Original version: メタルギア, released on 1987/07/13 for MSX2
Recommended version: Disk 2 of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, released on 2005/12/22 for PlayStation 2
1987 was a very difficult year to evaluate. There were many, many great games that didn’t quite make the cut to receive a game appreciation article. Even more difficult was choosing which game ought to receive the honorable mention. I desperately wanted to include Final Fantasy, a buggy grind-fest, Contra, the game that popularized the Konami code because it’s unreasonably difficult, and Rock Man (Mega Man in the U.S.), which was a rough draft of the masterpiece Rock Man 2. I could pick only one game, however, and Metal Gear won out. So let’s take a look.
Kojima Hideo was an unusual game developer. He could write stories but wasn’t very good at writing code, and he was a film buff. Kojima had a long history of writing “short” stories that were over 400 pages long. This will be useful knowledge later on when I write about subsequent games in the series.
After several failed pitches for fast-paced action games, Kojima presented a truly unique (at the time) premise for a game. Rather than the protagonist charging forward, guns blazing, this new game would require him to hide and sneak around. (This was a good idea from a technical standpoint too, since the MSX 2 didn’t have enough processing power to handle a full-throttle action game.) Starting out with nothing but a pack of cigarettes and his bare fists, the protagonist Solid Snake had to infiltrate a secret base called Outer Heaven to rescue captured operatives and destroy the mysterious secret weapon known as Metal Gear. The game can be somewhat cryptic at times, but for the most part your allies will lead you in the right way.
The game starts with a cutscene of Snake entering the base then finding a place to hide and begin a codec conversation with his organization’s leader, Big Boss. The opening conversation does a good job of setting the tone of the game while also making you feel like you, Solid Snake, are genuinely a secret agent sent in to an enemy base. You may be facing an entire military installation alone, but at least you’re not alone. You can use the codec at any time to ask for help. Big Boss gives you tips about what to do next, Kyle Schneider tells you where to find weapons and equipment, Dianne tells you what the bosses’ weaknesses are, and Jennifer unlocks certain doors so that Snake can find otherwise inaccessible items.
Here’s a video of me playing all the way through the game. I made this video back in 2009, and apparently back then I liked to use camera transitions liberally.
In some ways, Metal Gear could be thought of as the stealth game equivalent of The Legend of Zelda. It’s a free-roaming, open-ended adventure with plenty of items and tools to use and hidden side objectives to tackle, with NPCs giving you subtle hints. The perspective is the same in both games, too. In LoZ you can’t get the Magic Sword unless you have enough heart containers, and in Metal Gear you can’t contact Jennifer unless you have enough stars. Unfortunately it is possible to lose stars during the boss fight against Dirty Duck by killing one of the hostages. Someone could argue that this is a good thing because it sufficiently penalizes you for being careless with your shots, but the penalty is really steep. Man, games in the 1980s were cruel! Oh, yeah. Speaking of the 1980s,
The box art wasn’t Kojima’s idea, but it might as well have been.
The box art for the game was based directly on a publicity shot of Kyle Reese from the 1984 movie Terminator, and the name Solid Snake was based on the name of the protagonist, Snake Plissken, from the 1981 film Escape from New York. Kojima went on to make many film references and allusions in his games. Anyway, back to the subject at hand:
There are a few other flaws that stop Metal Gear from being truly great. You have to equip key cards to open most doors, and it has to be the right one. If you wish to open a level 3 door, for example, ONLY a level 3 card will do. Another problem is that the bosses are disappointing, not only in their low difficulty, but also in their requirement of brute force. There are no bosses that require sneaking or any of Snake’s other skills. Just figure out how to hurt them and then hurt them. And Metal Gear doesn’t even move so you just have to bomb its feet in the correct order and it’s done for. Also, the regular enemies are tunnel-visioned so they’re easy enough to run past once you figure out their walking patterns. Metal Gear 2 improved upon this by not only giving the guards peripheral vision but also allowing them to turn their heads.
I’d say that overall, Metal Gear has aged remarkably well. MG was a pioneering title that set the bar for stealth games the same way that Super Mario Bros. set the bar for platformers. That it is still quite playable today is remarkable. Metal Gears 1 and 2 were included along with several other bonuses in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence.
Aside from the gameplay, one thing that Metal Gear became famous for was its anti-nuclear message. The game was made in 1987, after all, when the USSR was still around. Entire generations of youngsters grew up under the shadow of impending nuclear war, and crackpot dictators (even still today) wished to get their hands on nuclear weapons for “diplomatic” leverage on the world stage. One thing that made nuclear proliferation difficult, however, was the necessity of massive installations in order to launch nuclear missiles. Kojima envisioned Metal Gear, a bipedal tank that could launch ICBMs from anywhere in the world. If you desired so, you could walk Metal Gear through the terrain of your country, whether jungle, desert, tundra, or mountains, and rain down hellfire anywhere on Earth. Has someone invaded your country and seized your military bases? You can still fire ICBMs–you have no need for military bases to launch. This idea of a very plausible real-world threat drove most of the Metal Gear series’ themes. But at the same time, MG isn’t afraid to mess around and be a goofy video game. But we’ll get more into that later.
If you own a copy of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence then you can download a backup ISO of Disc 2 here (part 1), here (part 2), and here (part 3). (Note: you must download all three parts to the same folder and then extract the .rar archive.)