Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fighting layer, return of the dragon, part 5...

Many of the early designs for Street Fighter II characters were based on what the Japanese found exotic, which was often Western characters and themes. I don't mean cowboys and indians however, I mean gangs, tattoos and thugs that were different than the Yakuza or Japanese criminals. Some of the other things that the developers found interesting were European culture, architecture, design and mythology. To this day many in Japan have a fondness for Victorian-era England and late 19th century / early 20th century Belle Époque France. Aristocratic characters in manga and animé are dressed right out of the Guilded Age and often lived in opulent mansions. They are waited on by butlers and maids even in high school and at work in many of the titles. The boxer Dudley in Street Fighter III and Lili de Rochefort from Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection are two of the more famous aristocratic fighters. They view themselves as superior to their counterparts in every way, but especially in fighting and etiquette. The original boss designs for Street Fighter II were far more different than the playable characters audiences saw. The majority of the cast had a martial arts style that could easily be identified by players. Karate, kung-fu and boxing masters could easily be made out by gamers after all. The final bosses had to stand out and not necessarily reflect any actual technique. Shadowlaw started off as an island before it became a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. In the planning stages the architecture and infrastructure on the island was Western. It was a blend of modern with the city and port, but also classic with the countryside. As the peak of the island there was a temple where fighters met the final boss. It was not always an Asian temple and the final villain was not always Asian.


Before the assassin became a mask-wearing Spaniard he looked more like a Templar Knight. This character completely broke the visual consistency of the rest of the cast. The armor, sword and tunic were from another era. Capcom might have made the character work but that would have meant revising the locations and themes they were already working on. It would be easier to redesign one character than change an entire game to make that character work. The boss went back to the drawing board and the designers tried to figure out what made him interesting. He needed to have a weapon but a sword would be hard to work around. The claws did increase the reach of the character but were less than half the length of a sword. The helmet was too cumbersome for a fighter so it was switched out for a mask. They mystery element remained but the character became more believable. The costume and tattoo were very reminiscent of the pirate San-Po from the Jackie Chan film Project A.

An alternate to the knight was also in the planning stages. This character was a mix of contrasting elements. He too wore a mask but not a suit of armor. Instead he had an armored vest and shoulder pads. The character appeared more like she sort of European ninja. The early designs for Balrog and Vega, and even the medieval theme for Shadowlaw could have been inspired by the 1979 film the Castle of Cagliostro. The film featured assassins that were dressed like armored ninjas and also sported claws. It was considered one of the best animé films ever produced and one of the most memorable adventure films of all time. There was no doubt that the Capcom designers were familiar with the film and the fantastic world that director Hayao Miyazaki had created. But again, if Street Fighter II were to use villains inspired by the film then the entire game and levels would have to be re-themed in order to make them work with the cast.


Fighting Layer was different however. Akira Nishitani was revisiting the plans for Street Fighter II. This time he took a different path than producer Yoshiki Okamoto did with SF II. Nishitani wanted to have more fantasy in the game and allow his cast of fighters adapt to the weird and supernatural. Great fighting game characters were not far removed from the heroes in manga and comic books. At least not in the mind of Nishitani. Audiences didn't need to have everything explained to them in order to suspend their disbelief. The word "magic" was often more than enough for them to get the idea. In Fighting Layer players were dropped into a pit where an animated suit of armor appeared out of thin air. It was taller than the the other characters and moved very slowly. Punches and kicks did not knock the character down, only special and super attacks could manage that. The Knight swung a heavy lance, much longer than the sword that was originally planned for Balrog. The balance to giving an opponent a long weapon was found by making the character use it very slowly. This gave players time to dodge the strike and work on counter attacks. If players managed to defeat the Knight then he would fall apart in a cloud of smoke and flames. They would then be able to continue through the game. If time ran out then the suit of armor would simply turn and walk away, breaking into tiny pieces and fade into nothing as it took each step. It was an eerie sight for gamers.

There were actually two distinct Knights in the game. The original Knight in the second stage and the "True" Knight at the end of the game, after the host of the tournament was defeated. The True Knight was slightly stronger and could take 80% of an opponents energy before the match even started by throwing his lance at players as they fell into the underground stage. It was obvious that there was much more to this world than had been seen in other Capcom fighting games.

ARIKA had actually infused their fighting games with supernatural elements much earlier. In Street Fighter EX the character of Kairi was under the influence of evil spirits. They were in fact the source of his powers. His sisters were trying to bring Kairi back from the brink of madness in the plot of the game. One of the boss characters created for the series was an animated suit of samurai armor. The villain named Gardua had no true face. He was the first completely supernatural character introduced into the series. Because he could have also been interpreted as a madman in armor and not some sort of ghost then he was entirely plausible within the world of Street Fighter.

There were plenty of clues that the supernatural was a part of the Fighting Layer world and even a part of the competitors. The eerie glow of the eyes on ninja Sessyu Tsukikage mirrored the eerie glow that inhabited the armor of the Knight. Sessyu's ability to disappear and reappear in a puff of smoke seemed even more incredible than the ninja myths. Perhaps he too used some sort of magic to give him an edge in combat.


Every gamer that had read a comic book or watched a cartoon knew that spirits and giant animals would have to be under the control of some powerful villain. Whether the tournament was set in the real world or some sort of Twilight Zone there was still a host pulling the strings. This person may have been a drug lord, dictator or even sorcerer based on previous games. The truth would only be revealed to the fighter that made it through the final battle. The next entry in the series will look at the organizer of the Fighting Layer tournament and try to find his roots.

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