In Retrospect: Metal Gear

The Metal Gear Solid saga is, well, exactly that, a long and epic saga with so many twists and turns that just thinking about it makes you sea sick. The story of the legendary hero, Solid Snake, that was interwoven in to an impressive eight games was finally wrapped up and answered last year with Metal Gear Solid 4.

The story is so mental, contorted and generally messed up that giving a brief synopsis is about as easy as teaching a woodlouse to operate heavy machinery, but here is a vain attempt anyway. The main protagonist of the series, Solid Snake, is a clone of the legendary super soldier, Big Boss, who specialises in stealthy infiltrations. He spends much of his career battling giant, nuclear robots called Metal Gears that are generally piloted by those with ill intentions. Now throw in a lot of ninjas, genetic diseases, nano machines, boss characters with psychic abilities, big guns, tentacles, vehicles, cardboard boxes and a man possessed by an arm that he stole from a corpse, and you are not even close to understanding the mind splattering plot.

All that can be recommended to help you understand is that you play this truly great series for yourself. That really is the only way to appreciate it, as well as to be able to understand what the heck happens. This article will not spoil it for you, but at the end of it all, it was enough to bring this writer close to tears. Fear not, he will be receiving testosterone shots in the near future.

Now, if you have been chained to a wall in a cave somewhere in a desert that is not on any known continent, the Metal Gear series bases its gameplay on its tagline, tactical espionage action. It was revolutionary when it first appeared on the MSX2 and the NES with the original Metal Gear, and then on the PS1 with Metal Gear Solid. It was the first game series that actively encouraged being stealthy as opposed to being explosively violent and it opened up a whole new genre of sneaking.

Of course it can also be blamed for bringing upon us the dreaded mandatory stealth section that so many action games after it tried to implement, but instead made that part of the game about as fun as DIY castration. If anything though, these just made us all appreciate what made the Metal Gear series so good.

A gameplay evolution

The first two games of the series, Metal Gear (1987) and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990) were top down sneak ’em ups where the player was encouraged to infiltrate enemy bases whilst avoiding detection from guards, cameras, infrared sensors and other surveillance bits. It was Metal Gear Solid (1998) on Sony’s grey work horse, the Playstation, that introduced fully 3D environments and put the series on the map.

Metal Gear Solid was very good at letting you know how bad you were doing. Similar to Metal Gear 2, when you were spotted a timer appeared, bluntly informing the player how long to stay out of sight in order to to avoid machine gun sodomy. Thankfully, you had many options available when this misfortune happened. You could hide under vehicles, in lockers, in air vents, round corners or even in the series’ now iconic cardboard boxes. The bad guys were not stupid though, and very often chased you out of crawlspaces with grenades or butted your face right out of a cupboard. Of course, if all else failed you could usually kill all the witnesses, but on the harder difficulties, even considering this was suicidal.

Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) introduced us to new gameplay mechanics that we all take for granted in the series today, such as first person views and holding up bad guys. MGS2 really opened up a lot of evasion options for the player with an extremely reactive AI. If you were spotted, instead of a magic signal being sent out to all nearby patrols, the guard who caught you would actually radio for help. This gave the player a small window of opportunity to try and take down the enemy or shoot the radio before transmission. Of course the sound of gunfire might have been enough to get other guards to call in the disturbance. Some enemies also had regular reporting patterns and if they missed a walkie talkie conversation, an investigating team would be sent out.

This made MGS2’s new body moving and hiding feature all the more necessary. Lockers, open balconies and dark corners could all be used to help conceal the persistent bodies, although care had to be taken as pools of blood are usually as telling as pyramids of corpses.

MGS2 also introduced the series’ black sheep, Raiden, who turned out to be the main protagonist of the game, much to fan fury and disappointment. Okay, he could do all the things that Snake could do, but he had long, bouncy hair and sounded about as tough as Britney Spears. Hardly the grizzled war hero that the world was expecting. As it turned out, Raiden was universally hated and was made a joke of in Metal Gear Solid 3, where he shared a likeness to Major Raikov, Colonel Volgin’s kinky gay lover.

It was Metal Gear Solid 3 (2004) that stuck two fingers up at chronology and the numerical system of the series by actually being a prequel set during the Cold War in 1964. Instead of playing Solid Snake, the player takes control of Naked Snake, who later becomes Big Boss in the Metal Gear saga. Therefore he looks, acts and feels just like Solid Snake, and the player has the knowledge that the protagonist this time round is the father of modern bad assery.

Taking the series a leap in a whole new direction, MGS3: Snake Eater focused on survival. Being 1964, soliton radars that show the enemies and their field of vision do not exist meaning extra care needed to be taken. Instead of the standard all grey rubber body suit that Snake is used to wearing, he now had several camouflage outfits that he needed to keep changing in order to stay camouflaged with his surroundings. This came with a very handy ‘camo index’ that would give the player a percentage to indicate how well hidden they were.

In reality the system was a bit frustrating, with so many camo suits you would often find yourself changing clothes every few inches to try and stay hidden. The enemy was also very good at sniffing you out if you did not have the patience to crawl everywhere, making this one of the more tactical games of the series.

