The Zone of the Enders titles occupy a strange place in games history as well as a vaulted one within gamers’ collective memory - a pair of titles referred to in near mythic tones and word-of-mouth reverence. Perhaps it’s the straightforward connection to the Metal Gear franchise, given that the stunning demo for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty came as a bonus with the first title. Perhaps it’s the inescapable mark of Hideo Kojima and the overall feel of an auteur’s treasured side project that’s readily identifiable. Either way, whatever makes Zone of the Enders different has survived the conversion to HD, bringing a fairly niche experience to a wider audience.
The decade between its original release and remastering has seen a multitude of changes rumble through the games industry. There’s no denying that access to games has become ever easier with the proliferation of digital downloads putting missed classics in easy reach. Games have also changed themselves - the surge of mainstream gamers has resulted in games with greatly refined controls and mechanics. Comparing a game from 2001 against the pick-up-and-play ease of contemporary bestsellers reveals flaws but also a clean simplicity, free from over-complicated gimmicks. Zone of the Enders is by no means perfect but might just warrant inclusion on your shelf, if only as a return to that uncomplicated past whilst filling a gap in many a gamer’s library.
Both Zone of the Enders and its sequel, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, are included in this revitalised collection, remastered in HD and sporting a smooth frame-rate. That it runs largely without any slowdown is of the utmost importance when lightning fast reflexes, split-second parries and arcing missile-trails strive to evoke blistering speed. You pilot Jehuty, an ‘orbital frame’ or ‘super-fast mech’ in simpler terms. This isn’t Armored Core with its lumbering behemoths - these mechs are lithe beasts, delicate in form yet brutal in combat, with the ability to dash about the battlefield attacking at long range or close quarters. Pilots of these frames are designated as runners, connecting with onboard A.I. computers in a symbiosis of man and machine. Presented in the fashion of Japanese mecha anime, Zone of the Enders is a stylish slice of science-fiction that includes elements of soul-searching morality typical to the genre.
An energetic, adrenaline-fuelled attract movie, created especially for the HD collection, introduces the characters amidst a flurry of lasers, preparing your optic nerves for the workout they are about to receive. The first game may not quite live up to expectations but, by the end of the 2nd Runner, these games can pack some serious epilepsy-inducing pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, loading up the first game can be rather underwhelming. The CGI movies in Zone of the Enders have not aged well - in fact, they look like first-era PlayStation renders, all bulbous eyes and wooden movements especially seeing as they’ve benefitted little from the HD transfer. Matters improve with the sequel where anime cutscenes convey events too difficult to display in-engine.
Piloting Jehuty is always satisfying; movement is responsive, able to translate the most nuanced flick of the analogue stick into dazzling aerial acrobatics. Combat is simple with most attacks mapped to two face buttons. At long range the choice between rapid fire and locked-on missile barrages comes down to your movement speed and how long you hold down fire. Move in close and you’ll engage enemies with blistering melee attacks. Oftentimes everything occurs so fast you’ll find attacks merge into a graceful ballet of destruction, a chain of synchronised movement that only pauses for breath when the last enemy falls. Over the course of both games new weapons are unlocked (in the form of ‘drivers’ updating the Jehuty’s software), offering powerful attacks that fall under established categories ie. the long-range sniper shot, homing missiles and stun flares. While most enemies can be dispatched by hammering the melee button, certain opponents will require set tactics. Each game features several boss encounters with attack patterns to decipher and weaknesses to exploit.
As with any of Kojima-san’s games things aren’t as simple as protagonist vs. overwhelming enemies. Layered onto the delight of smashing robots is a convoluted story replete with jargon that devolves into abstract weirdness. Aside from the setting - initially a colony on Mars’ moon called Vascillia - there’s mention of the exotic sounding Aumaan, a weapon called the ‘vector cannon’ and the frequently mentioned MacGuffin that is the power source known as ‘Metatron’. Character names either sound randomly chosen by computer - Dingo, Leo Stenbuck, Nohman - or seem laughably boring, as befalls one character simply called Alan. By the final act of 2nd Runner the dialogue is so chock full with this cryptic jargon that it becomes white noise between battles. When the dialogue is comprehensible it often feels out of place or plainly terrible, as if poorly translated or written to fit lip-sync. Perhaps it’s the delivery which reduces it to sub-standard levels; the first game has the singular most annoying protagonist in recent memory. Leo Stenbuck spends the entire game as a whiny, petulant brat with the most grating American accent that’s appeared outside of pre-teen television. He’s relegated to a minor character in the sequel (thank God!) but the horrendous voice acting remains steadfast along with Dingo, the new pilot of Jehuty and his propensity to spew hideous threats such as ‘I don’t like you!’ and ‘Go away!’ in the most unconvincing manner.
