To celebrate the impending release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, we at Power Up Gaming have decided to take a look back at this lauded, but rather convoluted series. This week, we will be covering all of the main Metal Gear Solid titles in a series of articles, with several of our writers each paying lip service to their favourite games in the main story cannon. Starting at the beginning of the Solid series (not including Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2), we’ll pick up with Snake’s first 3D outing on the original PlayStation.
Please be aware that this article will contain spoilers for Metal Gear Solid and subsequent games in the series. You have been warned.
While Metal Gear Solid’s release was well publicised in the run up to its release, the game’s inception came as quite a surprise. The original Metal Gear and its sequel weren’t exactly underground titles, but they didn’t sell gangbusters either. Also, both games were released during the 8-bit era, meaning that a whole console generation had come and gone since the last Metal Gear game, a rarity for an age where sequels would arrive thick and fast.
In actual fact, Metal Gear Solid (or Metal Gear 3 as it was initially called) was originally planned as a 3DO title, with early development beginning in 1994. Series creator Hideo Kojima had previous experience with the platform due to his release of Policenauts earlier that year. However, due to ailing support for the 3DO, development was shifted to the PlayStation. With this change, the project expanded considerably in scope, including levels of detail that pushed the new hardware considerably. Not only was the game translated into a 3D environment with a focus on accuracy, Kojima’s team sought to create a much more cinematic game through an expanded script and full voice acting. The team even consulted military expertise such as the Huntington Beach SWAT team to consult on guns, military tactics, vehicles and explosives. It’s this kind of attention that would help to achieve the team’s goal of creating the “best PlayStation game ever”.
From the game’s initial moments where you first see Solid Snake infiltrating the Shadow Moses complex, you knew that this was not a run-of-the-mill experience. The symphonic, CD-quality opening theme, along with the credits rolling, immediately set a cinematic aesthetic that was revolutionary in its day.
At the time, games generally veered away from telling in-depth stories. To say that other games didn’t have stories would be disingenuous, but many other titles from the era had very binary narratives; save the princess, punch the baddies, and eat the chicken under the phone box. There was a prevailing attitude that games (on consoles especially) should concentrate on short gameplay loops, and storytelling didn’t have a huge place in the medium. Metal Gear Solid was one of the games that helped to change that perception.
The broad strokes of MGS may be familiar, especially since the game shares many story beats from Metal Gear 2 (examples include infiltrating bases, stealth camouflaged soldiers in lifts, a fist fight with Frank Jaeger, and of course, the destruction of Metal Gear). However, Kojima jumped in with both feet, spinning a yarn that covered all sorts of topics and themes, from nuclear proliferation and the human cost of war, to genetics and creating a legacy for the future.
Many of these themes would continue through other titles in the series, but MGS specifically focuses on genes; a topic that Solid Snake’s fellow Big Boss clone, Liquid Snake, simply can’t stop bleating about. His whole outlook stems from the fact that he’s a clone of Big Boss, and he can’t quite get past that fact, believing himself to be an inferior clone due to him inheriting recessive genes (as opposed Solid Snake’s dominant genes). While this tenuous grasp of genetics is almost laughable, the fact that Liquid was supposed to be the dominant clone (as is later revealed) proved that Solid was able to prevail because he wasn’t held back by his legacy. Solid didn’t believe that was an inferior copy (he didn’t even know he was a clone until Shadow Moses), so he wasn’t bound by the weight of his lineage. It’s an interesting concept to explore: that our lives are not guaranteed to carry the genetic mistakes of our parents; a conclusion that Snake himself comes to by the end of MGS2.
These story beats were often heavy handed due to being contained in protracted cutscenes, but the way they tied into real life events enchanted me as a young teenager. I learned about the Kyoto Agreement and the Cuban Missile Crisis through Metal Gear Solid, which helped me shape an early opinion on these matters. The fact that a video game dared to tackle subjects like this in a full and frank manner was nothing short of a revelation for me, and this was only further enhanced by the game’s portrayal of its leading characters.
