So "Kiss Me Sunlights", as I put a "Ring on the World" to go "Beyond the Bounds", because "You Know Where We're Going?"
ZONE OF THE ENDERS!!!
|Just using the Japanese logos for consistency.|
Before we start, though, some quick set-up to establish things, for those unfamiliar. Zone of the Enders takes place in the latter half of 22nd century, specifically from 2167 to 2174, following mankind's colonization of Mars & space colonies being set up around the orbit of Jupiter. The eponymous "Enders" are what those in control on Earth call the Mars & Jupiter colonists, which in turn has resulted in harsh laws & taxes against them. This has resulted in various groups & organizations rising up to rebel on Mars, the most important for the overall storyline being the military force BAHRAM, based out of Vacilia County. As for the giant robots themselves, they come in two main forms: The standard Laborious Extra-Orbital Vehicle, or LEV, & the more advanced Orbital Frame. With those basics out of the way, let's start running!
We start things off not with the first game, but rather an OVA that came packaged with the game in Japan's premium edition release on March 3, 2001: Zone of the Enders: 2167 Idolo. Taking place in the year 2167 (obviously), the OVA tells the story of Radium Lavans & Viola Gyune, two BAHRAM LEV pilots who get chosen to be the "Frame Runners" of Idolo, the very first Obrtial Frame ever made. This is a top-secret program led by Dr. Rachel Links, with Radium's paramour Dolores Hayes being Dr. Links' assistant. The focus here is primarily on Radium, "Radam" (which is how it's technically pronounced in Japanese) in the first game's translation, who joined the Martian army because he was born on the planet & wants to do right by his home, especially when visiting Earth soldiers take advantage of their natural physical superiority (due to different gravitational forces) to bully & abuse their Martian counterparts. This anger over his planet's situation is what slowly drives him more & more insane while piloting the Idolo, with the Frame's use of Metatron, a mysterious Martian ore that is used to power the Idolo, seemingly taking over him & using his rage to make the Frame itself more powerful... Which is something that no one, not even Dr. Links, took into consideration.
All the while, the OVA also shows how "Dolly" wants to try to keep Radium sane & cognizant of his descent into madness, which in turn makes Radium want to get out of the project. Meanwhile, Viola's shown to be someone who deep down has her own feelings for Radium, as he's the person who brought her into the military & gave her life meaning; without him, Viola likely wouldn't even be alive by this point. This all comes to a head when Dr. Links & Dolores are kidnapped by Earth infiltrators, who want to have their own Orbtial Frames, forcing Radium to pilot Idolo one last time in what would later be called "The Deimos Incident", the moment when BAHRAM's Orbital Frame project (accidentally) becomes known to Earth. Really, 2167 Idolo is a tragedy, showing both the magnificence of the Orbital Frame, as well as the risks that eventually led to the tragic last stand of Radium Lavans; his experiences with the Idolo are what lead to certain advancements in Frame technology seen all other productions. At the same time, this OVA sets up important elements for the next two productions, which I'll get to when needed.
Without a doubt, Z.O.E 2176 Idolo is not just a damn good OVA in & of itself, but is an outstanding introduction to the world of Zone of the Enders, setting up & giving backstory that will no doubt help explain things later on.
