METAL GEAR SOLID (1998) – KONAMI
It’s not often that a game can come along and invent an entire genre by itself. And yet when Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998 that is exactly what it did. By making the player use stealth and not just charge in all guns blazing, and by making a game that had cinematics and presentation almost on par with that which was coming out of Hollywood, Hideo Kojima created a legendary game. The effect of Metal Gear Solid is still felt today; it remains one of the highest rated games of all time on Metacritic and every game since that has featured some element of stealth has to dock its cap to Kojima.
And yet for 12 years after its release, I never played a minute of this game. I had the Playstation all set for it, and yet never managed to get a copy. Imagine my delight therefore when I found a near mint copy in a local retro store for £8 last year. Several playthroughs later, and I now find myself in a position where I can explain what Metal Gear Solid does so well.
First of, lets deal with the plot. Quite frankly, there is one word to describe the story of Metal Gear Solid: epic. It opens with a terrorist organisation called FOXHOUND leading an armed uprising on an island in Alaska, which serves as a nuclear weapon disposal facility. Having seized the island, the group demands that the Government give them the remains of the legendary solider ‘Big Boss’ within 24 hours, or they will launch a nuclear attack on the American mainland. The government responds by sending in their top infiltrator, Solid Snake, to resolve the situation. You play as Snake, and are told to rescue the DARPA Chief and the President of ArmsTech, both of whom are being kept hostage on the island, before stopping FOXHOUND from delivering a nuclear strike. That sounds epic enough, but it’s truly just the tip of the iceberg. The plot of Metal Gear Solid has as many twists and turn as a country road as Snake proceeds through the Shadow Moses facility, fighting members of FOXHOUND and gaining new allies. And there’s a cyborg ninja thrown in there for good measure. To say much more would spoil the entire experience; I had the great misfortune of having this game spoiled for me some years ago now, and I don’t want to ruin such a great plot for anyone else. Needless to say though, even though I knew what was going to happen, the delivery of the story in this game is so damn good that it genuinely didn’t matter.
Much of this is down to the characters, and they way they interact with each other. Snake isn’t just a random knucklehead; he’s a clever guy who is determined to get the job done for the good of his country. The support team that helps Snake along are a varied bunch as well; Colonel Roy Campbell who oversees your mission is Snake’s main source of information during the game, while Mei Ling operates as the saving system, and Master Millar provides information about Alaska and the guards you face. Your adversaries in the game are not the normal run of the mill guys either; each of them has a special trait which makes them very engaging. Revolver Ocelot for example is a master of gunplay, while the hulking Vulcan Raven can communicate with crows while chasing you down with a chain gun. And Psycho Mantis may well be one of the all time great enemies of gaming. If you only ever play one action game in your life, I cannot recommend Metal Gear Solid heavily enough.
The gameplay also reaches the lofty heights set by the story. Of course, the main appeal of this game is the aforementioned stealth element; it was something completely new to try, and yet Konami managed to pull it off first time (much like Nintendo did with the transition of Mario from 2D to 3D environments). If you think that you can boss this game by walking in and shooting everything in sight, think again: guards outnumber you at all times, can pack a punch with their weaponry, and can also call for backup when you get spotted. Besides, Snake has a lack of weaponry at the start of the game; you only have your bare hands with which to defend yourself. It helps then that Snake has many tricks up his sleeve to get the job done. Apart from running, he can crawl, back up against walls to avoid detection, swim, deliver a mean punch and kick combo, and snap a man’s neck in two: all of this is very simple to carry out using the game’s excellent controls. Metal Gear Solid is a thinking man’s game; you have to analyse the way guards patrol an area (which can be done by observing the ever constant radar on your screen), and make your way around as quietly as possible without raising alarm; even something as inconsequential as leaving your footprints in the snow can cause a guard to come wandering. The AI in this game is quite brilliant at times, and it makes the challenge all the greater.
You will soon get your hands on weaponry however, and there’s a large amount to play around with, and Snake is a master of all arms, ranging from pistols and stun grenades, to heavier stuff like assault rifles, and even Stinger missiles. Snake also has a lot of items to play around with as well; he can equip thermal goggles to see heat signatures in the distance, equip a detector to look for mines on the ground, or famously move around inside a small cardboard box. Hell, he can even light a cigarette and smoke if he wants (because he’s Snake. And he’s a badass). Using a clever in game menu system (holding L2 or R2 freezes the action and allows you to pick whatever items you have picked up) makes it a doddle for Snake to do all this as well, and means that you can always have the right equipment on hand (if only Nintendo had done this with the Ocarina Of Time…). It’s also worth noting that Snake gets bonus items when you finish the story depending on how the plot panned out for you, so there is good replay value.
