This week, I’m talking about that game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo. Um, what’s-it-called. That robot game… Damn, what was it called? Oh yeah, Zone of the Enders. That’s the one. Totally didn’t have to find the box or anything to remember the title. Zone of the Enders is a “High Speed Robot Action” game from Konami Computer Entertainment Japan. (They sure do love their ridiculous genre names, don’t they?) It is also the best pair of games they have ever made.
“This is Detached Backup Battle Unit ADA. Do you request control instructions?”
Let’s get the first one out of the way. The brussels sprouts before that delicious, delicious cake. The first Zone of the Enders, AKA “That Game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 Demo” was a good first effort, and at the time of release was hands-down one of the best mech games released on console. The plot outline is pretty standard fare if you’ve ever seen a mecha anime. Boy finds giant robot, hops in cockpit, and saves the world. It all takes place on a station in orbit around Saturn, where the next-generation Orbital Frames (Read: giant robots) are being developed. If you’ve seen a Gundam show in the last 10 years, you know what’s about to happen. Hostile force BAHRAM attack in an attempt to steal both frames. They only get one, known as Anubis. Our hero, Leo Stenbuck, gets the other, which is known as Jehuty. The player is tasked with saving the citizens of the colony with the assistance of Jehuty’s on-board artificial-intelligence unit ADA. The other two significant characters are Leo’s girlfriend Celvice (who adds pretty much nothing to the game), and enemy pilot and rival boss Viola. Not much really happens in terms of Leo’s character development though. Most scenes amount to: Leo is whining to soldiers, Leo is screaming about potential collateral damage, and Leo is crying.
The latter is why Leo is easily one of the biggest buzzkills in all of gaming. You managed to take a game about giant robots blowing things up and shift the focus to a kid complaining and crying about collateral damage that doesn’t happen (if you don’t suck). The game ends on a boss battle with the mysterious Nohman piloting Anubis, which is leaps and bounds stronger than Jehuty no matter what you do. It’s a boss fight the player can not win. At all. After being bent over the table by Anubis, Leo and Jehuty are saved by the transport ship that you’ve been trying to get to all game. A transport ship with two laser cannons that it uses to blow a hole in the side of the colony. This is Gundam by the numbers… a fact I haven’t realized until just now. Damn. Oh well. Point is, the game ends on an obvious sequel hook (the sequel is literally called Anubis in Japan) while completing Leo’s run as protagonist (thank god).
“That frame is another Jehuty. You two are not destined to meet yet.”
Okay, we’ve eaten the disgusting veggies. Let’s dive into the cake head-first. Roll around in it a bit.
Two years later, the angels sang, the skies parted, and Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner descended from the heavens into the waiting arms of gamers everywhere. The 2nd Runner was a giant leap forward from the original, using it as a jumping-off point to tell a new character’s story while continuing the main plotline. The events of the first game are now two years in the past, and our focus has changed from Jupiter to Mars’ moon of Callisto. A small mining operation on Callisto, to be exact. From there, a quick jump to Mars itself, where most of the game takes place.
I’ll always get chills when Dingo (2nd Runner’s main character) finds Jehuty. “Good morning. Ready for combat operation” in ADA’s voice will always make me a bit misty-eyed. It’s like reuniting with an old friend. I know it sounds stupid to get that attached to characters, especially one that’s an AI, but I’ll be damned if ADA isn’t a charming one.
The story of The 2nd Runner goes into greater detail on pretty much everything mentioned in the original game, and goes far beyond “Stop BAHRAM. BAHRAM bad.” It further humanizes ADA, fills in a lot of backstory, and improves everything on the gameplay front as it roughly doubles the amount of sub-weapons, adds faster combat, and offers more interesting boss battles. The highlight of these fights is a hyperspace showdown with Anubis while in a severely damaged Jehuty. When I say “severely damaged”, I mean it. Parts falling off, most abilities disabled, the whole nine yards. It’s the hardest fight in the game, and also the most satisfying to win. Especially given that nearly every Anubis encounter before this in both games is a must-lose scenario where Anubis is able to easily overpower you and win the fight in a couple of minutes.
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner is packed with some incredible set-pieces. From flying mechs chasing after a high-speed train, to one robot taking on an entire fleet of flying battleships and the colossal floating battle machine Zakat, before joining up with a group of underpowered pilots to raid BAHRAM’s fortress while fighting an enormous swarm of enemy mecha. Leo even comes back and during the two years he wasn’t whining to ADA, he managed to become a determined fighter, even piloting the Vic Viper from Gradius (which transforms into a battle mech form).
Then there’s the fight against Inhert, a machine designed by Shin Megami Tensei artist Kazuma Kaneko. Just look at this thing:
No, really. Stop reading and look at that piece of magnificence. It looks alive. It stands out, even in-universe. It’s not the fastest or the strongest, but it’s definitely unique. The work of an eccentric genius, which its pilot is. All of the other machines are angular with channels of light running through them and enormous cockpits that look like… well… cocks. Every design convention used for the orbital frames was thrown out the window during the design of Inhert, and it’s a beautiful thing as a result. Even the arena you fight it in is a massive departure from the typical static, wide-open spaces. Its a larger space filled with moving compressors at varying angles that will result in an instant game over if stuck between them. Half-way through the fight, the arena is darkened, and you must fight Inhert while dodging mines using only ADA’s voice as guidance. It’s a tense moment in a game that doesn’t get the praise it deserves.
I’m jumping around a lot here, I’ll admit. I’m a bit of a fanboy for this game. It was produced by Hideo Kojima, directed by recurring MGS writer Shuyo Murata, and featured mech designs by Metal Gear sculptor Yoji Shinkawa. While it never got anywhere near the same attention of the Solid Snake and Big Boss stealth sagas, everything in this game hits the notes it should. Dramatic boss fights, a pumping soundtrack to match them, fast and satisfying battling, genuine character moments, and action set-pieces that show some fantastic production value. The 2nd Runner is an overlooked gem of the PlayStation 2 library that is well worth playing for anybody excited by stylish robots doing some crazy and awe-inspiring combat.
Zone of the Enders HD Collection saw both ZOE and The 2nd Runner remastered for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Unfortunately High Voltage Software did a poor job, with ZOE 2’s framerate being particularly sluggish and dropping below 30 frames per second on most of the visually intensive scenes (ie: any time something cool is happening). Kojima Productions even went as far as to re-remaster the game, working with Hexa-Drive in releasing a patch for the PS3 version (360 owners are out of luck unfortunately). This only applies to The 2nd Runner and not the first game, but ZOE is still playable, just flawed like the game itself. Either way, on PS2 or PS3, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything on par with the super robot spectacle of Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. If you never got around to it before, you’re in for an absolute delight.