Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid (1998)

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We’re on to the main series! Metal Gear Solid was originally Metal Gear 3 but as time went on the MSX fell into obscurity and production was moved to Sony’s new home console: the PlayStation. This introduced an amazing new feature to the series: polygons! The Metal Gear franchise was rebranded as Metal Gear Solid and its first installment was Kojima’s most ambitious project yet.

Let me begin by saying I love Metal Gear Solid. I’m sure for most fans of the series this was their first Metal Gear game. It was one of the most well-received and best-selling titles on the PlayStation and was probably one of the most significant and influential games of all time. I remember being blown away by how novel everything was, the idea of sneaking to get past enemies, tension coming from potential capture, the huge and varied inventory, the long dramatic dialogue, the cinematic action sequences. Metal Gear Solid was fresh, inventive, cheesey and smart all rolled up in a vaguely futuristic spy movie aesthetic. So how does it hold up after all this time? I haven’t played the original Metal Gear Solid in a couple of years so I’m excited to return to it, I’m particularly interested to see the stuff that went over my head last time around.

First a quick heads up that this is going to be spoilertastic, less of a review and more of a deconstruction.

Let’s start off with context: Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998, a hefty eight years on from it’s predecessor, Metal Gear 2. 1998 was a fantastic year for gaming, over on the N64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released, totally revolutionising and setting the trend for large open-world action-adventures, while Valve’s Half-Life came out on PCs. Interestingly, while Half-Life was playing with what could be accomplished in terms of immersion uniquely in video games, Metal Gear Solid seemed to be doing the opposite, toying with intentional dissonance, fourth-wall breaks and increasingly moving towards its cousin: cinema.

From the offset Metal Gear Solid is one cinematic beauty. Beautiful music and well-framed camera shots open the game, with an underwater infiltration sequence and mission briefing. Once again, Kojima succeeds in improving upon his previous games in virtually every way. Additions to the series are almost too numerous to detail, the movement into a 3D space updates the gameplay into something totally unique and genre defining. Tonally, Metal Gear Solid is quite similar to Metal Gear 2, but it’s just that the scope of everything has been increased exponentially.

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Once again, you are Solid Snake and infiltration is your game. You are underequipped for combat, Snake goes down quickly when he starts absorbing bullets and stealth is the order of business. Enemies patrol, you examine their positions on your nifty radar system and scurry about with your quirky arsenal of gizmos and gadgets attempting to sneak through a large open map and get to the baddies’ big ol’ Metal Gear and feed it some of your surface to air ballistic missiles. Exposition is driven partly by codec calls and partly by cinematic cutscenes. This time Snake is infiltrating Shadow Moses, a former nuclear disposal facility that has been taken over by terrorists and are making demands to the US government. The plot is really big and really complicated and filled with more twists than a Dire Strait’s pool party but I’ll try and tackle it as best I can.

I’m going to dive into the gameplay first. There really isn’t enough good I can say about Metal Gear. It’s fun, tense, exciting and there’s nothing else like it. It’s difficult to be overly critical of it because this is a PSone game. Given the average quality of games from the same era, MGS is a bona fides masterpiece. It’s immensely playable, immensely enjoyable and just damn damn damn good. Good? Good. Let’s get critical.

There’s a couple of problems with Metal Gear Solid. First of all by the time I had finished the game I noticed that I was breezing through every area. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “It’s amazing how much better I am at this now compared to the start of the game.” Well, on reflection, that isn’t really the case. In reality the most difficult part of the game is the first three or four rooms. Snake is very underpowered and there isn’t a logical increment in difficulty. This isn’t even a design choice made for the sake of realism, if anything there should be more enemies doing more complicated patrol routes as you get closer to the heart of the facility. In fact the opposite is true, the game gets very sparse and samey and it gets far too easy to run around without getting detected. The best and most challenging area of the game by far is the second area, the heliport. Does anyone else remember how good that was? Enemies could find you if you left footprints in the snow, they could hear you if you splashed in some puddles, there were multiple security cameras, rewards for thorough exploration, multiple paths to progression. I got the feeling that that whole area was designed as to show off the features of the game in a demo context, does anyone know if there was a Metal Gear Solid demo and was it that area? Regardless, as the game went on it relied more on linearity and pre-scripted action sequences and less on quality game design in which to utilize the stealth mechanics.

