Friday, August 9, 2013

Metal Gear Solid

I recently purchased the "Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection" for one single fifty dollar bill.  And trust me, at no point during the last three weeks have I missed President Jackson's face decorating my wallet.  In terms of pounds of entertainment per cent, this is the wisest purchase I've made since I put a "Wind Waker" mini-disc into my GameCube.

Now "Metal Gear Solid 1" is not the first Metal Gear game I've played.  I actually finished "Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater" first.  Typically the party line on this series is that "Snake Eater" is the best of the best.  In fact, having played several of these titles already, the real classic is none other than, "Metal Gear Solid: Coca-Cola Classic".  I may not wind up reviewing every single one of these Metal Gear titles*, but "Coca-Cola Classic" I mean, "Metal Gear Solid 1" happens to exist within a stellar semi-divine place as being one of the best video games I've discussed on this blog, living right up there with "Arkham City" and "Tactics Ogre".  And that is something I cannot ignore.

That's all a funny conclusion to make considering how obviously awful "Metal Gear Solid" is.  Let that line smash you over the face while I explain it.  The camera is top-down for no particular reason, deeply limiting your perspective in a 3D stealth game.  Actual combat is based upon praying that the auto-targeting controls answer your prayers or hoping that the sluggish first-person perspective will let you line-up your target fast enough before enemy bullets take the solidity out of Solid Snake.  The character models are almost embarrassingly basic, looking less like the heroes of a Tactical Espionage game than a couple of action figures being wiggled around by director Hideo Kojima hiding under a table, desperately hoping to keep his hand out of the shot.  They don't even have eyes!  Altogether its a stiff, sometimes ugly, and bitterly unforgiving experience, which somehow amounts to being one of the best games ever made.

One of the genius elements of "Metal Gear Solid" is a never-ending sense of energy.  Every single new room Snake walks into during his one-man war against the terrorists controlling the nuclear facility of Shadow Moses Island feels feels like a new kind of location requiring a whole new strategy.  Snake will do the sneaky creepy crawly stealth thing to get through a few rooms, and next thing you know you're solving a few puzzles, dodging mines, fighting bosses, surviving torture, or having an entire Die Hard-esque fire fight with fifty guys as you're charging up a staircase.  The game is actually paced exactly like a great action movie, featuring big action moments in-between slower and sneakier events, punctuated by memorable and unique bosses.  This is an unrelenting game, where every five minutes another big memorable event is taking place.  I almost get the sense that the game is rushing itself towards conclusion, which is exactly the sort of runaway train atmosphere that this sort of story should have.

Actually, that "Die Hard" comparison I made just then is more apt than I first thought.  Essentially the entire battle within Shadow Moses is just like John McClane's single-man war against evil Germans in Los Angeles.  You're isolated, you have allies but they can only contact you over the radio, the plot is a series of twists and double-crosses and evolving manipulation, and the entire adventure is paced just like the Die Hards before the series was violated sexually by man named Skip Woods.  Then again, there's more than a little bit of "Escape From New York", what with a grizzled 80s hero named "Snake", who was poisoned by his own government, and stopping a superweapon.  Also, your main mission control guy is Colonel Trautman from the Rambo movies.  Did Hideo Kojima shove every classic 1980s action movie into a particle accelerator and create the the Higgs Boson of action?  Yes he did.  And that result is "Metal Gear Solid".  I don't really know how the Sergio Leone gunslinging, or the giant robot anime got into the mix, but I'm not complaining either.

What's impressive to me is "Metal Gear Solid" have about ten or so boss fights, and every single one of them feels unique and original.  The first boss requires you to use the auto-targeting, which is why unsurprisingly its the very worst fight in the game, a finicky nightmare of running around in circles like that one element of "The Benny Hill Show" that anybody remembers.  Next up you're throwing grenades at a tank while hiding from its fire, then you're fist-fighting an android, then you're in a sniper duel with a crazy psycho chick, then you're firing stinger missiles at a helicopter.  Really, I shouldn't have gone to the action buffet, because I don't think I can eat this much...  Not only are every one of these encounters expertly built-up against original living characters and not just big monsters from nowhere, but they all require entirely different tactics and weapons.  It can be frustrating trying to learn the tricks sometimes, but the fact the game is constantly evolving and changing makes for such a great experience.

The other benefit is that even though the top-down perspective would be inexcusably awful in a game like "Snake Eater"** where its all about huge open spaces and slow blending into the background to take the enemies out or sneak by, it actually works for a game as relatively simple as "Metal Gear Solid".  You're given a very generous radar system that shows exactly what the enemies can see - and thanks either to genetic engineering hijinks or good game design, the enemies aren't very bright.  Your stealthy abilities are limited, but luckily the Shadow Moses crew can barely see beyond twenty feet.  And once you get a nice silencing pistol, you can usually snipe every enemy to come across by simply standing behind them and shooting them a few times.  However, if you are caught by the enemies, you either need to find an escape route immediately, or you're going to be cornered while an endless swarm of bad guys rushes at for God and Country until you've been wiped off the map.  These stealth elements are never quite as fun as slowly emptying an underground subway of heavily armed crooks as Batman - but then again, we're playing as Solid Snake, not Batman.  Today if you were to make a game with the controls of "Metal Gear Solid", it would be simply inexcusable, its so ungainly and stiff that its the video game equivalent of a morbidly fat scooter-bound Alabama housewife trying to run the New York Marathon.  But for the time, it was a limitation they had to overcome, and overcome it they did.

