I'm working my way through the various Macross anime series, as I've mentioned previously. I enjoyed the original series and Macross Plus, then was decidedly underwhelmed by Macross 7. Next I queued up Macross Zero.
I went into this series expecting it to be mostly references to the original Macross series, and not a whole lot else. The references are there: Focker's presence, the transforming fighter planes, the battles between UN and separatist forces, artifacts from the alien protoculture, etc. It certainly helps to be familiar with the original series' story-line; if you haven't seen it, you should at least read a summary first. But Macross Zero is more than just a prequel to the original series.
The story primarily follows a UN pilot named Shin, who is learning to fly the brand-new transforming fighters under the command of Captain Roy Focker (the same guy who plays a large role in the original series). Shin is part of a larger battle between UN and separatist forces over control of an ancient alien artifact. The battle engulfs the native island population, whose legends about the artifact warn of great danger if it is awakened. Shin and Sara, a native priestess, fall in love and eventually are central to the effort to prevent the awakened artifact from causing mass devastation.
Macross Zero explores the tension between the native islander population's ancient culture and the invasion of the modern world. Sara in particular is very resistant to change, both for personal reasons and as the representative of her island's ancient beliefs. As events play out, there are points where it seems that she is right, and other points where her refusal to change appears to make things worse. The writers did a good job of exploring the theme without allowing the "primitive natives vs superior technologists" to become a cliche.
There's a good amount of focus on the mecha in this series, as one would expect from the first use of transforming fighters in the franchise. The separatist forces use their version first, shooting Shin down in the early going, and then the UN version evens up the playing field with Focker and those under his command. I liked how Shin's struggles to adapt to this new kind of aircraft were presented. It's nice to see a central character who isn't instantly a virtuoso at whatever sort of combat he tries.
It wouldn't be Macross without an alien presence, but the use of an ancient artifact rather than living aliens is a nice change of pace. Rather than the unavoidable overwhelming alien threat used in both the original series and Macross 7, in Macross Zero the alien presence is benign until humanity's curiosity (and power lust) disturbs it. What is eventually revealed of the artifact's origin and reason for being on Earth fits nicely into the history that was established in the original series.
I enjoyed Macross Zero, and can recommend it to anyone who likes aerial fighter-plane battling, ancient beliefs-vs-modern progress tension, and unraveling of ancient artifact mysteries.