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This place!

Something that I feel could be criticized but I feel is a necessary trade off is how Snake’s actions are so tailored to stealth that it makes him ineffective at open combat. For example, if you equip the pistol and hold the fire button, Snake tracks his gun onto an enemies position and fires when you release the button. This makes aiming in a firefight slow and cumbersome but it makes using your pistol in the context of sneaking very precise. Good stealth game design. When an enemy spots you, it’s frantic, it’s usually more sensible to run and hide. Snake feels hugely vulnerable and weak against even two or three soldiers, but when you’re cautious and take them out one by one you feel like the goddamn Batman, a superpowered sneaking machine. Personally I think the mechanics are balanced absolutely perfectly.

You’ll spend about half the game immersed in the story, watching the cutscenes and radio calls. The game is fully voice acted and the cast do an amazing job for the most part, particularly Snake and Colonel Campbell. I was genuinely astounded by how well shot the cutscenes were, my memory did it no justice. The cinematography is good by film standards. Kojima uses obscure angles to create dissonance, framing to create symbolism, close-ups and dynamic action shots. It’s very impressive for a PSone game. There was a moment I was playing when my sister came to visit, she walked in on an unskippable cutscene and being a Metal Gear fan, she sat in to watch a bit of the action. The first thing she pointed out was the blank pixelated faces jerkily moving to the voice-overs. It was actually surreal when I noticed that I hadn’t noticed. I was so immersed in the dialogue and the voice acting that I hadn’t even realised the character models look like the developers made them with just lego blocks and blue sharpies. It just goes to show what you can do with poor hardware if you have passion about what you’re doing. I’m not saying all of the writing is good or well-acted (Snake does suffer from a chronic case of echolalia) but it’s engaging enough to overcome graphics that look like, well see for yourself.

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Thematically, Metal Gear Solid extends the scope of the series to cover not only nanomachines and nuclear armament but introducing: genetics, genetic augmentation, cloning, double agents, ninjas, fate and more! I suppose, let me begin by saying that Metal Gear Solid came out following a trend of silly Hollywood action flicks with an intellectual edge. And boy is Metal Gear Solid silly. It is very pulp, and if it was just a stupid action game with all of the cleverness taken out of it its safe to say that it would still be a very important game. But Metal Gear Solid is more than that, if you dig a little deeper you actually find a pretty deep cerebral edge. Like great satire, it uses it’s aesthetic as a platform to launch deeper and more meaningful themes.

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Kojima undoubtedly took some inspiration from these kinds of American action movies.

Part of the magic of the Metal Gear series is that there’s just so much to deconstruct if you’re willing to grab a shovel. Even some of the silliest moments launch some pretty punchy discourse. Take Psycho Mantis, who basically turned the whole established mythology on its head by introducing a supernatural element. His dying speech evoked genuine sympathy from me, and this is a man who burned his entire village to the ground to rid himself of his past. This is a guy wearing a tacky S&M costume and a gasmask.

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Stay out of my head you sick freak!

The fourth-wall stuff is way ahead of its time, some of the areas it touched on here 16 years ago still hasn’t been tackled with much greater depth to this day in this medium. It’s interesting how straight-faced everyone is when they address the player, “press the select button”, “place the controller against your arm”, this all happens within the world of the game and it isn’t done for comedic effect. It’s extreme self-awareness and ignorance simultaneously, it’s like everybody is intrinsically aware of the convoluted and ridiculous reality they exist in but fail to notice the ramifications of it. There are two revelations in the game that Snake has been manipulated by the people around him, completely unaware. The third revelation, of course, is the player. We have been pulling his puppet strings the whole time. There’s a blisteringly clever speech at the end of the game by Liquid when he says: “Why do you continue to follow orders while your superiors betray you? I’ll tell you then: you enjoy all the killing!”. Liquid looks right at the camera and says this to the goddamn player. It’s an intelligent sucker punch. In all the subsequent sequels it is possible to play through the game without killing a single person, but actually the necessitous killing in this game is used ingeniously to drive home a deep and personal statement. Like, yeah: I was mercilessly killing. I snapped a guard’s neck while he was taking a piss because it was easier than manoeuvring around his patrol routes. I didn’t think about it, it seemed logical at the time. That really made me think, it made me think of the extent of desensitisation in action oriented video games. It uses that platform to push a message and it bloody works.

