Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Why This Fanboy Loves The MGS Game Series So Much ; Part 1- "Metal Gear Solid"

I was sitting in the lounge room of our flat (apartment) back in 1998 watching some crap on TV when an ad for the Sony PlayStation gaming console appeared on-screen. It showed a quick montage from various games- Crash Bandicoot causing mayhem somewhere, Lara Croft jumping across a crevasse, a character from one of the Final Fantasy games waving a massive sword, and some dude wearing a bandanna and military garb standing in profile on a metal gangway, firing a FAMAS Assault Rifle at an unseen enemy.

That last image stayed in my head for some time. There was something about it that I couldn't shake. Was it his dark green combat gear topped off with a ridiculous (in my view) bandanna, which I'm fairly sure is not military-issue?
Was it the way this character stood, leaning forward slightly to absorb the recoil of his weapon as its barrel spat muzzle flare into the night?
Was it the mixture of colours in this short scene, set against a night sky, with him contrasted against grey buildings in the background with snow falling as he fires?
Was it the overall cinematic look of this scene?
I don't know. All I knew was that I wanted to find out more about this game.

 I knew nothing of console gaming and my only knowledge of this world was of the Tomb Raider games, or more precisely, the game's heroine Lara Croft.

By the time I started working at Borders in the late Nineties, Lara Croft had become a Pop Culture icon with Tomb Raider III being released that year. The Nintendo game console was doing great business with its Super Mario games and the James Bond game Goldeneye 64 had become an instant classic.
I called work one morning to say that I was feeling absolutely dreadful and wouldn't be able to go in that day. Then I promptly went down to my local video library and rented a Nintendo 64 console and the Goldeneye game.
I was in Double-O-Heaven all day.
By the time my wife got home from work at around six o'clock that evening, the lounge room stunk of sweat and cigarettes. Like some Viet Nam-era gunship.

A few months later, I learnt a little more about this game and then went out and bought a PlayStation and the Premium Pack Deluxe Edition of Metal Gear Solid.
This pack contained the game, a CD soundtrack, t-shirt, poster and dog-tags. I was all set.

Now, if you sometimes think that movies don't adequately represent real life, then games take that notion even further. But then, that's the reason why I play these games to begin with.


The story of Metal Gear Solid  is set in 2005 and concerns our improbably-named hero, Solid Snake. Sure, it's his code name, but you still laugh the first time you hear it. An ex-operative from the FOXHOUND Special Forces unit, he's been brought out of retirement by his old commander Colonel Campbell to infiltrate a disused nuclear weapons disposal facility on an island called Shadow Moses in Alaska's Fox Archipelago.
The weapons facility has been taken over by a renegade group of genetically enhanced special forces soldiers led by Liquid Snake (did I mention the names thing?). Liquid Snake, himself a former FOXHOUND soldier, is demanding to be given the remains of Big Boss, a legendary soldier on which these enhanced soldiers are based, so that he can extract his DNA to create more super soldiers. We know nothing of Big Boss, except the fact that his body has been kept in cold storage by the US Government for some time.
If his demands are not met within 24 hours, Liquid Snake will unleash a nuclear attack on the United States using a walking battle tank/robot named Metal Gear Rex.
Snake's mission is to neutralise this threat and also to rescue a DARPA Chief and the President of ArmsTech, who were visiting this facility shortly before the uprising took place. Also imprisoned is Meryl Silverburgh, a female soldier stationed on this facility. Who also just happens to be Col. Campbell's niece.
Solid Snake stays in touch with the Colonel by using his CODEC radio which can be set to different frequencies, allowing Snake to speak with other specialists on the Colonel's staff in order to get useful tips on how to proceed with his mission, get further expository information, etc.

Now, for me, the story begins to get a little convoluted as it deals with nanomachine technology (which is what is used to enhance the battle capabilities of these soldiers), gene therapy, nuclear disarmament, etc, but it's a vast storyline that perfectly fits in with the whole grand nature of this game.

Solid Snake arrives on the island via an underwater delivery vehicle. He is unarmed and must procure weapons on-site as the game progresses. The only things he has on him when he arrives at the island is a packet of cigarettes. Why cigarettes, you ask? Well, there are certain times throughout the game when Snake has to get past infra-red sensors without setting off any alarms. When you equip his cigarettes, the smoke drifts past these sensors letting you know where they are so that you can negotiate Snake past them successfully. One catch- Snake's health meter depletes noticeably faster while he has the cigarettes equipped, just to remind us all that they are indeed bad for your health. It's a brilliant touch in a game full of brilliant touches.

