Five by Five – Metal Gear Solid

Metal Gear Solid was my first experience both with the Metal Gear series and the first Playstation. A friend of mine had the system and a demo disc so early the spoken dialogue was still in japanese. Having been raised on Nintendo games it was something unlike anything I’d played before, choc full of military jargon, realism (most of the time), full voice acting, and mature themes. This may be a tricky one to review since I’m on record as naming it one of the greatest games of all time, but there’ll be no sacred cows here. With that, let’s trade the rose glasses for a red bandanna and see what’s in here.

One Man, One Solution

New tech, new toys: Kojima once made the statement that you should only upgrade to new hardware if it will improve the game in some way. MGS is to the PS1 as native americans are to buffalo: use every part of it. A lot of this stuff is pretty standard fare nowadays but back then it was some pretty amazing new stuff. Instead of midi tunes you have a full orchestral soundtrack and voice acting (some of the best voice acting in gaming history, at that). Polygons let developers cram more stuff on screen with less strain on the processor, so the envrionments are full of details and tchotchkeys such that you’d believe people actually live and work here. They even use the rumble controller for some neat tricks, like giving a little tap when Snake goes to check someone’s pulse during a cutscene, giving a big jolt when you’re spotted after having not been spotted for awhile, and of course the famous Psycho Mantis sequence.

Impressive rogues gallery: This game features some of my favorite bosses around. You face an eclectic mix of eccentric super-soldiers with fancy codenames and special talents, and each battle is entertainingly unique and it’s fun to figure out the strategy to each one. Likewise (improving upon the original and echoed in the series hereafter) each of them is injected with a pretty good amount of personality and backstory. Every battle is firmly engraved in my memory as an epic moment in my gaming career. In particular, since this was the first Metal Gear game I ever played, I didn’t know that it was expected that you’re supposed to personally fight metal gear on foot at the end of every game, so after they spend the whole game hyping up how Metal Gear REX is this unstoppable walking death-mobile it was quite a dramatic moment when it stands up and comes to life and holy crap this thing can fight an entire army and I have to kill it by myself.

Front, back, and side stories: From MGS onward the codec support crew becomes a lot better developed with voice actors and backstories and whatnot. There’s some side stories going on with the support crew as well to make them more a part of the overall story, and as an added bonus they chip in with the necessary details for folks who hadn’t played the first two games. Speaking of the storyline, I dig stories where there’s hidden meaning in the dialogue that you pick up on the second time through. And if you’ve played the rest of the series (which was largely created by filling in the gaps of the earlier games) there’s a whole lot of hidden meaning to be found.

It’s just a box…: I also dig games that reward exploration. There’s lots of hidden items that can make the game a lot easier if you know where to look, especially the thermal goggles. Naturally if you want a little more challenge you can leave the items behind, but after a couple sniper rounds to the face I’m ready to go get myself a little edge. On a side note, an update I’m glad for here is that keycards now open any door of their level or lower and the doors are all marked, so there’s no shuffling through half a dozen cards to find out if you can open a door or not.

Keeping it real: I’ve always been a huge fan of in-engine cutscenes over FMV due to the favorable effect on immersion. Cutting back and forth between kind of okay cgi and regular game graphics would just be a recurring reminder that most of the time you’re looking at darn-ugly 90’s polygon graphics. Speaking of graphics, they also do this neat trick where items in front of or behind the focus of the scene are shown slightly out of focus for a subtle boost to the (relatively) realistic portrayal.

No Match For The Legend?

You’ve got your movie in my game: It’s not quite as bad here as it gets in later games, but in MGS Kojima (who’s long had a craving to make movies) discovered that you could get the player to sit through a little more dialogue if it was spoken rather than read. A majority of the talking in this one is pretty useful, dispensing plot information or gameplay tips, and generally skippable (though alas the cutscenes aren’t pauseable). Basically this is a small nitpick in this game, but be prepared for me to rant about it in upcoming installments.

Talking heads: It might have been nice for some more of the codec conversations to be replaced with cutscenes. I’m not certain whether or not this was due to a hardware limitation; it certainly reduces the amount of programming work. Like the above note, it’s a small nitpick in this game that becomes a big issue in later games.

