Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)

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Ah, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Obligatory background talk: MGS2 was one of the most anticipated games of all time. The long awaited sequel to the critically and commercially successful PSone gem, Metal Gear Solid, MGS2 was hailed as amongst the first and greatest truly defining titles of the PS2’s illustrious catalogue of games. This was something new for the industry, video games by and large hadn’t seen this sort of hype before. People had MGS2 pegged as possibly the greatest game of all time long before it was released.

So how did it hold up? MGS2 amazed me when I first played it way back when. I was always a big fan, I even liked Raiden (yes, I’m one of those people). So let’s talk about it now that I’ve returned to it with added, y’know, maturity and stuff. Before I dig into the plot I’ll talk about the technical and gameplay changes. For starters the graphics were amazing. Crisp, gorgeously detailed and still amongst the best on the PS2. It also had some physics effects that were any self-respecting nerd’s wet-dream. Insignificant objects in the game were given painstakingly detailed animations so that, for example, if you shot a bottle, it would realistically break from where the bullet hit it. Yes, MGS2 sure was (and is) visually impressive.

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Ta-dah!

The sound design also saw a significant jump in quality. Creator Hideo Kojima recruited bigwig Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams to do the score and it’s really impressive. It makes you appreciate how significant a musical score is to feeding into something’s production value. I mean, I loved the soundtrack of Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid but this went above and beyond what was expected from a video game. It has a really fitting electronic soundtrack that plays with minimalism really well but is also downright epic in places (but who would expect anything less from the great Gregson-Williams?) That said, being slightly controversial it was a bit repetitive here and there, especially that the same tune is used for almost all the boss fights.

Onto gameplay, it’s pretty similar to the first Metal Gear Solid but it introduces enough new features to change the general feel and approach in a more engaging and believable way. The basics are the same, solo infiltration mission, equipment procured on-site, sneak past the guards, getting caught springs alarm, mechanics heavily favour stealth, etc, etc. Enemies are now a lot smarter, they have realistic fields of vision that isn’t perfectly illustrated on your radar so you are required to use more cover and common sense when sneaking around. They also now need to actually call in backup over their radio before an alarm triggers which gives you some welcome leeway before the whole damn facility is instantly aware of your precise position. The alert mode now has enemies doing realistic sweeps and covering exits. You can aim for specific parts of the enemy to take out their radio, their firing arm, their legs, a shot to the heart or head is an instant kill. You have a useful first person aiming mode, a tactical dodge-roll and a broader range of close-combat skills. The level design is another step up, interesting layouts, varied patrols, a larger range of options to progression. Generally things feel a lot more tense and interesting and crucially a lot more realistic. Your character now moves with his gun aimed at the floor (as opposed to the James Bond style gun against the shoulder stuff of the first game), and the feel of the game is a lot more organic, you spend a lot of time looking at where the enemies line-of-sight is falling and planning you way across the landscape. You also see the first appearance of the tranquilizer gun, which adds a nice variation to the gameplay whereby you can put a guard to sleep rather than killing him, which won’t trigger an alarm nor will it fill you with a dreaded feeling of guilt.

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Critically, it has some of the same downfalls as the first game. Backtracking means that you end up rushing through some areas at the expense of stealth. A lot of the rooms have all of the guards instantly in view, so you can just whip out a tranq gun and get all of them to hit the floor and then sprint from one side of the room to the other. It takes you out of the experience. The level design also frustratingly gets more derivative and easier as the game goes on, having a totally backwards slanting difficulty curve (though not half as bad as the first game). Also, whereas a lot of the shortcomings of the first game can be explained away with hardware limitations that isn’t really the case here. It’s kind of silly when you can shoot numerous hydraulic powered syringes with powerful sedatives into somebody’s face only to have them go for a little nap for a few minutes and then wake up as if nothing happened. Plus it’s really difficult and impractical to knock somebody out, which makes a no-kill run (although an admirable thing to feature in your game) pointlessly more difficult than it needs to be. I also think some of the controls were needlessly complicated, shooting from around a corner involves holding multiple awkward buttons simultaneously. The worst aspect of the gameplay by far is the optional collectables: dog tags. To get a soldier’s dog tags you need to sneak up behind him and hold him up at gunpoint. I really love this game so I was considering going for all of the achievements until I realised that that involves holding up every soldier in the game on every difficulty level. That means beating the game in this stupid, unappealing playstyle at least four times. This is not a good way to shoehorn extra content into your game.

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Let ye be warned, this rest of this retrospective is a critical examination of the game’s story and themes and assumes you’re already familiar with the plot. Here we go.