Following that you'd think that up next would be the first game, but not so fast, LAZY! Up next chronologically are the first 12 episodes of Zone of the Enders: Dolores, i, a TV anime series produced by the same staff at Sunrise, lead by director Tetsuya Watanabe (Midnight Occult Civil Servants, Schwarzes Marken) & head writer Shin Yoshida (Speed Grapher, Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise) that produced the Idolo OVA; these episodes aired from April 4 to June 22, 2001. Taking place five years later, in the year 2172, the anime stars James Links, a space trucker who left the Earth military five years ago, after being told that his estranged wife Rachel was announced as dead following the Deimos Incident; his children Leon & Noel then left Jim, tearing the family apart. Deciding to finally visit his kids for Noel's birthday, Jim takes a job to transport a mysterious cargo to Earth, only to find out during transport that the cargo is in fact a giant, pink Orbital Frame outfitted with a highly-advanced A.I. calling itself Dolores, who immediately calls Jim her "destined Uncle". Jim then gets framed for murder during a standard inspection when approaching Earth, which in turn gets Leon & Noel wanted for collusion, forcing the three to finally reunite for the first time in years, and things only get fishier when Dolores reveals that she not only knows a lullaby that only Rachel ever sung, but she also has a message for Jim from his wife, asking that Dolores not get into anyone's hands. So the Links Family decides to head back to Mars in order to find out if Dr. Rachel Links is indeed still alive, with a mysterious organization after them & Dolores (which the group calls "Isis"), as well as Baan Dorfloum, the psychotic & anti-Martian Chief Inspector of the UN Space Force's investigation squad, Wired.
Whereas 2167 Idolo is a very serious & tragic tale, Dolores, i is a much looser series, mixing together a fun & amusing broken family dynamic with a serious cavalcade of mysteries. Is Dr. Links truly still alive? Why does Dolores have the same name (& even voice) as Radium's paramour? What makes this all the more interesting is that, if you paid specific attention while watching, the Idolo OVA does show Dr. Links avoiding a situation that would otherwise have killed her, only for her to never be seen again, as well as a quick shot that indicates how Dolores Hayes might be involved with the Dolores A.I., which only helps make the viewer start to theorize on their own. It's also notable that Dolores, i actually goes against the usual mech anime standard by having its entire main cast be comprised of adults, with James Links being 49 years old, & his kids already being in their early 20s, at the very least; this gives the series a notably different feel, which is to be commended. As for the story that's told in these 12 episodes, it's definitely more about the journey here. The first five episodes revolve around James getting Dolores, heading to Earth to reunite with Leon & Noel, & then escaping Earth, with the next six episodes focusing on getting back to Mars in order to start searching for Dr. Links, all while being chased after by Frame-running mystery men triplets & Inspector Baan, who simply wants the Links (& their horrid Martian "stench") dead. Finally, upon making it back to Mars, Episode 12 is a one-off homage to the 1988 classic Die Hard, making it just a fun episode in its own right; the anime has many episodes that are named after movies, but this is the most blatant, content-wise.
As Jim, Leon, Noel, & Dolores make their way to Martian land, though, BAHRAM makes a move on an unsuspecting Jupiter colony...
Up next, we can finally move on to the first game in the series, simply titled Zone of the Enders. Originally starting development for the Sega Dreamcast under the code name "Atlantis", the game moved over the PlayStation 2 due to that system's higher specs, where it sold around 750,000 copies worldwide, almost half of which was in North America... But that's mainly because it was sold with a demo for the highly-anticipated game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It was then re-released in late 2012 as part of the Zone of the Enders HD Collection for Xbox 360 & PS3; I played the 360 version on the Xbox One via backwards compatibility, which improved performance (i.e. a constant 60 FPS). The story stars Leo Stenbuck, a 14 year old boy who lives on the Antilia Colony near Jupiter when it's suddenly attacked by BAHRAM forces lead by the enigmatic Nohman, with Viola Gyune in the squad with her Orbital Frame, Neith. In an attempt to escape from the destruction, Leo comes across a giant robot that he gets himself into, only to find out that it's an Orbital Frame named Jehuty, with the Frame's A.I., ADA, explaining to Leo that he has to get Jehuty to the civilian transport vessel Atlantis, which is commanded by a woman named Elena Weinberg, as the intended pilot died during the attack; the Jehuty is the entire reason for BAHRAM's assault, as they want it. While making his way to the Atlantis, Leo & ADA save civilians from BAHRAM attack, including Celvice Klein, a friend of his who joins them in the adventure.
