Video Game Theme Week: Zone of Enders - IDOLO
by Colony Drop Staff - January 26 2010

[The following review is a guest review by Tim Maughan, who found time in his busy schedule of Twittering way too much to assist us on our theme week.]

I should just raise my hand and admit it — when picking up the Zone of the Enders game back in 2001, I was, like many others, mainly motivated by the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty demo disc that it was bundled with. Back then, the still-exciting MGS franchise provided a measure of justification for shelling out the inflated UK price for a PS2, even as the console lay gathering dust while I played Dreamcast. At the time, compelling PAL titles for Sony’s overpriced machine were still depressingly scarce, and the fact that Hideo Kojima himself had been the creative drive behind the property offered a glimmer of hope for Z.O.E.

...

As it turned out, the MGS demo was a fun, albeit short, distraction. Played over and over again to impress friends who came to check out the PS2, the demo offered no indication of how flawed and pretentious the final product would end up. Z.O.E. itself, sadly, failed to make an impression, with the anime-styled cutscenes and mecha designs (by Metal Gear’s Yoji Shinkawa) delivering more of an impact that the generic actual gameplay. The control system was typically Japanese, with a lock-on targeting mechanic meant to make things easier. In my clumsy Western hands, it felt somewhat illogical and frustrating, often making even the most basic attempts to move around levels downright infuriating. Though it helped while away a stoned weekend, I don’t recall ever finishing it. Most likely, it got ditched halfway through Sunday, overpowered by the call of Soul Calibur and Crazy Taxi.

Until now, I hadn’t bothered with the associated OVA, mainly because the DVD didn’t hit the UK until 2003, when the franchise had already fallen off my radar. Released in Japan to coincide with the game’s 2001 launch, Zone of the Enders – IDOLO is a 50-minute Sunrise-produced one-shot, serving as world-building, scene-setting prequel to the events in the game. It’s 2167, and mankind has made successful inroads into colonizing the Solar System, including Mars and the Jovian system. It’s not all smooth sailing, though — there’s a palpable Cold War continuing between Earth and its colonies. The Martians want independence, secretly developing a new class of mech (called Orbital Frame) that they hope to prove the leverage needed to break away from Terran control. Enter the show’s protagonist Radium Lavans and sidekick Viola, test pilots for the new prototype. Dubbed Idolo, this mech is built from a newly discovered material called Metatron, which makes it more powerful then existing models. The downside is that the substance causes a damaging and intoxicating psychological effect on Radium’s personality and temper, to the extent that he is nearly pulled from the project. When a plot by Earth spies to steal the prototype goes awry, they kidnap its inventor, along with Radium’s love interest. This causes Radium to go into a Metatron-fuelled rage and pursue a rescue attempt in violation of orders, ending up having to single-handedly take on both Earth and Martian forces.

So far, so Gundam. While it’s clear that Sunrise’s flagship franchise had an undeniable influence on both the game’s design and the OVA’s plot (and apparently, Kojima’s design work in general), Z.O.E. has enough interesting plot devices of its own to stand slightly taller than most of the other Gundam wannabes on the block. An early scene succinctly captures the animosity between Earth and Mars, as Radium takes a beating from a visiting group of arrogant Earth officers. His Martian heritage and low-gravity upbringing make it difficult to fight back — his punches are too weak, and the sneering tormentors merely laugh back at him. This quick, simple sequence efficiently demonstrates the racial hatred between the two factions, setting up a convincing baseline for the history of simmering tension without resorting to tugging heartstrings or drawn-out exposition. It’s a glimpse into a time when mainstream anime scriptwriting still knew how to present ideas visually and intelligently, a moment that by itself almost makes Z.O.E. worth watching.

Elsewhere, the show draws ideas from Evangelion (a sad, but unsurprising, trend for shows produced at the time), most notably in Radium’s berserk outbursts and hallucinations, as he becomes further intoxicated and influenced by Idolo. Idolo’s design hearkens visually to Eva as well; much more interesting to me personally was the realistic, Patlabor-esque look of the mass-produced rank-and-file mecha (or LEVs). From backgrounds to character designs, the art is always more than adequate, making up for a lack of flair or originality with consistent professionalism. Z.O.E. isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind with its visuals, but the art and direction feel surprisingly high-end for what was basically a marketing exercise designed to help kick off a new franchise.

