Metal Gear Solid

The Hind D-stroyed
Not that there aren't any explosions.

   What if there was an action movie that was more than just an excuse to get from one explosion to the next? What if it had a deep, twisting plot that was driven by top-notch acting and an excellent script? And what if you could do more than just watch? This is Metal Gear Solid, one of the most revolutionary adventure games ever made.

   Though most vaults and retrospectives start with the graphics, in this case the music should come first. As any Bond fan can tell you, music is crucial in building the kind of atmosphere that spy movies depend on, and the KCE Japan Sound Team along with "Tappy" created a musical signature phrase for protagonist Solid Snake that's every bit as memorable as 007's. The in-game music is appropriately subdued and tense, befitting a game which relies so much on subtlety. Consisting of mostly understaed percussion, the music is only atmospheric until you're spotted, at which point the pace picks up and the beat becomes a little more staccato. The only real problem is the general lack of diversity--though there are three separate variations on the main "infiltration" theme, it's hard for anyone but the most attentive listener to tell the difference. When new themes are introduced, however, such as "Mantis' Hymn" or "Enclosure," their striking change of pace augments the music's effectiveness. Finally, in an era when more and more games feature vocal pieces over the closing credits, such as "Small of Two Pieces" in Xenogears and "I Am The Wind" from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metal Gear Solid's "The Best Is Yet To Come" remains one of the most haunting and least overblown vocal arrangements in a videogame.

Champion Badass of the World Tournament
Not someone you want to run into in a lit office building.

   The vocal arrangements in the game are just as impressive. Many gamers winced when they heard the news that Metal Gear Solid would feature full voice acting, remembering embarassments like Resident Evil and Megaman X4. To everyone's surprise, though, the voices not only escaped becoming yet another laughingstock, but actually fit the characters and became one of the game's strengths. David Hayter's dispassionate tone sold us on Snake's personality, George Byrd brought just the right touch of otherworldly menace to the Cyborg Ninja, and Mae Zadler let the unsurety behind Meryl's determined attitude show through even before the game's events made it clear. To this day, whenever a game like Star Ocean: The Second Story or the latest in the Resident Evil series shows how bad voice acting can be, gamers point to Metal Gear Solid as the current pinnacle of what voice acting in games is capable of.

   It's also pretty much the current pinnacle of what the PSX is capable of in terms of graphics, despite being over a year old. Most games depend on full-motion video or rendered cutscenes to show off their graphical prowess, but the Metal Gear team instead concentrated on developing a graphics engine powerful enough to handle pretty much everything that needs to be done--the only FMV in the game is archival footage from WWII, the Gulf War, and some quick scenes from a bioengineering laboratory. Everything else in the game is done with the basic engine, from the monstrous Hind D to the peaceful caribou in the ending.

The Conversation
What evil shall we do today?

   To say that the engine handles everything in the game wouldn't be so much, except that it handles everything so well. Few games get human movement right the way Metal Gear Solid does. Just look at the way the Genome Soldiers yawn, or Psycho Mantis' sweeping hand gestures. Even the finest details get careful attention. Early on, a Genome soldier mentions spraying for rats, and if you look carefully in some areas, you can see rats scurrying about on high girders and walkways. Press up against a wall before going through the electrified floor in the nuclear storage building, and you can see Hal Emmerich pacing around his office before you ever meet him. If you take the time to use your scope on the control room while atop Rex, you can watch Liquid and Revolver have a conversation. Subtle details like this abound.

   The ever-changing storyline is handled with equal subtlety. Though your mission starts as a simple rescue and surveillance job, to find Donald Anderson and Kenneth Baker while determining whether or not FOX-HOUND has the ability to launch nuclear missiles, things go wrong fast when Snake discovers, predictably, that the terrorist have in fact stolen a new Metal Gear prototype. Your ability to guess the storyline will likely end there, however, and the first clue as to what's really going on happens Donald Anderson waves aside a snooping Genome soldier. From that point on, Snake has to fight a war on two fronts, against both the terrorists on Shadow Moses Island and the bureaucrats back in Washington who are keeping something vital about the nature of the operation hidden from Snake. The game always has another surprise in store for players who think they've figured everything out, right up to the post-credits epilogue.

