Monday, May 12, 2014

Fighting Layer, return of the dragon, part 2...

A Chinese girl and a stylish American had been invited to the Fighting Layer tournament as well. They seemed like friendly rivals to Tesuo Kato and were both approximately the same age. Where or where have we seen these archetypes before? There was much more to Lan-Yinghua and Allen Snider than simply being revisionist versions of Chun-Li or Ken from Street Fighter. They actually had origins with the developers that went back a generation.


Karate and Kung-Fu were cornerstones of the Asian martial arts. Each style of fighting had countless schools within. What Capcom, ARIKA and the other developers did was create archetypes that symbolized the best fighters in each discipline. Ryu and Ken had come to symbolize karate for the Street Fighter series and Chun-Li was the embodiment of kung-fu. However in the planning stages of Street Fighter II it wasn't a given that Ryu or Ken would even be returning to the series. The studio knew that they had to have a karate representative in the game but the original design was very traditional and lacked the visual cues given to Ryu. The studio had been criticized for moving too far from the Street Fighter formula when they introduced Final Fight to arcade owners. In response they pulled back and tried to reinvent the fighting game by going very traditional with the early designs.

The downside to the prototypical Ryu and Chun-Li were that they were very generic designs. Both lacked a creative spark. The karate character was a 25-year-old stone faced fighter. Who would ever find him interesting? Ryu had the torn sleeves, red gloves and red headband that broke up the consistency of the all-white costume. Just a few changes gave him more visual flair. Tetsuo Kato was similar, with taped-up hands and a wood-block-print of blue ocean waves on his gi he could never be mistaken for a traditionalist. The original plans for Chun-Li were not much better. Her design was very dated and lackluster.

Akira "Akiman" Yasuda went back to the drawing board. Instead of going with a token girl fighter, as would be the problem for the majority of fighting games following SFII, he instead turned Chun-Li into a woman. To give her more presence she was imagined as an undercover cop. The costume she wore was a disguise for the Street Fighter tournament. The spiked weights, dark tights and wrestling boots broke up the visual consistency for the character like the red garnishes did for Ryu. There were many reasons why Chun-Li worked from a design standpoint as well as within the game. I wrote more about the importance of the character in the Female Equation blog from a few years back. The karate and kung-fu characters were revised countless times until they set the new standard.

Lan-Yinghua was a nod to the original concept for Chun-Li. She was young but also a seasoned fighter. Her costume was also pseudo-traditional. The nunchaku tied into her braids could testify to the designers having fun with the character. The Fighting Layer designs are not far removed from the Street Fighter II ones. Looking at the FL cast is like playing "what if?" with Street Fighter. The characters put into the Capcom series could have turned out like the ARIKA designs depending on what the producer was looking for. Akira Nishitani and his team had a specific vision for their new franchise. The new Chinese female lead would remind players of Chun-Li just as the new American would reflect Ken Masters.

Allen Snider had been introduced as a sort of friendly rival and understudy of Ken during Street Fighter EX. Ken was supposed to represent the best martial artist from the USA. His long blonde hair and bright red gi made him stand out from the crowd. His design cues said something about Western culture. The Japanese considered themselves more reserved by comparison so Ryu was slightly more traditional in appearance. Snider was created to be as flamboyant as Ken but without copying the same costumes worn by either he or Ryu. Snider was also an amalgamation of real life fighters that had influenced the Street Fighter developers. Enter the Dragon had influenced the creation of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat and even Fighting Layer. The real martial artists and actors found within also influenced the games themselves. Allen Snider was inspired by Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. His hair and facial features were very similar, as was his desire to become a movie star. Lee and Norris battled in the 1972 film Way of the Dragon. That film came out a year before Enter the Dragon. The fight was memorable for many reasons but one of which was because the backdrop was the Roman Colosseum. That location would be recreated in Street Fighter Zero / Alpha many years later.

ARIKA demonstrated that they still had a fondness for the characters they had introduced in Street Fighter EX. Those characters met many of the same conventions as the original World Warriors and some had the same staying power as well. The inclusion of Allen Snider in the series meant to many SF fans that there was a chance that this game, and these characters, might fall within Street Fighter canon as well. A crossover was certainly not impossible. Of course there would be a lot of legal wrangling between ARIKA, Namco and Capcom if that day were ever to happen. What the game was lacking however was a strong female lead. Lan-Yinghua was not quite a Chun-Li tier character and the game needed someone more powerful. ARIKA reached back to their Street Fighter EX catalog and brought in Blair Dame. She, like Allen, was designed to balance out the SFII icons.

