Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990)

 

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Continuing with my Metal Gear Marathon I played Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.

 

Metal Gear 2 was released in 1990 on the MSX, exclusively in Japan. Us Westies would have to wait until it was packaged up as a bonus with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence to see an official English release. I hadn’t played MG2 before so I was excited to give it a go.

 

Interestingly, there was another sequel to the original Metal Gear titled Snake’s Revenge and it came out on the NES. It was developed without the knowledge of the series creator, Hideo Kojima, and made specifically for Western audiences. Given that it isn’t canon and is apparently a bit crap I decided to pass on it. Moving on.

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I don’t even…

 

 

In Metal Gear 2 once again you step into the boots of ex-special forces merc Solid Snake. Your mission is to infiltrate a mercenary facility in the rogue nuclear armed state of Zanzibar Land, a country bordering the Middle East, China and the USSR. The year is 1999 and the world has entered an era of peace categorized by nuclear disarmament. Zanzibar Land has been raiding nuclear disposal sites and is now the sole nuclear state in the world. On top of that, the world has suddenly run out of crude oil! Fortunately a scientist has developed a kind of nanomachine (yes, this is the one that starts that trend) that can magically (er… scientifically) synthesise crude oil. Unfortunately Zanzibar Land has him too. That all sounds a bit silly but once you get on board with the premise the story actually starts getting pretty damn good.

 

Straight away it’s clear that MG2 is a lot more ambitious than its predecessor. Apparently Kojima had no intention of making a sequel when he made Metal Gear and you can sort of tell. MG2 puts a lot more effort into world building and establishing characters, this is really the game that kicks off the series. Frankly, the difference in scope is staggering. MG2 is possibly the greatest 8-bit game I’ve ever played and I honestly think the face of video gaming would be very different today had it seen a Western release. I think a decent analogy to show the difference in content is that Metal Gear 2 is to Metal Gear what A Link to the Past is to The Legend of Zelda.
It’s strange that the setting of the first game, Outer Heaven, is brought up again in every sequel with reverence but most of MG2 seems forgotten about.

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Clockwise from top-left: The Legend of Zelda (1986), The Legend of Zelda: A link to the Past (1991), Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990), Metal Gear (1987). There was such a string of absurdly good sequels in the early nineties.

 

 

Once the game kicks off it’s clear we’re in for a much more refined experience. The game opens with a pretty slick futuristic intro sequence with a pitch-perfect tension-building tune playing over. It’s all very 80’s cinema but it works so well it’s hard to complain.

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If that isn’t the future I don’t know what is.

 

Once you start up a new game you see Snake scaling a cliff, crawling along the ground and stopping to contact the Colonel over his radio. Once I was finished drooling over the new animations (the last game’s run animation had two frames for Pete’s sakes!) I was amazed by a long and detailed radio transmission from Colonel Campbell. Once I got the chance to move around I was delighted to see that Snake can now crouch and crawl and also is fitted with a nifty radar that shows the map layout and the location of enemy soldiers. Also, enemies and items no longer reset when moving from one screen to another. The enemies themselves see a big improvement, more varied patrol patterns, a realistic field of vision, they now search for Snake when he makes noises, and the iconic Alert Mode sees its first appearance where enemies fire at the detected Snake, and the Evasion Mode when they search in more aggressive patrols following an alert.

 

Truthfully MG2 is an improvement over MG1 in virtually every way. Almost all of my grievances with the first game has been addressed, the sprites are crisp and pleasant, the environments are varied and colourful, the soundtrack is stellar by 8-bit standards, hell, they even give you master key cards so you don’t have to mess about with your 8 numbered keys while dying in a gas chamber. They thought of everything!

Feel the epic.

 

I really didn’t expect it to be this good. I always thought Metal Gear Solid was the game-changer, the really pioneering title, but it owes a hell of a lot to Metal Gear 2. An awful lot of MGS is copy and pasted from this game, from Snake coming out of retirement, the secret radio informant, the woman disguised as an enemy soldier (and finding her in the ladies’ bathroom), the imprisoned scientist, the finale’s escape sequence. Even much of the radio cast return (or do they? heh heh heh).