Here’s a stylistic choice that bothered me: homage to Metal Gear 2. I spent some time thinking about this, trying to work out if there was any hidden cleverness to it. I’ll write extensively about this in my Metal Gear Solid 2 retrospective because it evokes Metal Gear Solid in the right way for really clever reasons. This one, not so much. The similarities are many and oddly specific. In both games you: meet and fall in love with a women disguised as an enemy soldier in the women’s bathroom; receive useful anonymous messages from Gray Fox; fight a major character from the last game, now a drugged-up super-ninja; run up a trillion staircases with enemies following you; have magic temperature-affected shape-changing keys and more besides. But why? The best reason I can come up with is nostalgia, and that isn’t very satisfying. Unless there’s some incredibly vague and convoluted point to be made about the games co-existing in a virtual world or some nonsense. I’ll leave that up to the sequel.

Of course MGS also introduced ceaseless double-crossing and plot-twists as a staple of the series. Like the original two games, at the conclusion of the game Snake discovers that he’s been played. Campbell has been lying to him for the entire mission about the extent of US involvement in the operation, but this time there’s so much more to it. To briefly summarise: Nuclear facility Shadow Moses sees development of nuke tank Metal Gear. Special forces group FOXHOUND sent to investigate. FOXHOUND led by terrorist leader, Liquid Snake. Holds facility, threaten nuke, asks for ransom from US. US send super sneaky guy Solid Snake out of retirement to sort this shit out. Plot twists: Solid Snake is actually injected with a secret virus called FOXDIE designed to single out and kill the terrorists. This was done to clear the facility without damaging the Metal Gear because the USA actually built it and want to use it to re-establish military superiority. Liquid has actually been manipulating Snake the whole time under the guise of Master Miller and tricks him into arming the detonation sequence. Naomi, the medical correspondent actually has an ulterior motive of her own and wants revenge on Snake for killing her brother, Grey Fox, in the last game. She changed the FOXDIE virus at the last minute and nobody knows how or why. Grey Fox is actually alive and is now a weird cyborg ninja who’s motives are unclear. Also, Snake and Liquid are the results of a genetic experiment attempting to create perfect soldiers using the genes of the legendary Big Boss (you know, the dude from the last two games) Confused yet? Don’t worry there’s more where that came from. Once Metal Gear is destroyed the Secretary of Defence assumes control of the operation and wants to bury the whole facility in a nuclear blast to cover up the whole debacle from the public. Penultimate twist: the Secretary of Defence was in fact acting without the consent or knowledge of the President and is then reprimanded and the nuke recalled. Snake escapes and everyone lives happily ever after. What does that mean? Doesn’t it seem awfully neat to you? That’s because it is. After the credits we see that Revolver Ocelot, Liquid’s second-in-command, is actually a deep cover spy working for the US president, he convinced Liquid to mount the insurrection and also stole the Metal Gear data, all under presidential orders. It’s a great twist because 1) it’s the only time in the series we receive any indication that Kojima actually plans ahead for future installments and 2) just when everything seemed neat and tidy the complexity plunges to insane depths. Consider this: the final twist is intended to denounce the very concept of a neat ending. It is intended as a nod towards the ultimate conspiracy of the Metal Gear universe: that it is a fictional video game reality. If you look at the full series chronology and compare how it mirrors our world and how it differs I think there’s a lot of evidence for this playful philosophical position Kojima likes to toy with. It sounds a little contrived here but it gets elaborated on in later games.