To most people, the original Z.O.E is where they'd start experiencing this franchise, but by holding off until it happens chronologically, you do wind up with some extra details that add to the experience. For example, seeing the 2167 Idolo OVA gives Viola's (admittedly few) actions in this game immediate meaning that you wouldn't have at all if you skipped it; she's been looking for nothing more than a warrior's death, so that she can finally join Radium. Also, coming across the Jehuty has some more gravitas to it, as it had already appeared a couple of times in Dolores, i in the form of static-filled silhouettes that Dolores sees in her "mind", wondering who the figure is. Finally, there are some minor references that you might pop for, like ADA bringing up the Urenbeck Catapult, which the Links Family actually used in order to get to Mars faster. In terms of what Z.O.E brings to the overall plot of the franchise, however, it really isn't much. It's a rather paper-thin story that can literally be summed up as such: "Imagine a Gundam game where it's only about Amuro Ray getting in the RX-78 & finding his way to White Base, in order to escape the colony with Frau Bow." That's all there is to the plot, really, but at least Leo is someone who sticks to his "no killing" ideals, even if ADA finds it illogical (an obvious homage to Eiji Asuka's conflict with the A.I. Lay in Blue Comet SPT Layzner), and it is impressive that he's able to conduct such fast-paced combat with a teenage girl in his lap the entire time; seriously, Celvice has no other spot in Jehuty's cockpit, so she's got to be on Leo's lap the whole game. Still, you do get the end of Viola's tragic story here, and the final battle is an unwinnable one against Nohman & his godly Orbital Frame, Anubis, setting up some things for the sequel, even though one was never in the plans, apparently. Anyway, at this point, it becomes obvious that Frames named after Egyptian gods are something to pay attention to. We now have Isis, Anubis, Neith, & Horus Behdety of Edfu (which "Jehuty" is a phonetic corruption of), while the original Orbital Frame, Idolo, is likely based on the Greek word "Eidolon", paying homage to the eventual relationship between ancient Greece & Egypt.
Overall, the original Zone of the Enders can feel a bit like a tech demo, what with its slim plotting & characters, relatively simple gameplay, & super short length. Even with answering all five S.O.S calls, which are the game's equivalent to side quests, it shouldn't take you any longer than 4 hours on your first go. Still, it's the simple gameplay that allows for the game to play as fast as it does, which is really the main hook; at the time (& even to an extent today), very little played quite like this. Also, its short length does make for something that almost encourages you to replay it, either on higher difficulties or for speedrunning. It's easy to see why this first game has been so overshadowed by its sequel, but there still is (simple) fun to be had here.
With the original game out of the way, we move on to the remaining 14 episodes of Z.O.E: Dolores, i, which take place after the incident on Antilia; these episodes aired from June 29 to September 28, 2001. Moving back to "Robust father" James Links, older son Leon, younger daughter Noel, & giant robot niece Dolores Isis (plus pink pet cat Pete), they finally reach Martian mainland in search of Dr. Rachel Links, where they run into BAHRAM forces who are working with Nereidum Universal Technology, which is run by a man with a Metatron-reconstructed right arm named Napth Pleminger... Who looks & sounds rather similar to a certain man involved in the Deimos Incident who was thought dead. Not only that, but Baan Dorfloum & Wired shortly later arrive on Mars because of the Antilia incident, spreading the Links' wanted status around, though Baan would simply prefer it if he can wind up killing not just the Links, but also Nereidum, as he knows that its the source of the Orbital Frames that have caused him nothing but "stinky" pain. The Links also find a new running partner in Cindy Fiorentino, an Earthling photojournalist who finds out that they're on the run & stays with them, hoping to get a big scoop; they later also get Raiah, the man who hired Jim in the first place, which started everything. On the side of BAHRAM, though, is Rebecca Hunter, a 15-year old Frame Runner who is saved by Jim after a skirmish & winds up feeling conflicted by the encounter, as she was taught that Earthlings are simply vile creatures who must pay for their treatment of Martians, yet Jim & Dolores show her nothing but kindness, while Jim & Rachel's mixed-planet marriage confuses her to no end. By the last six episodes, BAHRAM makes its move to finally "liberate" Mars by destroying Earth's Orbital Elevator (which would result in the obliteration of the planet), Napth's backstory (& insanity) is revealed, & another Egyptian God Frame, Hathor, makes its debut, as well as its relation to Dolores being revealed by Dr. Links herself.