 

Now, the game was damn good but I wouldn’t be me unless I had something to nitpick about it. For starters I think it was a wee bit on the difficult side. I ended up consulting a walkthrough a lot more than I like to because the path to progression can be downright convoluted at times. There’s also a bit more silliness abound than in the other games, there’s one particularly ludicrous sequence where you have to lure a pack of “poisonous Zanzibar hamsters” through a crevice with some cheese rations, then shoot them one by one. If you come into contact with one it means a frustrating instant death. Kojima’s fondness for backtracking also returns with a vengeance, with this being easily the biggest culprit in the series for needless trekking through previously explored areas. There’s one maddening part at the very end that takes a decent 20 minutes or more to take a trip all the way to the area at the beginning of the game and back again.

 

I’d be interested to read a feminist critique of the game, it’s definitely a topic I’ll return to when I go through the sequels. On the one hand, the female characters are a lot more in the vain of femme fatale than damsel-in-distress but on the other they do all instantly fall in love with you and are given some pretty bodacious sprites.

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I’d like to *8* her *bits* if you know what I mean… (…sorry)

 

I suppose it’s not a bad gender portrayal when you consider the protagonist is a strapping cigarette smoking rebel-without-a-cause whose name evokes a certain phallic underpinning… I think it’s easy to forgive a game that is a sneaky-shooty-action-megadventure-spy-thriller.

 

Thematically MG2 is quite complex. It doesn’t quite reach the levels of the Solid titles but there’s still a lot to work with. The ramifications of nuclear armament and the nature of war are the big hitters, but it also touches on micro-technology, conspiracy, oh and love and betrayal and all that stuff. It paints a picture of a unified world entering an era of peace but then mentions the UN and NATO using subversive military tactics to further their global agenda away from the public eyes. It’s interesting and still relevant today. There’s also these wandering children scattered about the base, apparently war orphans taken in by Big Boss. It adds a harrowing dimension to the base, it’s quite hard-hitting, and goes a long way towards adding some depth to the story. Characters like Gray Fox are fleshed out a lot more and given backstories, and your radio gang is a lot more useful and interesting, particularly the aviator-wearing “Master Miller” who looks to be given a large role in the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5.

 

Thar be series spoilers ahead in the next two paragraphs!

 

I still think it’s clear that Kojima didn’t quite have the scale of his future projects in mind when he did this game. There’s no indication that Snake is Big Boss’s clone, and I think it’s pretty obvious that decision came a lot later. I also think the Big Boss we meet at the conclusion is not the same one we played as in Metal Gear Solid 3, his talk of a perpetual battlefield where soldiers can live and die sounds a lot more maniacal and cartoonishly villainish than the idealistic “soldiers without borders” talk in the later games. I wonder how loose the canon is going to get around MG1 and 2 when he start approaching that timeline in MGS5. I will say the final boss is pretty great, Snake loses all of his equipment and has to MacGyver himself an improvised flamethrower. Really neat moment.

 

But while I’m in spoiler territory, let’s talk about Gray Fox, who’s story stands out as a real gem in this piece. Snake briefly has to travel with Gustava Heffner, a Russian former olympian who acts as your sassy sidekick for a portion of the game. Eventually she tells a part of her story, how she has only loved one man, a man named Frank Hunter (being a series fan I instantly knew who she was talking about, unfortunately spoiling the twist). She says that they were torn apart by the politics of the Cold War, each on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. They never saw each other again. While crossing a narrow bridge, Snake and Gustava are betrayed by the scientist behind Metal Gear, Pettrovich Madnar, and he signals for Gray Fox to destroy the bridge, unknowingly blowing up his only love. Gustava dies in Snake’s arms. At the climax of the game, Snake confronts Gray Fox once again, the two men fight unarmed atop a minefield. It’s a beautiful moment, one of the best in the series. Gray Fox talks about how many times Big Boss has saved him, how he took him in. He talks about his war injuries and how he needs to fight, the only thing he was ever good at. Snake tells him that Gustava will be waiting for him on the other side as he passes on (or does he? heh heh heh). It’s a really touching story.

 

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One of the best moments in the series.

 

 

End of spoilers!

 

This game also has the most amount of real-world work to do. I actually loved this part of it. There’s a number of sequences where you need to decode a tapping sound using a grid from the manual and another where you get a coded message that you need to convert to digital lettering and turn upside-down to find a hidden radio frequency. Modern games are all about building immersion, making sure you never leave the world of the game but it’s strange, I actually found this got me more engaged and immersed in the game. It made me feel like I was a spy, paradoxically I felt more in the world of this game while in my room, shuffling through papers deciphering codes than I do in a lot of modern games that focus on this illusive concept of immersion. I was genuinely giddy with excitement at times, it also utilizes interactivity, a feature unique to this medium, in a novel and interesting way. It created something authentic to video games while breaking the video game status quo, I’m really surprised that I can’t think of a single other game to do this.