In hindsight, this is perhaps Z.O.E.’s most striking and surprising victory: despite being a video game cash-in, it feels surprisingly earnest and fresh in today’s cynically pandering world of Japanese animation. To be sure, there’s plenty of mech fanservice, a necessary aspect of hooking the mecha fandom to a new franchise, but it never feels excessive. This is an effort that remains focused on its target group, without feeling compelled to cater to other fanbases. In contrast, consider the recent Devil May Cry adaptation, which felt the need to inject a bizarrely inappropriate moé/pedophile abomination into a franchise about a wisecracking jerk who kills demons for a living.

While Z.O.E.’s short run-time certainly adds to its punchiness, it also feels slightly rushed at times. It certainly served its purpose at the time — the franchise became successful enough to spawn not only another game, but even a full 26-episode Sunrise TV series called Z.O.E. Dolores,i. I haven’t seen Dolores, but it’s now on my to-watch list. And considering the dearth of decent Japanese-produced science fiction or mecha shows recently, it’s looking like I may get around to it sooner rather than later.

25 comments

Comment from: KING OF NIGERIA [Visitor] · http://bird.biofever.com

There were lolis in Devil May Cry? I know what I’m watching.

01/26/10 @ 19:09

Comment from: Jason [Visitor] · http://modewarp.net/blog/

I’m just gonna go in order here.

First, the game. To preface this, I did enjoy Zoe, but I recognize it as a fun but flawed title, you’re just way off the mark in identifying those flaws.

The original Zoe’s greatest problem is it’s brevity, not it’s relatively simple control scheme, which *somehow* eluded you that fateful stoned weekend. Perhaps if the buttons on your controller had lights and were composed of nachos you would have had a better time of it.

The notion that a control scheme of all things as somehow being inherently Japanese, and through that, somehow incomprehensible is as ridiculous as it is wrong. Are you trying to get a job writing for 1up? You’d fit right in.

Regarding the cartoon itself, perhaps it’s because my viewpoint is tainted by having played the game sober before checking out the expanded universe, but your Gundam comparison seems tenuous at best. While the Mars versus Earth aspect may have been played up ever so slightly in the prequel OVA it takes an incredible back seat in the franchise as a whole, which, in the end, is about a crazy guy building a doomsday device. Had this not been farmed out to an absolute D level team at Sunrise I don’t even think a Gundam comparison would have been made in the first place.

Mechanically, the Egyptian themed robots which make up a majority of the mechanical designs in the franchise as a whole are hardly reminiscent of everyone’s favorite V finned machines or Gainax’s sacred cow. The majority of the mechanical designs from the game were based on (almost exactly) Yoji Shinkawas sketches from when he was still in school. Now this is a man born in 1971. Something tells me Evangelion wasn’t the first thing on his mind when he was doodling in his sketchbook.

I’m not really sure how you arrived at the conclusion that it draws plot ideas from Evangelion. Just because he goes crazy and sees things he’s TOTALLY like Shinji? Thats all I see you saying and it seems like a bit of a reach, perhaps you could elaborate.

I had to refresh my memory on the production values on the show because I never associated the word “high-end” with it at all. It has a couple of stand out sequences during the final fight, but the character animation was stiff as a board, and most of the robot animation was rather lackluster for an OVA. Your praise seems misdirected, like it should get recognition for being depressingly milquetoast instead of hilariously awful. Perhaps it’s worst transgression in my opinion is that the robot animation fails to capture the “feel” of the games cutscenes and fight sequences, which makes this already periphery OVA completely irrelevant.

Idolo and the first game were not “popular enough to spawn a tv series and another game.” Rather, this OVA and Dolores, I, were both released / aired in 2001 alongside the game as part of a mixed media project. It did as you say, spawn a single sequel, which ironically has more lavish animated sequences than scene in both the OVA and the entire tv run.