While the main plot of Dolores, i's second half doesn't exactly require one to know what happened in the first game between each (roughly) half of the anime, the show still assumes that the viewer has played the game, regardless. The Antilia incident is brought up immediately in Episode 13 in a very casual way, not explaining what exactly happened for anyone who's only watching the show, and Nohman (& the Anubis) make a notable cameo in Episode 16, where he fights a (not quite) mock skirmish with Rebecca, with Nohman making references to Leo (though not by name) & the Jehuty often. Beyond that, though, the anime also strongly reinforces the main idea that both Earth & Mars simply hate each other down to their very cores, with Baan & Rebecca showing the more blatant sides of hatred, but even characters like Cindy, who normally looks to be more tolerant, occasionally showing some slight prejudice in more innocuous moments. Another major theme is that of familial bonds, with the main crux being a battle between the Links Family's mixed blood, with all of their rough goings & arguments, against Napth's adopted family of pure-blooded Martians, of which Rebecca is his "daughter", & their united hatred of anyone even slightly related to Earth. The Links are united in their love for each other deep down, even when they're angry with each other how Rachel & Jim broke them all apart, while all of BAHRAM, essentially, takes full advantage of Radium's old, seething loathe for Earthlings to create an entire organization that works off of nothing but unification via rage, detestation, & animus.
In the end, as a whole, Zone of the Enders: Dolores, i is a very fun mech anime that's also a fair bit unlike most mech anime, in general, especially one related to an action-heavy video game like Z.O.E. While James Links is a proper giant robot pilot, and there is action to be found, none of it is especially intense until those last six episodes, where it does become more of a "traditional" mech anime; at least at that point, the show has earned that change in tone. Instead, this anime is all about the family dynamic, with the pre-game half being all about the wild & crazy journey Jim, Leon, Noel, & Dolores (& Pete) take to get to Mars, while the post-game half focuses much more on the actual plot at hand, and while it is a bit silly that the Links Family would wind up being saviors of the Earth (& Mars), you fully accept it by the end, because they're all just such wonderful characters, & you want to see them finally be able to return a regular life. It's also really imperative that you watch Dolores, i if you've seen 2167 Idolo, because the second half in particular is the proper continuation & finale of what happened five years prior, and the ending both puts finality to the story of Radium Links, Dorothy Hayes, & the Links Family, as well as leaving no more loose ends that could potentially cause confusion for later developments in the grand scheme of things.
Though the original Z.O.E was originally developed without the direct intention to make a sequel, even though it ended with somewhat of a hook, that doesn't mean that Konami & Sunrise were just going to stop with one game, an OVA, & a TV anime. So on September 27, 2001, just one day before Dolores, i's final episode, the Game Boy Advance saw a new release in the form of Z.O.E: 2173 Testament, renamed Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars internationally. Though Sunrise Interactive is the listed developer, it was quickly discovered that the game was actually developed by (the now defunct) Winkysoft, best known for developing the early Super Robot Wars games up through 1998's SRW F Final, i.e. the "Classic Series"; Okamura was still involved in a producer role, though. Because of that, the game itself actually feels very much like an SRW game, with a lot of the same tactical RPG gameplay & "talking head" conversations done before & after each battle. It's even treated like another season of anime, complete with 25 scenarios that act like episodes in a TV series; they even take ~20-30 minutes to complete, each. In fact, the only real change from the SRW mold is with the "Interactive Attack System", where each offensive & defensive maneuver has the player play a first-person mini-game, with the objective being to properly lock onto an evading enemy, or avoiding an enemy's own lock-on reticles, within a short period of time. You can even turn the IAS off, upon which percentages are used, ala SRW, but without any sort of "Spirit Commands" to help balance things out, you're left to the mercy of the game's percentages... And they're not all that generous. Overall, it's actually a fairly simplistic strategy RPG, and could have benefited a bit by including more SRW elements; it's not bad on its own, but the IAS is an essential part of the gameplay.