Luckily the game is perfectly playable without any comprehension of the story, although there are enough references to Egyptian deities for devout fans to use, should the lore require further research. Still, for all the reverence towards Zone of the Enders they are not without problems. The first game does become a slog as you near its end, with objectives either repeated or extended through retracing previous paths. Optional SOS missions can also be attempted with a completion rating encouraging replays. However, for a game that can be completed in just over three hours it feels unnecessary and rather cheeky to include such brazen padding, especially since they don’t extend that time all that much.
The 2nd Runner is more successful at varying objectives, highlights including an attack on a battleship fleet and an all-out war in the final stages. Many levels have a noticeable gimmick - one sees you fighting in a tunnel of moving shafts, dodging the crushing pillars - that initially seem clever but soon become frustrating. For every clever twist of the rules there’s a level which becomes tiresome, given a few poorly placed checkpoints that feel slightly too far away from the point of failure. These problems are often exacerbated thanks to the plaintive cries of allies looped over and over again. Later conflicts are so full with particle effects and onscreen enemies that the framerate can suffer, although never as a detriment to the gameplay. Perhaps the greatest problem is the camera - both games have an odd spin on controlling your view. While Jehuty has full 360° movement the camera remains held in position. The only way to change the camera direction is to face Jehuty towards your intended view, then release the movement stick. It’s a clumsy method that frequently causes problems during combat, with many failures a result of this poor design choice.
Despite these issues it’s easy to find yourself sucked into Zone of the Enders enticing gameplay. Whereas Metal Gear Solid had an intriguing story to hold your attention, these titles rely more on combat itself to distract you from the framing narrative. The music is unique, destined to become inextricably linked to the franchise and the sound design reuses some of the signature Metal Gear effects in inventive ways. The games aren’t long - both combined can be completed in around ten hours - and the sequel is far better than the first thanks to a greater variety in gameplay. A two player battle mode and challenge mode also make the sequel a heftier package than the first, although these aren’t anything more than recycled levels and waves of enemies set to a timer. A larger problem that afflicts both games is the sense of scale: the cardboard-cutout feel of certain environments undermines the implied size of the orbital frames. Later levels in the 2nd Runner are more convincing, but you’ll never really shake the feeling that you’re watching human-sized combatants duking it out in oversized robot outfits.
History repeats itself, as they say, and this re-release of Zone of the Enders fortuitously comes packaged with a demo for another game. Whereas the legendary Metal Gear Solid 2 demo originally came bundled with Zone of the Enders, this HD Collection entices apprehensive gamers with a demo for the Platinum developed Metal Gear Rising. While an in-depth analysis of the demo is worthy of a standalone article, it’s a nice bonus to have especially given that it comes on its own disc in the Xbox version. While it doesn’t have the instant appeal of a direct Metal Gear sequel, the demo for Rising gives players the chance to try out some of Raiden’s swordplay in a level and boss encounter. It wouldn’t be worth buying just for the demo but it will hopefully entice apprehensive gamers to give the lesser known franchise a try.
For fans and newcomers alike, Zone of the Enders HD Collection is a loving re-release of an oft-forgotten title. Some HD remasters feel obligatory or merely a cash-in. The two Zone of the Enders games are rare, niche and a part of gaming history - perfect candidates for re-release. While there are many aspects of the games that feel dated, clunky or extraneous they are by no means alienating or tedious. Instead, the intuitive combat will leave you breathless while gaming aficionados will have fun spotting early Kojima hallmarks, as well as his take on a non-Metal Gear universe. Revisit the golden year of 2001, when the first Zone of the Enders joined games like Halo, ICO and GTA III in reshaping a genre. It might have many of the qualities, but don’t call this an antique. Instead, call it a classic.