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Snake looks into the distance in Metal Gear Solid.

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Metal Gear Solid defined gaming’s future, but couldn’t escape its past

How one of gaming’s most innovative works became trapped in its own legacy.

Konami

In the annals of video game history, the tail end of 1998 went down as what we colloquially refer to as “a real humdinger.” Rarely have so many landmark video games appeared within a few turns of the calendar page. Half-Life! Xenogears! Ocarina of Time! Spyro the Dragon! Thief! Parasite Eve! Pokémon! And, of course, Metal Gear Solid.

Every one of the big games of 1998 deserves to be enshrined as a legend, but Konami’s Metal Gear Solid stands out from the rest for the seemingly impossible contradiction it embodied. Somehow, it carried a torch of innovation that helped shine a light for the medium’s future while simultaneously locking the Metal Gear franchise itself into a recursive, backward-facing loop from which it never fully managed to escape.

It’s worth noting that at the time, few players—or at least, few American and European players—realized how much of Metal Gear Solid’s cutting edge design actually amounted to 8-bit concepts that had been tarted up with stylish, 32-bit trappings. Though Solid was the third entry in the Metal Gear franchise, only the very first game (which was titled simply Metal Gear) had been localized for release outside Japan. On top of that, U.S. and European audiences only saw the NES port of the game, which had reshuffled and even removed key elements from its initial release on the MSX home computer.

A screen of Snake in Metal Gear on the MSX
Metal Gear on the MSX
Screen by Oleg Roschin, Konami

As a result, fans who had graduated from NES to PlayStation felt occasional flashes of deja vu while playing Solid — so many tank hangars, cardboard boxes and cigarettes! — yet only a handful of import enthusiasts understood how much Solid truly owed to what had come before. Most players didn’t realize that the script’s references to things like “Zanzibar Land” weren’t merely exercises in world-building. Rather, they were concrete references to the MSX/2 computer game upon which Solid based its entire design, 1990’s Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.

Metal Gear Solid felt like an innovator

This is not to diminish the very real and impressive forward strides Solid took to advance the state of the art in video games. Director Hideo Kojima essentially put together an interactive Tom Clancy movie for PlayStation. Heavy on scripted cutscenes, Solid presented a hard-boiled military adventure crammed with obsessively researched technical details, ominous political themes, and a cheerful willingness to embrace the fantastic in service of a rollicking tale. Ripped-from-the-headlines political anxieties like gene therapy and black-market nuclear sales sat side-by-side with conspiracy theory fodder, like mind-reading and customized killer viruses. The eponymous Metal Gear super-weapon featured a tactical rail gun delivery system based on real science ... but the thing also roared like a dinosaur for no reason beyond the fact that it looked cool in cutscenes.

What made Solid’s military drama so striking was the way it was presented (in all its ludicrous glory) through a near-seamless graphical engine. Solid established a new standard for game tech, breaking down the divisions between game action and story sequence. Compare the elaborate multi-angle cutscenes present in Solid with what passed for cinematic sequences in its contemporaries, like Spyro or Tenchu. Real-time cutscenes in 1998 rarely pushed beyond simple reaction shots and static character dialogue, even in something as artful as Ocarina of Time. Games with greater cinematic aspirations leaned on Final Fantasy 7-style full-motion video interludes, as seen in Parasite Eve. Solid presented sequences every bit as flashy and movie-like as Parasite Eve’s without ever shifting away from the chunky polygonal character models the player controlled the rest of the game.

Only Half-Life, which debuted alongside Solid, attempted something similar. It presented real-time story events that took advantage of the immersive nature of first-person shooters. Konami’s in-engine approach to cutscenes worked for a wider range of formats and genres, however — and, fittingly for notorious micromanager Kojima, it gave directors greater creative control over the player’s experience. Solid contained roughly an hour of meticulously composed and directed cinematic sequences defined by dynamic camera angles, cuts, convincing character animation and film-like staging. It introduced a more visually consistent approach to in-game storytelling than had been seen in video games to that point. Granted, Solid’s moody, low-resolution visuals lacked actual facial animation, but Kojima’s chops as a wannabe filmmaker made up for the PlayStation’s graphical limitations by affecting an air of sophistication.

