Before Metal Gear, if you had pitched the idea of a hero whose mission is not to kill everyone on-screen, but to get through a military base undetected, causing minimal damage, you would’ve been laughed out of the room. In fact, one man did, and his name was Hideo Kojima.
From Spacewar to modern war, violence has always been an integral part of playing video games. Simulating death and destruction is just simply gratifying, not because it’s right, but because it’s wrong. We can enjoy the primal release of violence without the ethical repercussions. But because action was always so central to a video game, the idea that restraining your rifle could be as fun as unloading your arsenal never occurred to anyone. At least, it hadn’t occurred to anyone but Kojima, whose cinematic eye and flair for story-telling was about to shift gears for gaming.
Only a couple of years before Snake’s debut, Super Mario Bros. had defined a radical departure from the mindless high-score obsession that had always been associated with games. Now, there was a hero, a villain, and a motivation for the former to journey to the latter – in the plumber’s case, rescuing the princess. Sure, it was a basic story, but it was a story! It’s hard to remember a time when plot wasn’t a prerequisite to play, but telling a tale was just not the sort of depth that was associated with video games, which remember at this point were still synonymous with the arcade era of single-screen minimalism and racking up high scores.
Mario changed all that, profoundly proving to Kojima that what he had always understood as two completely separate entities could be fused into one experience; the storytelling and style of movies could have its place in the escapist realm of interactive entertainment. Miyamoto had supplied the story; it was up to Kojima to supply the style.
Union Of The Snake
Released in Japan and parts of Europe in 1987 on the MSX2, a computer console that drew furrowed brows to anyone west of the Atlantic, Metal Gear was about infiltration and recon. You maneuvered an enemy encampment as Solid Snake, a covert operative answerable to a head honcho simply known as Big Boss, who was pretty much your only friend and outlet to the outside. The idea was exploring the map, usually looking for items like key cards to open locked doors, and tip-toeing around the soldiers your gut instinct was urging to fill with bullets.
Just like in the movies, suspense trumped the action.
Just like in the movies, suspense trumped the action. With the game’s overhead view, you could see all the enemies on one screen, and unless you were in their field of vision, they couldn’t see you. Strange as it sounds, field of vision was a rare thing to be programmed in games. Like in a movie, you were an omniscient spectator, gifted with the foresight of knowing what your enemies did not: that there was this secret agent running around in the shadows. To leave a room the way you left it, passing patrols unnoticed, made you feel as much a bad-ass as a shirt-stretching trigger-happy hero.
That shouldn’t give the impression that Metal Gear was a killjoy; you were free to hide behind a wall, wait for a GI to walk out in front, and proceed to punch that sucker’s face in. But if you used your gun and started shooting, you’d have an army of legionnaires on your ass faster than you could say… well, to be honest, you’d rarely get the chance to say much of anything. Opening fire was punishable by swift death, and it made the game challenging, but also excitingly intense.
To be honest, the level design wasn’t perfect and neither were the controls.
As you made your way around the buildings of the complex with the ultimate objecting of destroying the eponymous Metal Gear, a prototype tank-like weapon of war, you also had to save a handful of P.O.W.’s who returned the favour with insider tips about the enemy stronghold. To be honest, the level design wasn’t perfect and neither were the controls. Sometimes, just walking around a corner to avoid a nearing guard or even walking in a door required fiddling with the D-pad… getting stuck on a wall, swearing and sweating as a bad guy’s about to spot you is no fun. Other design duds made Metal Gear a little rough around the edges.
One notable pain in the backside was getting through the gas room. Early on, you’d come to this part where you had to equip a gas mask to get through an area unscathed, but when you get to the door at the other end of the room, instead of just being able to use the keycard to walk through, you’ve got to equip it. Well as soon as you do that, you unequip the gas mask, and so you inescapably take some damage before you get to walk through the door.
Of course, some quirks can’t diminish how awesome the game still is, and after all, it’s still a much greater game than its NES port. Without any of Kojima’s endorsement or involvement, Metal Gear in America was infinitely worse than the MSX2 original. An entire jungle level was thrown in at the beginning, the translations in dialogue was horrendous, the level design and controls were butchered, and overall, all of the nitpicks of the Japanese version were debilitating deathtraps here. It was excusable to have opted for the NES game in the ‘80s, but today, with the luxury of emulators, do yourself a favour and check out the progenitor of stealth action the way it was intended.
The path for phenom franchises like Splinter Cell, Hitman, and Thief, and stand-alone showboats like Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was paved. Metal Gear still ranks as one of the most important video games ever made, not because it was a great action game, but because it toiled with our emotions in a way that games had yet to do. We were so used to blowing things up that to stop for a second, and actually question killing the guy around the corner, was a feeling both empowering and ethically challenging. Before GTA, on the subconscious level, this was a game about morals, about deciding to fight or run. And that’s what life is about: choice. Most games were about moving from left to right shooting everything in sight. Innovative and insightful, Kojima’s work of art in some sense set the stage for the cinematic storytelling that would ultimately unfold in video gaming.
Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch our video retro reflection here.
Feature image created by GillianSeed.