There is one main element of this game that set it apart from a lot of games of its time- the use of stealth as an effective means of gameplay. While you can fight and shoot your way through the various stages of the game, it is more beneficial to sneak your way through sometimes. You (the player) are told during Snake's initial mission briefing that this is in fact a sneaking mission and this aspect of the game allows for some nail-biting moments as Snake hides in the shadows as armed guards approach. If Snake runs across snow-covered ground, a guard appears soon afterwards and says; "Who's footprints are these?", before he follows their path. If Snake runs across a metal walkway, his boots echo on the steel and a nearby guard will exclaim; "Huh? What was that noise?", before he approaches to investigate. If Snake is discovered, a large exclamation mark appears above the guard's head, accompanied by a sharp violin note before the guard raises his weapon at Snake. It is then up to you to get him to some kind of safety as all guards go on alert.

The game begins with Snake arriving at a loading dock that is patrolled by three armed guards. He needs to get to the far end of this dock to a goods elevator without being spotted. There is a map visible at all times in the top right of the screen, known as the SOLITON Radar, which shows Snake's position in relation to the enemy and you find yourself relying on this map throughout the game. The soldiers have enhanced senses of sight and hearing, so you need to step cautiously at times. Step on a puddle of water and they'll hear you.
You have the option of sneaking up behind the guards and...well, let's not tip-toe here, you can grab them from behind and break their necks by tapping the circle button on the controller repeatedly until you hear a sharp snapping sound. This is one way to get past the guards, but it's a lot more satisfying (and nerve-wracking) to try and sneak past them.
The guards' field of vision is represented on-screen by a green cone which shows how far they can see and it is up to you to keep Snake out of these. This is a third-person game, which I greatly prefer to first-person shooting games. The camera angle is positioned above and slightly behind the figure of Snake and this takes a little getting used to at first.

Despite the primitive (by today's standards) graphics, this is still a beautiful game to look at as you play. Sure, everything looks blocky and the character's faces lack detail, but this game makes great use of its colour palette. Much of the game uses various shades of green, blue and grey and this helps to create the world of these characters.

Yes, I know. You can barely make out the expression on his face, but it was the 20th Century when this game was made.

Metal Gear Solid is the brainchild of video game director Hideo Kojima. He had already made a couple of Metal Gear arcade games in previous years, but this new title was the first one designed for Sony's PlayStation console. In the games world, this man is like George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry. He has stated in interviews that his bloodstream is "70% movies" and this is clearly evident all throughout this game. In the opening stage on the dock, once you've successfully gotten Snake into the elevator, the main title of the game appears on-screen.

Just like a movie! And the fact that you play a five to thirty minute (depending on your gaming prowess) segment of the game before the title credits makes it much like a Bond movie.
By this stage, I was hooked.

The cinematic feel of this game permeates throughout. The music is mainly synthesised and it heightens the tension that you feel as you play.
The voice acting is superbly done by a wonderful voice-over cast, but I  have to single out the great David Hayter, who provides the raspy voice of Solid Snake. Hayter is well-known for his voice acting on games, but he's also an accomplished and very well-respected screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for "X-Men", "The Scorpion King" and the highly-regarded adaptation of Alan Moore's & David Gibbons' graphic novel "Watchmen". He has just completed his directorial debut with a film called "Wolves", due out this year.
Hayter has provided the voice for Solid Snake on every game since Metal Gear Solid, but has recently been replaced (sacrilege!) by Keifer Sutherland (Oh...okay. Cool!) in the next instalment entitled Metal Gear Solid-The Phantom Pain. I suppose if you're gonna replace David Hayter, then Jack Bauer is an ideal choice.
In Sutherland's (and Hideo Kojima's) defence, the main character of this new game is Snake's father, so I suppose they were aiming for a voice that sounded similar rather than exactly like Snake's. Kojima-san's justification for this controversial decision was that, since the main character is a battle-hardened veteran in his late 40s, he wanted an actor in his late 40s to provide the voice, in the interests of realism. I would argue that realism doesn't appear very much in these games, but...

Ah well, I've already said it on Twitter, but it begs repeating. Thanks for your brilliant work, DH. You brought this character to life during your ten year run and had me caring more for him than I did for my real friends.