Snake hides from a guard in Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid on PS1
Konami

On top of that, Solid didn’t simply represent a triumph of narrative design. It also helped redefine the interactive element of games. For every concept that didn’t quite pan out (like the real-time radar display, which tended to diminish the action to, as some contemporary critics put it, “playing Pac-Man”), Solid introduced numerous innovations that stuck. Consider the brilliant item and weapon selection systems, which granted the player instant access to Snake’s ever-growing inventory of tools through a pair of linear screen overlays, which could be brought up in a split second with the press of a single button. Or the addition of a few limited first-person view options that allowed players to break from the fixed, overhead camera angles and seamlessly case the world around Snake.

Kojima’s renowned attention to detail helped elevate Solid into something more than a mere action game. Indeed, while players could theoretically run-and-gun their way through Shadow Moses Island, Solid pushed them to practice the “tactical stealth” bandied by the minimalist cover artwork. Snake didn’t lack options for lethal force, but he also commanded a remarkable set of tools that could deceive, disable and distract enemies instead. Chaff grenades would knock out surveillance cameras. Tapping a wall allowed you to lure patrolmen into clever traps. You could even duck beneath Snake’s beloved cardboard box to hide in plain sight. Each of these tools and techniques came with caveats, though: Popping chaff only worked when there weren’t soldiers nearby to hear and see it, and of course if a bad guy spotted a cardboard box moving, the jig was up.

In other words, Metal Gear Solid made such an impression because it elevated the state of narrative art in games, while simultaneously giving players a rich, complex sandbox in which to complete their mission. The interactions and interplay of objects, items and characters possible in Solid rarely appeared outside of dense PC games with considerably more modest graphical aspirations than Konami’s bleeding-edge visuals. Emergent design concepts, like hiding beneath a cardboard box near wolf cubs until they marked the box with urine, thus causing other wolves to smell you as non-threatening? Ducking into a furnace area to thaw healing rations that had frozen solid after spending too much time stalking through the Alaskan winter? That’s the sort of thing you expected to find in some ASCII-based obscurity like ADOM, not an interactive military movie. Oh, and let’s not forget all the supplemental text. At any moment, Snake could call any of half a dozen allies on his radio to be treated to in-depth explanations of story elements, politics, and character backgrounds — all fully voiced, no less. On every level, Metal Gear Solid was a marvel of ambition and design.

But Metal Gear had been repeating itself for years

The thing is, everything that made Metal Gear Solid so great — except, obviously, its visuals and audio — had already been done by Metal Gear 2. Running on humble 8-bit hardware, Metal Gear 2 debuted a full eight years before Solid. Nevertheless, it contained nearly every one of the game mechanics present in Solid. There, Snake could crawl into narrow space. He could lean against walls and tap to distract guards. He used an almost identical set of weapons. He radioed allies for help and information with his field radio. He had a live radar sub-window to detail the position of enemies. Even Solid’s metatextual gimmicks, like being told to look up elements found in the game manual or packaging, originated in Metal Gear 2.

Snake holds up a guard in Metal Gear Solid 2
Metal Gear Solid 2 on PS2
Konami

In fairness, Solid certainly didn’t stand alone in its use of an older 2D iteration as the framework of a 3D update. The generational leap from 16-bit tech into polygons posed many challenges, and far too many franchises went astray during the PlayStation generation by failing to heed the lessons of the past. Metal Gear, much like The Legend of Zelda, succeeded in making the difficult leap to 3D in large part because its designers drew on proven and tested concepts. What makes Solid unusual is that Kojima didn’t simply stop at mining play mechanics from Metal Gear 2. On the contrary; Solid drew so many story elements and play scenarios from the first two Metal Gear games that you could classify it as a remake rather than a sequel if the dialogue didn’t explicitly refer to the events of Metal Gear 2 so often.

Metal Gear 2 didn’t officially make its way to the U.S. and Europe until nearly eight years after Solid’s debut; Konami included it (and the MSX edition of the original Metal Gear) alongside the overhauled PlayStation 2 reissue of Metal Gear Solid 3, Subsistence. Until that point, English-speaking fans either had to go by secondhand information or not-entirely-legal ROM translations to fill in the missing gap. Maybe that helps account for Metal Gear’s relatively greater popularity in the West than in Japan; whereas Japanese fans familiar with the MSX games saw Solid as an elaborate redux, it felt entirely fresh to overseas players.

