swap out his sunglasses in between rounds.


The sunglasses were actually a front. Fendi had gone blind in one eye. He wore sunglasses to keep his secret from becoming public knowledge. Because he would not allow doctors to examine him Fendi was banned from professional boxing. He felt cheated by the system and swore that he would go out as the champ. If he managed to defeat Vold Ignitio then he would become the greatest undisputed fighter on the planet. He did not realize that he would have to deal with the castle as it collapsed. Unfortunately for Fendi a stone that fell from the ceiling hit him on the head and knocked off his designer sunglasses. A near blind Fendi crawled along the ground, searching desperately for his shades. Fendi had a personal trainer that would celebrate with him between rounds. In the ending credits the trainer ran through a collapsing tunnel without Fendi. The trainer ended up alone on a raft as he saw Zausu Island burn in the distance.



Fighting Layer may have revisited the sub boss and final boss designs for Street Fighter II but the game did not set itself up for a sequel. All of the villains ended up dead in every possible ending of the game. Perhaps it was Akira Nishitani's way of getting closure on his original plans for SF II. The producers on Street Fighter, SFII, SFEX, SF Zero and SF III did not want to keep developing sequels for their games. They wanted to tell a distinct story and close it out. They did not want to get locked into a series of upgrades either. Capcom hoped to capitalize on a successful game and turn it into a series. That was a pitfall of market based production. The majority of Capcom fighting game producers had only one story that they wanted to tell in each game. These were never meant to be a jumping off point for any other sequel. The producers wanted fighting games to be treated like other genres and be enjoyed as stand-alone arcade experiences. By killing off the villains and burning down Zausu Island Mr. Nishitani ensured that if he made a Fighting Layer 2 that almost none of the original characters or locations would be revisited.

ARIKA had put enough into Fighting Layer that it could stand on its own and not have to draw comparisons to Street Fighter II or any other fighting game. The first thing they addressed were the visuals. Game production for consoles and the arcade had moved to 3D. The era of the sprite had passed and there was no getting around that fact. The downside for most fighting games were the aesthetics that sprites provided. The Street Fighter series was established in 2D and the work of the 20+ designers created a cast that still has not been surpassed. Characters in the 2D fighting games had undeniable style. The artists could get away with exaggerated proportions and scale in 2D and still make the designs visually appealing. In Street Fighter EX it was obvious that the characters did not transition well to 3D. They looked bulky and generic. ARIKA learned from EX and created a cast that had more visual flair by the use of strong contrasting colors which would stand out more in 3D. In order to help bring over the influences from 2D design the studio added lighting and modeling effects that made their characters pop off the screen. The costume of Exodus for example actually reflected light as if he were wearing a gold flake painted singlet, the YouTube video of the character barely catches those details. That was not the only visual innovation that the company had added to 3D fighters.

 

In traditional animation a "smear" was a technique used to create blurry shapes indicating speed. Game characters in 3D moved quickly without any blur or smear effects. Other studios like Sega had experimented with effects to make their 3D characters look blurry while moving fast but none of the studios could quite get the effect right. ARIKA found a way to program an effect similar to a smear. The filter made streaks matching the colors of the character uniforms to create the illusion of speed. It didn't matter if the character were dashing forward or leaping backwards or even if they were dropping down from the rafters. The direction of the streaks followed the characters and the length and intensity of the lines were directly related to how fast they were moving. For example Vold Ignitio was capable of zipping back and forth between the walls with his leaping attacks. He looked like a long narrow streak of red, gold and black while doing so. Jigjid Bartol was large and slow by comparison and rarely got any sort of speed lines applied to his animations. The game also made great use of particle effects and transparencies. Flame and smoke for example were very well done in the game. This was important to Exodus as he could set his opponents on fire and then hit them with a chair.

In addition to the colorful cast of characters the biggest contribution that ARIKA gave the genre were its stage designs. Each stage in Fighting Layer told a story. The entire design was a narrative about Zausu Island and the empire that Vold controlled. Everything the camera showed, from the volcanic underground to the highest point in his castle was ruled by Ignitio. As the camera rotated 360 degrees around the players there was always something interesting to look at. The color choices, details and architecture complimented the theme of the game. When ARIKA wanted to show gamers a village that had been neglected for over a century then they went with faded colors, splintering wood and steam engines in the distance. When ARIKA wanted to show players what the new industrial heart of the island was then they created an enormous futuristic refinery. When ARIKA wanted players to see how opulent the castle of Vold was then they created room after room made of polished marble, stained hardwood and gold statues. All these visual cues grounded the characters into the reality that ARIKA was going for. There were places like this on Earth, countries that had a mix of the old world and the new world in a relatively small area. Of course there were also barons and business tycoons that had amassed fortunes and ran small nations. Without his dragon powers Vold very well may have been a crazed royal, dictator or mafia boss.

