Retrospectives – Metal Gear Solid series part 1

Because this is a discussion of the game series there will be significant spoilers. Read and weep.

I have a strange relationship with MGS. If you take away a few enhanced releases, I have played (or am playing) just about everything MGS related, from the mainline trilogy to Twin Snakes and even the Game Boy Color game. Something tells me I’ll have finished MGS4 within four months of release, even if I have no PS3. I seem to be an absolute whore for Kojima. And yet, I’m not sure I entirely love MGS. In fact, I know I don’t.

The only game in the series that I would consider truly brilliant is 3. The rest may simply be problematic postmodern experiments. Everyone heaps praise upon the stories and storytelling present in MGS, yet it seems to me to be mostly anime fueled sci-fi schlock. Everyone is in love with Hideo Kojima’s role as gaming’s conflicted auteur, but other whispers in the game industry paint him as an egomaniac with more bark than talent.

So why do I keep coming back to this series? The easy (and less important) reason is familiarity. When I play Metal Gear Solid, I know many of the things I am getting. Insane but satisfying boss battles. A fine mix of stealth and action that is always both tense and fair. I know there will be cardboard boxes, laser tripwires and a healthy dose of black humor. I know when I begin an MGS game, I’m taking part in an event that starts with lots of tense melodrama and ends with fighting a giant robot. Whatever the game, I know I can jump right in and feel at home.

Yet in another way this familiarity is a lie. While MGS has played just about the same way since the beginning, the series as a whole is full of surprises. Every time you think you have it figured out, the next game does something different. No sequel is a reinvention of the wheel, but each one will have something to throw off even veteran players.

In a way, I suppose MGS has much in common with Final Fantasy, both being storied franchises that mix old archetypes with new game mechanics. In reality I think they are completely different. Final Fantasy limits itself through its tropes. Having a different magic system means a lot less when you’re still trying to kill Bombs with an ice spell. It is entirely too timid to invoke change. When Square tried to remove ATB combat, the change didn’t stick for long (see FFX and then FFX-2).

Meanwhile, Metal Gear Solid can be a cruel son of a bitch. It will pull the main character away from you just to prove a point. It will make you think you’re playing a stealth game when you are really not. Even something as straightforward as fighting a giant robot plays out differently from what you might expect. These games let you become familiar without being entirely comfortable. This is what keeps me playing time after time. I want to master each game, and every time I think I have, Kojima comes around with a new MGS and kicks me on my ass. Half the time I don’t know if the silly shit in each game is being done with a wink and a nod, or if he actually believes this is the future of gaming. I don’t understand the games or the man behind them the way I would like to. So I keep playing, hoping maybe, just maybe, this time the pieces will fall into place. They never do, and I am left with new things to ponder about games and the people who play them.

I wish MGS weren’t this complicated. Maybe it really isn’t. All I know is that Kojima was able to reveal Beauty and the Beast, and somehow the entire industry wasn’t scratching its collective head. Maybe we all feel that there is more to it than what we’ve seen. We may not like it, we may not immediately understand it, but we know there is no way Kojima is going to mix the tired MGS boss blueprint with Japanese idols and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and call it a day.

Or will he?

This man is either gaming’s gift, a film director in the wrong job, or a great salesman of snake oil. Either we’re all along for the ride, or we’ve all been duped into worshiping pure schlock.

With all of this in mind, I hope to take a closer look at the entirety of Metal Gear Solid, from its “rebirth” on the Playstation to its great leaps into the world of multiplayer. If you want to follow along, just call me by Codec. The frequency is on the back of the website.

Metal Gear Solid

It goes without saying that if you cram something down people’s throats for long enough, they are bound to fight back eventually. This may or may not be the case with gamers and the year 1998. Almost ten years later, there have been countless retrospectives, featurettes and discussions about 1998 and its games. When the guys who spout uncited game rumors as fact start to lecture you on 1998, you know it is anything but a well kept secret. In 2007, I think we all know how influential Half Life, Starcraft, and Ocarina of Time were. In fact, we know so well that many of us are starting to doubt these games. Nowadays we are less likely to trade fond memories of Zelda than we are to try and convince each other that it “kind of sucked”.

