In 2018, fans excited for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate discovered the game was missing an icon. The game promised the return of every character from the franchise’s earlier installments, and even Solid Snake was back, despite being owned by a company mired in controversy and sitting out the previous installment. But he wasn’t the same man he’d been in 2008.
“Snake was added to the game, but at a dire cost: his world famous buttocks,” commented an individual running a Change.org petition called “Give Solid Snake his world famous ass back in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” The new screenshots showed a deflated butt with little definition, nothing like the rounded, vacuum-sealed booty of his previous appearance in Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Social media filled up with aggrieved posts; one, hashtagged #FreeSnakesButt, came from Snake voice actor David Hayter — himself a one-time cause célèbre following his shock dismissal from the Snake part in Metal Gear Solid 5. Eventually, new screenshots of the game showed a Snake with his traditionally shapely rear filling his skintight suit, and everyone laughed and moved on.
The whole outrage had a hint of parody about it. Anyone who’s spent enough time in gaming social media communities is used to regular slapfights about the alteration of character outfits or bodies, but the characters inspiring them are typically women. Many of those campaigning for the restoration of Snake’s ass were LGBTQ+ and/or allies (the Twitter account which triumphantly announced the return of Snake’s ass was a now-suspended account called @transsnake). Getting angry about a man’s body was, in part, a corrective to a conversation often driven by an entitlement that queer people and women aren’t welcome in the hobby.
But there was a core of sincerity to the cheek — the campaigners argued that Snake’s buttocks were significant to his character. Shrinking Snake’s butt wasn’t the same as reducing the size of Samus Aran’s breasts (which also happened in the Ultimate redesigns); it was more like if the developers had altered Bayonetta, whose over-the-top sex-camp is a crucial aspect of her character’s theming. But Bayonetta is a demon-summoning witch who fights angels, and Solid Snake is a soldier attempting to transcend a suffocating cycle of war that serves as metaphor for postwar realpolitik and/or Hideo Kojima’s frustration at having to produce Metal Gear sequels. Why would ass matter on the battlefield?
Solid Snake’s earlier depictions were not so butt-focused. In Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Snake’s dressed in fatigues and, while it’s hard to tell from the sprite, there’s no specific reason to suspect he has a remarkable ass. Metal Gear Solid, even taking into account the limitations of the original PlayStation, also does not treat Snake’s butt with undue prominence, but lays groundwork for its appearance later. For it is in Metal Gear Solid that Solid Snake’s Sneaking Suit is introduced.
The Sneaking Suit, a formfitting off-silver military uniform designed to keep Snake comfortable in the cold of Alaska, bears almost no resemblance to real-life military gear. Its monochrome, body-conscious style and iconic V lines make it feel more like a superhero costume. Unsurprisingly, illustrator Yoji Shinkawa’s notes on Snake’s character reference sheet suggest the suit should resemble Batman’s.
In the late ’90s, Batman meant Batman & Robin, the 1997 superhero movie that embarrassed Batman away from our movie screens for another decade. While a garish and abrasive movie in all aspects, its shamelessness is often summarized with a costume decision: the addition of nipples to the Batsuit. (“It wasn’t fetish to me, I was more informed by Roman armor,” insisted Jose Fernandez, the SFX genius who sculpted the suit, when asked to explain the design by MEL Magazine.) Inspired by technical advances that replaced the rough, oatmeal-like textures of ’80s rubber effects for gleaming textures reminiscent of sports cars, director Joel Schumacher asked for Batman’s and Robin’s suits to get more erotic and body-conscious, sharpening Batman’s nipples into points and culminating in an astonishing suit-up montage in which the Dynamic Duo’s backsides are punched into the viewer’s eyeballs.
Shinkawa’s inspiration from the visuals of an infamously bad movie is well within the spirit of Metal Gear — a maximalist pastiche of Kojima’s obsessions, from Paul Auster and Kobo Abe to the kind of trash movies that even hip poptimists struggle to take seriously. This duality of highbrow and lowbrow is perhaps exemplified in Kojima’s brief for Solid Snake’s physical appearance: the face of Christopher Walken and the body of Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Deer Hunter face with a Bloodsport booty.
Bloodsport is a movie based on the fraudulent retellings of an infamous MMA fighter who claimed to have been trained by a ninja. The most important scene in the movie is when Jean-Claude Van Damme, at the time a martial artist who had moved to Hollywood and was determined to get famous, cutely hoicks his burgundy briefs under the curve of his butt, then back down, to give an accidentally-on-purpose show to the drooling Leah Ayres.
