The five destroyers in BAHRAM’s air armada equipped with particle cannons and support turrets are perfect for wiping out any who oppose the political faction, and only a high-performance super machine that combines an artificial intelligence with human ingenuity can overcome it. In Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, you systematically breach this fleet by unleashing locked-on lasers and homing missiles, and melt the ships’ cores with point blank fire from your high-output Vulcan Cannon. The battle above Vascillia is an epic mission that requires man and machine to harmonize into one being, and represents the important relationship that has built between the two.
Advancing technology expanded the way humans interact with machines. Through cars, computers, and any other machine that takes inputs and spits outputs, humans and machines were synthesizing, and the mecha genre, with its pilotable-mobile tanks, has found interesting ways to express the relationships. Zone of the Enders’ orbital frames are equipped with artificial intelligence that can assist their ‘runner’ pilots with complex maneuvering, and through its gameplay, The 2nd Runner explores how automation closes the gap in the Man-machine interface.
Konami’s original 2001 ZoE was familiar to those following the post Evangelion mecha scene, placing reluctant child Leo Stenbuck at Jehuty’s controls to save his space colony Antilia. Through battle, Leo matured through his relationship with ADA, the ship’s A.I. that acted as a maternal figure for the boy in her electronic womb. Shuyo Murata’s The 2nd Runner picks up after that with former BAHRAM soldier Dingo Egret fused into Jehuty’s chassis, its automated systems literally sustaining his dying body.
ZoE2’s slow, deliberate opening provides fantastic contrast for the game’s high-octane action. After leaving military service, Dingo moved to a mining operation on Jupiter’s moon, Callisto. For two minutes, you awkwardly trundle across the snow in your primitive mining mech until you stumble on an abandoned cargo container with Jehuty stashed inside. No sooner is ADA awakened than Dingo is zipping around the screen unleashing laser barrages, destroying the surrounding environment, and clashing with pilot Ken Marinaris searching for the lost orbital frame. The lightning-fast duel dynamically transitions from long distance shooter to up close hack-and-slash and back in a way unseen in videogames.
Every machine is built for a purpose like turning a wheel or moving a piston, but it is the result of a sequence of connected components such as gears or wires that trigger another action. Similarly, every computer program has its own internal systems of action/reaction that create gameplay, often defining and redefining what the machine does moment to moment.
A common way for videogame systems to vary up their gameplay is by changing what a controller button does from one situation to the next, either because the game is reading what is happening in game or because the player is pressing a button that modifies others. This gives the player more options while keeping the control scheme simple.
A button’s action needs to be appropriate for the machine’s larger purpose, and for a game like ZoE2 to operate efficiently, it’s different functions must complement each other- they need to contribute towards the same goal in different ways. Since Jehuty is a war machine, it’s important to see how the changes in its system changes how it engages its enemy.
Videogame combat exists on a spectrum from melee to ranged, and both styles come with their own pros and cons. Where ranged gunplay means anticipating where a target will be by the time your shot travels across the map, up close melee combat is about reading an opponent’s small tells so you can beat them to the punch. ZoE gives you these radically different fighting styles by automatically changing the square button’s attack depending on your proximity to enemies.
Zone of the Enders is an evolution of a long line of shooter design, and when Dingo is ambushed by a teenage Leo piloting the Vic Viper from Konami’s classic Gradius, it’s obvious that The 2nd Runner is fully aware of its lineage. 2D shooters started simply enough with the player’s ship facing waves of enemy types, but as their presentation improved they gradually became tightly scripted action scenes filled with bullets. Two design choices let ZoE translate SHMUP’s bullet-filled battles into 3D: hitting triangle and X to change Jehuty’s elevation and locking onto targets with L1. Combined, you can dodge high and low attacks while returning fire on your target by hitting square. Together, Zone of the Enders becomes a fully 3D version of legendary behind-the-back shooter Space Harrier.
While ZoE is a functional shooter, it also provides fighting game’s classic attack/block/throw melee trinity. Now, pressing square creates a simple combo string that ends by knocking the enemy back, up, or down, and adds bonus damage if they slam into a wall. Grabbed enemies can be thrown, used as shields, or drained for their energy depending on the next button press, which greatly expands the player’s options. These simple mechanics work well together and, when combined with ZoE’s other mechanics, create a unique gameplay experience.
