Metal Gear Solid
Developer: Konami (KCET)
Article by Tomm Hulett | October 28, 2009
Every era of gaming has its defining work. Whenever game design comes to a crossroads -- a new dimension, new technology, new capabilities -- one creation appears as a benchmark for all other titles for years to come. In the era after Pac-Man and Space Invaders ruled the arcades, Shigeru Miyamoto created a game that changed everything forever: Super Mario Bros. Before SMB, few games could scroll left to right. It's hard to imagine, but before the Nintendo Entertainment System, all the action took place on a single screen, or sometimes a series of them. Games like Pitfall! even simulated scrolling by linking a series of screens in logical order, but Mario was one of the first protagonists to charge, unimpeded, through huge, sprawling levels. Unlike other heroes, he did this with varying movement speeds and a sense of momentum that determined his jump trajectory. Those weren't levels you could count on one hand, either, looping endlessly within minutes; Mario had to overcome an unheard of 32 stages in order to rescue the princess!
Speaking of princesses, while SMB did keep a score tally, and it eventually looped around to more difficult renditions of the same stages, it was also the first major game to be about the "ending" rather than just racking up a score. Yes, it could be played like a really long version of Donkey Kong? if one wanted, but most children simply rescued the princess and turned off the console, content that they had succeeded. Of course, SMB brought more to the table than the strict rules that two generations of gaming would live by -- it also introduced warp zones, hidden secret items, minus worlds, and more.
For more than a decade, video games built on the foundation Mario had established. Creative new elements were added, but anyone could trace the pedigree without much effort. Then, in the late '90s, gaming entered 3D space. Here, perched at the edge of new horizons, gaming could no longer be content with hopping from platform to platform. Something had to change, and a new direction had to be given. And so, in October 1998, Konami released the Super Mario Bros. for the new era: Metal Gear Solid.
Metal Gear Solid marked the revival of an old Konami franchise from the MSX. In fact, it served somewhat as a "greatest hits" of the Metal Gear franchise, featuring 3D renditions of many setpiece encounters from the earlier games. However, MGS did more than simply take an old 2D game and add an extra dimension. Instead, the series' PlayStation debut gave the impression that the original vision for Metal Gear had finally been realized, having merely been hampered by primitive 8-bit technology at its inception.
Metal Gear games traditionally opened with hero Solid Snake, a small sprite with a few animation frames, walking through water (or "swimming") to a remote section of an enemy compound, and sneaking in with no supplies. MGS, in turn, opens with a lengthy cutscene where Snake guides a personal sub into enemy territory before disembarking to silently swim the rest of the way. We watch him strip his wetgear off in a dramatic pre-title sequence. We're told who his enemies are, as well as the reasoning for the POS (procure on-site) method of deployment. However, unlike the old games, these details are relayed via professional voice over, set to the most cinematic visuals the world had seen in a game to that point. Not only that -- and this point cannot be stressed enough -- those cinematic visuals were all created via the game's own engine, rather than cutaway pre-rendered cinemas. This alone set MGS years beyond its contemporaries.
Kris Zimmerman directed the English voice over work for Metal Gear Solid, and at the start of the process, someone from Konami handed her a thick stack of paper. "Are these the scripts?" she asked. The Konami rep looked confused. "That's ONE script," he replied. This incident illustrates the difference between MGS and the games that existed before it: No longer were images metaphors for real objects, or cartoon representations of weapons, animals, or obstacles. Snake destroys a helicopter, not by following its shadow and pressing "attack" at the right time, but by jumping out from cover and taking aim through a missile sight. Metal Gear was a military fetishist's action game seen through an 8-bit lens. Metal Gear Solid was an intense military action experience the player could take part in. The scale of gaming had changed forever.
After MGS, memorable moments in games could no longer be marked by Kuribo Shoes, bonus levels with unique obstacles, or well-hidden secrets. Like movies, games could now build to action, twist characters in surprising ways, manipulate emotions, and realistically depict large-scale "wow" moments. More than that (somewhat ironically), the player was now in direct control of all those things, granting an intimacy that movies could never hope to provide.
Sniper Wolf changed the very idea of what a boss encounter could be. Up to that point, most games were content to have a huge sprite that the player hit for a while until it died. In a good game, there would be a strategy: a pattern to watch for, to learn, to master. Sniper Wolf, on the other hand, felt like a real opponent: Another person with skills similar to Snake's, but a master of her craft, and with a home-turf advantage. She engaged Snake in a life-or-death sniper duel, and the player had to master sniping to defeat her -- he is the ultimate soldier not because the game tells us, but because the game forces us to become just that. And Wolf doesn't just fade out of existence or vow eternal revenge. No, instead she claims one of the most memorably wrenching death scenes in all of gaming; a scene that caused my mother to take notice: "Hey, those look like real people."
More than ten years before third-party developers would figure out how to use the Wii's controller features properly, Metal Gear Solid already had it down with its innovate use of the DualShock. The "game" didn't end at the television, but extended to every single feature of the console. Naomi gave Snake a massage using the vibration of the controller. Psycho Mantis tore the fourth wall to ribbons by reading your memory (card, wink wink). And, MGS may be the only game to ever claim to know whether or not you were using turbo to cheat through a torture sequence. In fact, I never would have purchased Metal Gear Solid if it weren't for an EGM preview detailing how the code used force feedback to simulate a character's heart attack during a cutscene. I went to the store the next day to buy a Dual Shock and pre-order MGS.
A lot of 16-bit games, RPGs mainly, featured compelling characters and emotional moments. None of those moments hold a candle to the ones in MGS. A fair bit of credit goes to the voice acting -- the most professional ever recorded for a game, at the time -- creating memorable characters that felt real, even as they delivered silly lines about which button to press. However, even more compelling was the attention to detail. Any game can store up its heart for the big dramatic moments, but MGS included subtler details. Late in the game, rival-turned-savior Grey Fox reveals that he actually killed the parents of his adopted "sister" Naomi, who idolizes and in fact would kill for him. He begs Snake in his final moments to tell her the truth, so that his soul can rest in peace. Yet, when he next speaks with Naomi, Snake lies about the event, saying simply that Fox loved her very much. We see the comfort in her eyes, and hear it in her voice, and we silently vow along with Snake to take the truth to our graves. MGS proved that games could reach out to the player's emotions beyond the simple adrenaline rush of an exciting boss kill. I don't think any of us will forget the expectation we felt hearing those final post-credit lines (promising a greatness the series never delivered), and I still can't listen to "The Best is Yet to Come" without shedding a single, manly tear.
Metal Gear Solid showed the world what a triple-A, 3D, and most of all modern game looked like. The part that is often overlooked, though, is that MGS is really a 2D game with cleverly crafted 3D flourishes. At its heart, MGS controls exactly like Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake before it, usually from the same 3/4-view top-down perspective. MGS is not a triumph because it flaunted new technology, or because it took advantage of every ounce of power the platform could provide. No, MGS is a benchmark because it answered powerful technology with equally clever game design. What MGS should have taught us all is that technology had broken down the walls, leaving us only the limits of a game creator's imagination.
In my first year of college, I played primarily RPGs. I loved anime, and fantasy settings, and party members, and turn-based battles. I bought Xenogears and Metal Gear Solid on the same day, and after watching the intro to the former, I decided to try out this other game that I'd bought a DualShock for. It stayed in the disc tray until I finished it less than a week later, and the only thing that convinced me to slog through Xenogears was the promise of a second MGS playthrough afterward.
I can't think of a more effective metaphor for how MGS changed gaming than that.