 

The idea to infuse the location with supernatural elements while keeping the fighters grounded with plausible fighting styles made the game unique. ARIKA had done similar things with the locations and characters introduced in Street Fighter EX. Fighting Layer was a more complete version of the themes they had previously explored. It was a worthy way of closing out their original fighting games. They did go on to adapt Namco's Tekken series for the Nintendo 3DS but they never created a new fighting game on their own. They teased a 3DS version of Street Fighter EX called Fighting Sample as an April Fools Joke but had no real intention of following up with an actual game.

Most of the original Street Fighter II developers had long since moved on from Capcom. They appreciated the institution that their fighting game became but had no intention of revisiting it. They wanted to try their hand at puzzle games, racing games, simulation games and more original properties. Fighting Layer was the last time the senior Capcom team members created a fighting game in the same vein as Street Fighter II. When it came out it was overlooked by most gamers as well the gaming press. The genre had grown and collapsed by then. Gamers were looking for new experiences. New team members were scouted and groomed by Capcom. New developers that grew up playing Street Fighter II tried to reinvent the game and call it Street Fighter IV. It played well but did nothing innovative with the IP. Instead it played up to the nostalgia for the various characters through the years. It was a reminder of why ARIKA, DIMPS and the other companies started up by former Capcom employees decided to leave. Street Fighter II was a groundbreaking game but it was in the past and instead the producers wanted to focus on the future. They had new ideas and took bold chances with the genre. Not all of these ideas worked for the Street Fighter universe or even with the Street Fighter mechanics but they did help make Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho and Tekken games much better. The legacy that the developers left behind would last as long as gaming remained a part of pop culture. We must remind ourselves that they would not have had created Street Fighter II had they not been influenced by martial arts films like Enter the Dragon and The Master of the Flying Guillotine. Pop culture would continue to influence the creators and the creators would continue to change pop culture. It wouldn't hurt for the current crop of fighting game developers to look at more films and read more comics from time to time. Inspiration could be found from just about anywhere. I hope you enjoyed this series. If you have any comments or questions be sure to ask.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fighting Layer, return of the dragon, part 8...

As Fighting Layer progressed gamers moved deeper and deeper into Zausu Island. They also moved higher into the property of the host Vold Ignitio. The stages went from open air arenas to enclosed rooms. You would think that at some point the designers at ARIKA would paint themselves into a corner but that wasn't the case. At no point did the levels make gamers feel claustrophobic. Each room in Vold's castle seemed to take up 5000 square feet. Even the corners of the castle seemed to stretch out forever. The Entrance Hall was possibly the smallest room on the estate. There were three doors leading to one of three animal bosses. I'll start at the top and work my way down through these rooms.

 

The second highest point in the castle was an observatory called the Bird Room. A mis-translation labeled it the Bard Room in the arcade screen. The dome was the perfect setting for the giant Falcon that Vold Ignitio kept as a pet. An enormous painted mosaic of the sky framed the dome. Players fought the Falcon on top of an elevated platform. The bird was difficult to reach as he could fly higher than any player could jump. He would then swoop down suddenly and strike with claws extended. Players that managed to get the bird down to their level had to strike it in rapid succession and hope that they could connect with a special attack. Otherwise it would fly back up and wind down the clock. The alternate animals were no easier to fight.

Players that chose the second door from the Entrance Hall went right to the heart of the castle. It turned out that the host of the tournament had prison cells located underneath his opulent rooms, enough to hold an entire populace. Perhaps the missing residents of the island in fact. The Spawn Room was where the Tiger waited. Players found themselves locked in the cage with the creature. There was of course only way out, to defeat the man-eater himself.



Players could actually reach the Spawn Room if they took the alternate underground path but they could not reach the Bird Room from the underground passageway. The final animal room could only be reached by going through the Aquarium. Players found themselves on the ocean floor in an eerily illuminated cave underneath the castle. There was no rhyme or reason for how players were able to survive underwater without breathing apparatus. I would simply chalk it up to sorcery of some sort. There were many unexplained things about Zausu Island and this was just another one.

The Sea Zoo was the home to a great white shark that enjoyed feasting on fighters and whomever else crossed Vold. An unknown number had met a watery grave in this stage. No manga or animé series had even attempted to explore the possibility that a fighter might stand a chance against a shark. Tigers, bears, lions and giant falcons were plausible in the comics but sharks were absurd. ARIKA gave players a chance to try their hand against the perfect killing machine. Punches and kicks seemed ineffective against the Shark. The best strategy would be to strike with a fast combo and then get out of the way. If it got close enough to players it would grab them with its mouth and shred them to pieces. It only took a couple of bites to kill the strongest fighters.