 

You know, I feel like I’m really gushing affection for this game and yeah, I loved the heck out of it, but it also marks the beginning of Hideo Kojima’s unedited scripting. It’s clear that this guy loves what he does and once he puts pen to paper he really gives it his all and I guess that’s part of what makes it fun. Don’t get me wrong, there are deep themes in Metal Gear but it’s all stitched together in this cheesy pulp aesthetic. The bump in complexity with each game almost makes the MSX games seem anachronistic for being so tame. I was combing through the Metal Gear wiki recently, trying to work out my Shadow Moseses from my Zanzibar Lands when I realised it really is in exercise in futility. Metal Gear has so many plot twists that the term holds no meaning. Do you know how many characters in Metal Gear get kidnapped, pumped full of drugs and turned into cyborg ninjas? Like, at least four. Possibly more. It’s goofy and fun but it seems like a series that can’t decide what it wants to be. There’s a po-faced lunacy that I’m just a tad ambivalent towards.

 

To conclude I really loved Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Where the first game is nice for fans of the series to return to, its successor is a genuinely outstanding game by itself and surely one of the greatest sequels ever made. Great gameplay, story, characters, music, and funny as hell to boot. If you’re a fan of the series and haven’t played MG2, go! Do it now! I can’t recommend it enough. It’s with more than a little enthusiasm I move onto 1995’s Metal Gear Solid. With a rekindled love of the franchise I can’t wait to get stuck into one of the defining games of my childhood. It’s not over yet, Snake!

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Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear (1987)

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Gearing up (ha, puns) for the release of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes later this year I’ve decided to run through all of the canonical Metal Gear games thus far in release order, starting with the first title in the series, 1987’s “Metal Gear” originally on the MSX. I’ll be playing the remastered version that comes with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (thankfully free from some of the faults in the more popular NES version, like the notable absence of the actual Metal Gear and some hilarious “Engrish” translations.)

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The Metal Gear Solid series meant a lot to me growing up. My copy books in school were covered with doodles of Solid Snake and badly drawn SOCOM pistols. Despite my love for the series, I never actually got around to playing the two original games Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.

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In case anyone doesn’t know, Metal Gear is a series of stealth video games (well, “stealth” games with one notable exception)

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I’m looking at you, Cyborg Ninja Raiden.

where you play as a grizzled super-soldier code-named “Snake”. The series is famous for popularizing the stealth genre and also for its wacky humour and recurring features, like hiding under a cardboard box to avoid detection and the titular bipedal nuclear tanks. Series creator, Hideo Kojima, is known as quite the eccentric fellow in the world of video games and with every new installment the plot gets increasingly dense and convoluted, in the best possible way. I’m long overdue a good Metal Gear Marathon and I’m looking forward to taking a drive down memory lane. Without further ado, let’s get on with reviewing this classic piece of gaming history.

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So. This is where it all began. Metal Gear puts you in charge of a young mercenary named “Solid Snake” tasked with the solo infiltration of a dangerous nuclear-armed military base called Outer Heaven, run by an illusive and unidentified mercenary leader. You belong to Special Forces Group FOXHOUND, who’s previous infiltrator “Grey Fox” has been captured inside the facility. Your mission: rescue Grey Fox, learn about the mysterious weapon “Metal Gear” and neutralise the threat if necessary. Exciting stuff.

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Compared to the multi-layered mind melting you get from the convoluted plots of the later games, the series starts with relatively humble beginnings. The plot is fairly threadbare and honestly it’s referenced with more gravitas in the later installments than is suggested in the original itself. It is interesting to see the framework that would lead to the franchise’s defining series, Metal Gear Solid, laid down here. You really get a glimmer of genius playing through it, and you can see the gears (ha, I can’t stop myself) turning in Kojima’s mind. Much of the series’ iconic features are birthed here, from cyborgs to cigarettes, bipedal tanks to off-beat fourth-wall humour.

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From the get-go it’s clear that Metal Gear is intended to be more cinematic than its cousins of the same era, a trend that carries on in later titles. There’s a real air of Hollywood floating around, not surprising when you consider Kojima was heavily inspired by Western action flicks.

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ImageIt’s interesting from a design perspective that Metal Gear has always pushed to make its games closer to film in a lot waysyet the games also pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished solely by video games, being truly pioneering within its own medium.