One of Metal Gear Solid’s greatest achievements is the expanded characterisation of its entire cast. While much of this was, rightly or wrongly, introduced through lengthy cutscenes, there’s no denying that the characters in MGS were rounded individuals with histories and motivations. From the supporting cast, such as Mei Ling and her penchant for proverbs, or Naomi Hunter and her deep resentment of Snake due to past events, every person had a reason to exist in this universe without just existing a minor plot point.
This level of detail is most apparent with Solid Snake’s showdowns with the FOXHOUND unit. Beforehand, the player is treated to glimpses of this formidable band of black ops specialists in order to build the tension before you have to confront them. While these characters are ultimately larger-than-life baddies with codenames such as Vulcan Raven and Revolver Ocelot, they possess deep backstories than inform their personalities.
Take Psycho Mantis, a powerful psychic who lives out his childhood trauma on the battlefield. After reading the minds of many people over the course of his life, he grows disillusioned with humanity, disgusted by their inherent selfishness. While he doesn’t necessarily agree with Liquid’s insurrection, he uses it as an excuse to hurt people. He also represents one of the most iconic boss battles of the game, “reading” your Memory Card to determine your personality (“I see you like to play Castlevania”).
This character depth deeply fed into the engaging boss fights that are one of the pillars MGS. The other members of FOXHOUND are intimidating; the shamanistic Vulcan Raven with his huge chaingun; Sniper Wolf with her stone cold logic and aim; Liquid Snake and his British accent (shorthand for evil); all of these add up to memorable encounters. Even the rebuilt Frank Jaeger still has bags of personality.
Revolver Ocelot is a character that Kojima himself appears to have some sympathy for, choosing to make him a recurring character over the course of the series, tying him deeply to the core story. His boss fight is certainly interesting, even if the camera angles prove particularly difficult at this point.
Of all the aspects of the game, the gameplay is the one area where MGS has really aged. For modern sensibilities, it’s all too easy to crouch and begin crawling around when being pursued by enemy guards. The control scheme was serviceable at the time, but served as a hangover across the entire series, right up until (and arguably including) MGS4. Also, the top-down camera angles make it awkward to see enemies more than a few feet away, although The Soliton Radar mitigates this somewhat by displaying enemy positions. These complaints aside, Metal Gear Solid is still very playable, and the amount of options at your disposal are quite staggering.
Ultimately, the goal is to be as stealthy as possible, since an outright firefight will usually leave you full of bullet holes. To make your way through the environment you can climb through grates, create diversions for guards by laying down magazines, distract them by knocking on walls, and of course, the series staple of hiding in a cardboard box. There’s no doubt that MGS influenced the stealth genre considerably, with many of the foundations laid here being played out in titles today. But what separates the title from its contemporaries is the level of detail involved.
For example, from the very first moment you take control of Snake, you are introduced to a game that takes influence from reality. Soldiers will spot your footprints in the snow, and follow these until they find your location. The cold Alaskan air means that your breath can be seen from around corners by enemies. Walking on grates is louder than snow, alerting guards with your footsteps. This created a living, breathing environment, and forced you to contemplate your surroundings.
To say that Metal Gear Solid was the first game to draw influence from film would be a lie (even the most tactless movie tie-ins are inspired in some way). MGS wasn’t even the first game to feature a sincere storyline or a full voice cast. However, no other console game had brought these elements together in such a cohesive fashion, and that’s why MGS became such a major influence on the stealth genre. It still retains a special place in many people’s hearts (mine included), and often charts highly on many Best Game Ever lists for good reason. From the grand production values of its graphics and musical score, to the minutiae of its gameplay ideas, Metal Gear Solid changed video games for the better, and its importance is irrefutable. Even amongst the high standards set by the rest of the series, it remains one the better games, and is still utterly essential for anyone with an interest in the genre.
Join us tomorrow when our very own David Tierney deep dives into Metal Gear Solid 2, and keep your eyes peeled for more Metal Gear content throughout the rest of the week.