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Now for the loopholes: if the purpose of Snake being sent to Shadow Moses was to infect the terrorists with FOXDIE (ie. he was expected to fail, he was merely meant to be a carrier for the virus) then why did they send the only man who has proved himself capable of overcoming insurmountable odds, infiltrating enormous, well-armed facilities and destroying bipedal nuclear tanks (twice)? If they expected (and wanted) the mission to fail, why send the only person with a chance of success? Also, if Liquid was manipulating Snake into arming the Metal Gear, then why was he constantly trying to kill him? Why did he go in his Russian attack helicopter, blow up his own satelite dish for no reason, launch several dozen missiles at him and then spiral out of control in a fiery inferno (a great risk to his personal safety)? In fact, why did he sacrifice his whole supernaturally powered mercenary death squad to Snake if he wanted him to survive!? And who designs a “3-in-1” nuclear arming key that alters it’s shape based on temperature? That’s a totally arbitrary design choice! You only need that one key! And why didn’t Snake just use friction from his hands to warm the key rather than travelling halfway across the facility to stand in a slightly warmer room for a bit? And why would the deactivation sequence be identical to the activation sequence? And if Decoy Octopus was supposed to kill Snake while disguised as the DARPA Chief, well, why didn’t he? He wasted like 10 minutes feeding him more plot and then died of a heart attack. What was his plan in the first place? Was he going to try and take him on unarmed? Was he just really incompetent? When Sniper Wolf shoots Meryl to lure Snake into the open, why didn’t she just shoot Snake? Who, ironically, was in the open before she decided to scare him away with sniper fire. But hey, you can’t have that many twists without opening a few holes, right? I jest, Metal Gear Solid is actually pretty consistent for the most part, the twists don’t seem contrived and they are all adequately foreshadowed. The holes are less holes and more the price you pay for an over the top action-spy story. I forgive you Kojima. Write more things.

Argh there’s just so much to write about! Revolver Ocelot appears for the first time. This character is incredible, he’s so damned unpredictable that every time he shows up for the rest of the series, you just know he’s going to bring a meaty plethora of backstabbing and plot twists with him. Gray Fox’s touching story also continues, a man robbed of his humanity after an attempt is made to turn him into a dangerous killing machine. Meryl too, is a great character in her own right. She wants to be a soldier to live up to the expectations of her dead father. She’s also the most rounded and interesting female protagonist in the series yet, although everyone does still instantly fall in love with Snake the moment he opens his gravelly larynx.

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I should also mention that MGS is the first Metal Gear to feature the incredible artwork of Yoji Shinkawa. The style lends itself so well to the series. It’s sort of wispy and abstract but at the same time defined by very realistic proportions and perspectives. The colours are soft and airy, the figures almost look like they’re breaking up and drifting away from you, and yet they’re so punchy and powerful. It perfectly compliments the series’ realistic roots while being masked in an air of silliness and candid philosophical ramblings.

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There’s just so many incredibly memorable moments in the game. It’s absolutely brimming with atmosphere and everything comes together to form this really cohesive experience. Remember walking through this hallway for the first time?

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Remember how powerful this scene was? I think it stands out as one of the most memorable moments in the series.

Okay, so when taken in isolation it seems extremely melodramatic and cheesey, but that’s the thing, MGS is just so damn atmospheric. You get caught up in the experience. It’s so unashamedly hamfisted in it’s approach to drama that you can’t help but let yourself be endeared to it. It’s just brimming with passion and enthusiasm and it shows. (Let that be a lesson to all y’all budding game designers, the secret ingredient, is love.)

Man I gotta start wrapping this up. Here’s the thing. Metal Gear Solid isn’t high art, but it is close to perfection in achieving what is sets out to do and it is greater than the sum of its parts. In terms of gameplay, it’s innovative, exciting, tense, downright wonderful. The plot is hamfisted and silly as all hell but underneath the spy action stuff lies some moving character arcs and clever motifs. If I’m being ultra-critical some of the game design is questionable and dare I say there is a bit too much exposition. Regardless, it remains one of the greatest games on the Sony Playstation and a true classic piece of video game history. The success and influence of Metal Gear Solid is still seen to this day, pioneering the idea of creating games with a heavier influence on cinematics and character driven plot. For better or worse, Metal Gear showed games how to be more like films, I’m tempted to say that I’m not fond of this approach but Metal Gear does it so well and so intelligently that it’s hard to get angry.

Now I am very excited to move on to Metal Gear Solid 2. It’s actually the game I’ve played least and the game I haven’t played in the longest time. In fact, this whole marathon was basically an excuse to go back and play MGS2. I will be back with more!