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Like anything dated, I think to really appreciate its significance you need to understand the context in which it came out. The 1980’s saw incredible innovation in the fledgling young games industry as people were still trying to figure out what exactly a game could or should be. Does a game need points? High scores? Lives? Should it require skill? How does narrative fit into any of this? 1986 saw pioneering titles like The Legend of Zelda, an early example of action-adventure, open-ended gameplay. The first RPG was released the same year in Dragon Warrior. Crucially for the young Kojima, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was released in 1985, supposedly opening the flood-gates of possibility for the concept of interactive story-telling. Metal Gear led the charge in genre innovation by being one of the first “stealth games”. Enemies were given a primitive line-of-sight and only attack when the player crosses their vision. It’s easy to take for granted just how revolutionary Metal Gear was.

 

I can assure you in comparison to many of its contemporaries, Metal Gear is immensely playable, thankfully void of concepts like lives and high-scores. From a game design perspective, its actually pretty remarkable. The map layout is appreciably organic, enemies patrol in unpredictable patterns and you do get some great on-the-fly finger-biting moments when you shuffle down a narrow alley that a patrolling enemy promptly decides is on his patrol route. Pretty amazing when you consider what’s governing the enemy intelligence is a sequence of a few hundred on/off switches.

 

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Riveting…

Speaking of, you do get a nagging sense of hardware limitation. The radio calls that would become a series mainstay mostly consist of “SNAKE! INFILTRATE THE BASE. OVER.” Apparently they originally cut lower-case characters to save file-space. In fact a lot of concepts that appear in later games are in their infancy here. The cardboard box, for example, is basically running a line of code that says if under the box and not moving, do not trigger alarm mode. It’s funny, and opens up some of the self-parody in later titles.

 

One thing I really liked about the game was how much paper I used in real-life. It soon becomes clear that the only way to navigate the facility is to make complicated hand-drawn maps. It’s also fun to keep track of your radio frequencies that you need to contact your various informants. I like a game that’s light on hand-holding. There’s something rewarding about having turn the frequency dial on your transmitter while your character says “This is Snake, come in!” My inner child was screaming “this is so neat!” It’s a lot rarer to see stuff like that in newer games.

 

One feature that’s present here that I’m surprised didn’t return in subsequent titles is a level-up system. Scattered around the facility are prisoners of war and if you rescue enough of them you earn another class star, up to a total of four. By raising class you gain more total health and increase your carrying capacity for items and ammunition. There’s also a resistance leader who is so proud that she will only offer radio support once you reach a sufficient class level, which again I thought was a nice touch. I understand why it was left out of the rest of the series, if its goals are to press for realism it isn’t logically consistent to have an arbitrary rank system that increases the amount of bullets that can fit in your gun, but I still thought it added some welcome depth.

 

Of course it isn’t all positive. There are some technical hiccups. Enemies can only see in straight lines in the direction they’re facing, so Snake can stand at a slight diagonal to their position and go completely undetected, allowing for some immersion breaking experiences. There’s also some gratuitously frustrating design choices, like slowly choking to death in a room of poison gas because you’re messing about with your eight numbered key-cards trying to open an unlabelled door (why do early video games do this? It’s not challenging, it’s just frustrating!) The graphics and animations too are very dated, although there is at least a decent variation in colour. There’s a wee bit too much backtracking too, a trend that carries on into Metal Gear Solid 1, but I never really pulled my hair out over it. The sound was also pretty bad, the main theme got very repetitive very quickly and was nowhere as deftly handled nor as defining as the themes from Zelda, Mario, Megaman or other games similarly limited by hardware.

 

Seriously, if I have to listen to that thing one more time I’m going to feed the composer his own ears.

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On the whole, yes it’s a little rough around the edges, but this is the game that started it all. Technical limitations aside, it’s still a game that fills me with more emotion than a lot of modern games. There’s tension, excitement, intrigue, betrayal and more than anything else it’s a game that’s full of promise. There’s a skeleton here that future instalments grew out of, the big names and features are established. Snake, Big Boss, Metal Gear, cardboard boxes, floating exclamation marks and deactivating electrified floors with remote controlled missiles. I’d recommend fans of the series to go back and give it a playthrough, I finished it in a pretty modest three hours or so, and it will give you a satisfying, if primitive, taste of tactical espionage action. There’s not much there in terms of plot, but it is a whisper of things to come.

 

I enjoyed my time with the series roots more than I anticipated. You could say my mettle has been bolstered, and I’m all geared up for the sequel. I hope it will do me solid, and not snake through my high expectations (kill me). Roll on, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake!