Five By Five – Metal Gear

Thus begins the first step along the journey to review the entire Metal Gear series (or at least the ones I like). The original Metal Gear began life as a military shooter, but the technology of the time was insufficient to render big army warfare. Thus the idea came about to frame it as a stealth action game, having lone infiltrator Solid Snake sneak his way past great numbers of well-armed guards and assorted traps. This game created the stealth action genre when it arrived in 1987, and has spawned a highly successful series (and one really annoying stealth level in a great number of games that have no business having a stealth level). This is a retro review of sorts, so I’ll be looking both at how it compared to the games of its time and its potential for fun today. Let’s take a look back to where it all began for one of the legends of gaming.

Mission Start!

The origin of the stealth gaming genre – Stealth action added some new elements to game design, noteably the encouragement to avoid murdering everything you meet. Do I really need the item that guy’s guarding? Do I have enough supplies for a firefight if I get spotted? Can I safely punch this guy in the back of the head three times before his friend rounds the corner? It’s fairly common stuff nowadays but at the time it was rather innovative, and it still adds a fun puzzle element to the adventure, especially if you want to test your stealth skills by minimizing kills and alerts.

Good for a snack or for a meal – Back in the days before widespread savegame availability you could only make a game so long. Unlike arcades you had more than a few minutes, but with most games you also didn’t have more than a few hours in which a player could reasonably sit down and hammer away. This one has a decent amount of exploration in it and can probably be finished in 3-5 hours on your first run, maybe an hour once you have your bearings and know how to power through. I count this as a plus because it’s something long enough to spend a weekend on but short enough you can see it all in an evening. And then try to beat it faster and with less alerts the next day.

Break out the graph paper – I liked the level design, complex but not bogglingly so. There’s a distinct look to each room so you never feel like you’re wandering identical corridors. Additionally, I don’t know if this was on purpose or not, but almost every floor has a grid pattern on it that makes it easy to judge enemies’ line of sight. I used some maps I found on GameFAQs, but if I play through it again I’m considering making my own maps like the good old days.

From rookie to super soldier – I dig the gradual power creep throughout the game. At the beginning of the game you arrive with literally nothing but a pack of smokes, having to carefully hunt about, afraid to engage the enemy unless you know you’ve got a clear advantage. Eventually you find a pistol and a handful of bullets, enough to get you out of a little scrape or two. Towards the end you’ve become an armory-toting badass, though you can still get killed if you try to rush the enemy head on. Towards the end enemy soldiers kind of cease to be terrifying as long as you’re packing enough rations to make a run for the elevator, but it’s still fun working your way up there.

Video game logic – Over the years I’ve come to the opinion that I actually prefer my stealth games to be a little bit unrealistic. Metal Gear has always been a sort of arcade-stealth, and utilizing video game logic tends to be very beneficial. For example, if you die you can continue from the last elevator you entered, and likewise entering an elevator cancels an active alert status. This kind of gives the feeling of playing tag and then running back to tag base. You can also farm any supplies you find in a room by leaving and re-entering, though such rooms are rare enough that you need to know your way around the base when it comes time to resupply.

Call For Backup

Who trained these guys? – Granted the unavailability of good enemy a.i. was the reason Metal Gear became a stealth game in the first place, but it’s still just a little off that most enemies seem to just run and shoot in random directions. This makes for some strange shennanigans when you’ve been spotted and a gaggle of guards is tumbling all around you like a cartoon scuffle cloud and you have a heck of a time getting rid of them because everywhere you turn your bullets are ineffectively flying outside the rat-king-like guardswarm.

I see nothing! – Some may find the sneaking just a little bit too easy due to guards having a very limited straight line of sight, not even a slight cone to it. I often found myself in a game of stealth hopscotch through a room full of guards, nobody able to see me because I’m always standing slightly to the left.

Hope you remembered to write that down – At times, however, the game may straight up murder you with very little warning. Some folks may be put off by the steep difficulty curve of the opening act in which you don’t start with a gun and the first one you find is empty. It’s quite good once you get past that initial hump though, and rewardingly so. There are a few parts now and then though where one misstep can ruin it all. Specifically, there’s a character you meet in the game who will tell you the secret combination of attacks to defeat the final boss. This message is displayed once and only once, and it’s easy for the message to get lost if you happen to nudge the controller and accidentally skip it. Nowadays you can just look it up online but back in the day that must’ve been a pain.

Radio silence? – Maybe I’m a bit spoiled by later games in the series, but the support team is a bit lackluster in this first outing. For the most part each of the four characters only seems to speak up when their one moment to give a vital clue comes up, and they rarely answer the radio for the rest of the game. Game design is hard but text comes cheap; they probably could have fleshed out the story with a little more conversation, and the snippets that exist seem to hint that there is a bit of a story going on.

I feel asleep!! – If at all possible, seek out the MSX2 version of this game over the NES ‘port’. The engrish was about average among games for its time, but the port team also made the inexplicable decisions to snip out key bits of dialogue (amongst what little dialogue there was), replace the desert with a magic forest, and exchange the final battle with Metal Gear for a dramatic sequence in which you just shovel a big pile of C4 onto a computer monitor. Yes you read right. The NES version of Metal Gear doesn’t have metal gear in it. Luckily you won’t have to hunt down an emulator or an ancient MSX2 console, because both this game and the proper sequel can be found as bonus features in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistance (the one with the fancy green box). Bonus fun fact: The version of Metal Gear that appears via the PS2 is itself a port of a version made for mobile phones. The N-Gage got a better version of Metal Gear than the NES.

The Final Word

It took me a little while to get a taste for it but this old gem quickly grew on me. Like many older games the fun is mostly in going for the high score, as the story (though expanded upon in later games) is rather threadbare in this first installment. I don’t know that it would be good for more than a few playthroughs unless you’re already a big Metal Gear fan, in which case you probably already own this game in some form or another. However because the most easily accquired form of the game does come packed in with the special edition of MGS3 it’s well worth adding to your collection, a notion I have a feeling I’ll be repeating when I review the sequel.

Metal Gear was played on the Playstation 2 as a port of the Sega Master System version (or a port of the N-Gage version of the MSX2 verison, to be precise), and is also available on a handful of mobile phones and the MSX2. The original is only for sale from collectors, but MGS3:S counts it among the bonus content and can be found for an average of $19.99. Metal Gear hasn’t been rated by the ESRB, but this reviewer’s best guess would be a T for Teen rating for Aniamted Violence and Smoking. Metal Gear is developed and published by Konami. All copyrights property of their respective owners.

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