Fighting Layer is a bizarre Japan-only, Arcade-Only fighting game released by Arika in 1998. Fighting Layer is supposedly similar to the Street Fighter EX series, which Arika also developed, however having only briefly played that at a friend's house back in high school I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that statement. What I CAN confirm is that Fighting Layer is a great gem of an arcade fighter that sadly seems to have been buried at a time when fighting games were a dime a dozen, and 3D fighting games were starting to become more than novelties in the genre.
Ironically Fighting Layer still has a website on publisher Arika's page after all these years, though it is all in Japanese. Using my limited knowledge of Japanese I was able to glean that the story line is nothing we haven't heard before. A group of fighters headed to a tournament on an island, each with their own reasons and quirks for going, as well as a sinister villain waiting to defeat the last man standing. The game draws its odd name through the mechanic in which you progress through the game. Instead of moving up a ladder your character is presented as fighting through a mansion with various "rooms" and "floors" that the game's matches take place in. There are also several bonus levels which can alter your path throughout the game. At one point you will fight a suit of armor, defeat it and you go up and later get to choose your animal fight stage, lose and you're headed to the basement and set on a course to fight the shark. Yes that's right there's a shark. Before you face the game's sub-boss and the final boss Vold you'll have to fight a dangerous animal. There are three of them, Tiger, Eagle, and the aforementioned Shark. These animal fights can be challenging until you get the pattern down, and what's worse as a cheap way to get quarters you only get one round on these fights, which is fine if you win, but upon losing you have to pay for another one round match just to try to beat these stupid things. Considering this game will mostly see play on emulators nowadays this isn't a problem, but I can see this being a major turn off for Fighting Layer's case back when it was in Japanese arcades.
If we take a look at these goofballs trying to fight their way through the island tournament, we'll find fighting game staples such as Tetsuo Kato, your typical Japanese martial arts type character complete with always training attitude and torn white gi so he's not too straight edge, WrestleMania heyday lookalike characters like Exodus, and Clemence Kelieber, Lan and Shang, your Chinese kung-fu type characters, a ninja etc, but also complete oddballs like Cappriccio who looks like something out of Alien Resurrection, and the game's final boss Vold who is something of a mix between a wild animal and a Japanese train pervert. That's not to say these characters are bad, to the contrary, most of them are fairly fun to play as and are interesting enough that you'd want to know a backstory. Unfortunately, most of the official ones are pretty vague, and the game's endings tell you even less about them. There are two characters from Street Fighter EX, whom I suppose have a little more meat and potatoes to them, but some of Fighting Layers more interesting characters like George Jinsent, Preston Ajax, and Janis Luciani have almost no information available about them.
Gameplay wise Fighting Layer works like something of a hybrid between those weird Fighting Vipers era caged 3D fighing games and other 3D fighting games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter. It is possible to find yourself moving into the fore or backgrounds, however much of the action will take place on a 2D plane, and you are limited by a cage. The juggling and combo aspect feels very Tekken though with it being possible to chain normal attacks and supers on to falling opponents to knock in a few extra hits. Unlike Tekken and Fighting Vipers however it does feature a super move bar, which maxes out at three units allowing you to execute super moves. These super moves also can have powered up variations which change the name of the move. The names of them super moves are spelled out dramatically on screen when you finish an opponent with them which is a nice touch that theatrically falls somewhere between the seizure inducing Street Fighter round ended with a super animation and the not so spectacular fall down animation from being finished off by MK9's X Ray moves. The game's introductory cut scene boast a number of advanced features such as Barrage Blows(the supers), Hard Reversals, Super canceling etc, but its nothing we really haven't seen before, and if Fighting Layer of all games did pioneer any of these things, its notability has been lost by the sheer obscurity of this title.
Despite its obscure nature, and a somewhat limited , though interesting single player experience Fighting Layer is a lovely gem of a fighting game, and its a shame it never got a proper PS1 port with awful looking but endearing Tekken 1 era CGI endings, Vs. modes and move list etc. If you have the means its worth checking out. I'm not saying that MAME can emulate it, but MAME can emulate it and if you have a good enough computer it should run easily well enough to enjoy.
As an aside what’s the deal with all those old 3D fighters having the matches take place in cages? I remember Virtua Fighter having ringouts, but it just seemed like everyone else said we’re doing this in a cage. I guess at that time they didn’t really know a way to handle the fact that the arena had to be realistic, which would have been hard if the players just moved on infinitely. It took the Tekken team to finally say SCREW IT we’re doing infinite stages the ground will just have to look silly when it moves, and if you don’t like it tough Ganryu.