This is Mission Commander Big Boss. The following article contains spoilers for the original Metal Gear. The game is thirty years old, do I still need to warn you? You have been warned!
In my recent 20 year retrospective about Metal Gear Solid for PS1 I mentioned that the original Metal Gear for NES was one of the few games that I own for that system and yet I’ve never completed it (to clarify, my NES is not a childhood console, I picked it up about ten years ago on eBay). With that thought gently turning the cogs of my mind I decided to finally play it and see where the series began and how it shaped the follow up monster of the PlayStation 1 era. Blowing the dust off both the console and the game I fired it up and…
I guess the Tweet above tells much of the story of that evening, however after a thorough connector cleaning and tweaking of all 72 pins my NES finally stopped showing a garbled mess every time I breathed too loudly and I was permitted to play the game. Of course this isn’t an easy game to write about; it’s both controversial in its own right and has been loaded with a kind of weighty expectation because of the series it spawned in the thirty years since its release.
A History Lesson: The original release of Metal Gear created by the dialogue spewing T-Rex that is Hideo Kojima was on the MSX2, but that wouldn’t experience an official western release until many years later with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. Instead most westerners would experience the game on NES with the 1988 port that was handled by a different team and was rumoured to have been developed in only 3 months. In the years after, and following the success of the “Solid” series, Kojima famously denounced the NES port as being of poor quality, effectively washing his hands of it despite the development team working from the original MSX2 code. In the years that followed a NES sequel, Snake’s Revenge, would be released by a different team and is non-canonical. The actual MSX2 sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, was Kojima developed and forms the basis of many aspects of the plot of Metal Gear Solid.
Right out of the gate this is a confusing past but it boils down to a simple fact that for most western gamers it is the NES version that started the series. It’s also worth pointing out (maybe to the younger readers) that the gaming landscape in the 80’s was full of many systems with wildly different capabilities. Unlike today, where porting to a different console means that the sweat glistening on a marine’s brow might have realistic jiggle physics on PS4 but not XBox, this was a time where ports to different systems could be drastically different both in look and sometimes gameplay. It’s only in light of the later success of the series that this particular port has been highlighted as unfaithful to the original. The differences between the versions is well documented and, aside from minor changes, can be summarised in a few key points:
- MSX2 visuals are more detailed/interesting than the NES
- Map differences; specifically the addition of more jungle linking sections (including game opening) in the NES version
- Guard alert status resets when leaving a screen in the NES version making it much easier
- The Hind D boss (MSX2) was replaced with dual machine gunners (NES)
- The NES version does not feature Metal Gear; instead the player needs to blow up the supercomputer that controls Metal Gear (which is also much simpler)
That last point is often said to be the biggest flaw of the port. Graphical differences and minor gameplay variations can be understood but in a game that is about a walking battle tank with nuclear capability it’s bizarre that the player never gets to see it. The omission was blamed on the tight deadline and the limitations of the NES.
At its core the gameplay is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the series: sneak into military facility, don’t alert the guards, find keycards, … hide in box…, explore & backtrack before final showdown. Functionally it is a 2-D tile based top-down game however Snake and the enemies are drawn from the side and the scenery seems is drawn in a classic 2/3 RPG perspective. This gives the game an odd look and tends to cause bouts of walking into, rather than past, walls. There’s also the obligatory plot-twist that your commander, Big Boss, is actually the leader of the enemy force, although the ideological aspects of that aren’t discussed until the later games. Playing the game however reveals a whole heap of ingame quirks, annoyances, and bizarre-ness of the time.
The first strange aspect I noticed was the difficulty. The game opens in the jungle has the player sneak past a number of troublesome guards as they guide Snake to the first building. With limited health, no weapons, and no experience, this is a punishingly difficult game opening. As the player progresses Snake acquires weapons, buckets of ammo, and an extended health bar along with the knowledge that they can just scuttle off the screen if he gets spotted (and just exit/re-enter rooms to respawn health/ammo items inside). The enemies however don’t really change throughout the game so by the end I was barely paying any attention to the orthogonally moving and easily avoided guards. By contrast the number of trap doors in the game does ramp up in the closing stages and are the single most irritating part of the gameplay with the card keys needed to pass through doors coming in a close second. By the end credits the player will have collected eight keys but as none of the doors are labelled, and as it’s perfectly common to walk through a door eight only to find a door three, passing through any door is a time consuming fumble of menus to work through each key until Snake happens to select the correct one.
Other strange game elements are the trucks which serve as a useful fast travel around the game map. These are accessible right from the beginning allowing you to not only visit much later game areas out of sequence but also making at least one part of the game skippable. As Snake was being thrown around in these convenient carriages I found it pretty easy to loose track of where I was and with no buildings labels (despite being referred to in game dialogue) it was easy to get turned around and spend a chunk of time roaming the base searching for a locked door that you think you might possible have picked up the key for but won’t really know until you find the darn thing.
On top of these problems the game has a healthy dose of the cryptic-NES-crap that just seemed to be an obligatory mark of the era. There are sections where you are required to call specific people on the radio in specific rooms to precipitate critical objects in different specific rooms; none of this with any real clue. There is a sequence involving finding several hidden doors, again with no clue, and finally there is an essential building that can only be found by moving through a seemingly infinitely looping section of jungle in a specific order without any ingame prompting. Seriously, completing this game without the internet would have been an exercise in randomly trying all sorts of … stuff… until something worked.
Putting all the negatives to one side it’s a mediocre experience made marginally more interesting from its emphasis on stealth rather than the all out action of contemporary games such as Contra. The most interesting thing about the game is that it was a precursor to Metal Gear Solid. In my Metal Gear Solid 2 retrospective I discussed how it was a facsimile of the Shadow Moses incident portrayed in MGS. Now that I’ve played Metal Gear I realise that MGS was a copy itself of many of the elements in this first game. The classic Metal Gear Solid items; cardboard box, cigarettes, numbered cards, mine detector, infrared goggles, remote control missile … and so on.. all began here. The battle with the tank, cyborg ninja(s), Hind D (MSX2), Metal Gear (MSX2), and final confrontation with enemy leader under a time limit are all here. Heck, even the battle against Coward Duck with items flying around the room and innocent hostages could be considered analogous to the Psycho Mantis battle in MGS where Snake must avoid killing Meryl. Kojima clearly laid much of the groundwork for something much grander at this stage, or if I’m being cynical, he took a mediocre game developed early in his career and transformed it in to an iconic title for the Playstation era.
I don’t really know what I was expecting going in. If nothing else it’s satisfied a curiosity and given me an insight in to one of my favourite games on the PS1. It laid the groundwork for the lore yet failed to win me over with its gameplay. I’m also left confused by Kojima’s obvious disdain for the port; sure, I get that the MSX2 version was better, but from most of the accounts I’ve read there’s not much difference and most of the game elements remain in some form. In the context of the era it wasn’t uncommon and certainly not as unfaithful as some ports.
Have you ever gone back and played an older game to gain context for a favourite title?