Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is now just one month away, and as a way to celebrate, I'll be looking back at what is quite possibly my all-time favorite videogame series. I'll be starting with Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation. While I am very familiar with Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake due to reading, writing, and playing the series for quite some time now, Metal Gear Solid was my entryway into the franchise, and to this day I would rank in my top 3 games of all-time.
I'll be going through and reviewing all the main story titles beginning with MGS, though I'm still debating if I want to try and play Peace Walker again. So without further ado, let's start with an incredible tune and get right into Metal Gear Solid month!
I speak a lot about the way things used to be; it's no secret that retro gaming is where my heart lies. One of the things I miss most in this age of ever-increasing technology and convenience is the videogame magazine. I was never a subscriber to any magazines growing up, but any time one caught my eye, I would beg my mom to buy it for me at the local supermarket, and I would spend hours each and every day reading about how awesome Mortal Kombat II was going to be, looking at the bloody fatalities in all of their 16-bit gory glory.
What was even better about these magazines is that once CD-based home consoles started hitting the market (but before the boom in the Internet), companies would often include a demo disc with your purchase. That's how I discovered Metal Gear Solid.
I didn't buy the magazine myself. In fact, I don't even know which magazine it came from, all I knew is that my friend David Griffin wouldn't shut up about this bite-sized demo of a game coming later that year. It wasn't until I actually got my hands on it myself that I understood why he was so excited. The demo itself was still in Japanese, so we didn't understand a bit of what was going on in the story, and it was a section of the game that could be completed in about five minutes if you wanted to do it that way, as it only consisted of the dock and heliport sections of the game.
But once I finally started playing, I understood. I got it!
Even though I had played other 3D games on my Playstation by that point, and had seen Super Mario 64, 3D games just didn't interest me all that much. They seemed like a lot to take in. Why couldn't Super Mario 64 just give me a map screen? That's what they've done for 10 years now, why change it? But once I started playing Metal Gear Solid, I saw the light.
That five minute demo that I died several times on and couldn't understand a word of what was being said is what finally converted me to 3D videogames. This was more than just a game, this was an adventure. This was a story. I convinced my mom to let me do extra chores in exchange for picking the game up for me on release day.
It was irregular for gamers to go through a game trying to avoid conflict. I played Resident Evil the previous year, and while the best strategy in Resident Evil is to avoid combat at all costs, you really don't have a choice. If you try to kill every enemy in Resident Evil, you'll find yourself without enough ammo to take down a boss, meaning you've essentially locked yourself out of the rest of the game. When you open doors, you have no chance of not alerting enemies. The moment you walk through a door, every monster in that room knows you're there, and they're coming after you.
Metal Gear Solid was different. As Solid Snake, I was tasked to actually think and act like a stealth operative. I had to watch enemy patterns and keep an eye out for security cameras. Granted, you were mostly doing that through use of an on-screen map, but it didn't detract from the overall experience for me.
I fired the game up on release day, quickly making my way through the air ducts on the heliport and eagerly anticipating what the game had in store. That first night I spent a lot of time on the phone with David. This game was still a bit hard for me to grasp, and once I finally made it to Floor B2 and found myself in a gas-filled area and an electrified floor, I knew I needed help. Luckily David has also picked up the strategy guide.
After I followed David's instructions on where to find the gas mask and Nikita launcher, I guided a missile to take out the electric breakers and made my way to the next area, which stopped me with a rather bloody cutscene.
After watching this scene, I decided that that was my stopping point for the day. The best thing about this scene--and really the best part about the game in general--is what it doesn't show you. While you do get quick flashback cuts, you're not shown in great detail what exactly the ninja (Gray Fox, a former friend to Solid Snake) did to these soldiers in that room. You're forced to fill in the blanks, and that's why I still prefer this version of the game over the graphically superior GameCube remake, The Twin Snakes. Twin Snakes shows you exactly what happens from the start of that encounter to the end, leaving no room for your imagination. When I first saw this cutscene on the original, I legitimately thought "What am I about to go up against? How can I possibly beat whatever that thing was?"
Most people who played Twin Snakes probably played the original, and at that point wouldn't be shocked by what happened next, but that scene does such a great job of setting up a sense of fear before the fight and getting your adrenaline pumping. Even with the brief glimpses of Gray Fox, you never get a good shot of him, and that's what made it so great, the uncertainty of the unknown.
It took me a few tries to figure out how I was supposed to approach this fight. Chaff grenades followed by a quick burst from the Famas machine gun seemed to work, but you only have so many chaff grenades and he deflects your bullets otherwise. I didn't want to go anywhere near this guy, there's no doubt he would cut me up with that sword the same way he did those soldiers in the hallway. But after I had exhausted all other options, I tried hand-to-hand combat, and found that to be exactly what Gray Fox wanted.
After the fight was over, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted, but then I realized I was still very early on in the game, and likely had tougher battles awaiting me.
The game has tons of iconic moments, and some of the tricks needed to proceed in the game, including real-world instances like getting Meryl's codec frequency from the game's cd case and in-game examples like altering a shape-shifting key card, were all expertly crafted. But if we're going to choose only one moment that stands out from the pack, it's the Psycho Mantis battle.
The fight with Psycho Mantis has gone down as videogaming legend. Whenever you come across a casual Metal Gear fan, Psycho Mantis is the one thing they remember in great detail. I remember playing this as a 13-year-old and racking my brain trying to figure out how to beat him. Much like the Gray Fox fight, I exhausted every weapon and expended several lives, I was completely bumfuzzled. Some weapons seemed to work, and I was able to chip away his life, but not at any acceptable rate. How do you beat someone that can read your mind and anticipates your every move?