 Blair was the first mixed martial arts character in SF continuity. Her costume was revealing, as she was meant to represent the more sexual designs for female leads from the West. Her selection of strikes and grapples was pandering to male audiences but in a different way. Chun-Li had grace and style behind her attacks. Blair was a hard hitter by comparison, capable of throwing spinning backhands, knee strikes and drop kicks in rapid succession. She also had arm bars, ankle locks and take-downs which would make most MMA champions proud. Blair was created to balance out Chun-Li in Street Fighter EX, as such she had to be a woman and not a girl. Lan-Yinghua was a great character but she was more like Cammy than Chun-Li in scale and purpose.


When ARIKA designed Fighting Layer they included all of the control options that modern fighting game audiences had expected in the second or third revision of a game. They also included a robust cast that might have been included in an upgrade as well. Fighting Layer was not only an attempt at redoing the original plans for Street Fighter II but also for Super Street Fighter II. The parallels between Chun-Li and Blair, as well as Cammy and Lan were there but so were the other characters introduced in the game. The title was going to feature different traditional fighting styles but not make the practitioners appear strictly formal.

The three mid-sized fighters were pulled from other nations. The "cool" American guy, George Jensent had kickboxing type moves. He was an undercover officer trying to dig up information on the sponsor of the tournament. He was not far removed from the character that Bruce Lee played in Enter the Dragon. The roots of George's designs were based on C. Jack, the baseball bat-wielding supercop in Street Fighter EX. Both C. Jack and Jensent were designed to balance out Guile, the token US soldier in SFII. Hong Gillson was a prideful Korean and Taekwondo practitioner. He was looking to destroy Tetsuo in the tournament. Hong was the first TKD character in ARIKA and SF mythos, predating Juri Han by more than a decade. He could be likened to a striker like Dee Jay but without the obnoxious racial pandering of the character.


The third character, Shang Fenhuan, was a dangerous kung-fu master. He was taught the martial arts by a very secretive family that also ran the criminal underworld. He was trying to seek his path and was advised by a sage kung-fu elder that it would be found in the Sea of Japan, during the Fighting Layer tournament. Shang was lighting quick and had a very unconventional design. He could be likened to Fei Long, the Bruce Lee clone introduced in Super Street Fighter II. Shang could never be mistaken for yet another Lee wannabe.

Of course what would a fighting game lineup be without dedicated wrestlers? ARIKA did their homework and introduced three distinct characters into canon that represented different grappling arts. Jigjuid Bartol represented the ancient Mongolian / Tuvan wrestling form known as Bökh. The form and rules of that school of grappling were said to have been the forefather of Japanese sumo wrestling. Jigjid was not a mountain of a man, like Zangief, but his lack of mass did not mean he lacked muscle. He was still fairly strong and his powerful attacks could shake the Earth. Jigjid entered the FL tournament to help lift an ancient curse. There were many strange occurrences plaguing the villagers in rural areas of Asia and both Jigjid and Lan-Yinghua were sent by their elders to investigate the cause of it. A secretive tournament on a private island in the Sea of Japan seemed to be the destination for all of these martial artists. A different type of wrestler, non-traditional and very flamboyant was also called to the competition. The gold spandex wearing Exodus represented the pageantry and spectacle of modern pro wrestling. Exodus wrestled in only the loosest concept of the word. He was an exceptionally dirty fighter. He could stab opponents with a fork he kept in his belt. He could also set opponents on fire and hit them with chairs or drop them through tables as well. He had come to represent what many had considered the worst aspects of modern pro wrestling.

There was a wrestler in the game however that subscribed to the classic catch-as-catch can school of wrestling. Clemence Kleiber was considered the greatest pro wrestler in the modern era. When he ran out of opponents he simply disappeared. Exodus declared himself the de facto champion. Critics would not accept his claim until he had proven himself by beating Kleiber in the ring. Exodus had to seek out the champ at his last known destination. The secretive Fighting Layer tournament. Kleiber was actually one of three sub-boss characters in the game and not initially a playable character. The bosses would be released by the game over the weeks that it had been played. Only after all of the sub bosses had been unlocked would the final boss become playable.

During the planning stages of Street Fighter II the developers wanted to include a pro wrestler in the lineup. Two different characters were sketched out. One looked very much like the popular Japanese wrestler Tiger Mask while the other had a more generic star mask. This character was dubbed "Maskuman" or Masked Man. These characters were in the lineup well before Zangief was ever finalized. They were meant to capture part of the showmanship of the wrestlers had during the formative years of the Capcom developers. The inclusion of Exodus and Clemence could have been a chance to revisit the original pro wrestler ideas from the company.


There were many other playable and hidden characters in the game. We shall look at them in the next blog.

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