Ah, MGS2. This game is famous for it’s mad-cap story, multiple confusing plot-twists and outright insanity. There is far too much to summarize but the essence involves a rehash of the first game with our new protagonist, Raiden. Kojima describes MGS2 as a “postmodern” video game, but that doesn’t really mean anything (I don’t remember any period of “modernism” preceding it), I take it he means that the game has subversive elements, and I certainly won’t take that away from him. MGS2 really takes to the realm of philosophy more so than any other MG game. This succeeded in isolating fans of the gameplay and confusing the hell out of fans of the story. Me? I loved it. I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that people weren’t really ready for MGS2 in a lot of ways. There are a lot of retrospective interpretations that talk about fancy things like “ludonarrative dissonance” but the fact is game critics didn’t really have the necessary frameworks to critically evaluate MGS2 at the time it was released. The thing is about MGS2 though, I think a lot of the philosophy behind it, or at the very least the philosophy that people see in it, is very playful by nature. None of it really radically affects the actual canon of the story. It sets up a series of thought experiments and gives you the option of dissecting them or not, there are clues and secrets to root out, but none of it really interferes with the story. I don’t know how much of it was intentional, but there certainly is a lot here to think about, if you’re willing to put on your conspiracy cap.

MGS2 is all about subversion. There are a huge amount of visual clues indicating that something is not quite right in the logic of the world. When you die in first person mode, the screen cracks along the centre. Raiden says things like “It feels like I’m in a nightmare”, “I could wake up any minute”, “you can’t tell VR from the real thing”. The areas at the end of the game are decorated with computer code, they are surrounded by a bottomless expanse, mechanically the whole genre of the game is altered. There is even a part where Snake, completely in earnest, says not to worry about running out of ammunition because he has a bandanna that provides him with “infinite ammo”. This is in reference to a special item unlocked in MGS1 after completing the game. One has to explore the possibility that the entire game is a simulation. I thought about this and I thought about how it fits in with the canon of the rest of the series and then it hit me: of course the entire game is a simulation. That’s what a video game is. If the purpose of this “post-modern” video game is subversion, well that’s it. Think about it, the infinite bandanna is an unlockable, equipable item in the first MGS, it’s not a cheat code, it’s a canonical item within the structure of the game. So why shouldn’t it be featured as a plot element? So much of the game takes liberties with realism, breaks the fourth-wall, has characters that say things like “press the select button”, so why is the infinite bandanna so unsettling, so subversive. Why is that where the line is drawn in the virtual contract the player makes when suspending their disbelief?

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Is this just one big joke to you Kojima? Is that it?

Expanding from here brings meaning to almost the entirety of the game’s symbolism. It’s also a direct extension of the same theme brought up in the first MGS. Consider Raiden as an analogue for the player. Firstly, he’s intentionally left without a backstory for the vast majority of the game and his personality is fairly generic. He’s very different from Snake and more reminiscent of the sort of ordinary, farmboy heroes that people are supposed to project themselves onto. Also, he has no field experience except for virtual reality simulations of the previous games and he’s vaguely altruistic but admits that he doesn’t know what he is fighting for. These can all be said of the person who is manipulating his actions through a small piece of plastic connected to their television. Think about the crucial scene from MGS1 when Liquid addresses the camera and says “You enjoy all the killing don’t you?” This point is driven home even harder in this game when Raiden, the player character, confesses to enjoying the killing, to not having a greater reason to fight except for following orders, in the same way we sit down to play and follow the mission objectives. We don’t play the game for moral reasons. This game provides us with the option to go through the whole game without killing a single person, but how many people bother to use the tranquilizer guns and non-lethal combat? If so, why? The enemies aren’t real, right?

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If the game begins by presenting Raiden as a bland character we are supposed to project ourselves onto, this is not how the game ends. In the breadth of a few minutes we discover that he has a hugely complex backstory being raised as a child soldier, his clothes and equipment are stripped from him, he is naked and vulnerable, totally antithetical to the player who is controlling his actions. Suddenly this almost non-character who we’ve grown frustrated at for being so void and uninteresting is somebody we absolutely cannot connect with, he is distanced from the player in a significant way, he joins the ranks of the gamey cast of characters and we never really get to connect with him again. All of this happens just as it’s revealed that a secret organisation in the game world control and manipulate almost everything, in fact the entire sequence of events from the previous game was orchestrated by varying degrees by this same organisation. The name of the game is deconstruction. Just before the credits, Raiden throws away a dog-tag with your name on it, the name you input at the start of the game, symbolically severing his ties to the player. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but this makes Raiden’s next appearance as a hacky-slashy cyborg ninja at least slightly more logical (slightly).

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Hmm. Makes sense.