Of course, this game is not all sneaking around and breaking necks. Snake's got a mission to complete and there are numerous baddies out to stop him. Five of them, to be exact, aside from all the armed guards patrolling every corner of this weapons facility. In gaming parlance, the fights against main villains are referred to as Boss Battles. Snake's first Boss encounter is with an older man named Revolver Ocelot. Better get used to these weird names. They're everywhere in this game.
Ocelot is about 60 and he wears cowboy boots with spurs and carries an 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver, which he wields with a gunslinger's proficiency, spinning it 'round his index finger before slotting it back into his hip-holster. And, since game bad-guys aren't just your ordinary types, he has the ability to make bullets ricochet off any surface, thus able to shoot Snake by making bullets bounce off walls and around corners. Definitely makes for some interesting and frustrating gameplay.
However, this battle is interrupted by the arrival of the Cyborg Ninja, who slices off Ocelot's hand. The Ninja then disappears, returning to go up against Snake in a battle later on. He's a pretty cool character. I mean, who doesn't love a skin-tight outfit and a samurai sword that can cut through anything?

 This brilliant artwork was done by Yoji Shinkawa who did the concept art for these games.

Another Boss Battle occurs later in the game between Snake and this badass named Vulcan Raven. That washing-machine sized keg strapped to his back is filled with bullets, so he ain't gonna run out of ammunition anytime soon. It's a wonder he doesn't slip on all the empty shell-casings that his Gatling gun spits out.

 This is what Snake is up against. And you thought YOU had problems.

I don't want to say too much about the story. Other game writers and fans have said it better in the 15 years since MGS was released. I'll mention various aspects of this game that resonated with me the most and easily made it worth every penny.

There are some clever touches all over this game. When Snake finally meets Meryl Silverburgh, Colonel Campbell's niece, she suggests that they split up so that he can continue with his mission while she infiltrates another area of the weapons facility. Snake asks her for her CODEC radio frequency so that they can stay in contact and she replies; "The frequency number's on the case." before she runs off.
"Case? What case?!!!", I thought to myself desperately. "Snake hasn't found a case! What the hell?!"
I spent the better part of the rest of the week thinking about it until I walked into the lounge room one morning and looked at the back of the plastic case that the game came in;

                                                      (Look up. See Meryl's name? Okay, look above that.)
                                                                  "Oh, you're kidding me!"

140.15. It's as plain as the nose on your face. In an interview at the time of the game's release (which I read YEARS later), Kojima said that he wanted the game's case to be a part of the actual gameplay in some way. Sneaky bastard.

Later in the game, you find yourself up against Psycho Mantis. He has telekinetic powers, so he can throw vases and armchairs at you when you find him in a library. Not only that, but based on how you've been playing the game up until then, he will give Snake a critique of his (as in your) performance; "You're reckless" (if you've been running around shooting every guard in sight) or "You are cautious, afraid to take risks" (if you've spent the entire game sneaking around.)

And, as in all good spy stories, our hero is captured and tortured. Snake is hooked up to some huge machine and given electric shocks (I think). The way to survive this treatment is to repeatedly hit the Action Button (circle) of your PlayStation controller. Fast. In fact, very fast. Snake's health meter begins to drop as he's being tortured. Hitting the Action Button tops up his health briefly, but it soon drops. You are basically trying to empty a sinking ship with a bucket. And you're on a timer. You have to keep Snake alive long enough so that the timer runs out. It's a strenuous 30 seconds. And he goes through it three times, unless he escapes from the cell that he's being held in between torture sessions. Which I'll explain how to do a little later.
This stage also gives you the option of giving in to the torture. Doing so drastically alters the ending of the game with regard to whom of the other characters that you meet lives or dies, just to mess with the player's head a little.

I tried a million different ways to hit the button quickly. In the end, I placed the controller down sideways on my wife's copy of Vogue magazine sitting on my lap and then flicked my index finger back and forth at lightning speed. This tactic saved Snake's life, but the friction of the glossy magazine cover on the knuckle of my little finger left a burn scar that is still visible to this day.
But I beat the torture!