 

Players that managed to defeat one of the animal bosses would be able to advance to the next stage. It was assumed that the bosses on each level following had proven their worth by defeating the animal boss as well. Starting at the topmost level there was the Blue Room. It was set in the same observatory as the Bird Cage. This time the platform was lowered to floor level so that players could make out the intricate details on the walls. An enormous Chinese Zodiac dial was hanging on the wall. It was pointing at two sets of characters. The zodiac actually consisted of multiple animals, there were the 12 animals known popularly for the year. However there were also animals assigned by month, day and even hour. These were known respectively as the inner animals, true animals and secret animals. The dial in the Blue Room was pointing at the Dragon Year and Dragon Month, which meant that the Fighting Layer tournament took place between April and May every 12 years. This "Double Dragon" competition had been going on for centuries. One dragon would be crowned and would have to face the dragon that resided in the castle. The Blue Room was the stage where players faced Joe Fendi. The flashy Fendi fit right in with the ornate decorations and gold filigree that covered the walls of the room. Dark burgundy corridors lead to unknown rooms and unknown challenges off in the distance. The Blue Room had a lot of storytelling elements applied to it. Budding game designers could learn a few things by dissecting the construction of each room.

 

The core of the castle was known as the Red Room. It seemed that Vold had amassed a private army and kept it well hidden. Enormous war machines lined the walls. They were parked row after row and level after level. Players could see that they ran all the way into the distance, into one of the cavernous antechambers underneath the castle. The room lived up to its title as players fought on red iron grates. The room was the stage where players fought Preston Ajax. It made sense that Vold would have the mercenary acting as the leader of his military force. Ajax had seen combat action all around the world and was responsible for the deaths of untold numbers. With his wire garrote and explosives Preston may have been the most dangerous of the sub-bosses in the game.

 

The Green Room was in the lowest level of the castle but it certainly wasn't treated like a basement. In fact it may have been the original location for the final match of the tournament. A multistory library was hidden behind enormous red tapestries that hung from the ceiling. There was a wrestling ring in the center of the room and the canvas of which had an ornate pattern woven into it. Fancy hardwood chairs were arranged along the wall, for unseen dignitaries and other guests for the tournament. A harpsichord was situated ringside to provide entertainment between matches. A terrace for the host complete with a throne overlooked the entire ring. This was certainly the most regal arena ever created for a match. Players fought Clemence Kleiber, the king of old-school catch-as-catch-can wrestling here. Clemence actually had an extra special attack that he could only use while in this ring. The character could use the turnbuckles to superplex his opponents off of. Players learned quickly to stay away from the ropes or run the risk of being brutally punished.

 

If a player managed to defeat an animal boss and a sub boss then they would finally get a chance to take on the host of the tournament. The highest point on the island was a tower in the castle named the Dragons Room. The room had open wall panels that offered a glimpse to the mossy stones that made up the exterior of the tower. The level promised a drop of a few hundred meters if players could not stay on the platform. Actually much to the chagrin of many gamers there was an invisible wall that prevented players or opponents from falling off any platform in the game. The dragon motif that symbolized the Fighting Layer tournament decorated the walls and floor of the Dragons Room. Vold Ignitio used the open area to demonstrate his full power. He could climb the walls and plunge down onto opponents like some sort of vampire bat. He could also pounce onto opponents and drag them around by the neck like a jungle cat. Despite his outward noble appearance Vold was a vicious animal, much more dangerous than any creature he kept hidden in his castle.



There were actually multiple endings for each character depending on how well they had done in the tournament and whether or not they had lost a single match. Players that beat Ignitio but lost a match along the way got the basic ending. After defeating the boss the castle and island began collapsing. During the credits an animation would show their character running through a tunnel that was falling apart around them. They would then get the Game Over screen.

Players that met the right criteria however would go onto a final challenge. They would be thrown into the abyss of Zausu Island where the True Knight was waiting for them. They literally went from the highest point to the lowest point of the island in one stage. The Underground 2 was similar to the original Underground stage, only now the Knight had a red lance and was much more difficult to defeat. If players beat him then they had a more complete ending. During the credits they would see their player run through the collapsing tunnel and actually end up on a raft floating in the Sea of Japan. The character would be looking at Zausu Island burn from a distance. Whatever dark secrets the island hid and whatever evil forces had created Vold would remain a mystery.



