Retro Revisit: Metal Gear Solid
A very long time ago, before the internet exploded in popularity and utility, we used to buy magazines that told us all about upcoming video games. Perhaps more importantly for many, these came with demo discs – not betas, not preorder bonuses, just a chunk of a game to play. It was through one of these demo discs that I stumbled across a little game that changed my life forever.
Metal Gear Solid as a title meant nothing to me. I didn’t know it was part of a franchise dating back to the late eighties, spanning multiple consoles. I had no idea what it would involve. Jumping in, I expected, well, tactical espionage action – just as the subtitle suggested. Expecting to run and gun through dozens of enemies as I’d been doing in other games at the time, I jumped in.
After a hefty introductory cut-scene showing our hero (Snake – a strange moniker) arriving at a place called Shadow Moses Island to prevent nuclear war breaking out, I was surprised to be unarmed. No guns? Surely not. As my seven year old brain began to contemplate what this meant, I realised that evasion was the name of this game. Stealth, not shooting.
What followed was around ninety minutes of pure joy, followed by replaying the whole demo on a loop. I was blinding security cameras, leaving footprints in snow to tease guards, and reaching the end of the demo quicker each time. I had to buy this game, it was like nothing else out there.
Of course – this initial infiltration forms such a small part of what makes Metal Gear Solid a special game. For one, its creator’s influence is felt throughout – the cut scenes and dialogue were dripping in Hollywood melodrama and style, each “chapter” feeling like a cliff-hanger, propelling the player onwards. The soundtrack still holds up today, although admittedly has been refined as the series has progressed from MIDI-esque sections to full orchestral arrangements. Looking back, it seems insane to think that Hideo Kojima would be forcibly separated from his creation almost twenty years later.
While “tactical espionage action” was promised, no one could have prepared my young mind for the positively bonkers subplot and characterisation displayed throughout. A master of disguise posing as a hostage? Reading a codec radio code from the back of the physical game’s case? Inadvertently activating Metal Gear Rex? THAT final reveal?
There are two moments that stand out for me from Metal Gear Solid, and one is sure to be quite popular among readers. Entering Psycho Mantis’ boss battle and having him read every single one of my moves was magical and terrifying all at once. How did he know I was going to punch him? How did he counter so quickly? How on earth was he reading the data on my memory card?! Of course, after much playground chatter it became clear that the only way to beat him was infamously moving the controller from Port A to Port B so he couldn’t “read your mind”. Today, it may sound like a cheap trick, but back in 1997 it was the first time I’d seen a game break the fourth wall.
The other moment that stands out to me is the initial reveal of Cyborg Ninja, also known as Gray Fox. A Predator-inspired whirlwind of invisibility and swords, our first meeting occurs just after he’s dispatched an entire squad of guards that we would’ve had to sneak past. It’s pure action-cinema pulp, only in a videogame instead of a movie or TV show. In a world of quick-time events and scripted sequences, it’s easy to forget just how riveting cinematics could be.
Hunting each member of the villainous Foxhound group down would take between eight and twelve hours, and each boss fight felt like an event. Trying to out-snipe Sniper Wolf was tense, while Vulcan Raven’s tank battle took longer than I’d care to admit. Of course, throwing Liquid Snake from the top of Metal Gear lives long in the memory even over twenty years later – followed by a tense snowmobile chase. It’s the first time I remember actual set-pieces in a game.
Outside of those memorable moments, gameplay was tight. Stealth is almost always the best option, while hidden areas reward exploration with extra items. Metal Gear Solid 2 may have introduced several new mechanics to the franchise, but the relative simplicity of its predecessor make it feel like a purer form of stealth gameplay. It was also sprinkled in with elements of silliness and comedy that would become series mainstays – hiding in the cardboard box and tiptoeing closer to a guard every time their back was turned, or covering one’s self in wolf urine to be able to sneak past them – yes really.
It’s hard to explain just how important Metal Gear Solid was for my gaming tastes. Ever since that demo I’ve searched out as many stealth titles as possible, many of which may not exist today without it, the Splinter Cell franchise (admittedly due a comeback) being a prime example. While many consider other games in the franchise to be the high water mark by which Kojima’s work should be remembered, and while objectively the gameplay has drastically improved since, there’s something magical about that first trip to Shadow Moses.
Every time I play, I’m instantly transported back to that demo disc and how I was blissfully unaware that things were about to change forever – for me, and for the gaming industry.