The way MGS2 deals with the illusion of choice in video games is genius because it extends the choice into your own living room. At the start of the game Raiden knows almost nothing about the mission, the briefing is peculiarly brief and uninformative and the player is left in the dark for much of the game. So why does Raiden carry on? Well it’s the same reason that you continue to play the game. I got to wondering if Solidus was really the “bad guy” in this game. Other than being callous and ruthless, he was ultimately working towards the same goal as Snake, Otacon, Liquid and Ocelot. Raiden kills him at the end because the Patriots tell him to and they have leverage against him. I realised, maybe that’s the point. Maybe he isn’t the bad guy. But I still killed him, through Raiden, because that’s how you advance the plot. When you think about it like that it becomes a striking metaphor. Why do we go back and replay the game? Why make Raiden go through the whole thing again? He isn’t real sure, but the game makes the point of saying that something is only as real as your brain tells you it is. I mean, when playing from the start why listen to what the Colonel has to say when we know he’s just a manipulative artificial intelligence? Isn’t the act of not playing the greatest solution to the story?

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Insert joke here

Examine the plot twists in the series so far. MG1: it’s revealed that your commanding officer is actually the leader of the facility he ordered you to infiltrate. MG2: The C.O. from the last game is actually alive and leading the second facility too, plus the man you saved from the first game has converted to working for the same C.O. MGS1: You are actually a clone of the C.O. from the first two games, your twin brother is the terrorist leader, the whole operation was orchestrated by the US government, one of the henchman was actually a spy for the president, and that dude from the last two games is now a crazy ninja. MGS2: Your whole mission was an elaborate experiment by a secret organisation that effectively runs the world, your character is actually a manipulated war orphan, the henchman from before actually works for the secret organisation except now he’s possessed via the dismembered arm of the twin mentioned before, the former president is the terrorist leader and also another clone of the aforementioned C.O. Now, consider the irony of all these twists, escalating and escalating and yet still nobody seems aware of the possibility that none of it is real, everyone (like us) seems totally willing to embrace the lunacy of their own world. Consider once more, the ultimate conspiracy that Raiden is being controlled by somebody playing a video game.

I can also fully appreciate how much of this sounds utterly convoluted. I wonder how much of this deconstruction was actually intended by Kojima, but then again, it doesn’t really matter. The game is rife with symbolism and certainly up for numerous open-ended interpretations. I’m not going to say that MGS2 is perfect, but it was certainly progressive and it’s hard for me to do anything but respect it when I was left pondering it for literally days after I completed it. Of course the MGS fanbase was less accepting. MGS2 got overwhelming critical acclaim but the main criticism levelled against it was its confusing, philosophically inclined plot, and it’s no surprise that the next game in the series (a prequel), MGS3, played it a lot safer thematically. Even MGS4, the game that tied all of the others together, kind of glossed over the Big Shell incident to a large extent. I wonder just how bizarre things would have gotten if the fans were more onboard with the philosophical underpinnings of MGS2.

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I also always had a soft spot for Raiden. He was different from Snake, and that was okay. In a lot of ways he was easier to connect with as a character and I think that was intentional. An important aspect of the focus shifting to a newer character was also how it allowed Snake to be characterised in a way he couldn’t before. Suddenly we can see Snake as somebody who is clued in, somebody who has learned from his previous endeavours and can offer support and backup to somebody who has to learn it all from the beginning again. Raiden inherited Snake’s cluelessness and echolalia so Snake didn’t have to be burdened with it anymore (“Metal Gear.” “Metal Gear!?”) and that is something that I’m perfectly okay with. That was actually one of the problems I had with MGS4, when Snake seemed to lose all of his characterisation and resort back to a blunt instrument designed to soak up exposition.

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I think unfortunately MGS2’s major let down is that it spends so much time getting you to think that it forgets to get you to feel. The individual components just aren’t as memorable as in the other games. We have no history or emotional connection with the cyborg ninja, Olga. Your codec support is a lot weaker. The Big Shell itself lacks the sheer atmosphere of Shadow Moses or Zanzibar Land. Emma Emmerich is a good character and sets up a genuinely poignant moment but not in the same way as Gustava or Meryl. The biggest disappointment by far and, honestly, had it been different I would probably definitively say that MGS2 was my favourite in the series, is the absurdly weak boss battles. They are absolutely the worst in the series. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, but in the Metal Gear series it actually serves as a massive boon to the overall game. The boss battles are so unmemorable that they actually seemed new to me as I was playing them, and then immediately forgot about them again. I mean, Fatman is probably one of the better bosses if only because it tried to do something somewhat creative but it’s still terrible. The Metal Gear RAY showdown at the finale is boring and easy too. The final boss with Solidus is pretty good, and the best in the game but certainly the worst final boss in the overall series, reaching nowhere near the emotional high of the first two Big Boss showdowns, the two battles with Liquid atop the Metal Gears or the battle with the Boss in MGS3 (yup, that’s literally all of them).

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When I’m saying that this guy is one of the best bosses in a game, that game got problems.