By automating the attack button’s function based on distance, the game is closing the psychological and mechanical gap between thought and action. This is why efficiency is crucial in engineering. In action games, the programming needs to be laid out with as little interruption between button press and result so that players can move when they need to, and ZoE’s automated systems can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Both the ranged and melee combat are great on their own, but Jehuty’s dash mechanic brings it all together. Hitting R2 sends energy throughout your orbital frame, directing it to the machine’s different systems-and modifying other buttons at the same time-depending on what it is doing. Hitting it while moving dashes. In ranged combat, this lets you evade shots; When close-up, it lets you swiftly move between enemies or agilely dance around a single one. Charging R2 and attacking while standing in place channels a burst of energy to your weapon systems, either shooting a ball at a ranged enemy or powering a shield-destroying spin against nearby ones. The dash mechanic fluidly modifies all other moves beautifully.
Automation comprises both individual machines and multiple ones networked together. In individual machines, systems feed a constant steam of data and status updates. Users once limited to mechanical inputs such as pedals and wheels have been given electronic buttons and voice recognition to interact with the machine and it communicates data back through gauges, alarms, and screens. Videogames are self-contained machines, and the inputs are the controller buttons and the output is the on-screen visuals including character animations, HUD elements, and sounds. Since machines only work in programmed ways, they tend to have simple individual actions, a basic behavioral pattern.
Networked machines can unite small ones into a larger automated body. In the real world, buildings and infrastructure are increasingly comprised of connected devices that communicate back and forth including security alarms, cameras, door locks, heating systems, and many other devices, making the automated sum greater than the parts. This same idea applies to ZoE2’s enemy formations. The versatile Raptors, slow and powerful Mummy Heads, and fast Naritas can all rally around a commander to work as an integrated whole, a group of subordinates coordinated by a central unit to overrun the player.
Since the genre was based on tanks and jets, mecha fiction fundamentally understands the connection between pilot and machine, that the mech becomes a mental and physical extension of the pilot’s body. The mental link depends on a few factors: How much the controls correspond to real human movement, how well the rider can perceive the action the machine is taking, and how quick the response time between human action and machine reaction. The 2nd Runner’s ADA further bridges the man-machine barrier by learning to anticipate your needs. By asking if you want a specific weapon in specific situations and then automatically swapping to it, she is learning to help you so you can focus on the battle at hand.
A machine’s output is so great that it lets you overcome huge tasks, and Zone of the Ender 2’s mission scenarios test Jehuty and Dingo’s collective strength. These levels quickly alternate between fighting through orbiting space ships to rocky canyons, from a frenetic train chase to standing your ground on a battlefield choked with foes. ZoE’s pacing quickly moves you from one scene to the next and rarely lets up. The automatic switching between ranged and melee modes shoots the game’s pacing into high gear. Not only are you seamlessly moving back and forth between gameplay styles, you get into a rhythm of blocking and attacking, throwing enemies, shooting a dozen sub weapons, and breaking enemy shields with a burst spin. It’s blissful.
But Jehuty is not the only supercharged mech on the battlefield. Throughout ZoE2, you face an army of larger-than-life foes, from Ken’s Ardjet to an A.I. emulating the first ZoE’s Viola and Jehuty’s twin Anubis, but no boss is bigger than the massive orbital frame Zakat. The fight is fast and dynamic, automatically switching between dodging lasers and pulse waves at range and coming in close to rip the shield plating from its shell so you can breach its armor protecting the soft human center. The close/far pacing is wonderfully realized by the fluid gameplay, and keeps battles pumping.
Of course, humans are biological machines with their own mechanical frames, electrical nervous systems, and feedback, and it’s all coordinated by the central processor that is your brain. Since videogames are virtual machines that simulate a world, all our attempts to interface with them have been limited by a powerful barrier: The flat glass screen the game is displayed on. But with The 2nd Runner’s 2018 M∀RS remake, the game was given virtual reality support to put you in the cockpit with full 360 degree viewing to look back on Jehuty towering above. The VR completely reframes the game to a fundamentally personal level, destroying the mental barrier between player and game world. With it, the man-machine interface approaches 1:1 synchronicity.
Completing ZoE2’s campaign opens up a two player versus mode that gives you access to virtually every orbital frame in the game to test your skills against another pilot. It allows two humans to see who’s better at harmonizing with their machine and achieve victory. Similar to how its mechs feed data to their pilots, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner’s subsystems circulate data inside the automated videogame world to put its pilots into larger bodies. With games, your mind can jack directly into any virtual machine, and extend your mind and body infinitely.
DEVELOPER: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
PLATFORM: PlayStation 2
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.