Later, there's a fantastic sniping stage between Snake and a Russian female named Sniper Wolf;

She has a habit of wearing her combat jacket zipped halfway down with nothing else on Alaska! Remember, these games are aimed at teenage boys.
This sniping stage takes place just after Snake and Meryl arrive outside of one of the containment houses on the facility. Notice that the SOLITON radar system is jammed so that you can't tell where the enemy is. This happens whenever Snake is discovered by the enemy and has to run and hide to evade them. Without the radar, however, you might find yourself running right into an armed guard...who starts shooting at you;

It's a wonderfully staged battle and it's very atmospheric. You can hear the wind howling down this narrow pathway. Made me shiver, and I was playing the game in Summer! As Snake and Meryl take a first step down this corridor, a shot rings out and Meryl is hit in the arm and falls to the ground. Snake is pinned down and must head back inside the building to retrieve a PSG-1 sniper rifle so that he can engage Sniper Wolf in combat. As with all of the Boss Battles, Wolf's health meter is longer than Snake's, so you can't allow him to get hit too many times. Sniper Wolf gets away in this level and Snake comes up against her later in the game in a snow-covered field where she is dressed in white to better camouflage herself;

It's a difficult battle because as soon as you get her in your cross-hairs, she gets off a first shot at you.

This game is filled with little moments that make you laugh and that make you marvel at what games are (or were) capable of. Certainly, gaming has upped the ante since Metal Gear Solid was first released in 1998, but this game introduced many elements that other games have employed since. Some of the scenes are beautifully composed and staged and there are some genuinely creepy moments in the game, since you don't know what's going to happen next. Here we see Snake heading to a research lab where the Cyborg Ninja has already been.

I remember feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand on end as I approached this lab, not knowing what to expect.
It is in this stage that Snake meets Hal 'Otacon' Emmerich, a research scientist who offers Snake technical info throughout the remainder of the game. Otacon, as he prefers to be known, has managed to avoid capture by wearing a sneaking suit which renders him invisible to the guards. He gets his nickname from the Japanese term 'Otaku', which refers to somebody who's a huge fan of Japanese anime and/or manga.
When Snake is captured and tortured, Otacon appears outside his cell and gives Snake a bottle of tomato ketchup. When Snake asks just what the hell is he supposed to do with a bottle of ketchup, Otacon replies that it's all he could find.
I spent two frustrating weeks trying to get Snake out of that cell before I read in a gaming magazine that if Snake equips the ketchup bottle and lies down on the cell floor, the bottle breaks and the ketchup spreads like a pool of blood, giving the nearby guard the impression that Snake has killed himself. The guard unlocks the cell and enters. Snake then gets up and knocks out the guard before making his escape.

There's one aspect of the game that was considered silly when it was first mentioned in reviews. Snake finds a cardboard box, which he can use to hide in at times when there are guards nearby. He can crouch and sneak around while in this box.

Gamers thought it was a stupid idea. Until they played it, that is. It is one of the most nail-biting moments of the game when Snake is in the box and sitting still and a guard approaches. You expect to get discovered any second. The guard looks down at the box. A question mark appears above his head. A second later, he says; "Hmmph, it's just a box." And then he turns and walks away. At other times, he gives the box a slight kick and it disappears, revealing Snake crouched down on the ground before a volley of machine-gun fire breaks the silence and all hell breaks loose.

But it's not all fun and games. Throughout this mission, Snake is given information about nuclear deterrence, the SALT Treaty and arms proliferation that has continued to flourish since the end of The Cold War. Most gamers would tend to skip through all of this expositional dialogue because they're teenage boys, but I found it all quite interesting. I knew a little about this from my studies back in the early '80s, but it was still a kick  to be learning more about all of this from a console game, of all things.

Like all great games, just when you think it's over and you've beaten the bad guys, it ramps everything up a little and you find that Snake is still under threat. He has to go up against Metal Gear Rex, a walking battle tank which is being piloted by the main enemy of the game, Liquid Snake.
Throughout the entire game, Snake's main mission is to find this thing and insert a card key into a central computer that will effectively shut Metal Gear Rex down and render it inoperable. However, Snake is a few moves behind every other character in the story and he pretty much becomes a patsy for both the bad guys and the military that sent him on this mission to begin with. You as the player learn of the various twists in the story at the same time as Snake does.

This thing is huge and armed to the teeth with lasers, heat-seeking missiles, machine guns. And, if Snake gets too close to it, it steps on him. No fair.

And, in true confusing Japanese manga/anime fashion, we learn that both Liquid Snake and Solid Snake are actually twin brothers who were part of a gene therapy experiment from the late 1960s called 'Les Enfants Terribles' and that their DNA is identical and made up from that taken from Big Boss, the legendary soldier whose remains Liquid Snake is demanding. However, their DNA also contains the FOXDIE virus which has a 50/50 chance of killing them at any time. Just to further complicate matters.

The game contains a few more tricks up its sleeve if/when you defeat Metal Gear Rex, and it doesn't get any easier. You truly get your money's worth.