Mom always liked you best!
Excuses, excuses

   Metal Gear Solid is also one of the key games in the "Are videogames literature?" discussion. The secret agent stuff is intense and drives the game forward, but there are deeper messages at work here. Some work, some don't. The recurring theme that's clearly on Hideo Kojima's mind is nuclear disarmament, as seen in several cutscenes between Snake and Otacon, Snake and Campbell, Snake and Nastasha Romaneko ... you get the idea. It's bludgeoned pretty forcefully into the player's mind, and as such is more annoying than insightful. The real thought-provoking concept is the secondary issue at hand, the old "biology is destiny," nature/nurture debate.

   Naomi Hunter's last line, "Choose life ... and then live!" is seen by many as corny or cheesy, but it underlines and sheds light on one of the central themes of the game. Almost everyone on Shadow Moses Island has been somehow genetically manipulated, and the game is in effect a battle between those who accept their conditioning and let it drive their actions, and those who choose their own course in life. It's significant that when the fight is down to just Liquid vs. Solid, Liquid makes a speech about how it's more than his duty, it's his fate to protect those who share portions of his DNA because it's encoded into his genetic makeup. Kojima suggests that Liquid and (initially) Naomi, who see the world entirely through the filter of what their genes say, are the real villains of the story. The heroes are people like Meryl, who overcomes her own mental conditioning to fall in love with Snake. The final victory over fatalism in the form of biological destiny is won when Snake survives FoxDie. Though he doesn't understand why he's been spared, Naomi's cryptic message makes the point that he survives because he's flexible enough not to be enslaved to anything on his genes dictate for him, whether it's his own soldier DNA or the FoxDie virus that's attached on a genetic level.

Skeleton key
When in doubt, blow it to smithereens

   Even with all of this subtext, there's still little chance that even videogames as good as Metal Gear Solid will ever be regarded as literature. (Though stranger things have happened--witness the film The Matrix as the subject of a college course.) That's all right, because MGS could be about a medieval hero trying to save a princess from an evil wizard, and no one would care as long as the gameplay was just as tight, innovative, and fun. Very rarely does one gameplay engine allow for as many varied tasks as Metal Gear Solid's. Take the armory in the second basement of the main building. You leave the elevator and walk around in the overhead view. You'll have to be careful because there are pitfalls in the floor, but you can get around that by equipping the thermal goggles and walking around the large red patches. Once you've made it past the traps, switch back to your key card to unlock the door. Some, though, can't be unlocked, so take a quick glance at the door in first-person view. Note the level of security clearance necessary to unlock this one, because you'll be coming back later. Once you find a door you can unlock, it's time to grab all the C4, grenades, and SOCOM ammo you can get your hands on. Then you'll have to use the first-person view again to find the discolored spots on the walls, so that you can blow them up with your newfound plastique. And so on.

   No two bosses are defeated in the same way, and tasks usually vary from one area to the next. When you start to grasp the trick of evading guards, then Kojima takes away your radar. When you learn to do it without the radar, you get to the Nuclear Storage Depot and lose your weapons. Don't worry, you'll get them back--but by the time you hit the Communications Tower you're faced with the challenge of getting past 18 floors of guards who simply can't be evaded. Add to this a timed sniping match versus three guards who know where you are, a hair-raising tiptoe across narrow walkways suspended over magma, taking out an electrical generator with guided missiles, not to mention the omnipresent surveillance cameras, and you'll never feel stuck in a rut. Though if you get bored with the way things are traditionally done, there are many ways to experiment. Sick of shooting guards with a silenced Socom? Lay a C4 trap consisting of one bait explosive and three or four others, all in one place. Walk a safe distance away, detonate the first one, watch guards run to the spot where it went off, and have fun blowing them up from your vantage point in the shadows. The possibilities aren't endless--no game can truly claim that--but they're wide enough to enhance replay value. Coming up with sick things to do to the not-especially-bright Genome soldiers can become, on later runs through the game, an end in itself.

   So, then, Metal Gear Solid has great music, incredible graphics, a mesmerizing plot, interesting things to say, and addicting gameplay. Is it the world's best game? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least, however, it deserves a shot by anyone even casually interested in videogames. You'll have to hurry, though. You see, there are only 18 hours until their deadline ...

Retrospective by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Metal Gear Solid
Developer Konami
Publisher Konami
Genre Adventure
Medium CD (2)
Platform PlayStation
Released 10.26.1998
Walkthrough, Big Boss ranking FAQ, Big Boss conspiracy FAQ, Random Fun Stuff, Photography ghosts guide
349 screenshots
19 character designs
9 action figures, box art, calendar, OSV cover and slipcase, television commercial