All right, Zone of the Enders! The product of the unlikely combination of Gundam and Hideo Kojima. Taking place in 22nd Century, the ZoE series tells the tale of humanity having successfully colonized Mars and one of the moons of Jupiter. Since this is a Japanese franchise, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this technologically superior future has seen the rise of giant humanoid mech suits. Similarly, it should come as no surprise that, having come together enough to send colonists to other planets, the Earth then decides to be an enormous asshole to said colonies. Tensions between the Earth and the “Enders,” as they’re called, continue to rise as both scramble to develop new weapons.
With the creation of advanced mechs called Gundams…er, Orbital Frames, things are going to get violent. This is good news for any fans of fast-paced action, as they’re really in for a treat… what’s that now? We’re not doing the PS2 games? We’re talking about the Gameboy Advance spin-off? Alright, then let’s shift gears a bit. Between the two main franchise titles, Konami decided to do something completely different (because that had worked out so well for them with Castlevania 64) for the GBA. Ditching the mission-based action of the first game, The Fist of Mars instead went down the tactical-strategy route, a la Fire Emblem. It certainly seems like a bizarre switch, which is probably why it isn’t nearly as well known as its siblings. However, with a solid story and presentation, as well as an interesting twist on the standard tactical formula, this handheld version is definitely worth checking out.
Since I’ve already covered the franchise’s setting, I can go straight into The Fist of Mars’ story, which is good, since its one of the central points of the game. The protagonist for this is Cage Midwell, a young man who lives and works as a crewman on a transport ship, the Bonaparte III. He is about as confident, experienced, and interesting as this description would suggest, which is to say, not at all. When the Bonaparte is attacked by a mysterious black Knightmare… err, Frame, Cage manages to escape by piloting a mysterious Frame that was hidden in the cargo hold. He and a mysterious, amnesiac girl (because of course she is) make it to the surface of Mars, where they become embroiled in the conflict between the Earth forces and an underground resistance movement, Born In Space. Unlike the other games in the franchise, which were content to pretty much ignore the plot, The Fist of Mars is all about plot. Each mission is bookended by story segments, and there are plenty of characters to keep track of. Having released in 2003, the script has its fair share of oddities, but overall the translation is tight and does an admirable job of keeping you interested in what’s going on. For a game rated E for Everyone, the story covers some serious topics. Given the setting, its not surprising that there is plenty of politics, but let’s just say I was not expecting depictions of murder, attempted suicide, and human experimentation in my Gameboy Advance game. There are even multiple endings, and not just through obvious dialogue choices, which puts it above even some modern games.
For anyone who has played tactical strategy games before, the battle screen should feel familiar from the outset: you and your opponents take turns moving around a grid and attacking each other. What makes The Fist of Mars stand out is the Interactive Attack System, which occurs whenever an attack is made. The player is taken to a separate screen, which will show the enemy Lagann…excuse me, Frames, moving around. When the player is attacking, they attempt to move a crosshair over the target within a certain time limit, with a smaller target giving them a critical hit. When the enemy attacks, you try to guide your small cursor and avoid larger ones that appear. Using this system, players can avoid damage altogether and deal considerably more out. Its a unique twist, one that really helps tie it back in with its more action-oriented siblings. As players get used to the movements, the system does get a little broken, (the large majority of incoming attacks can be avoided with the complicated maneuver of “circle”) but deftly taking out enemies while being untouched is fun in its own right. Players will need a bit of extra help, as the game can throw quite a lot at you sometimes, especially when bosses come into play. Their targeting icons oftentimes cover half the screen, so you won’t just cakewalk through the whole game. Also, for anyone who gets sick of having to manually target and dodge, the system can always be turned off in the menu.
Being a Gameboy Advance title, it probably won’t be too surprising to hear that the presentation is the weakest point of the game. The tactical map is very simplified, with Megadeus… sorry, Orbital Frames being represented by extremely simplified icons. While you would be surprised by the amount that can be conveyed this way (often through hilariously over-simplification), just don’t expect to be blown away. When entering the IAS, a static portrait of your opponent will glide around the screen, like some sort of laser-powered shooting gallery. The height of graphical prowess comes from the different animations that accompany every attack (all two or three frames of them). Similarly, the story sequences are a bit underwhelming, with full portraits having been replaced by headshots. On the plus side, each character has several different expressions, which does give them a bit more personality. Compared to the graphics, the audio is more of a mixed bag. While the sounds effects are bland, the soundtrack is surprisingly good. The fast-paced techno really sets the tone for the entire game, and more dramatic sequences are accompanied by surprisingly-emotional string pieces. Its all hampered a bit by the quality of the system’s audio capabilities, but it definitely stands out against some of its peers.
Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars is the definition of a niche game: a sci-fi, tactical-strategy offshoot of a game series that has never otherwise been on a Nintendo platform. However, for anyone who can track down a copy (I saw one copy being sold through Amazon), I would really recommend giving it a shot. With a more mature story than its rating would suggest, an above-average soundtrack, and an interesting twist to the classic strategy formula, The Fist of Mars might just surprise you. Is it better than Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced? No, but do those other games feature Jaegers… I mean Evas… giant robots? Absolutely not, and if you couldn’t tell, I’m always down for more giant robots.
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