“Snake… Snake! … Snnnaaaaakkkkeeee!!!” – Literally everyone in the game
A few weeks ago there was a flurry of twitter activity announcing the 20th anniversary of Metal Gear Solid. Undoubtedly one of the defining games of the PS1, I remember clearly the buzz of excitement around its release – which kind of strikes me as odd now. The original Metal Gear games were born in the 8-bit era with the Kojima approved version being the initial release on the MSX (not a system I’m familiar with) rather than the “butchered” (his sentiment, not mine), but more well known, NES release. The NES release of Metal Gear is actually a game that I own (it’s gathering dust somewhere along with a NES I bought some years ago) although I’ve never made it past the first few screens. I should revisit that at some point.
I guess my point is that is seemed to be oddly anticipated for a series that I’d certainly never heard; this might once again come down to the differences between the UK and US gaming scenes during the late 80’s/early 90’s.
About a week ago I decided to give it another playthrough as I haven’t touched it since the launch of the PS2 although I must have sunk some long hours in to the game because the it was all surprisingly fresh in my mind once that opening music kicked in. Then some hours later I put the controller down because I’d completed it and reaffirmed in my mind that it is easily one of my favourite games of that generation.
… but that doesn’t make a good retrospective read so I’ll keep typing for a while and see what happens…
It is a great game. Everything that I love about it shone through despite the ageing graphics of the early polygon era. It may have ever shone brighter because of the series that it spawned; there’s a kind of purity there that’s lacking in the later games. Thematically it goes to some difficult places: nuclear war, genetics, the nature of war. It’s a testament to the storytelling that, despite feeling a little hamfisted in places, it still managed to hit me emotionally in places in the same way it did twenty years ago.
What more can I say? Well, rather than try to retro-review or break anything down, I thought I’d just point out ten things that seemed to stand out on this playthrough. So without any more delay, here are “My Ten Things (in no particular order) That Stood Out Playing Metal Gear Solid Twenty Years After The first Release, Both Good and Bad” … catchy title huh?
10. The Equip System
I’m starting small but important. The corner scrolling item system is in my opinion an excellent piece of design and it works perfectly for a game where you need to switch out items frequently. These scrolling menus quickly become very intuitive and reduce interrupting the experience whilst still pausing the action to allow the player to find exactly what they want rather than just a weapon/item switch button that can often become a frustrating task in a panic situation. The use of the other R1/2 buttons to quickly un/re-equip the last item is also particularly effective and I found myself dropping back in to the double-tap to reload without even thinking about it. Sure it has a couple of weird quirks, most notably needing to take your gas ask off to open a door, but compared to a separate inventory screen I’ll happily take that compromise.
9. A Lack of Sneaking
Ask someone what the core gameplay of MGS is all about and they’ll say “Sneaking past guards and stealth infiltration”; It’s a title that sold itself on the tagline of “Tactical Espionage Action”. On revisiting however I was struck by how little of this core gameplay there is. To me a “classic” MGS area is an open room/area with patrolling guards, obstacles, and plenty of corners to hide in as Snake sneaks his way through. If you discount the odd lone patrolling guard, areas/corridors only covered with cameras (which are all easily taken out with a chaff grenade), or minefields the game boils down to a surprisingly small number of regions containing this classic setup. Want the list?
- The dock
- Tank Hanger
- Weapon Storage
- Warhead Storage
- Area outside the Commander’s Office
… that’s it… six areas where the core gameplay is shown off and most of those occur in the first half of the game. Once snake embarks on his climb up the communication tower the game is almost a constant stream of boss battles and attack events. In many ways it was the “Special Missions” expansion (that I also played a huge amount of) that satisfied much of my original thirst for that core experience.
8. Arbitrary Radar Jamming
Ok, I get it – Kojima wanted some ares with radar and some areas without radar and as paper-thin explanation for this “jamming” or “electrical interference” works just fine. The thing I noticed on revisiting however it just how arbitrary this is. Sometime snake can use the radar in corridors, sometimes not, sometimes he can use it underground, sometimes not.
