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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!