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.