Fighting games. In the mid-90’s they were just as prevalent as they currently are scarce. Not relegated to a few (if we’re lucky) big releases a year, fighters were a Japanese cottage industry unto themselves in the 32bit Saturn and PlayStation era and one of the most controversial and polarizing titles of the time was Street Fighter EX. With many purists decrying the very existence of the game, (despite developer Arika being headed up by Street Fighter II masterminds Akira “Nin Nin” Nishitani and Akira “Akiman” Yushida) the EX series took Ryu, Ken and the gang into the 2.5D landscape where the mainline series would eventually reside (and remain to this day), though its blocky early PSX graphics and somewhat floaty and imprecise gameplay were far from the majesty of contemporary masterpieces like Super Street Fighter II Turbo and the burgeoning anime influenced, hyper animated and butter smooth Street Fighter Alpha and Marvel Vs. games.
Not nearly as much of an instant punchline as a Zero Divide or Final Fight Revenge, though lacking the polish of Tekken and Virtua Fighter, through to PlayStation 2 launch hidden gem Street Fighter EX3 the EX games were always solid middle of the road efforts, entertaining enough as alternate looks at Capcom’s familiar colorful characters and with the genuine charm of an oddball cast of personalities and gameplay innovations all their own. Aside from a near forgotten, Namco published Japanese arcade only “Fighting Layer” game in 1998, these characters were nowhere to be found post SFEX3, failing to be grandfathered into the modern 2.5D SF games the way most of the Alpha and Street Fighter III cast has been, but they now live again in the somewhat awkwardly titled “Fighting EX Layer”, with a demo version hitting the US PSN this week.
First introduced as a 3DS tech demo (where most of Arika’s work for hire has been of late), “EX”, as it was sometime rumored to be called, has been teased (even as an apparent April fool’s joke) for quite some time now, though for an old fighting game nerd like myself, it’s definitely something that I’m very happy to see finally become a reality. FEXL initially impresses graphically, not quite reaching the anime/manga inspired heights of Tekken 7 or SFV but boasting a clean and smooth look that definitely shames Marvel vs Capcom Infinite and King of Fighters XIV. Fantastic hand drawn menu art (possibly from Akiman himself) greets players as they choose from the six fighters available in this demo, and though I was at a loss for finding any online ranked matches, taking each contender into the game’s feature rich training mode revealed a myriad of positive aspects to Arika’s new brawling franchise to be.
Returning competitors, demon samurai Garuda, Zangief alike and Kinnikuman reject Darun Meister, cocky American martial artist (shades of Ken Masters for sure) Allen Snider and acrobatic goofball tokusatsu wanna be Skullomania, feel just as you remember, though Darun was a particular standout for me, with a speed boost to put him on par with more modern grapplers like SF’s Alex and Tizoc/King of Dinosaurs from KoF. Adopting a traditional 6 button interface, FEXL feels just as good as it looks, with a very weighty, tactile and grounded chain combo system that calls Darkstalkers to mind. Special moves are your typical quarter and half circles, though each fighter’s deep bench of supers was another throwback treat, all available at any time as opposed to being locked behind Street Fighter III-esque menu choices, another callback to the halcyon days of Street Fighter Alpha.
New challengers Kairi and Shirase fit well into the proceedings. Kairi May look like a member of Tekken’s Mishima family but he’s basically Ryu, to the point that even the eternal challenger’s classic bread and butter combos (say, jumping roundhouse into standing fierce into fierce dragon punch) still work flawlessly. Ethereal warrior monk Shirase is not so derivative, and all the better for it. An tricky and evasive striker, with an awesome set of super moves where traditional ninja weapons appear out of thin air, the mysterious Shirase even employs Akuma’s familiar “Raging Demon”, identical command inputs and all.
Aside from the fact that the full game isn’t out yet, I didn’t find much fault with Fighting EX Layer. Sure the controls probably shouldn’t default to the simplified “Progressive” mode and the gem based “Gougi” system may turn off some still burned by MvCI and Street Fighter X Tekken, though here it seems much more polished and refined, like the classic “Grooves” from Capcom vs. SNK or the “Slash” and “Bust” modes in the latter Samurai Shodowns. I’m also fairly certain that the lack of any sort of one player “arcade” type mode is temporary, especially after Capcom’s similar highly publicized blunders in that arena with SFV, and the way some chains and juggles behave also feel like they could use some refinement, though the fact that you can’t chain a super into a super (even with more than enough meter to do so) may be an intentional balancing or combo damage scaling choice.
But even as it stands, Fighting EX Layer is a breath of fresh air, a comforting renaissance of the days when the fighting faithful didn’t have to just settle for the yearly title from the big four fighting game developers (Netherrealm, Namco, Arc and Capcom) each year, and there were endless esoteric and off the wall one-on-one possibilities just outside of the focus of the mainstream. I’ll be very much looking forward to it’s full release some time in 2018, and anyone even marginally interested should download this demo before this particular version of it disappears on December 25.