Fighting Layer was not the hit that ARIKA had anticipated. The genre had lost steam through the mid to late '90s because the market had become completely saturated with fighting games. A revised version of the Street Fighter II myth was lost to most gamers. The lessons provided by the studio within the game were still valid for designers though. The next and final blog in this series will close this chapter on fighting game history.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fighting Layer, return of the dragon, part 7...

Fighters were drawn from around the world to Zausu Island in the Sea of Japan to participate in the first Fighting Layer tournament. The island was a nation run by a mysterious figure named Vold Ignitio. Only the best of the best were invited to compete and these included two participants from the Street Fighter EX tournament. The team at ARIKA had approached their new fighting game with the same intent that they had in the original Street Fighter II. As the tournament began the first place that players would visit would be the port. As the game progressed the stages would get harder as the players wandered deeper into the island. Ultimately they would reach the literal peak of the island, which was a castle that seemed to go on forever.



Two of the first stages conceived in SFII were those of the port and factory. The two levels would become tied to the characters Ken and Zangief. This time around the stages had random characters appear on them. Only the sub bosses could be expected in the same place near the end of the game.

 

At the onset Zausu Island appeared like an industrial paradise. The first stage, the Factory, had a ring set out in the port. The walls were made of iron girders. The walls and floors of each arena reflected the stage itself. In the distance were giants pipes from an oil refinery. The refinery stretched off in the distance for a full 360-degrees around the arena. Arika had gotten plenty of practice creating stages in pseudo 3D in Street fighter EX. Prior to that all of the important information or the supporting details in most stages had to be presented straight on in one angle. The camera might pan left or right but not rotate. Audiences had no idea what was around the corner or behind the camera in Street Fighter II, III or Zero. That all changed in Street Fighter EX when the camera rotated a full 360 degrees and the entire stage had the same level of detail as the 2D screens.

When ARIKA began developing stages for 3D fighting games they often lamented the lack of storytelling elements that the 3D arenas in Sega's Virtua Fighter and Namco's Tekken had. Most 3D engines in the mid '90s did not have enough processing powers to render an actual 3D level with much detail. So instead shortcuts were used. Sega limited the draw distance of each stage, used simple textures or created walls to keep the action close to the characters where the rendering engine could animate the complex character models. By comparison Namco and ARIKA used pre-rendered 3D backgrounds that were "stitched" together into a 360-degree panoramic canvas. These backgrounds were highly detailed even if they lacked animated elements. The game engine would only render a small bit of the arena floor underneath the fighters and obscure the rest in shadow. Players could never actually move any closer to the backgrounds no matter how much they ran in a particular direction.

 

Based on the gigantic pipes and infrastructure it appeared as if Zausu Island had a lot of natural resources. The Factory level was reminiscent of the stages designed for Zangief in the Street Fighter EX series.

As players went further into the island they discovered that the modern factory had been built on the outskirts of an older factory. The architecture and details in Factory 2 looked like they were pulled from 19th century western mining colonies. There were steam engines, ore carts and rusted trains in the distance. Perhaps this was the area that gave birth to Zausu Island's industrial revolution. It now looked like a ghost town, lacking employees. There was an eerie stillness to the level which gave rise to the questions; how old was the island, where were its inhabitants or employees and how long had the sponsor been living there. Surely Vold Ignitio was not the founder of the centuries-old colony, or was he?

 

Players did not get to stick around at the factories for very long before the true face of the island began to show itself. After two stages the characters were thrown into a pit. The underground arena was a caged off island surrounded by menacing iron fences and the boiling glow of lava. The Underground was more like the Underworld from mythology. In the distance there were eerie carvings on the walls and gigantic chains lining the walls and plunging deep into the bowels of the Earth. This was where the Knight first showed up. Players learned very quickly that the Knight moved slowly and methodically but had the strength of a tank.

 

If a player managed to defeat the Knight then they were able to climb out of the Underground. The path took them to an enormous Garden. The stage was very reminiscent of the garden that Lady Clarisse d'Cagliostro, from the film the Castle of Cagliostro, used to visit. The ground seemed overgrown and not well tended to. It was overrun with ivy and hanging vines. A statue of two enormous dragons was in the distance. The twin dragons were the symbols of the Fighting Layer tournament but also symbolized the evil that lived within the island. If players had managed to defeat all their rivals up until that point with special attacks and without losing a round then the first surprise boss would show up. Blair Dame would kick out whatever character was waiting to face the player and challenge them instead.



