Metal Gear – Sturdy Serpent

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Original Release: 1987. Platforms: MSX2, NES, PlayStation 3 (reviewed), PlayStation Vita (reviewed), Xbox 360. Developer: Konami. Publisher: Konami. Available on the PlayStation Store.

Gaming confession time: I never played a Metal Gear game until I started researching this article. Any of them. I’ve completely missed out on this franchise, unless you count the thirty seconds where I booted up MGS2, looked around the first room, and left to play something else. I’ve spent more time as Solid Snake in Super Smash Bros Brawl than getting to know his actual source material. Hell, I spent more time reading about MGS4‘s cutscenes and Quiet’s breathable skin than finding out for myself whether they impacted the series in essential ways.

It’s not that I don’t want to play Metal Gear from start to finish one day. But as a franchise, one of Metal Gear‘s greatest strengths is its most intimidating point: It ultimately tells a single, massive story across multiple games. It has no reboots, features staggeringly few retcons, and even its non-essential spin-offs are praised for how well they fit into MGS lore. That’s immensely rare and laudable, but can make it hard for players (like me) who don’t like to start a story in the middle of a series. Which doesn’t even get into the chronological confusion of a franchise which flip-flops between sequels and prequels.

The good news is it’s surprisingly easy to play the earliest Metal Gear games on modern systems. Konami has attached the 1987 MSX2 edition of Metal Gear to almost every Metal Gear Solid 3 re-release since 2005. It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying the games digitally, or picking up an HD collections Konami offered before its game development wing imploded on itself. You can experience Solid Snake’s first mission from the comfort of a PS3 or Vita. (Just note that you’ll have to dig into Metal Gear Solid 3‘s bonus features to find it, a fact some Metal Gear collections fail to mention. I said it was easy, not that it wasn’t confusing.)

Metal Gear takes place in a near-future 1995, several years after a mercenary group established an independent South African state called Outer Heaven. Suspecting the mercenaries are developing advanced weaponry, the special forces team FOXHOUND sends its top agent, Gray Fox, to infiltrate and neutralize the fortress. When Gray Fox disappears after mentioning something called “Metal Gear”, FOXHOUND launches a new mission with Solid Snake – the team’s latest recruit – to pick up where Gray Fox left off.

The game opens with Snake infiltrating Outer Heaven, swimming in undetected with nothing but a pack of cigarettes in his inventory. Across the entire facility, guards patrol key locations of the base, cameras scan for intruders, and security lasers are rigged to call for reinforcements. There are even floor panels rigged with electrical charges and freaking mines blocking your progress. To progress, you’ll need to sneak past enemy forces, collect new equipment, and slowly unlock access restricted areas which reveal new challenges along the way.

Players might be more familiar with Metal Gear Solid‘s 3D environments these days, but in 2D, this gameplay feels ahead of its time. By emphasizing stealth over combat, piecing together clues from radio and NPC conversations, and giving players a huge environment to explore, Metal Gear feels fresh and exciting in ways few competing espionage games have matched. Making the entire game about one mission in a single location was a great touch, since it keeps you invested in exploring to hostages or useful equipment. After a while, Outer Heaven feels like an incredibly familiar place, one encouraging you to remember the locations of health pickups or elevators when you need to escape.

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Metal Gear was also commendable for being a rare military game that emphasized non-combat alternatives. You could sneak past enemy patrols, time your movements to avoid cameras, or quietly knock out enemies instead of shooting through every opponent. Pre-planning is encouraged through items like the binoculars, which let you inspect your surroundings for enemy activity. Most importantly, if you’re spotted or trigger an alarm, it’s fairly easy to reach an escape route or clear reinforcements to try again. While stealth is the focus, you’re never so harshly penalized for mistakes that it feels like a burden.

On the whole, Metal Gear‘s story is fairly basic. There’s only one real twist worth mentioning, but it’s well presented, even if you see it coming from miles away. (Or had it spoiled years ago.) It features a few unique encounters like Snake being captured, rescuing a fake hostage planted as a trap, or finding ways to interact with local resistance members using the radio. But for the most part, these are just flimsy backdrops that provide an excuse for Metal Gear‘s stealth and espionage focused gameplay. The plot elements certainly have enough of a structure for an engaging, minimalist story, but it’s not nearly as engaging as the gameplay itself. (Although from the sounds of things, by the time we reached Metal Gear Solid 4, Kojima had completely switched gears to emphasize too much story.)

Metal Gear Solid‘s unique brand of silliness was already on display here, even if it hadn’t quite plateaued into “Kojima riding a playground duck” territory. Just about every character you meet has utterly laughable names which sound like G.I. Joe rejects, like Shotmaker, Dirty Duck, Bloody Brad, and so on. You can eventually equip Snake’s familiar box to hide in plain sight, which looks completely ridiculous in rooms where no other boxes are stored nearby. The gameplay also has some pretty intense tonal shifts, like dropping you into highly structured boss fights after open-ended stealth encounters. Which isn’t to say boss fights aren’t exciting – they hold up remarkably well. But when Snake is single-handedly taking down tanks, helicopters, and the Metal Gear itself, you start wondering why he bothers sneaking around with that box at all.

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There are also various quirks unique to classic games which first-time Metal Gear players will have to get used to. The interface requires players to manually equip each item – not just the weapon you want to use, but goggles, keycards, your box, the parachute, and more. It’s especially frustrating to keep pausing and swapping between items you need, especially when enemies are approaching and you don’t remember which of your half dozen keycards open the closest locked door. Metal Gear also doesn’t do a great deal of handholding, so without a walkthrough figuring out puzzles can be a huge pain. Sure, you can obtain clues through story progression or rescuing hostages, piecing everything together into something useful requires time-consuming trial and error. I lost count of how many times I parachuted off that swaying bridge before reaching the correct location.

Yet at the same time, Metal Gear manages to get a lot right on the first try. It quickly established a unique style of gameplay that riveted players, featured a challenging but satisfying difficulty curve, and offered a variety of gameplay approaches that appealed to stealth and action-oriented players. When Kojima turned to the MSX2 sequel and the core Metal Gear Solid series, he already had a fantastic foundation to build from without needing to completely reinvent the gameplay. What’s more, the retro visuals are just charming enough to keep the graphics from seemingly completely out of date.

If you’ve only experienced the Solid series, Metal Gear makes for a great retro throwback. If you’re starting the series for the first time, it’s an excellent introduction to a critically-acclaimed gaming franchise. Either way, Metal Gear is a valuable part of gaming history, and I titled I hope continues to be played for decades to come.

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