Given that the player spends a fair chunk of the game end climbing up and down metal gear in the hanger area it’s hard to ignore how inconsistent the radar jamming is in this section particularly. On the floor of this vast open hanger the radar is fine, but climb up about 12 feet and suddenly it’s jammed, but keep going and it’s fine again once you reach the tight confines of the control room.
7. Snake’s Fickle Morals
As integral as the plot is in making MGS the iconic game that is is, it was hard to ignore just how inconsistent Snake is as a character. At times he characterises himself as a stone cold killer but then jumps about all over the place when it comes to his opposing (and fellow) battle companions.
He praises Wolf as a free spirit, even whilst she’s chastising herself for losing sight of her own purpose yet he berates Raven for glorifying combat and he’s almost sympathetic to Mantis, despite him being arguably the most warped character in the game… and of course let’s not forget that he was happy to provide a quick death to Wolf, yet he can’t bring himself to kill Grey Fox despite them fighting in Zanzibar, and that he’s clearly sufering, and about to be crushed by metal gear… Snake just lets him monologue away unable to fire that stinger missile.
6. Snake’s “Duh” PAL Moment
Otacon has just told you Snake… he’s literally just said that the PAL key can be used to both arm and disarm the nuke. You really need to have checked that out before blindly entering the key and just assuming that you were disarming it… didn’t… didn’t you even think to look at those screens?? I’m sure they would have told you that YOU ARE ARMING THE NUKE!
The Foxhound rebels are one of the highpoints of the game. Even coming back after these years they’re a well thought out, memorable, larger than life bunch of characters that manage to embody everything wonderfully over the top about this series. Each one of them faced in combat has a distinct personality, we get to find out their own unique backstory, and they’re linked thematically to the areas in which combat takes place. One of the criticisms I levelled at MGS2 was how the members of Dead Cell failed to compare to their MGS predecessors.
4. This Elevator
This one right there in the top right of that screenshot. I had absolutely no memory of this elevator from first playing the game.
3. The Briefing Files
Grainy footage of a naked Snake being briefed on the operation isn’t something that I would automatically count as a highpoint, but there’s something about the briefing files (accessible from the main menu) that really add to the experience. Maybe it’s just the added background detail that I like, or maybe it helps cement the immersion. Either way, coming back to the game I did sit for the twenty minutes or so that it takes to play all of these in order.
2. Plot and Pacing
Kojima has taken a lot of flak since the release of MGS for the bloated cutscenes and dialogue in his games. The sequel specifically stands out for me as a prime example where a little editing would have gone a long way. It’s interesting then that one of the feelings I was left with upon finishing my replay of MGS is how well paced the game is. Maybe standards have changed over the years, but the amount and length of the cutscenes felt precisely right to hold the player’s attention, keep the plot moving, and not detract from the gameplay. I guess it was the years after that he struggled to reproduce that balance in his games.
1. President Baker’s CD Case Clue
In a game that’s famous for fourth wall breaks, this badly ageing moment from President Baker is one of the more memorable along with Psycho-Mantis’ telepathic controller movement. It highlights an era where it was almost inconceivable that a game wouldn’t be purchased on physical media so the act of realising (all too slowly if I recall my very first playthrough correctly) that as a player the correct codec frequency was tucked away in a small screenshot on the back of the game case.
Weirdly on revisiting something about this rubbed me up the wrong way; I think the ‘joke’ has just grown stale over the years and all that’s left is an immersion breaking standing up from the couch to find out a number. It’s not even like this is the only time that Kojima sacrifices immersion for this type of gimmick which completely misses the point of the subtle fourth wall break. The “Hideo” video channel… thing… that happens during the Mantis boss battle has aged just as badly with younger players undoubtedly confused and older ones sighing as the game flow is once again disrupted. It feels like a weird note to end on, but with the knowledge now that this would continue in to the sequel with the “Fission Mailed” moments late on at a climactic ingame moment it’s certainly a persistent niggle that I’ve developed about these titles.
So there you have them… ten things… that I noticed when playing the game again with no real point other than to Metal Gear Solid at you all!