Idolo’s place in all this is unfortunately less of a prequel to the game, and more of a prequel to the lackluster Dolores, I. The tv series contains all the out of place elements to appeal outside the genre you mentioned were lacking from Idolo, such as the Houko Kuwashima voiced orbital frame that at one point dons a maid outfit and has fantasies about being romanced by it’s pilot. In a way though, it kinda works. By making something other than the janky robot animation the appeal, it actually manages to succeed as a kind of family adventure / sitcom. If anything skip Idolo and watch a few episodes of Dolores instead, at least it’s got an absurd premise you’ll never see again.

Wow this turned out longer than I wanted it to.

01/26/10 @ 19:33

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

>Jason

Let’s just check over your comment again:

1. Bafflingly angry-sounding rhetoric considering the subject under discussion - check.
2. Long post, relentlessly pursuing every point of grievance - check
3. Pained expressions of despair at the sheer inadequacy of the writer you’re criticising - check.

Are you auditioning for a job writing for CD?

01/27/10 @ 20:29

Comment from: sean [Member]

To be fair, Jason’s comment was far longer than most posts on Colony Drop.

01/28/10 @ 03:15

Comment from: Tim Maughan [Visitor] · http://Timmaughanbooks.com

@Jason: I’m chilling on a beach in Thailand right now, so will probably will answer in full when I get back. Until then: fucking lol:)

01/28/10 @ 06:05

Comment from: pancakesandsex [Member] · http://www.modewarp.net/blog/

Thailand eh? Be sure to do a nut check before you take a 13 year old hooker back to the hotel. -_o

01/28/10 @ 19:19

Comment from: timmaughan [Visitor] · http://timmaughanbooks.com

Nut check? On them before hand, or mine afterwards? Oh I’m so confused, and it’s too late now.

I’ll be honest Jason, I simply cannot be arsed to respond to most of your points, which is pathetic I know, but right now I can’t even be bothered to read them all again. It’s a cop-out yes, but I’m jet-lagged. Apologies, really.

No, I don’t want a job at 1-Up. The four years I spent working as a producer and project manager in the game industry was enough for me to know I’d never want to go back there again. It was also enough that I have (or had, at least) a pretty good understanding of control design theory. And yes, there are differences in Western and Japanese approaches to this area. If the game had been designed in the west it would have utilised a fairly standard twin-stick 3rd person approach to movement. Instead it had a typically Japanese obsession with lock-ons (if I remember correctly, it was a pretty long time ago and the game is utterly forgettable) which I found, in this instance, fiddly.

Also: I don’t like nachos.

As for your comments about the influence of Eva. Sadly here you’ve fallen in to a regrettable trap that many, many otaku fall into - while displaying an admirable and exhaustive knowledge of anime with amazing attention to particular detail, you seemingly don’t have a single clue about how the industry itself operates.

There are simple rules applicable to any creative and entertainment industry (something I again - painfully - learned while working in games) that govern the path of any production process. The biggest of these is often refered to as the ‘features tickbox checklist’. Investors don’t like taking risks, and the best way they see of minimising this is by making sure their product is as similar as possible to products that have succeeded in the past. They do this by annoying the fuck out of artists, writers and directors with an ever expanding list of things that must be included because ‘they worked in Eva and Gundam and the fans love them’. The list is the reason so many anime shows, Hollywood movies and video games start from potentially good ideas and end up as lifeless, generic failures. Please don’t be under any illusion that EVERY mecha related show post Eva didn’t have someone wearing a suit stood over the production team at every stage nagging them to include Eva-like aspects. Just be lucky they didn’t make the main protagonist ‘a withdrawn youth who has difficulties getting along with others…and whose mother and father didn’t much care for him’ - oh no, wait. They left that FOR THE ACTUAL GAME.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_the_Enders_%28video_game%29#Characters

02/10/10 @ 04:32

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

Just to add, I was also confused about that whole quite weird nuts comment. Fortunately I wasn’t in Thailand, so my nuts are apparently safe from ambiguous Siamese danger.

Other than that, I should add that everything that everything Tim Maughan says about the game it true. I bought it on the PS2 when it first came out, had an enormous amount of fun on it up to a point, but it wasn’t really all that much of a game. Ico it ain’t.