At the end of it all, the screen goes dark and one more piece of information is given concerning the fact that, despite all of the Arms Limitation Talks that took place throughout the '80s and '90s, where both superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals down to around 3,000 warheads each, they both still currently maintain over 26,000 missiles.
It was a sobering thought to leave with the player.

I played Metal Gear Solid over and over when I first got it. I tried playing it again about six months ago and found that my hands just aren't fast enough anymore to save Snake from the torture sequence. Yes, I'm getting older.
Physically, anyway.
The good thing with this game was that it spoiled me where other games are concerned.
Thankfully, I didn't rush out and buy up a heap of other games, thus turning my wife into what she called 'a PlayStation widow'.

Metal Gear Solid became a huge seller for the PlayStation and the development company Konami Computer Entertainment and, at the time of writing, there are rumours circulating that MGS is to be remade in an all-new version for the PlayStation 4, due for release later this year. Oh, man!
Geez, here I am, a few years shy of fifty, and I'm looking forward to a video game. Must be due to my wasted youth spent in pinball parlours.
The '80s was good for something, after all.

The world-wide success of Metal Gear Solid guaranteed that a sequel would be made. It took about four years, and it was designed for the newly-released PlayStation 2.
Metal Gear Solid 2- Sons of Liberty turned out to be another winner, but with one major gripe among Metal Gear fans, myself included.
The gameplay itself was phenomenal, as were the much sharper graphics. My main problem with this sequel, however, was the direction in which the story went. I'll say more about it when I do a write-up on it.

Hideo Kojima had proven himself to be a Golden Boy of Gaming and was given a bigger budget for the sequel. This was evident in every aspect of MGS2.  For this game, they pushed the boundaries of what the PlayStation 2 gaming engine was capable of and they hired Hollywood film composer Harry Gregson-Williams to provide a fantastic orchestral score.  It helped to further blur the line between a console game and a movie.

And that, for me, is the beauty of these games. They are like movies that you play.

Thanks for reading!



  1. I've missed up a lot in gaming experiences, I'm afraid... the last thing I played with was equipped with single-button joysticks and had an 8-bit processor in it. Adventure games, as they were called, were mostly text-based; you entered your moves mainly using the computer keyboard, and were lucky to have some synthetized music played in three voices, one of which was only capable of producing white sound, useful for representing bangs, crashes and explosions, but not so convincing as a cymbal...

    ... yes, I'm a Commodore 64 kid. Compared to this, the games I played were way, way more primitive. The best games of this sort back then were first-person jobs, and at least the ones I saw were mostly flight simulators of one sort of another. By the end of the decade, when Nintendo had revolutionized the gaming world with its NES, some Commodore games (true swan songs for a great machine) offered some of the aspects you mention for MGS... but were still a far cry from the things we saw in the '90s.

  2. I used to be a hug fan of the Tombraider series. It was so full of heart-stopping high drops, and puzzles. But, I never played any of Metal Gear Solid. But I kinda wish I had now.

    And Miguel, I'm an ol' Amiga fan. I grew up on lemmings, test-drive and speedball.

    1. Test drive! That was very good! I had the Commodore 64 version... my favorite cars were the Porsche and the Corvette.

      I always wanted to try the Amiga, but back in the day they were way too expensive for my budget, and then I gave up on computer games altogether to focus on the pre-Internet hi-tech computer solutions of the day, including file servers (with Novell! and SCO Unix!!), office suits, Lotus Notes, and (oh, modernity!) e-Mail. What a joy...

    2. The Porsche was always the one to drive! MMMMm...


      Oh, and Teeritz, there should be something in the mail today or next week.

    3. Got it, Scott! Thanks very much. Time for me to get typing, methinks.

  3. Ha it's interesting to see everyone's take on this. I find these games too difficult for my clutzy hands. That torture room you describe would probably have made me give up if it didn't continue the story after. I stopped after the Atari 7800, which I just pulled out of the basement last month. The games were getting too expensive, and the industry was in flux so you didn't know what platform would survive. Is there a pc version of this? I will have to look it up online.

    1. There most certainly is a PC version, NA. Or at least there was when it was first released. In fact, I think it may even be downloadable, based on all the websites I trawled through for pictures for this post....I just took a quick look at eBay and it appears that you can still get the PC compatible game. Best of luck if you choose to proceed, NA. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours and given the absolute drivel that's on TV these days, I may find myself playing games a little more.