Bits and pieces: Random nitpicks could be made for points here and there. The range on the new choke move is rather short, and half the time I still end up bumping into the guy and triggering an alarm when I want to go silently snap his neck. Most of the instances of poison gas are also annoying, particularly a specific room where you’re not allowed to use guns and gas floods the room if you’re spotted (though usually before the gas gets you the guards will shoot you because apparently they’re allowed to). Finally, I got stuck in a no-win position one time going through the Extreme difficulty because there’s this tower you have to scale and if you didn’t happen to bring five chaff grenades with you (or enough rations to run through a hail of gunfire) you’re essentially trapped.

Maybe a little too realistic: You may or may not the pervasive anti-war, anti-nuke message a little jarring. For my part I consider it an important and meaningful part of the series, but not everybody likes politics in their gaming. To its credit, the game doesn’t take the extreme anti-nuke stance of wanting an end to all nuclear projects (power plants and such), but rather points out that we probably have enough nukes in the world now to blow up the entire solar system and everyone’s still building more. Likewise there’s a difference between a war game (CoD, MoH, etc.) and a game about war. They want to remind you that war isn’t all heroic glory and fanfare; it’s people killing people.  This is reflected in the game’s scoring as well, as in order to get the higher rankings you need to complete the entire game without killing anyone (save for a handful of plot-manded battles).  Granted that doesn’t make it any less fun to put C4 on that one guy’s back while he’s in the bathroom, but it might make you think a little more about the evening news. At any rate, for me this is a positive but for some gamers this may be a negative.

Decaf or espresso: This game comes in two flavors, and there’s a bit of a hitch in both. The PS1 version is my preferred version, but the graphics are 90’s polygon graphics and the controls are kind of dated. It essentially plays like Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake with fancy 3d graphics. On the other side of the coin we have the Gamecube version, which seems to exist because someone in Nintendo’s psychic game design department heard me oft opine that I’d buy MGS1 again if they re-made it with the controls and graphics from MGS2. This has the benefit of making the gameplay a good deal more fun and fluid, but also a good deal more easy. The level design and guard behavior simply aren’t meant to handle a player who can shoot in first-person view from across a room and then go tuck & roll to safety and shoot from cover. More damning, however, is that all the dialogue in the game was re-recorded for the re-make. Poorly. Accents are lost and delivery falls flat at times. Additionally, the cutscenes were redone with choreography by Ryûhei Kitamura, best known for his work on Godzilla: Final Wars, Azumi, and the ridiculously video-game-like Versus. On the plus side this makes the already awesome Cyborg Ninja even more awesome. The negative is that this means several other characters jump around like ninjas in a rather out-of-character manner. To see what I’m talking about, watch this video from the PS1 version (just the first minute-nineteen or so), then the same scene from the Gamecube version. You be the judge.

The Final Word

Metal Gear Solid remains in my small list of what I consider to be the greatest games of all time. It’s not the best looking game on the block anymore (though let’s be honest, all polygon games were funk ugly back then) and the controls make me crave the improvements of later installments, but many of its concepts echo through the industry and it still holds high marks in storytelling, voice acting, and of course stealth action, even when compared to modern titles. If you’re craving the old school gaming experience you’re in luck, as you can find this one on the PSN store for a mere ten dollars. I haven’t had a chance to try the PC version much, but it seems to be essentially a straight port of the PS1 version. In any form it’s a great game to have in your lexicon of gaming experiences (being a part of the trinity of the only good stealth game serieses that I know of), and on top of that it’s just a great game.

Metal Gear Solid is available on the Playstation, and via the PSN store can be played on the Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable. A remake entitled Metal Gear Solid: the Twin Snakes is available on the Gamecube. Initial retail price for the original is unknown to this reviewer. The PS1 version ranges anywhere from $10-$40, and the PSN download is available for $9.99. The Gamecube version was initially released at $39.99, and is now available for between $30 and $90. Original discs of this game are considered a collectible. Both versions of Metal Gear Solid have been rated M for Mature for Animated Blood and Gore, Animated Violence, and Mature Sexual Themes. Metal Gear Solid is published by Konami and created by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan. All copyrights property their respective owners.

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