There are a few explanations as to what is going on here. The most obvious one is that the games of 1998 really were good for their time, but have inspired and been imitated by so many games since then that they seem primitive to the modern eye. But this line of thinking makes me question their greatness. Isn’t a truly great game supposed to be timeless? Sometimes they seem anything but. Perhaps they really were flawed, but since they were still so new, and our were minds so much younger, they were able to impress us much more than they should have, and those who are still in love today are under the effects of nostalgia. It certainly seems plausible. After all, when people tell me that I need to get over Half Life, I tell them they’re full of it, but I still won’t hesitate to tell them that FF7 wasn’t even good for its time. None of us wants to destroy our favorites, but when we all disagree, we can’t all be right.

This confusion about the era makes it all the more difficult to discuss Metal Gear Solid. At the time we were all blown away by the game, but in recent years I have been far less certain about its quality. I do believe that MGS is a less clear cut case than other games from ’98. There are enough examples of games that have been clearly inspired by Half Life, OoT and Starcraft. More and more, MGS’ seems the result of the circumstances of the time as much as anything, and its impact on the industry is less than blatant.

Continue to part 2.

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16 years ago

Maybe part of why you keep coming back to Metal Gear is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. Each game is like a fascinating grab bag of cool extras and weird head scratching changeups. Kojima’s essential allure, to me, is his ability to always surprise me and his willingness to put enough work into the minutia of side projects in his games that much more often than not they don’t feel like slapped together garbage.

To continue the final fantasy/metal gear comparisons in the article, MGS always tries its hardest to shake things up, while FF just seems to be putting in the effort to get by. Many times throughout the course of any recent final fantasy game (and practically all the time in FFX-2) the player is confronted with a throwaway, one off minigame/puzzle as a change of pace. These are almost invariably thoughtless, boring and horrible – guessing the combination for the materia on the rocket ship in FF7, killing the right sequence of enemies on the space station in FF8, dodging lightning in FF10, etc. They are in the game (I’m guessing) to add a little spark and give the player something unique to do for a while. Unfortunately, it’s usually very clear that almost no effort was put into their creation. It’s hard to believe anyone respected the painfully stupid “adjust the lightning towers” minigame in FFX-2 enough to devote more than a cursory effort to it’s creation.

Metal Gear, on the other hand, seems to brim over with unique and lovingly crafted components. One minute your guiding some punk kid through the terrifying flooded depths, the next minute your mowing people down with a sniper rifle. Or fighting a harrier jet, I forget which comes first. And it all feels like it was somebody’s baby, like some team off people gave all they had to make sure guiding Emma through the ruptured segments of the Big Shell feels as otherworldly, desperate and heroic as it should feel.
It isn’t just the main game that shines with a coat of many colors brilliance, even the easter eggs feel like someone cared. Nobody had to make an upgradeable hanging mechanic for MGS2, and certainly nobody could have expected loads of unique dialog and unique hud assets to go along with it. That I know that I can go to the trouble of getting a dog to pee on a carboard box so it won’t bother me anymore, or strap a ridiculous piece of cardboard to my face (in real life) and watch bikini models slink around for no reason, or kill The End before I even meet him or any one of the myriad other unnecessary bonuses that fill up a MGS game is enough to get me giddy wondering what I’ll be doing in the next one.

I guess what I’m saying is that what sets Kojima apart is his earnest desire want to make an immersive, entertaining experience. He wants to make sure the player is always interested and involved, never quite knowing what they’ll be doing next. Maybe some of the things he tries fall flat, but it’s a pleasure to boot up a Metal Gear game knowing you’re in for a wild ride and the team that designed it was never just going through the motions.

Anyway, good article, and I’m looking forward to the retrospective series


[…] Continued from part 1. […]