The Not-So-Secret Formula
Zone of the Enders is probably best referred to as Hideo Kojima's other game; the giant mecha and space battles title he works on as a snack between Metal Gear Solids. While the first game, released on the PS2 early last year, will certainly go down in most people's memories as "the free game you got when you bought the MGS2 demo", in Japan the franchise has been somewhat more successful, with a TV animation series based on it, a second PS2 title on the way - and this, the GBA game known as ZoE: 2174 Testament in Japan, but mysteriously renamed to ZoE: The Fist of Mars for its English-language release.
Those familiar with the PS2 title will know the basic ZoE formula; you fly a fearsome mech with a HAL-9000 style personality problem, blow up lots of other somewhat less fearsome mechs, save the girl and futilely try to vanquish the bad guys, all set against an anime-esque backdrop of epic conflict. Fist of Mars retains many of the basic ingredients - epic conflict, check; fearsome mechs, check; bad guys, check; anime stylings, check; girl to be saved, check.... However, the gameplay of the PS2 game is wisely disposed of, as it simply wouldn't work on the GBA, and replaced with a turn based strategy which is more than slightly reminiscent of the seminal Advance Wars.
Early in the game, you assume control of a rag-tag band of Martian freedom fighters, who become embroiled in all manner of political intrigue as they battle to protect Martian civilians from the worst excesses of the Earth-based military. Your team includes all manner of units, from supply and repair vehicles through specialised mecha, right up to the mighty Orbital Frames - a similar brand of fearsome mech to Jehuty from the original ZoE. Unlike Advance Wars, you can't manufacture units on the battlefield; if you lose one, it's gone until the next encounter, so you have to be quite sensible about your defensive strategies.
Advance Wars in the Zone
The strong points of the game are certainly in its plot and presentation. Compared to the somewhat infantile plot of Advance Wars, Fist of Mars is practically War and Peace; filled with interesting and amusing characters and a fair bit of twisting and turning in the plot, it's compelling enough to keep you going through the game despite other flaws. The incidental graphics are superb, with well-drawn characters and vehicles, and the overall presentation is excellent, although the colourful and distinctive graphics of Advance Wars are certainly in a class of their own in this field.
Constant comparisons to Advance Wars, as you may have gathered, are inevitable; and while Fist of Mars has a better plot and more dialogue to keep RPG fans interested, it's not half the game Advance Wars is in terms of sheer playability. The clever strategies and combined arms approach of Advance Wars is nowhere to be found, replaced with units which are all too similar in terms of offensive and defensive abilities, and overall the game feels dull and uninteresting compared to its illustrious rival.
This is a terrible shame; one can't help but picture the Fist of Mars development team crying into their sake when they first saw Advance Wars, because were it not for the existence of that game, this would be the best turn based strategy on the console by a mile. However, with the impending release of Final Fantasy Tactics on the GBA, Fist of Mars looks even less impressive; if ZoE is a snack between MGS titles for Kojima, then this is nothing more than a snack between excellent turn based games for the GBA. It's a must have for ZoE fans such as myself, but its glaring flaws and total inadequacy when stacked up against Advance Wars make it impossible to recommend to the casual gamer.