The trouble with HD remakes is the trouble with our memory. The most recent memory is the quickest to recall, and the strongest when forming a new perception. If you’ve ever said, “I remember [x] being better,” you have the human thought process to thank.
It seems that Kojima and his team at Kojima Productions fell into this trap when the studio decided to remake Zone of the Enders and Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner in HD. The problem with the Zone of the Enders HD Collection isn’t that either of the games were behind the curve, but that 3D mech fighters are just made on a different curve today. Our expectations have evolved with the technology, and aside from some added fidelity, these games are stuck in 2001 and 2003. The 2nd Runner holds up far better than the repetitive proof-of-concept that started the series, and hints at what the series could achieve (and likely will in the currently in-development Z.O.E. entry). As a collection, the interplanetary robo-shenanigans are a good-looking, disappointing reminder of two PS2 classics.
Every development concept has to start somewhere. For the Z.O.E. series, the thought process was laid bare in the first released attempt, Zone of the Enders, which follows a young Leo as he tries to save his Jupiter colony from the invading robo-forces of BAHRAM. The design feels adolescent – all story segments are relegated to awkwardly shot cutscenes, and combat cordoned into organized packets peppered across several blocky stages, each separated by an empty overworld. Maybe the original idea was too ambitious for the team’s design tools in 2001, or maybe assets were just misappropriated. Whatever the reason, Zone of the Enders started as a cobbled mass of good ideas, and a higher resolution and frame rate don’t fix that.
What’s most frustrating about the original game is the content for content’s sake. A shallow leveling system and hidden items gate advancement behind multiple visits to the same stages, mostly to battle the same three or four character models. The problem with this kind of grinding is that it relies too heavily on satisfying combat and traversal, and in Zone of the Enders, combat and traversal are dull. A simple dash-attack combo (R2-square) suffices for almost all encounters, and except for a few buildings the environments are relatively two-dimensional. Again, the vision seems to be there (huge space station, fast-paced mech-on-mech warfare), but the execution shows its age.
The 2nd Runner is a much fuller realization of the ideas from the first, buoyed by redrawn manga cutscenes, way more boss battles with plenty of complexity, agile controls, and a more compelling narrative tied to Jehuty, the player’s mech from both games. From the outset, The 2nd Runner reveals a greater sense of confidence in its mechanics and storytelling, allowing the player to start in a cumbersome mining mech eclipsed by icy crags. It’s not until the player finds Jehuty that the robot battles start. The pacing established by this and other similar moments sets a more mature tone for the game, albeit one that’s still marked by an inability to fuse gameplay and narrative moments.
Mechanically, Jehuty moves faster and responds quicker in The 2nd Runner, which not only amps up the empowerment factor but allows for more demanding boss fights. Mostly these are with other mechs, each with its own vulnerability to some combination of Jehuty’s move set, including the use of environmental objects as weapons. More challenge, more variety in level design, and a more focused level progression narrow the sequel’s intention and capitalize on the game’s inherent strength in frenetic, mid-air mech battling.
These observations are from my first ever encounter with the Z.O.E. series, which I’d like to think lends some objectivity to the proposal of reviewing an HD remake. Rather than approaching the game to see how well it’s “held up” (a phrase that in itself implies nostalgic bias), I can judge whether it can entertain in the company of contemporary mech games like the Steel Battalion remake and Hawken. The Z.O.E. HD Collection ends up feeling more akin to a reboot of the Devil May Cry series, but lacks the bizarre tenacity of Dante’s journey and fails to carve a memorable place in a modern gaming library. Instead, it fits comfortably next to SSX 2, Grand Theft Auto 3, and all the other PS2-era games that haven’t improved with age.