['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by TOLLMASTER, an individual affected by Mecha Obsessive Disorder since a young age. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, an inexplicable Super Robot Wars clone for the Gameboy Advance that somehow managed to find its way into English.]

Zone_of_the_Enders_The_Fist_of_Mars_Coverart.jpgWhen you talk about mecha games, the conversation eventually turns to the Super Robot Wars series. I don't think there is anything quite like it anywhere else in fandom; you can make a comparison to superhero crossover fiction, but while that gets bogged down by conflicting themes and confusing plots, the Super Robot Wars series just barely avoids these problems by realizing exactly what it is: fan wish-fulfillment.

But as epic as Super Robot Wars is, I'd prefer to ease my way into talking about it, so I thought I'd today pay attention instead to a red-haired stepchild of Super Robot Wars, based on Hideo Kojima's red-haired stepchild of a mecha series, Zone of the Enders. Most people know of the first game as 'the free PS2 game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo' and many never realized a sequel later appeared, and even fewer know that there was a Gameboy Advance turn-based strategy game based upon it. So today the spotlight's on Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, a game whose existence no one can rationally explain as anything other than 'Hideo Kojima is a rabid mecha fanboy in disguise.'

HIDEO KOJIMA: CLOSET MECHA FETISHIST?

Hideo Kojima is mainly known for his excellent Metal Gear Solid series, one that made 'stealth action' into a full genre. But a review of his other games shows us that the titular giant robot Metal Gear is no fluke. Snatcher featured robots wearing human skin with dark plans and a minature Metal Gear buddy (remade into Otacon's little robot helper for MGS4); Policenauts featured an anime-styled futuristic setting (and from Metal Gear Solid 1 we know that Otacon is apparently a fan); even Lunar Knights, the latest entry in Kojima's 'Boktai' series, features 'mobile fighters' duelling it out in asteroid belts. So the original Zone of the Enders shouldn't have shocked as many people as it did--Kojima and his team seem to have a mecha fetish, and they'll put mecha in any game if Konami gives them half a chance.

fomanimal.pngKonami tried to make Zone of the Enders something other than 'the free game that came with the MGS2 demo,' though. The proper sequel got a more MGS-fan friendly facelift with a badass warrior rather than a small child as the game's hero, and a Zone of the Enders animated movie and anime series were produced, using the rich universe of detail and terminology that only Hideo Kojima can create. The black sheep here was the GBA game, Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars. It was a tactical game, an obvious clone of the Super Robot Wars games, and while its existence is strange, if you were a mecha fetishist, your grand dream would be to ripoff Super Robot Wars, the king of mecha games. And it was even designed by a company called Winkysoft, who designed the earlier games in the Super Robot Wars series, so it was as close to Super Robot Wars as Konami could legally get.

So, how did Kojima's personal mecha fan wish-fulfillment fare?

NEWTYPES NEED NOT APPLY

The flow of the game is delightfully easy to grasp. You typically get a drama scene that gives us some background on the game's universe and characters, then a setup for the next mission that states the mission objectives, and then you can start moving your robots. As a turn-based tactical game, everything works as you'd expect. You move your robots within a certain range on a grid, then use either a melee or ranged attack to damage enemy units. After you move all of your units, the enemy gets a turn to move theirs, and the cycle continues until the end of the mission. It's something anyone familiar with Super Robot Wars, or even any other tactical turn-based game would be able to grasp in a few seconds and feel right at home.

fomtarget.pngWhat makes Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars unique among tactical games is that it has an actual action component. While you get a percent chance to hit when you target an enemy, the game doesn't by default 'roll the dice' to determine the hit; instead, it brings you to a first person aiming system, where the percent chance to hit determines the difficulty in actually firing at a moving target yourself. It works similiarly for your chance to evade; you have to move your crosshairs away from the enemy robot in the first person view, and make sure their crosshairs never meet up with yours. If their accuracy is better, then they become faster and their attacks harder to dodge.

This is an obvious system to put into place for a mecha game, being that mecha anime usually talk of pilots with superior spatial orientation and reaction skills. Instead of merely talking about such skills in a tactical game, Fist of Mars actually allows you to test yourself on these principles in order to determine whether you score or dodge an attack. But what makes Fist of Mars stand out from Super Robot Wars also turns out to be its downfall. These segments are just too darn easy to win, and it's entirely possible to evade every single attack in a mission, even if your chance to evade is given by the game as 50% or so. You can turn these action segments off and play the game 'pure' but you would also be missing out the very thing that makes the game unique.

fomss.pngFor the mecha obsessed, it's worth noting that Winkysoft played around with the Super/Real Robot dichotomy (a distinction I'll explain more fully in a later installment) that they helped popularize . True to the original games' universe, there are two types of robots: Orbital Frames (OFs), and LEVs. LEVs are the more familiar, metal and ceramic type robots we're all (?) familiar with, while OFs are lithe, flying humanoid weapons formed from the near-miraculous Metatron ore. Orbital Frames have intelligent computers that can change their composition to a more efficient form from experience, so these robots level up along with their human pilots. LEVs, on the other hand, can be manually upgraded using money, and can hold items that Orbital Frames are not compatible with.

They both have similar roles in actual combat, unlike the rather extreme differences between Supers and Reals, but how they get stronger over time requires the player to think a bit before each action. Should they let the OFs get most of the kills, as their experience essentially counts double (for the pilot as well as the robot)? Should you focus on upgrading one LEV or divide your money among them all equally? Should you use the OFs' ability to fly to charge ahead, or let the LEVs go first, who can use their items to get them out of a tough spot? The Super Robot Wars series has been depending on the Super/Real mechanic for a while and it's nice to see something else cooked up.

It's also worth mentioning that the game is true to the Kojima influence. There's going to be a lot of story segments, a lot of surprises and unexpected plots, and a few arguments over political differences. In a Super Robot Wars game, you already know most of what will happen and who will backstab who. Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars shows that it is possible to tell an entirely new story in the SRW format; a lesson Bandai apparently learned, as evidenced by their later Original Generation series.


THE ROBOTIC RUNDOWN

The final word is that Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars is a bizarre, brave, but ultimately flawed experiment. The action scenes simply make the game too easy, and playing with them off removes much of the novelty of this game. And combining a Kojima-worthy plot to a turn-based tactical game sounds better on paper than in action, if only because I generally feel that handhelds should have a more 'pick up and play' friendliness, while The Fist of Mars requires more of a time investment to play properly.

I do, however, strongly recommend the game to people interested in tactical games in general, or Super Robot Wars games specifically, who are afraid to make a plunge into unfamiliar territory. You don't need to know anything about robots or tactical games to enjoy this one, and the relative failure of the game being too easy here becomes a bonus, thus making it the perfect entry-level title.

It's also one of the few games similar to Super Robot Wars that is available in English, so if you want to enjoy a turn-based mecha game without learning an entirely new language, then Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars might be just what you're looking for...though in future columns I'll be talking about other tactical mecha games within the average Anglophone's reach. Until then, The Fist of Mars is an undiscovered treasure that might not be a forgotten classic, but earnestly deserves more attention than it ultimately got.