If a player did not manage to defeat the Knight within the time limit then the game was not over. Instead they would be put on the outskirts of the island on a floating stage. The level was dubbed the Airplane and a wreckage of a jet was slowly decomposing in the shallow water. There was even a cargo ship that had run aground near the stage. It appeared as if the area had been a runway at some point. The island must have sank or flooded at some point and this area had become a graveyard for commercial vehicles. The stage was very much like a last chance for competitors. If they wanted to continue in the tournament they had to defeat whatever opponent had also been banished to the outskirts. If they failed then they were at least part of the way back to China or Japan.

Notice that each stage featured so far had a distinct color palette. The colors reinforced the theme for each level. They made a factory look modern or aged depending on the tones and hues selected. Vibrant colors helped add intensity to the levels and muted colors helped create a sense of age and neglect. The colors used on the Airplane stage were ominous. Night was closing in on the player and if they didn't get back to land then they would be stuck on a metal island floating on the pitch black ocean.

 

If players managed to defeat their opponent at the Airplane level then they made their way back to Zausu Island. However they did not climb right to the top. Instead they took a subterranean passage through the island. The only way to experience this branching path was to actually lose to the Knight in the first Underground encounter.

This approach to level design was unique to Fighting Layer. Street Fighter II was very linear in comparison and offered little diversity for players. In SF II the same opponents were waiting in every stage each play through, unlike the random opponents and even surprise mid bosses that would turn up in Fighting Layer. The next level in Fighting Layer was comparable to the Garden, only underwater. There was plenty of eye candy in the Aquarium. Instead of observing fish inside of a tank the roles were reversed. Contestants fought within a glass arena while the sea life swam all around them. It was one of the more beautiful stages in all fighting game history.

 

Meanwhile, a few hundred meters above the Aquarium the contestants that managed to get past the Garden finally made their way into the castle where the tournament host lived. The floors and walls of the Entrance Hall was covered in ornate polished marble. Golden statues illuminated the doorways, the portals to the other enormous rooms in the castle. This was the second location where a mid boss might appear if players met the right criteria. This time it was Allen Snider, the other cameo character from Street Fighter EX.

 

The most memorable challenges would take place if a player defeated his opponent on this stage. Each of the doors in the Entrance Hall offered a choice to players. Beyond would be an opponent unlike any they had ever faced in any other fighting game. The next blog will look at the stages that made up the castle on Zausu Island.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Fighting Layer, return of the dragon, part 6...

When the series first started I wrote about how influential the characters and plot to Enter the Dragon had on the development of Street Fighter II. The crime lord Han in the Bruce Lee film had a hand in inspiring the military general Vega in Street Fighter II.

 

Han's island fortress was even the inspiration for the original design of Shadowlaw. It was where the entire Street Fighter II tournament was supposed to take place.

 

Before they were scattered through every corner of the globe all of the stages in Street Fighter II had been set in a singular location.

 

One of the levels proposed for Street Fighter II one was supposed to take place on top of a speeding train. In the distance there was a shot of the castle that the host resided in. The previous blog showed that the original boss characters for SFII looked like medieval knights. It could have been possible that the final battle took place inside of this castle. It wouldn't be the first time that a fighting game stage was inside of a castle, let alone a boss level. It would however be the first time that players could see themselves speeding towards the final destination a few levels prior.



Almost a decade later Akira Nishitani revisited the plans for Street Fighter II and created a new title that made use of ideas that were left behind. The entire Fighting Layer tournament took place on an island, Zausu Island to be precise. The final level was set in the castle at the center of the island. The island looked eerie and uninviting. Sharp jagged rocks framed the island that was trapped in perpetual twilight. From a distance it appeared supernatural, like a location from a horror film.

 

The host of the Fighting Layer tournament owned the island and everything in it. He was as eerie and mysterious as the location itself. Vold Ignitio dressed like an aristocrat although there was something more menacing underneath his costume. Again we would have to return to Han to find the inspiration for this type of character. Han after all made a castle his home and seemed to live an opulent lifestyle. It was all a clever facade to help keep authorities from taking too close of a look at his estate.



Vold was very much a retelling of Vega from SFII. Both characters did not dress like traditional martial arts masters. Vega had a modern militaristic uniform whereas Vold had a costume more like a royal military outfit. They each had an assortment of awe-inspiring moves that could tear through opponents with ease. They could even defy gravity and finish opponents with a few powerful strikes.




Despite his costume Vold acted much more savage than any other character in Street Fighter history, with the exception of Blanka. He would slash at opponents with his long fingernails and even pounce and maul his opponents like the Tiger which he kept under his castle. He was a very arrogant villain, taunting his opponent with his outlandish stances.

 

The setting of the Fighting Layer tournament was probably the most interesting part of the game itself. Each stage had personality. Each level told a story and the collective could be considered the template for great stage designs. The next blog will look at Zausu Island in more detail.