As for the plot, it's a mostly independent side-story taking place in 2173 (duh), after the end of Dolores, i, that follows Cage Midwell, a 17 year old crewman of the commercial spacecraft Bonaparte III, who winds up getting involved with a LEV, complete with the A.I. Pharsti, after following a mysterious girl named Myona Alderan into the Bonaparte's hangar... Right before the Bonaparte is blown up by a mysterious black Orbital Frame, later revealed to be named Iblis, & Myona gets amnesia. The two, plus Cage's friend Ares, who was also working on the Bonaparte, wind up joining the Anti-Terrestrial League BIS (Born in Space), lead by Mr. Deckson, especially since the UN Space Force's Special Task Force Acemos are after Cage, as he's blamed for the Bonaparte's destruction. Not too long later, Cage's LEV is exposed as the Earth-built Frame that Pharsti goes with, Testament, which also goes by the codename "Animus". The history of the experiments into A.I. that predate the creation of the Idolo, complete with the idea of using literal human minds as bases, is also given more attention here. Amusingly enough, Fist of Mars winds up being more of the "traditional" mech anime that Dolores, i shied away from, for the most part. The plot is way more about intrigue & rebellion against authority, & characters from both sides double-cross their own partners, while all manner of wild characters are introduced throughout the story.
Seeing that Sunrise & production company VAP are both listed in the copyright for the game, it's no surprise that Fist of Mars outright references events from both anime productions, like the Deimos Incident & Dolores, i's finale, as well as Antilia (I think... Konami's translation likely butchered it). Nereidum Universal Technology eventually becomes a notable part of the story too, indicating that it survived the events of the anime, & Dr. Rikoah Hardiman, a tertiary character in the anime who was seen a couple of times in the second half, is mentioned in reference; Raiah even makes a quick cameo in Scenario 17. In terms of the game's own story, it's interesting to see a plot that shows how both sides can have purely good people & utterly disdainful ones, as while the Earth forces make up the villainous side for the majority of the game, we see Mars having not learned anything yet, either. As for who the "main" villain is, Fist of Mars is a bit of a wild dervish, as it'll introduce various villains, but when you start to think that they'll be the "main" one, they wind up being defeated, only to leave you wondering who'll come in their place next. To be fair, though, the "main" villain is really easy to figure out from the very beginning, as one character in particular is made extremely shady ASAP, complete with evil-looking portraits & always muttering "Heh... Heh... Heh" to himself. Anyway, we have villains like Dezeele Zephyrs, Internal Inspection Chief of the UNSF who's secretly planning his own Earth-made Orbital Frame, the HarutMarut; Lt. Bolozof Velasgo, who's just as "Kill All Martians" as Baan (though this is indicated as being due to Metatron poisoning, ala Radium); & Nadia Candido, a Martian who fights for Acemos, giving her conflicted feelings; Nadia can either be recruited at some point, or simply exits stage left, never to be seen again.