Another new feature in MGS3 was the health recovery system. Previous games just needed the player to have rations equipped, and when Snake’s health reached zero, it would jump right up again as long as they were there. Snake Eater introduced a medical system in the pause menu that meant you had to treat wounds in a number of different ways. A burn for example would need some ointment and a bandage, a bullet wound required extraction of the bullet, disinfectant, stitches and a bandage. This was a bit of a hassle and became very repetitive, especially in fire fights where you just knew there would be about 15 bullets to dig out afterwards.

All in all, MGS3 was a game for the patient and the super stealthy, and so did not suit everybody’s tastes. It was very harsh on mistakes made and the camouflage system did get a bit frustrating. It also seems to stick out as the most original of the 3D outings that dared to try out a lot of new ideas, some being more successful than others.

MGS3 got a chronological sequel on the PSP in 2006 in the form of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. This was a vastly different game that actually revolved around squads that the player, as Snake, would recruit members for before attempting missions. It also introduced a new radar system that would show enemy locations depending on the sounds they made, such as when walking through undergrowth. This new radar feature made its way to the 2008 Playstation 3 outing of Snake.

Sneaking around today

It was Metal Gear Solid 4 that seemed to take everything that was great about the previous games, mush it up in to a ball and present it to the player as a balanced masterpiece. The good things about MGS3, like the camo index and patient stealth were still there, but with a bit more simplicity, reminiscent of MGS2. It meant that you could be the king of stealth or god of violence at your choosing. It seemed to be the Metal Gear Solid that was pitched at everyone.

This received a very mixed reception. On paper, appealing to everyone looks fantastic, the utopian dream of a game. In reality however, a lot of Metal Gear die hards decided that the game was a bit too far from its roots, and that it was far too easy to shoot your way out of a situation. Snake no longer felt as vulnerable as he used to be, despite looking like an out of place old duffer due to accelerated ageing.

Snake’s new octocamo meant that he would automatically blend in with the scenery he was pressed against, instantly hiding him to a decent degree. Decisions that would take minutes to make in Snake Eater were now calculated almost perfectly for you. In theory this should be a good thing, but some saw it as a large chunk of the challenge ripped out of place.

One of the most important aspects of MGS4 however was that it finally tied up the epic journey of Solid Snake, portraying his final mission and chasing out his personal demons. The game is the direct sequel of MGS2, set five years after the events that saw a man being possessed by a hand steal a bipedal super tank. Raiden also makes an appearance, but this time he takes a more central role, rather than being the brief comic relief that he was in MGS3.

It seemed to answer every single how, when, what if, who did, what was and most importantly, the whys. Every other game in the series just raised even more odd questions, but this seemed to definitively answer most of them. Of course there might still be a few holes, but these will likely be plugged in the future, just not necessarily by the series creator, Hideo Kojima, who has been threatening for a while now to step down as the creative director.

Thunder on the horizon

One major hole that needs to be filled was how the floppy haired, girly protagonist from MGS2 suddenly turned all lightening ninja super soldier in MGS4. Raiden is a character who has gone from being generally disliked to being slightly tolerable again, and all it took was for his original personality, traits and abilities to be surgically removed. It is never explained in depth how it happened, but with Metal Gear Solid: Rising on the horizon and Raiden’s new ninja face being plonked next to the logo, this does lead us to believe that all might be explained.

Having seen Raiden in action in MGS4, he does not seem to be a very subtle gentleman, and so in all likelihood, Rising will probably be a bit of a departure from the sneak ‘em up series. The tag line, ‘tactical espionage action’ has now been replaced with ‘lightning bolt action’, which implies that electrical carnage is probably on the cards.

The future for Solid Snake oddly enough seems to lie in his past, as the ending of MGS4 is fairly definitive. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is currently in development for PSP and it takes place just after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.

Not much is known about Peace Walker apart from it is set in Costa Rica with Big Boss as the central character. As can be seen from the trailer, rather curiously there are four Snakes who appear to be working with each other. Could this possibly be a hint about co-operative play? No one knows yet for certain, but be sure to keep checking with us for updates in the future.

Can the series expand much further on its current elements? It seems that Kojima Productions probably have their hands full with Rising and Peace Walker, but will we see anymore of Snake afterwards? Personally, a full 3D remake of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 on the PS3 sounds like it would be good, but of course, this is just a dream rather than a reality at the moment.

Of course something completely controversial could happen again, like it did when Snake went old school, and then when he just went old. Re-invention seems to be a common theme between the games and so how else could Metal Gear be contorted to continue the story? There are plenty more characters that can be explored, so perhaps that is another sequel route.

The Metal Gear series seems to be one that the fans will always demand more of. The real conundrum facing Kojima Productions at the moment is if they should quit whilst they are ahead or continue milking the money cow. Plotwise it has all come to a more than satisfying conclusion; it would not be a disaster if the team moved away to work on something else.

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Written by Anthony H

Anthony has been playing games for far too much of his life, starting with the MS-DOS classic Mario is Missing. Since then his tastes have evolved to include just about anything, but his soft spot lies with shooters and the odd strategy game. Anthony will inspire you with his prose, uplift you with his wit and lie to you in his biography.


  1. Congrats for a well written article !

  2. Anthony H /

    Why thank you very much. The original draft was about twice as long as it is a series of games that is far too easy to get excited about and let your fingers run away at the keyboard over. Eventually they were tamed and something a bit more manageable was produced. I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Robbie J /

    Superb article on what is easily my favourite series of games!

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