02/10/10 @ 13:38

Comment from: botagel [Member]

I’ll be honest Jason, I simply cannot be arsed to respond to most of your points, which is pathetic I know, but right now I can’t even be bothered to read them all again. It’s a cop-out yes, but I’m jet-lagged. Apologies, really.

And yet, you replied anyway!

As for your comments about the influence of Eva. Sadly here you’ve fallen in to a regrettable trap that many, many otaku fall into - while displaying an admirable and exhaustive knowledge of anime with amazing attention to particular detail, you seemingly don’t have a single clue about how the industry itself operates.

You namechecked Gundam up there, so I assume you’re being facetious when you imply that Eva was somehow remarkable for having an angst-filled teenage protagonist who has a bad relationship with his parents. But I suppose judging by your attitude, it’s just as likely that you’ve fallen into the same classic Japanimation fandom trap of “Eva was my introduction to the genre, so obviously it invented all of these tropes.”

02/10/10 @ 15:05

Comment from: Tim Maughan [Visitor] · http://timmaughanbooks.com

“But I suppose judging by your attitude, it’s just as likely that you’ve fallen into the same classic Japanimation fandom trap of “Eva was my introduction to the genre, so obviously it invented all of these tropes."”

Nope, not at all. My point was that since Eva was such a recent cash-cow at the time ZOE was made that it would have been impossible for the suits in charge to ignore it. Plus Star Fleet/X-Bomber was my introduction to the mecha genre, technically speaking :P

02/12/10 @ 05:03

Comment from: Overt [Visitor]

Forgetting the EVA/Gundam otaku whining that is going on in the comments, the article is clearly written by someone with inadequate competence of a title that has a little, but fervent cult following both in the west and in the east.

Most of the other points Jason initially made are also undeniably true, which the writer of this article probably understands himself. For instance, the mere technical achievements of ZOE and ZOE2 in the control department represent to this day the best form of real time 3D movement of a humanoid character (do you wonder why they are actually so few? Exactly because of the difficulty to make an adequate control system!)
However, mostly due to the uniqueness of its design and concept, ZOE won’t ever achieve widespread success. (which didn’t stop the producers to claim a PS3 ZOE was/is in the planning)

Returning to the anime, idolo doesn’t have many redeeming qualities, other than perhaps presenting a well thought setting, while “Dolores, I” is surprisingly good, but not as the mecha anime it claims to be.

I guess the writer of the article simply failed to nail the obvious clue points and had to invent some on his own…

02/13/10 @ 08:03

Comment from: Tim Maughan [Visitor] · http://Timmaughanbooks.com

‘inadequate competence’. That’s amazing.

‘I guess the writer of the article simply failed to nail the obvious clue points and had to invent some on his own…’

Wow. I just watched the show and wrote down my opinions on it. Damn. I didn’t know I’d missed the obvious clue points. Reviewing straight to video extended adverts for very generic video games is so damned HARD.

02/13/10 @ 17:05

Comment from: Tim Maughan [Visitor] · http://Timmaughanbooks.com

‘For instance, the mere technical achievements of ZOE and ZOE2 in the control department represent to this day the best form of real time 3D movement of a humanoid character’

If this was actually true, then it would have been used in every single video game subsequently made. If there’s one single thing the games industry does well it’s plagiarism.

02/13/10 @ 17:24

Comment from: pancakesandsex [Member] · http://www.modewarp.net/blog/

“If this was actually true, then it would have been used in every single video game subsequently made. If there’s one single thing the games industry does well it’s plagiarism.”

The concept and execution were not only unique to the time, but remain unique to this day. I can’t even think of another game where such “plagiarism” would even be applicable.

02/13/10 @ 20:48

Comment from: Tim Maughan [Visitor] · http://Timmaughanbooks.com

So Jason, in other words, what Overt really meant was:

‘’For instance, the mere technical achievements of ZOE and ZOE2 in the control department represent to this day the best form of real time 3D movement of a humanoid character IN A ZOE GAME’

I see. An impressive achievement indeed.