Annoyingly, though, how much importance the various villains have depends solely on which route you get, "Good" or "Bad", which is only determined by getting more kills in a single stage (Scenario 12) than a trio of LEV-operating women who are literally never talked about beforehand, or ever seen again; the "Bad" route might arguably be better, as Zephyrs & Bolozof actually play larger roles there. Meanwhile, Cage is similar to Leo in that he starts off strictly anti-killing, but eventually realizes that sometimes you have no choice in battle, while Pharsti is somewhere between the personality-filled Dolores & the more "logical" ADA, though leaning much more towards Dolores. Also, while Egyptian God Frames are more or less absent here, we do see other references (both very likely & somewhat plausible) to all manner of things across all types of robots & ships, like the sword of Roland, the Latin name for Excalibur, Thorin Oakenshield's sword in The Hobbit, Desaad's assistant Justeen from Jack Kibry's Fourth World, Islamic angels Iblis, Harut & Marut, the Great King of Lanka from the Hindu epic Ramayana, the Zoroastrian expression of Saoshyant, Graffiacane & Scarmiglione from Dante's Divine Comedy, & Hindu goddess Vijayadurga; amusingly enough, the Testament is the least referential.
Overall, Zone of the Enders: 2173 Testament: The Fist of Mars is a bit of a mixed bag, in all aspects. In terms of story, it's definitely much larger & ambitious than the original video game, and even aims to do more than Dolores, i did, but at times feels like it gets a little too big for its britches, and its more "traditional" mech anime feel kind of brings it down a notch from the preceding anime; its biggest problem is that it feels like it should be twice the length that is really is. In terms of the gameplay, it's overall solid, but at the same time it feels like Winkysoft neutered an otherwise established & reliable SRW battle system. The IAS fits with the Z.O.E franchise, but I think Spirit Commands could have easily been kept in; have one that allows for easier locking on, while another makes critical hits easier to land, not to mention double-damage. Still, I don't hate Fist of Mars by any means, and it's still a fun little off-shoot filled with quirky characters, a neat twist to strategy RPG combat, & a fun (if slightly over packed) plot to see unfold. It's also the longest game of them all by a large margin, taking about as much time to finish as it takes to watch all of Dolores, i. Still, it could have easily been better, especially since we'll likely never see anything from Zone of the Enders in the Super Robot Wars franchise, making this the closest we'll ever get.
Finally, we end the chronology with the second main game in the franchise, Anubis: Zone of the Enders, replacing "Anubis" with the subtitle The 2nd Runner internationally, which originally came out on February 13, 2003, nearly two years after the original game & OVA. While Hideo Kojima was still on board as producer, though, Noriaki Okamura had next to nothing to do with this new game, only being given "Special Thanks" in the credits. Instead, The 2nd Runner was planned & designed by Shuyou Murata, a scriptwriter, video director, & game designer for who wrote the script for the original Z.O.E & would work on all of Kojima's Metal Gear Solid games starting with the second; oddly enough, this game doesn't have anyone credited as "Director". The original PS2 release sold only about 410,000 copies worldwide, which effectively killed the franchise dead until the HD Collection in 2012. Unfortunately, while Z.O.E HD Edition came out relatively fine, High Voltage Software's remaster of The 2nd Runner didn't fare anywhere near as well, being unable to maintain the consistent 60 FPS gameplay that the PS2 could. It was so poor, in fact, that HexaDrive was brought in to work with Kojima Productions to produce a massive, 5 GB(!) patch to fix everything, but as it was based specifically around the Cell processor in the PS3, only Sony's console actually received the patch. However, playing The 2nd Runner HD on the Xbox One via backward compatibility looks to be a fairly viable option today, as the increased power of "The Bone" allows the sequel to play at its intended 60 FPS (for the most part, at least), effectively "fixing" the major problems with the 360 version. Still, I played this game via its latest re-release, late 2018's Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner M∀RS, a new HD remaster for the PS4 handled by Cygames that also adds in support for PlayStation VR (which I didn't try, as I don't have that hardware).
