Metal Gear Solid
Based on: The essential best of Metal Gear, and the ghost of Boktais future.
Article by Jeremy Parish | August 5, 2009
The year 2000 was a convergence, bringing us the end of a millennium, the end of a century, and the end of the Game Boy's 11-year reign at the top of the portable gaming heap. The Metal Gear series, being set sufficiently far in the future to avoid nonsensical millennial panic, didn't do much to mark the occasion within the game fiction. But its celebration of the Game Boy's retirement, well -- that was something special.
Metal Gear's sole entry on a Nintendo handheld saw release in early 2000 and promptly stood out not only as one of the best portable games ever made, but also one of the best entries in the entire Metal Gear oeuvre. I'd say in Metal Gear "canon," but, well, it's not. The confusingly-named Metal Gear Solid -- which has nothing to do with the PlayStation game by the same title, being a sort of parallel universe companion to it -- is very much apocryphal. The game begins with Snake being called out of retirement in Alaska and meeting Mei Ling for the first time, which could theoretically be reconciled with overlapping events in the PS1 game if someone really wanted to make the effort. But that way silliness lies, and it's best to let the game simply stand on its own. Besides, given the way the series' actual canon turned out, this isolation actually works to its benefit, insulating its sober tale from hands that can talk through self-induced hypnosis and other such nonsense. And the other alternate explanation -- that the whole thing is Raiden's VR training -- is somehow far more compelling anyway.
No, this Metal Gear Solid was more of a true sequel to the original Metal Gear; Big Boss is dead, never having been made into a cyborg or burned to death with hairspray, but his dream lives on through the ambitions of a terrorist group called Black Chamber. The villains have taken up roost in the ruins of the original Outer Heaven fortress, hijacked the latest Metal Gear model, and intend to ransom the world with the aid of a small-time dictator. Despite being on a "kid's system," MGS is arguably darker than its PS1 counterpart: many parallel events in the two stories play out far less happily on Game Boy, including the death of its Otacon cipher and the unhappy personal history between Colonel Campbell and the villains.
The story's not all that stands toe-to-toe with MGS's big brother, though; despite the drastically simplified interface and severely decreased system specs compared to PlayStation, this Game Boy adventure plays wonderfully, too. The mechanics draw heavily from Metal Gear 2? while deftly integrating several elements from the PS1 game into the mix. In deference to MGS's portable nature, the action is broken up into discrete stages�and while this does impose a linear feel, that's not necessarily a bad thing, since the open worlds of other Metal Gears usually just lead to annoying backtracking missions. (MGS4 adopted a similar structure, so clearly director Shinta Nojiri was onto something here.) Aside from a random puzzle level involving colored boxes and conveyer belts, the whole thing really does feel like a portable adaptation of the revolutionary 32-bit game. And all without relying on the obsessive self-referentialism of the canonical games!
If anything, MGS was a little too good. The Game Boy audience, accustomed to licensed drek and Pok�mon clones, had no idea what to make of the game. And Metal Gear fans scoffed at the notion of a mere Game Boy cartridge being a worthy successor to their cinematic masterpiece. As a result, sales flopped and the team went on to create the incredibly similar Boktai games, which also flopped. Now portable Metal Gear games are gimmicky distillations of the series' underlying concepts rather than faithful renditions of its core, which wouldn't necessarily be so disappointing if only Kojima's people hadn't so perfectly captured the essence of the core games with such alacrity in the cramped confines of an 8-bit console.
Chances are that we'll never see a true Metal Gear adventure on a portable system thanks to Kojima's obsession with running the best available hardware at its ragged edge of possibility; he's sort of the evil universe version of Game Boy creator Gumpei Yokoi, constantly straining technology as a means to push his own vision of what a game should be. Yet the two philosophies don't have to be irreconcilable, as this modest yet amazing rendition of Metal Gear Solid demonstrates. When the next clumsy Metal Gear portable card game arrives and hits wide of the mark, we'll revisit our Game Boy Colors and drink a toast to what could have been.