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.