Again, it must be noted that The 2nd Runner was NOT in the original plans, even though the first game ended with a sequel hook & Fist of Mars ended with a post-credits scene establishing that BIS' actions wound up making BAHRAM more popular in Mars than before, while also name-dropping Leo quickly; oddly enough, the BAHRAM agent who's the focus of this scene, Amante, is nowhere to be seen in this sequel. Anyway, similar to the original release date, the story takes place two years after the first game, in 2174, with BAHRAM now having complete military control over Mars, & putting the finishing touches on the Aumaan Project, which was first mentioned at the very end of the first game. Our new lead is Dingo Egret, an ex-BAHRAM captain who was thought dead six years ago, only to really be living in secret as a Metatron miner around Jupiter's moon of Callisto. During a routine operation, Dingo's LEV senses a Metatron surge, resulting in him coming across Jehuty hidden away, only for BAHRAM to suddenly attack the mining operation. This starts Dingo's journey as he works with Ken Marinaris, a female Space Force pilot who's working undercover in BAHRAM, to finally put a stop to Riley "Nohman" Hardiman, the son of the man who created Aumaan, who killed Dingo's squad all those years ago & even nearly killed Dingo not long after coming across Jehuty. Ken saved him in secret, but in doing so has forced Dingo to live only in Jehuty's cockpit, as the Frame's Metatron power source is the only thing keeping Dingo alive. This all culminates in Dingo having to get Jehuty to Aumaan... Which is what Leo Stenbuck, now a soldier in the resistance, tried to prevent by hiding Jehuty away two years ago, as ADA's mission is to self-destruct Jehuty in order to destroy Aumaan.
In terms of gameplay, The 2nd Runner is definitely a case of taking what already worked so well in the first game, & expanding upon it just enough, giving you many more enemies & options than the first game did. The end result is a much faster, hectic, & slightly more difficult game, one that forces you to utilize everything you have on hand, which is a big improvement; the first game gave you tons of options, but very little reason to really use them all. That being said, the game sometimes goes slightly overboard with that expansion, like forcing you to have total mastery of the lock-on mechanic in order to defeat a boss, as you have to lock-on to an enemy grunt to grab it, while not getting grabbed yourself, and then locking on to the boss in order to throw the grunt at the boss to stun it... All while the boss is ready & willing to simply ram into you, and if you miss the throw you re-lock back onto the grunt! Nothing game breaking, of course, but definitely a wee bit annoying.
As for tying into everything that came before it, it's obviously much more connected to the first game. Dingo's past with BAHRAM makes him familiar with Viola, who now has an A.I. based on her piloting a Frame called Nephtis, and his past with Nohman gives him an instant reason to fight back. Leo is also back as a more confident & battle-ready teenager, now piloting a transforming LEV called the Vic Viper (hello, Gradius reference!), which I guess would make him a little like if Amuro Ray piloted the Zeta Gundam. As for tying into any of the other productions, the most I could find are much more vague, if even meant to be references at all. Early on, Ken brings up a prior attack on Earth by Mars "a number of years ago" that was stopped by another Mars group, which I guess might be a reference to the Links' Family stopping the Orbital Elevator attack at the end of Dolores, i, which is then followed by Ken stating that BAHRAM decided to "put more pressure on Mars with military force", which one could maybe stretch as a hyper-vague reference to how BIS' actions allowed BAHRAM to take control of the planet. Obviously, with Sunrise & VAP co-owning the rights to Dolores, i and Fist of Mars, Konami couldn't really make direct references to those other titles, so I'll just take what I can get, even if I have to imagine it.