Granted, a few references to the original Metal Gear games failed to land the way they were intended without a complete knowledge base to work from. How were we to know that you had to defeat the invisible, sword-wielding Cyborg Ninja by counterintuitively punching him into submission? Or that the bare-fisted nature of the battle was meant as a tip off to the ninja’s identity? NES veterans might have recognized Cyborg Ninja as Grey Fox, as the captured allied agent from the first Metal Gear, but we had never faced off against Grey Fox mano-a-mano to duke it out the way people who had played Metal Gear 2 did — nor did we understand the significance of the radio tips being broadcast by “one of Snake’s fans,” which Grey Fox had also done in the earlier game.

On the other hand, our ignorance helped Solid feel more inventive than it necessarily deserved. Western fans had never faced a chopper on the rooftop before; that boss encounter was excised from the NES version of Metal Gear. The actual Metal Gear mech itself had also been cut from the NES game, so the intense showdown with the Rex-model Metal Gear at Solid’s climax hit even harder. We’d never had to backtrack to find a lost key card in the final run-up to the game’s climax, or use a shift in temperature to change a key’s shape and unfreeze rations. We’d never seen Snake fall for his female ally, so his relationship with Meryl appeared more spontaneous and convincing. For that matter, Grey Fox’s reappearance seemed a lot more interesting to us even without the previous game’s context, since Metal Gear 2 had already included a former ally’s shocking return (Kyle Schneider from Metal Gear) in ninja form. And surprises like the elevator ambush scene hit a lot harder for everyone who hadn’t already dealt with the exact same scenario in Metal Gear 2.

Snake wears camo in Metal Gear Solid 3
Metal Gear Solid 3 on PS2
Konami

You really get the impression that Kojima subscribed to George Lucas’ “it’s like poetry; it rhymes” philosophy of self-referentialism, but never figured out where to draw the line. Solid’s heavy use of recycled concepts turned out not to be unique in the Metal Gear games; instead, it became their stock-in-trade, with each new sequel containing numerous elements of its predecessor. At some point, these ceased to be mere references and became full-on reprises. Indeed, Metal Gear Solid 2 used this as its entire premise: Kojima wrote the game as a simulated recreation of the events of the Shadow Moses Island incident. Given how heavily Solid borrowed from Metal Gear 2, this meant that no less than three consecutive chapters of a single saga featured countless identical battles, plot twists and scenarios. That seems a bit on the excessive side.

Metal Gear Solid 3 made an effort to be less overt in its repetition, only for the next game to literally retread old ground by setting a sizable portion of the story in the ruins of Shadow Moses Island. The Metal Gear games continued to innovate in many respects, right through to the very end — assuming the resounding failure of the already forgotten Metal Gear Survive does indeed mark the end of the road for the series, that is. Yet on many levels, the games never managed to shake the impression that they were spinning their wheels in terms of story and set pieces.

Meanwhile, even as the Metal Gear saga became trapped in its recursive self-obsession, the rest of the industry picked it apart for concepts and mechanics. Solid made a huge impression 20 years ago, and its approach to narrative and presentation quickly became industry standards. Its stealthy, evasive approach to combat helped reinvent action gaming, influencing everything from Headhunter: Redemption to Assassin’s Creed. And where would gravel-voiced protagonists like Sam Fisher and Master Chief even be without David Hayter’s iconic turn as Snake?

Metal Gear Solid redefined how games worked. Its interface, its stealth mechanics, its narrative presentation and, perhaps most of all, its auteur-driven style—they all left an indelible mark on the medium. That it accomplished all this in the tech-driven late ’90s by reworking an obscure NES-era adventure makes this an even more remarkable feat. Of course, there’s no denying the irony in the fact that the franchise never quite managed to escape the gravity of that 8-bit adventure in the years to follow. But then, consider how many long-running film sagas — think Star Trek, James Bond or Star Wars, to name a few —exist in the shadow of definitive early works. Given Kojima’s fascination with Hollywood, it somehow seems only fitting that Metal Gear should follow in their footsteps.