The plot of course is the same sprawling twist-ridden guilty pleasure as always. Ocelot really starts to turn insane at this point, he’s always a joy to watch. Structure wise I’d say there’s arguably too much in it. The world is given so much complexity that it’s a genuine challenge to keep track of everything that’s happening. There’s literally a novel in the main menu that summarises the MGS1 and the events leading up to MGS2. I won’t attempt something so deluded as a plot summary but I can assure you that I’m a veritable fountain of inane Metal Gear trivia at this stage. I mean, I’m tempted to say that the Metal Gear series is in fact badly written, but it’s so fun and full of passion that it’s hard not to get sucked in to. It’s the kind of writing you just throw adjectives at. Exciting, dense, convoluted, atmospheric, stupid, memorable, complex, ridiculous, melodramatic. I mean, some of those words are good.

I bloody hate Rose.
I bloody hate Rose.

I feel like I should focus at least some attention on the big reveal at the end. The Patriots, a clandestine group seeking to control the digital flow of information in order to mold the shape of history into whatever way they see fit. That’s important. People can learn from that. It’s very 1984 but it’s delivered with such sincerity that I think it really works. They do linger on the “bad guy explains his cunning plot for no reason” part but that’s okay, it sort of added to the atmosphere. I actually found it to be quite a powerful bit of fiction with real relevance to the world we live in today.

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I could honestly write about MGS2 for days. There’s just so much here, and I didn’t even bother to try and dig into the plot and write about the actual nuts and bolts of it. What I really love about MGS2 is that it’s a game that’s willing to take risks. It’s willing to create a brilliantly fun and creative bit of spy fiction and then actually say something about the world on top of it. It’s a downright clever game and it’s topical. I won’t say that MGS2 is a masterpiece but it is an excellent example of how somebody can create something that supersedes its own genre by intelligently and playfully bringing in philosophical themes and social commentary. I still think it’s probably my favourite game in the series and I would be delighted to ramble on about to anybody who chooses to provoke me.

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Now, back in time to the Cold War and onwards to Metal Gear Solid 3!

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!

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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I try a new thing: Drawing On Computers!

I recently bought a Wacom Bamboo Graphics Tablet. It’s pretty cool. I also got my hands on Adobe Photoshop so I’ve been playing around with that for the last few weeks. Basically Wacom make these neato tablets (my one’s about A4 size) that you can draw on with these special pens that are powered by witchcraft or something. (Seriously, it’s amazing, it powers the pen with the electricity in your hand!) This post is more or less a first impressions review of the process of digital drawing.

The first thing I thought when I started into Photoshop was “hey, where’s the make-my-drawing-good-button?” Unfortunately, no such button exists. Or at least, if it does, it’s hidden like some sort of holy grail amongst the countless doodads and thingamobobs that litter the Photoshop interface. No, much to my surprise, drawing on computers will not make your drawings better. They will however make make your drawings easier.

See how I did the rain? Thank you, YouTube tutorial.
See how I did the rain? Thank you, YouTube tutorial.
One of my first attempts.
One of my first attempts.

I was really amazed at how much my first few attempts ended up looking like real sketches. It’s a bit disorientating at first to have to stare at a screen while you draw on a magic tablet and see your brush strokes come up in real time on the screen, but it takes a surprisingly short amount of time to get used to. And Photoshop really does make some things exponentially easier. Being able to resize and change parts of your picture without having to ruin it with rubber marks or correction fluid, or worse, just starting again, is a godsend. Also, being able to work in layers so that you can literally be colouring in under your contour lines is amazing. It’s crazy how old habits die hard, I did like 5 or 6 pictures before I realized I didn’t always have to work from light colours to dark colours, breaking the rules of painting has never been so rewarding.

Not bad, given I decided to draw from memory for some reason. I decided using Google images for a Pikachu drawing was cheating. Fans of the series will know that this is in fact, Sparky (remember? The first time Ash went to the Pokemon League? He came like 16th or something. Good times.)

So yeah, it’s fun, easy, tidy, and you can copy and adjust as many prints as you want. A solid investment overall, and it certainly does nothing to knock artistic integrity. It definitely takes a lot of skill, and I will say that Photoshop is tough to get used to, unless I’m just thick. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what it’s capable of, and I’m constantly accidentally stumbling onto useful things (what? There’s a tool that will draw straight lines for me!?)

I sure do draw a lot of well muscled men...
I sure do draw a lot of well muscled men…

Of course the next step is to find a practical purpose for it. I think making hand drawn (cyber-hands, of course) backgrounds and sprites for my future video game development endeavours could be pretty cool. Combine that with some slap dash tunes I could throw together in Fruity Loops and I may have actually found the one future career path that rewards haphazardly slapping together a bunch of half-learned skills. Progress!

I think this one's pretty good, minus the gimpy hand.
I think this one’s pretty good, minus the gimpy hand.