ARIKA was founded by former Capcom employee Akira Nishitani and some of the other developers behind Street Fighter II. The studio was the first to push for the creation of a 3D version of Street Fighter with the series Street Fighter EX. ARIKA developed the 1996 game and Capcom published it. The two studios worked to create the arcade and Playstation releases of the various titles. Capcom began shuttering their arcade division and focusing exclusively on consoles by the end of the '90s. A rift developed between the two companies. Released in 2000 Street Fighter EX3 would be the last joint venture and first EX game that was console-exclusive. ARIKA knew that there was still an audience for arcade fighting games and was eager to create a successor to the EX series should Capcom completely shut down their arcade division. They found a new publisher with Namco, the long-time rival to Capcom. ARIKA did not want to create a new universe as many fans had enjoyed the world that they had presented in the EX series. The studio wanted to keep the new game out of Tekken canon in case they could sign a new deal with Capcom. At the same time ARIKA could not include all of the EX characters as they were mostly owned by Capcom. To make sure that they did not have a breach of contract in 1998 ARIKA pulled two characters from the EX series before the release of EX2. Blair Dame and Allen Snider were two popular characters from the original EX but were absent in EX2 and EX3. They were featured in Fighting Layer instead. This allowed arcade visitors to accept that any new characters introduced in the title might fall within SF continuity but not necessarily canon. I will talk at length about Fighting Layer in a future blog but for now I will focus on a sub-boss that was also featured in the game. This fighter was inspired by Osamu Tezuka's mysterious medical protagonist.
Black Jack, the title character from the medical drama series had a unique look. His face and body were laced in scars. These were the results of countless reconstructive surgeries during his rehabilitation from a mine explosion. His complexion had two different tones because the donor for his skin grafts was a Black-Japanese. The hair on half of his scalp had gone white from the shock of the explosion as well. The contrast between light and dark features made the character look macabre. When people described him as looking as Frankenstein's monster it was a valid comparison. In the manga he rarely had to rely on physical violence to solve a crisis. He knew how to throw a punch when challenged but was more dangerous when throwing a scalpel. Black Jack had a strong identity yet the adaptation to fighting game character was not a straight path.
ARIKA wanted to create a fighting game character that had the same presence as Black Jack but did not diminish his rivals. The studio managed to capture the aesthetics and even tragic origin that made Black Jack memorable. They did so first by giving the character a history that complimented the universe of Fighting Layer. Preston Ajax was a military specialist, a mercenary and a specialist in explosives. His combat training made him an excellent fighter and much more dangerous than the "regular" martial artists that were featured in the game. He was not initially a playable character in the Fighting Layer tournament but instead a sub-boss.
The first thing that players noticed about the character were the scars, discolored skin and hair. It was easy for audiences to see how similar Preston appeared to Black Jack. The origin of his scars were also familiar. He had been caught in an explosion but it was a bomb that he had set along with his brother, who was a fellow soldier. The two had set explosives the world over to create instability and fear in various nations. Their campaign of terror was not always against military installations but sometimes in public sectors were they could count on high amounts of collateral damage. When a bomb went off prematurely it killed his brother and left Preston with only half a body. He was rescued and the remains of his brother were used to piece him back together. His benefactor and biggest contractor was an eccentric dictator named Vold Ignitio. The disfigured Ajax was obliged to continue following orders from Vold and keep planting bombs. Preston was close to his brother and the loss coupled with what had been done with his remains began to warp his mind. Ajax began hearing the voice of his brother. Asking him to bide his time and complete one final mission.
The template for a psychotic mercenary fighter had actually been done previously by ARIKA. The character Doctrine Dark, featured in Street Fighter EX, had also suffered from the horrors of war. Colonel Guile, one of the star characters from Street Fighter II, had mistakenly lead his unit into an ambush. The resulting firefight decimated his soldiers. When the fighting was over there were only two survivors, Guile and Doctrine. The two were separated in the melee. Guile returned home and became a decorated hero. Doctrine was left behind and assumed as a casualty of war. Doctrine felt betrayed by his commanding officer and abandoned by his country. His psyche had completely snapped after that day. He became a mercenary and learned to trap and kill his opponents without the aid of the army. He was adept at using knives, explosives and a wire garrote in hand-to-hand combat. He swore revenge on Guile and spent several years tracking his prey and finally caught up with him during the EX tournament. The back story made the character interesting but it was the diversity of attacks that made him a great fighting game character.
Preston and Doctrine shared similar fighting techniques. Both had solid strikes and combos but relied on the garrote for ranged attacks. Both could also plant explosives on their opponents for tremendous damage. This was a way to balance out the characters that had fireball-type projectiles. Doctrine made good use of the knives hidden in his sleeves for close-up strikes. ARIKA focused less on weapons and more on punches and grappling attacks for Preston. He was certainly the more powerful striker of the two. Dark was playable right at the start of EX however gamers had to wait to try out Ajax. Fighting Layer actually had a time-release feature and each of the sub-bosses were unlocked over the weeks that the game was featured in the arcade. Preston eventually became a playable character and like the other bosses he also had his own unique story.
Ajax played the role of a sub-boss very well. He was a good all-around fighter with a unique complement of special attacks. His level was based inside of a military complex to help reinforce his theme. Preston was also a melancholy character. His origin was certainly very tragic and the character knew that he should have perished in the explosion years ago. He was like the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein, an abomination that the natural world would reject. But like the creature from the classic Mary Shelly story he was also waiting to meet his maker alone and hopefully destroy him. Every character in the Fighting Layer tournaments had a unique ending after they faced Vold, the boss of the game. The majority wanted to get out of his castle and off of his cursed island as it was collapsing around them. Preston was the only character that did not try to leave the island as it was breaking apart.
Preston made his final mission to destroy Vold and himself in the process. Vold was a monster that hid his cruelty behind the guise of royalty. In reality he was even more twisted than Ajax and needed to be stopped. Who better for the job than the trained killer that Ignitio had pieced together? Only then would Ajax atone for the horrors of war and let his brother rest in piece. Once Ignitio was defeated Ajax stood his ground as the castle that hosted the final stages crumbled around him. A giant stone fell on him and players assumed that he had been killed in the process. The other sub bosses died in the collapse but by accident or mistake, not by choice.
The other characters in the game could be seen making a daring escape from the Zausu Island during the ending credits. They would run through a stone corridor as bricks fell from the walls and ceiling. If a player got the "best" ending they would see their character floating away from the island on a small raft. For the ending of Preston the final shot was simply the island burning in the distance. The character did not make it out after all. It was a tragic ending for a tragic character. ARIKA made the brief appearance of a fighter inspired by Black Jack a memorable one.
The studio never followed up with a sequel for Fighting Layer or even Street Fighter EX4 despite pleas from the community. It is unknown what plans the studio had after Fighting Layer was published. Thankfully the game was well done and stood on its own merit. ARIKA worked on different genres over the years and tended to steer clear of fighters. Although they did develop Tekken 3D Prime for the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. Perhaps some day Akira Nishitani might reconsider his stance on the genre and Capcom might once again be willing to partner with the studio. Like the work produced by Osamu Tezuka, the characters, stories and worlds developed by both studios deserve to be revisited again and again by generations yet to be born.