Bloodsport’s writer, Sheldon Lettich, remarked to Birth.Movies.Death that Van Damme developed a trademark of showing off his butt. In Lionheart, which Lettich directed, Van Damme requested a scene where, in the apartment of another heroine, he could drop his towel to display his derrière. In Universal Soldier (directed by Roland Emmerich, whose surname Kojima pinched for Solid Snake’s best friend Hal Emmerich), JCVD’s engineered super-soldier has to shower to cool down his augmented body, requiring pans over his glistening buns. In Timecop, fighting an assassin in his apartment, he’s dressed in a pair of grey boxers that, despite their looseness, are pushed right into his crack. And in Double Impact, a movie about identical brothers — something else Solid Snake has experience with — nice twin Chad is introduced teaching yoga to a gaggle of permed 1991 babes, demonstrating his mastery of the splits to a camera planted directly behind his shrinkwrapped glutes.
Despite these cinematic parallels, Snake’s butt didn’t get really prominent until Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, in which Snake had another hero to define himself against.
In 2004, GamesTM reported that Kojima insisted to his staff that Snake’s butt be more perfect than Raiden’s — a debuting bishounen who the player would control for the majority of the game. Asked why this mattered, Kojima gave an incomplete answer, citing the example of Lara Croft as another character designed to look good from behind. Solid Snake’s flowing bandanna and mullet came out of the PlayStation 2’s ability to handle more complex character models; it’s implicit Snake’s rounded posterior was something of a tech demo to prove the engine could handle smooth shapes. However, Kojima was evasive on why it had to be Solid Snake’s butt, and not Raiden’s. It’s possible it’s simple one-upmanship; Snake is the stronger and more experienced hero, hence he’s sexier. But it’s also possible it was to heighten the player’s irritation at being forced to be Raiden — teased with perfect ass, then forced to settle for mid.
In Metal Gear Solid 2, Solid Snake is no longer working for the government, wearing a cut-down version of his old Sneaking Suit, and the design frames his buttocks carefully. He now wears a climbing harness for an early scene in which Snake bungees onto the deck of the USS Discovery KSNM-3 with a rope clipped around his waist; accompanied with the lacing at the back of his harness, it creates a silhouette evocative of garters and a corset, making a playful visual pun on the theme of Snake stripped down to the Sneaking Suit’s under layers.
Laura Mulvey’s influential, flawed 1971 theory of the Male Gaze claims that visual media is made with a heterosexual male audience in mind, with the costuming and cinematography treating men as complete people while deconstructing women into body parts. Metal Gear certainly brims with not-quite-ironic T&A of the female characters — ranging from the in-character burlesque of Solid Snake identifying a disguised Meryl from her behind in Metal Gear Solid to Metal Gear Solid 5’s mute, bikini-clad assassin Quiet, whose mawkish fable about getting the awful men around her to recognize her personhood is overpowered by a presentation that assumes a male player unwilling to extend it to her in the first place. But Metal Gear’s willingness to allow its male characters to be sexual, too, slightly levels the worst of it, while reflecting an ’80s and mid-’90s Male Gaze fitting the series’ retro action movie feel — an aspirational Male Gaze, the same one which made Van Damme want to display his butt.
Mulvey, and many of the feminists influenced by her work who criticize the costuming and bodies of female characters in video games today, saw the camera of the Male Gaze to be a tool of sexual threat and violence — its lens ogling women at their most vulnerable, cutting them up into fragments. Solid Snake might be a man, but, as the protagonist of a stealth game, he is at his most vulnerable when people can see him. His costume’s focus on his buttocks serves to remind us of his nakedness. Especially in subsequent games, this element allowed Kojima to play with gender roles — a fascination of his, overlapping uncomfortably with the sexism his games are often accused of. By Metal Gear Solid 4, the elderly Solid Snake still moves with sensuality — writhing on the floor, subduing foes with his thigh muscles — but describes himself as a “Beast,” as if to count himself as a member of the all-female Beauty and the Beast-themed unit he fights.
But there might be a simpler explanation. “I always try to make my characters look sexy,” Shinkawa said in the documentary Metal Gear Solid 2: Making of the Hollywood Game. “Snake is sexy as a man of experience.” Isn’t it fitting, then, for him to also have a big ass?