My absolute favourite feature about Metal Gear Solid however is the Codec system. By pressing the Select button, you open up a two window screen with a frequency in the middle. Select the correct frequency, and you can talk to the other members of the game that help Snake in his mission. So for example, call 140.85, and Roy Campbell will pop up reminding you of where to go and what you need to do. Master Millar can tell you more about the soldiers you fight. Nastasha Romaneko is a weapons expert who can tell you all about that new gun you just found. The codec is integral to telling the story line as well, so it’s nice to see something so actively used in the plot come into the main game.
The one last thing I will say about the gameplay in Metal Gear Solid is that sometimes its breaks the fourth wall. Actually no scrap that; it charges through it with a sledgehammer. Some of the scenarios in this game are just so wonderfully executed that they had me in awe twelve years after the game was released. For example, sometime into the game you receive a CD case from the ArmsTech President and then you are told you need to contact Meryl, the Colonel’s niece, via Codec. The problem is, you do not have her frequency. When you ask him about it,Roy tells you to look on the back of the CD case to find the number. Selecting the case in the items menu however tells you nothing about the number. I looked around for ages trying to find the number, before turning to the trusty internet for help. This is when I realised you need to look at the real life case for the game, where there is a small picture of Meryl and Snake having a Codec conversation, with the number clearly shown. Its absolutely sublime genius on the behalf of Kojima, and I couldn’t help but sit there for about a minute just smiling at how clever that was. And if I was to start on the Psycho Mantis fight, I could be here for days. Lets just say it has the Guinness World Record for ‘Most Innovative Use of a Video Game Controller’, and that you NEED to play that fight at some point in your life.
So, top notch story and gameplay. And then we get to the production values. When this game came out, it surpassed anything that was available on the console to the date, and remained a shining beacon all the way through to the console’s demise. The graphics were incredible; the environments in this game are massive 3D areas full of colour and detail (look through the binoculars and you can see a guard’s breath in the cold air in the distance, and walk through a puddle and you see the splashes from where you walked). There’s so many cutscenes (a mixture of codec conversations, videos rendered with the games engine and real life footage) that you could be forgiven for watching a film at times. And the thing is, the quality never drops; it looks as good at the conclusion as it did at the start, arguably even better. Its no wonder they couldn’t fit it all on one disc, but even still to get it all on two discs is quite a feat.
Added to the graphics is the fantastic sound element to the game. Metal Gear Solid is fully voiced, and there’s a lot of it to hear; fortunately the voice acting is stellar. David Hayter has become famous for his work as Solid Snake, while the rest of the crew shine in their respective roles. Its also helpful that the script being worked off is excellent, full of drama and tense moments that works beautifully within the story. You can also get some really very funny conversations at various points in the game, so it’s a good idea to stay on the Codec frequently. The music also helps to create a great atmosphere, it’s a very tense and engaging soundtrack to play along to, and it gave the world the now iconic alert noise and respective theme, as well as the famous line which is played if Snake kicks the bucket while you play (Snake? Snake???? SNNAAAAAKKKKKEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!)
Metal Gear Solid has all the bases covered then. Give the marks, and we will be on our way…
But no so fast. As much as fans might like to claim that it’s the best game ever, Metal Gear Solid has a few things wrong with it that holds it back from that particular accolade. The main problem is the actual content of the game: as good as the story is, this is a very short game. On the first playthrough you may take a while to get comfy with the controls and the stealth dynamics, but in replays this game can be done and dusted in about eight hours. I also find issue with some of the game dynamics; the fact that you can save pretty much anywhere (apart from when in alert status) is a bit cheap in my opinion, not being able to shoot in first person can become a bit annoying at points, and some of the boss fight are simply too easy, making them kind of anticlimactic after some great build-up. As much as I love it, I cannot say that Metal Gear Solid is as flawless as so many others have claimed. The remake for the Gamecube, The Twin Snakes, should be viewed as the ultimate version of this game.
But what the hell. If you like your games to be short, tightly knit affairs, then Metal Gear Solid is perfect. If you like to hang around in the shadows and get the job done quietly, Metal Gear Solid is perfect. If you want a defining experience for the Playstation, Metal Gear Solid is damn near as perfect as you are going to get. My personal testimony is that after waiting twelve years to get my hands on it, I was not disappointed. In this case, the snake is the true king of the jungle.