As for the plot of The 2nd Runner itself, which features anime cutscenes by Gonzo in place of the poorly-aged CG the original game used, it's a rather simple premise for what should feel like the grand finale of the franchise: Dingo simply wants to kill Nohman for his own reasons, & winds up being forced to assist the Space Force in the process, all with the fate of Mars itself at stake. There are a couple of notable secondary characters too: Taper, a Space Force ally Dingo befriends under false pretense; & Lloyd, a wise old man from Dingo's past who remains loyal to BAHRAM, but is still willing to help Dingo improve Jehuty's power, should our lead best him in battle. Unfortunately, while the overall feel of the sequel story's is much more ambitious than the first, complete with especially larger set pieces (you take on a literal army of BAHRAM grunts to get into Aumaan), the game doesn't really take any time to let it breathe, instead blazing through everything at essentially the same breakneck speed as the gameplay; 2nd Runner is only marginally longer than the first game, clocking in at around 6-7 hours. It's a shame, too, because there is a ton that could have been expanded upon greatly, especially with what we're given. Ken's growing romantic feelings for Dingo are kind of sudden & don't feel as natural as Leo & Celvice (the latter of which doesn't even get mentioned in this game), Leo & Elena play little in terms of actual relevance (Leo in particular is essentially useless at the very end, no matter how hard he tries), & Lloyd and Taper are given barely anything to work with. It's also sad to see recurring themes from the franchise, like Viola having been reduced to just a battle A.I., ala Dolores & Pharsti, or Dingo being reliant on Metatron to live, ala Napth, are given little to no real direct attention; only those who have experienced everything prior to this, like me, will really see the connections.
Finally, in regards to Egyptian deities referenced here, we have Nephthys via the corrupted name of Nephtis, while Lloyd's Inhert uses an alternate name for Anhur. Oddly enough, I see some mentions online of Ken's Ardjet being an alternate name for Hathor, though literally the only places that bring this up are in reference to this franchise & not from any actual places about Egyptian deities, so I think it might be a reference to the more similar sounding Andjety or Wadjet; also, there already was a Hathor in Z.O.E. Overall, while Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner is a ton of fun to play (if sometimes slightly cheap), it honestly kind of drops the ball when it comes to acting as a finale to everything that came before; in fact, it doesn't even bother to really hold the ball, in the first place.
So after all of this, would I say that it's worth experiencing the Zone of the Enders franchise in proper timeline order? Honestly, I really think so, but the further you go into the franchise it really feels more & more like it works in spite of itself. At first, the connections are strong, as 2167 Idolo lays the groundwork that Dolores, i's entire story is based upon, and even the first game, while overall still rather standalone, has some callbacks to it, mainly through Viola. Then, upon returning to Dolores, i for its second half, you get some references & cameos to the original game, though the anime simply assumes you already know what they are, but the focus really is on putting some finality on what Idolo started, in terms of Dr. Rachel Links & Radium Lavans. After you finish up the TV anime, though, things start to become much more loose. Fist of Mars only briefly references the events that came before it, & only directly ties into them with Raiah's super-brief cameo, though it at least does continue the overall theme of prioritizing unity & humanity over segregation; it's the most standalone of the plots, but at least still feels like it belongs in that world. As for The 2nd Runner, it could have easily been the linchpin that tied everything together into a proper finale, but either simply couldn't make direct references to earlier events (due to Sunrise & VAP) or just didn't bother to truly expand into a more detailed plot. That's not to say that the final Z.O.E game has a terrible plot, but rather that it feels like all bone, no meat. The plot is there & it's solid enough to stand on its own, but it's lean on depth & doesn't truly feel like a proper conclusion to literally four previous stories that came before it.
That being said, though, the console games still remain a ton of fun to play, and still deliver some truly addictive & intense "High Speed Robot Action", so they still are fully recommended to play from a strictly gameplay perspective. If you want better storytelling, though, then I recommend watching the two anime, because they are both really good, with 2167 Idolo being the better focused plot, while Dolores, i is the more unexpected & fun-loving journey. As for Fist of Mars, it's definitely the weakest of them all, both in terms of gameplay & story, but it's still worth a play if you've already experienced everything else, and just want a little bit more. As of now, the last we heard of a potential third console entry for Zone of the Enders was back in 2012, when Hideo Kojima announced that development had finally started, after having been in conceptual stages since 2008, only for Kojima to cancel all development after the HD Collection came out to its initial cold reception; the fact that Kojima had a notoriously public departure from Konami in 2015 doesn't help, either. Still, the fact that we got the PS4 version of 2nd Runner shows that there is still interest over at Konami, so you never know... After all, series creator Noriaki Okamura is still a producer over there.