It wasn't until I was so frustrated that it carried over into boredom that I decided to use my codec to call random people. In those codec calls, the Colonel and Naomi seemed to be alluding to something, and after a bit of probing and prodding, they finally revealed the secret: switching the controller into the second controller port. This. Was. Genius.
There are other boss battles that I enjoy more than Psycho Mantis, but this one is still the most memorable for how it required real-world actions on the part of the player. Suddenly, Mantis can no longer read your mind and the battle becomes a cakewalk.
After Mantis gives you his sob story (because every Metal Gear boss has a sob story), you come to the scariest part of the game: the cave.
I have no idea why this section scared me. Perhaps it was the requirement of the night-vision goggles obscuring my vision or the fact that you couldn't read your map and find out where the wolves where prowling, but I used to dread this section as a kid. It wasn't until after I beat the game the first time that I discovered that there are several tricks to use to your advantage. The obvious trick is equipping Sniper Wolf's handkerchief on your second time through. With Sniper Wolf being one of their trusted handlers, they won't attack you. But did you know that you could lie under Snake's trademark cardboard box, have the dogs pee on the box, and from there on they won't attack you because you bear their scent? Kind of weird (and I could never get it to work), but amazing the kind of tricks that Kojima put into this game, a theme that you will see throughout the series.
As I mentioned before when talking about the Gray Fox cutscene prior to the battle, it's what this game alluded to but didn't show that made it so great. In cutscenes throughout the game, you get small glimpses of the titular Metal Gear, a walking nuclear tank. But in these scenes, the view is obscured and the shots are quick. Having not had the experience of the original NES/MSX games, this was all a new thing for me.
After I bested Psycho Mantis, took down Sniper Wolf, outlasted Revolver Ocelot in the torture device, outsmarted the hapless guard and escaped from the holding cell (with the use of some cleverly placed ketchup), took down a Hind D helicopter, beat Sniper Wolf again, and survived a thrilling battle with the hulking Vulcan Raven, I finally made my way to Metal Gear Rex's holding area.
This was overwhelming. I knew that eventually I was going to have to face this thing, but how could I possibly do that?
Wait, what's this? There's a way to shut down Metal Gear? Yeah, let's do that!
After discovering that the key card you have will change shape in different temperatures, you have to go through possibly the only bad part of the game. Actually, it's not so much bad as it is tedious. Climb all the way up to the control room, insert key card one. Climb all the way back down and make your way to the freezer room where you fought Vulcan Raven. Wait a few minutes until the key card changes, make your way back, climb up to the control room, use second card. Climb back down, make your way back to the blast furnace, wait a few minutes for the key card to change again, go back to Metal Gear's holding area, climb back up to the control room, finally insert third key.
Well, that certainly padded the game out about another half hour, but at least now Metal Gear is...wait, why is that computer saying the Metal Gear has been activated? Why is Master Miller calling me? WHAT? It was Liquid Snake the whole time?!?
At this point I know better than to trust anyone in the Metal Gear franchise, but back then, this was the biggest switcheroo I'd ever been a part of. The game's primary antagonist, Liquid Snake, was impersonating Master Miller this whole time? And now he's inside Metal Gear and trying to kill me? Ohhhhhh, good.
The fight with Metal Gear actually isn't all that difficult. Just continue to run through its legs and lock the stinger missile on him at opportune times and you're golden, but it's the post-fight that's truly great. After you take Metal Gear down, you're treated to some exposition, and then engage in true, mano-e-mano, hand-to-hand combat with Liquid Snake atop Metal Gear Rex. It's truly epic. As much as I love the ending chase sequence with Liquid, I actually wish the game would have ended here, or at least had the chase sequence and kept Liquid out of it. I understand why they did it that way, it was a much more dramatic ending, but after defeating him inside Metal Gear, then knocking him off of Metal Gear, only to have him return one last time, it began to feel like a Friday the 13th movie, he just won't die.
You don't even get the satisfaction of killing Liquid Snake yourself, as he dies to the Foxdie virus moments before putting a bullet in Snake's head. Like I said, I understand the choice to end it this way, but it would have been more satisfying for the player if you got to deliver the final blow, which is something Snake wouldn't be able to finally do to Liquid until Metal Gear Solid 4, but we'll get to that in a few weeks.
Metal Gear Solid is still a masterpiece of videogame design and storytelling today, 17 years after its release. It really has stood the test of time, and like I said before, is one of my favorite games of all time. The only games that outrank it in my eyes are Super Mario World and Resident Evil 4, in that order. MGS took everything that I knew videogames were capable of and made it look like child's play. It opened my eyes to a new world, one that I was fully on board with.
I didn't find the old-school controls or the fixed camera angles to be difficult to return to, as some people like to complain about these days. It's like the people that complain about tank controls in early Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. That's how the game controls, get used to it. Yes, technology has evolved and made things easier to control in 3D games, but that doesn't mean that you should retroactively dislike something about a game. If it was perfect then, then it's still perfect now, and that's how I feel about Metal Gear Solid.
The abstractedness of the graphics, along with a muted color palette fits the tone of the game perfectly. The game takes place in Alaska, so you want colors that make the game feel cold, and the grays, blues, and greens of MGS are perfect for what they wanted to convey about the world. The story is bleak, so the colors are bleak.
I waited with frothing anticipation for a sequel, which we eventually got to much controversy. Tune in next week for the next blog, and don't forget to watch the longplays and afterthoughts videos on the Error Machine YouTube channel.
Thanks for reading.