02/14/10 @ 04:20

Comment from: Helen McCarthy [Visitor] · http://helenmccarthy.wordpress.com/

Hey Tim, I’ve always found your competence perfectly adequate. And when it comes to choosing between two opinions, if all other things are equal, I’ll go for the guy who signs his own name rather than the one who hides behind an alias every time. Old-fashioned and quaint as it is, I rather like the idea that if you’re going to sling opinions, or insults, you should do it openly.

02/20/10 @ 11:28

Comment from: pancakesandsex [Member] · http://www.modewarp.net/blog/

Who are you referring to with that comment in particular Helen?

02/20/10 @ 12:06

Comment from: Helen McCarthy [Visitor] · http://www.helenmccarthy.org

I don’t have anyone in particular in mind, Jason, and it doesn’t relate solely to this topic. It’s just a personal preference, I find it easier to respect and trust an opinion when the person holding it is willing to stand behind it.

I think the widespread use of pseudonyms on the internet encourages a high level of discourtesy and sloppy argument. People who use pseudonyms know that their family, boss or whoever will never see their inner five-year-old on the rampage, so they feel able to behave in ways that they’d never contemplate if they could be recognised.

02/24/10 @ 02:43

Comment from: Marc McKenzie [Visitor] · http://redshoulder.deviantart.com/gallery/

To Helen: Very much in agreement with you in regards to the use of pseudonyms on the ‘net. Personally, if someone uses their real name while giving their _informed_ opinion on the ‘net, that’s a huge step than just spewing out nonsense and bile while hiding behind an idiotic nickname.

Check some of the talkback forums at say, Ain’t It Cool News or the Internet Movie Database for examples…

02/24/10 @ 22:42

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

Like many people, I think, I’ve just got stuck with this nom de Net from years ago and decided that having a consistent online identity trumps all the messing about necessary to change to using my real name (which anyone who looks around any of my web sites can find out with little or no bother anyway).

It also must depend on where a person is writing from. I know that in Japan people very rarely use their real names on the Web, which I think is partly down to Japanese society having a more protective attitude towards privacy (witness how nuts people went over Google Street View) and pertly due to employers’ stricter attitude towards employees’ extra-curricular activities.

That said, these are just caveats and I agree on principle to what you’re saying. As I said, I think having a consistent online identity is more important, as defence against sockpuppeting, and most importantly, people should just ask themselves, “Would I be prepared to say this to someone’s face?” before posting anything.

02/25/10 @ 03:00

Comment from: Kid Fenris [Visitor] · http://www.kidfenris.com

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

02/25/10 @ 23:12

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

Sadly, the truth for so many online posters is, “I’m an enormous wanker.”

02/26/10 @ 08:37

Comment from: Marc McKenzie [Visitor] · http://redshoulder.deviantart.com/gallery/

To Kid Fenris: Interesting point, but remember that “mask” originally meant “persona".

To dotdash: Great points, and sadly, all too true about many online posters. The thing is they don’t even realize that they ARE wankers…some will even ask, “What does that mean?”

You are right though–people need to ask, “Would I say this to someone’s face?” I prefer to use my own name in some forums because I feel that I am responsible for what I say and I should stand by it. If I’m wrong, I will admit to it. But I do think the same thing–would I say this to someone’s face? Or rather, WOULD I have the courage to say this to someone’s face without the benefit of anonymity?

02/26/10 @ 11:53

Comment from: Helen McCarthy [Visitor] · http://helenmccarthy.wordpress.com/

That quote may well be true, Kid Fenris. I would simply rather it weren’t.

When I’m talking to people I tend to trust them and hope they trust me. That trust grows with acquaintance, and breeds liking and respect. If people start from the principle that they will not tell the truth without layers of protection, how far can trust grow?

I know a few of the people on Colony Drop so I know their various netnames. Everyone has their own reason for disguise, often something as simple as the fun of playing in a different persona, but for a few it’s a cover for idiocy and ignorance.

03/03/10 @ 23:43

Comment from: Jack [Visitor]

Having a completely generic first name make me consider that there’s little need for me to disguise myself.

03/06/10 @ 04:29

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