Obviously the most memorable element to "Metal Gear Solid" for most is the story, since it was this title along with "Final Fantasy VII" that popularized the use of vast plotlines for console games.  Before "Metal Gear Solid", most console games had plots that could be summarized in a single sentence and usually they amounted to "kill the dudes" or if we were trying to be more sophisticated:  "kill the dudes to save the chick".  "Metal Gear Solid" is a huge evolving conspiracy story, focused mainly on a secret agent defeating terrorists, but somehow also fitting in nuclear-armed robots, psychics, designer viruses, and cloned super soldiers.  Not to mention a robot ninja.  Hideo Kojima has been called the mad wizard of video games, creating Mariska dolls of conspiracies within conspiracies, and usually ending his games on massive twists.

Often all of this twisting and turning is entirely unnecessary and in "Metal Gear Solid"'s case, winds up turning a pretty okay story into something utterly bizarre and stupid.  The main villain turns out to be Solid Snake's twin clone, and it turns out they're both clones of the villain of the last game, and every single soldier at Shadow Moses Island is also a clone.  Also, Snake got the recessive genes and his brother got the dominant ones (or maybe its the other way around) (or maybe Hideo Kojima has no idea how genetics works at all) (or maybe the villain is just a moron) (or maybe we should have left well enough alone and not tried to connect the villain and the hero in such an artificial and ridiculous way that required you to accept about nine leaps of bad logic).  Then again, this seems like a compulsive problem with Hideo Kojima, which is probably why "Metal Gear Solid 4"'s storyline is one of the biggest messes in the history of video games.

However, ignoring the giant mess that is the pile-up of betrayals and reveals that makes up Kojima's writing style, the actual nuts and bolts of the story are actually pretty effective.  Yeah, its a big pile of spaghetti on the floor, but all the ingredients are still of high-quality.  Immediately what's impressive to me is just how much voice acting is in "Metal Gear Solid" and how good the acting actually is.  You have to remember that in the PlayStation and N64 era, a lot of games still didn't even have voice acting, and when they did it was usually lazy and horribly awful productions.  So when you have Snake actually talking to a Colonel in fully voiced scenes every time, and the voice acting is actually able to project appropriate emotions without being needlessly hammy and hilarious.  Even better, the characters don't just talk like real people, they act like real people too.  All of this is really just the bare minimum for an effective story, but remember what year we're in - this was advanced stuff.  Kojima even managed to mold together a love interest character for Snake who is both a female soldier and a kidnappee, who is still likable and not insulting to your intelligence.  There are Hollywood movies today that still can't even get that done.

What I really like is how occasionally the gamplay and the story managed to sync up effectively.  There's a torture sequence that is physically painful to the player, because survival is dependent upon insanely rapid button mashing skills.  Failure in this results in an immediate Game Over, which no Continues.  It takes one hell of a sadist game designer to take away your continues.  Of course, you can give up at any time if the soreness in your arm becomes too much, but then a major character is executed for your cowardice.  So there you go:  either endure the torture or the pretty redhead dies.  This almost supplants being a game and is now some kind of psychological experiment.  Well, with the help of the convex side of a spoon and lots of retries, I eventually overcame Kojima's twisted little game.  And I'm so bad at button mashing that a little toy bird that bobs its head up and down into a glass of water is faster than me, so this really meant that I had to dig deep into some previously unknown reserve of heroism to keep that girl alive.

Then of course, there's the legendary Psycho Mantis boss battle, which was completely ruined by playing this game on the PS3.  He says he can shake my controller with his mind - he can't, the Six Axis controller doesn't have a rumble pack.  He says he can read my memory card - I don't have one.  I can't actually move the controller to the second port to avoid his psycho-kenesis, I have to move into the PS3 menu and tell the system to pretend its using a second port***.  All Mr. Mantis could do was tell me that I hadn't been saving enough and that I wasn't very good at this game.

So before this goes on any further, let me conclude this.  "Metal Gear Solid" is game I regret playing for one reason:  I now have to reorganize my Top 10 Favorite Games Ever to make room for it.  Do I cut out "Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2" or do I cut out "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night"?  Or should I stop limiting my heart to just ten games and decide that a Top 11 is more egalitarian?  In terms of game design, this is probably the finest creation I've discussed, taking the terrible limitations of Fifth Generation gaming and turning them into an action experience equaled only to the exploits of Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone.  Why else would Metal Gear Solid be such a revered series for these past decades if not for this incredible gaming landmark sitting right at the core of its history?  Though a better question would be:  if you needed this review to convince yourself to play "Metal Gear Solid", why haven't you played it yet?

* I've already more or less decided to skip writing up a few post for "Snake Eater", for example.  Unless somebody asks for it.

** Somehow the original "Snake Eater" was released with a top-down perspective.  Which I cannot even imagine, that just sounds unplayable. 

*** Which reminds me, some joker at Sony thought that the best way to emulate a PS1 controller was to always set it to "no joysticks".  So you have to go into the menus every time you start the game and tell it to set it to a "analog controller" so you can now use your joysticks.  Who thought that was a good idea??


  1. What other Metal Gear games are you planning to cover?

    1. Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Solid 4 (since I think this one will really suck), and Peace Walker.