[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we look at the often-dismissed Zone of the Enders series.]

Giant robots have been a staple of Japanese pop culture for decades. As Roboto Chan! shows, the robot in manga and anime has been rich source of inspiration for game designers. So when Konami’s Hideo Kojima decided to bring his post-modern touch to the giant robot genre, expectations were high.

Zone of the Enders

zoe.jpgReleased in 2001 for the PlayStation 2, Zone of the Enders was a remarkable demonstration of what the new hardware was capable of. Abandoning the lumbering tank movements of other giant robot games, the robots of Zone of the Enders moved with a pole-dancing, acrobatic style that would become the hallmark of modern action games like Devil May Cry or Dynasty Warriors. Called Orbital Frames, the game’s mecha were designed by Yoji Shinkawa as lithe, airborne seraphim. As if to emphasize their aerial nature, they did not even have feet. Instead, their legs terminated in elegant spikes. In close combat the Frames whipped out flashing energy blades. From a distance they launched bolts of plasma from their hands like a 50 meter Sailor Moon gone berserk.

Despite the slick presentation, Zone of the Enders was unable to get by on its looks. Initially the game invoked a wide-eyed thrill, but after a few hours of play, Zone of the Enders had revealed most of its impressive tricks, leaving the remainder of the game feeling only half-formed.

Zone of the Enders is an easy game to find, so don’t pay more than $15. However, make sure that it includes the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Demo disc which allows you to play the Tanker chapter up to the Olga Boss fight with the original Japanese voice acting.

The Fist of Mars

zoe_mars.jpgDetermined to grow an Enders franchise, Konami followed up in 2002 with Z.O.E – The Fist of Mars for the Gameboy Advance. Developed by Winkysoft, creators of the long-running Super Robot Wars series, Fist of Mars combined light strategy with a melodramatic anime storyline.

Using the same basic design as the Super Robot Wars, Fist of Mars played out on a large grid where terrain was mostly just background for its turn-by-turn combat. In Super Robot Wars, when units engaged in battle you were treated to a flashy cut-scene of them trading blows. Fist of Mars made these cut-scenes interactive by requiring you to catch the enemy in a crosshair as they dodged across the screen. The size of the crosshair and the speed of the enemy would vary, as well as length of time allowed to make a hit. Similarly, when defending it was necessary to weave back and forth across the screen, avoiding the enemy’s aim. Unfortunately, there was a seriously game-breaking trick for dodging enemy attacks that once learned, considerably reduced the game’s challenge level.

Pay about $20 for Z.O.E. - The Fist of Mars with its box and manual. Also look for the two Super Robot Wars available in English, Super Robot Taisen – Original Generation and Super Robot Taisen – Original Generation 2 for Gameboy Advance, both published in 2006 by Atlus. The first is out of print and sells for around $25. The second is still available new for $29.95.

The 2nd Runner

zoe_2nd.jpgWith the previous two Enders games being interesting but ultimately flawed, one asks why collect? My answer is Zone of the Enders – The 2nd Runner, a game that finally delivers on the series’ promise. With 2nd Runner, Kojima’s team created a tight, responsive game that is lovingly crafted down to the smallest detail. Like an expensive Italian sports car, 2nd Runner is a work of kinetic art.

Unlike the first game, 2nd Runner has a compulsive drive, with one event leading smoothly to the next. Dramatic action suddenly gives way to intriguing narrative, which quickly sets up a new round of frenetic combat, constantly drawing you forward. Perhaps the best way to enjoy 2nd Runner is to set aside some time and play it straight through from beginning to end in one sitting like a movie. Some might complain about the game’s short length (a little over four hours) but 2nd Runner is exactly as long as it needs to be.

I try not to be seduced by graphics and I enjoy plenty of games that are far from the cutting-edge of visual presentation. That being said, 2nd Runner is absolutely ravishing. Clouds of enemies shift and dart across the sky like schools of fish. Explosions spray fragments of super-heated metal as radiant beams split the air. Black tendrils of null-space leave ghostly tracers as Orbital Frames fold time, warping instantly from one target to the next. In 1964 Leary, Metzner, and Alpert called it the “Retinal Circus”. Play 2nd Runner and begin to understand. As an extra visual treat, sharp-eyed observers will recognize a guest design contribution from Shin Megami Tensei’s Kazuma Kaneko, done in his deliriously aberrant style.

Perhaps because of ambivalence over the first Zone of the Enders game, when 2nd Runner was released in 2003, most people passed it by. Big mistake. Now out of print, the game is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Expect to pay around $45.

Anime

If you want to delve deeper into the world of Zone of the Enders, Sunrise (the animation studio behind Gundam, Escaflowne, and Gasaraki) produced a well-made tie-in anime series. When the first Enders game came out in Japan it included an OVA called Idolo. This was followed by a television series called Dolores, i. Both were released in America and are now available together in ADV’s Zone of the Enders Complete Collection for $49.98.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]