For some odd reason, I never played any of the Metal Gear Solid games. I remember seeing it at my cousin’s house but never picked it up for some reason. I did purchase a couple of the action figures since I thought they looked really cool and would fit right in with the assorted X-men I had collected. With all of the excitement surrounding Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, it seemed a good a time as any to dip my toe into the pool. 

A week ago, Will sat me on the couch and handed me a controller for the express purpose of playing my first ever Metal Gear game. We watched the briefing segment first so I could get a feel for the tone of the game and so I wouldn’t be completely and utterly lost within Kojima’s tale of the cost of warfare and nuclear weapons.

Armed with knowledge and eager to tackle a stealth game, I plunged ahead.

And proceeded to suck.

“Press the action button.”

“What’s the action button, Will?”

“O. See? You’re crouching. What are you doing?! Don’t walk into the puddle!”

“How was I supposed to know that?!”

Alarms blared. Guards rushed in. I died. I attempted twice more with similar results before setting my controller down and looking at Will.

“So, how do I get to VR training?”

Opting to engage in the tutorial was the smartest thing I could have done. After completing challenge after challenge (with some difficulty on the snow section, I’ll freely admit) I felt I had sufficient sneaking under my belt to attempt the game once more. I was swiftly punished for my hubris.

The first half hour of gameplay was spent obtaining rations, alerting the guards, failing to lose the guards, and getting shot. This, of course, was hilarious to Will, who found endless delight in my absurd escape attempts.

Eventually, I reached the elevator and the end of the longest credits sequence in recorded history. The Colonel proceeded to comment on my obvious lack of sneaking ability and a fire was lit. I wanted to do better, to master the game even if it meant restarting every time I failed. Aloud, it sounds insane and tedious but the minute that Snake emerged from the water and I first began my clumsy attempts at a sneaking mission I was having fun.

“Fun” isn’t something that’s easy to quantify. What’s fun for one person may not be so for another. However, with Metal Gear’s popularity, Kojima clearly stumbled upon something. As I crawled my way through Shadow Moses Island, it dawned on me how modern MGS feels. For a game created in the 90s, it’s held up excellently. Not just in terms of gameplay, the themes, voice acting, and levels feel as though they could have come from a contemporary game.

At its core, MGS is simplistic in terms of controls and systems. Without items or weapons, Snake has few options available to him. He has basic melee capabilities and can knock a guard out or break his neck if he sneaks up on him from behind. Even his sneaking capabilities are simplistic in nature. He can crouch but he has to slowly crawl on his belly if he wants to go anywhere.

Items give Snake a few more options. Chaff grenades disable electronics and are indispensable for navigating certain areas and boss fights. Thermal and night vision goggles are essential for seeing mines and getting through the wolf cave in the middle of the game. And let us not forget the most important item of all, a giver of life, resurrector of the dead: the ration. Items are indispensable, vital in some cases. A large part of the game revolves around managing and obtaining equipment, especially when a boss fight is imminent.

Metal Gear’s design really shines when it comes to the bosses. Each is unique and demands a certain trick or strategy that won’t be repeated at any point in the game. As a result, each fight is exciting even though the player may be forced to attempt it numerous times. Each failure is a teaching tool. You may find one strategy works better than what you were attempting before and then you reach a new phase of the fight where the boss’s behavior changes. Through this series of failures and successes you feel yourself becoming a better player. It’s all the more rewarding when you finally conquer a boss, your victory has been earned, not handed to you on a silver platter.

All in all, MGS has solid game mechanics that embraces simplicity that belies the complexity woven beneath. It is a textbook example of how to make a fun and engaging game. However, there is another aspect that sets Metal Gear apart and elevates it into something unique: it breaks the 4th wall.

One time when I called Mei Ling she said I should be happy that I have free time to play a game and Master Miller commented that I should trust my instincts as a gamer. The only way to learn Meryl’s codec number is to look on the back of the game’s CD case, as the Colonel tells you in-game.

The experience that stands out as truly 4th wall breaking is the Psycho Mantis fight. Mantis “reads your past” and says how well or how badly you’ve been doing in the game. Not only that, but he also reads your memory card and will comment if you’ve played another Konami game. Finally, he addresses the player, telling them to put the controller down, that he will show you his true power and make the controller move (thank you, rumble feature). The entire fight is one long troll-fest. You have to switch your controller to the second player slot so he can’t “read your mind.” Little “glitches” also appear. A couple times during the fight, the screen will go black and a large, green HIDEO will appear in the corner of the TV before control returns. Once he is finally defeated, Mantis whispers, “It was in the second—“

Unlike 99% of games, MGS acknowledges its medium and the player on more than one occasion. It’s so rare to have a game do this that it makes the experience more personable. With most other games, you are a silent, unseen puppet master guiding a digital avatar through a series of challenges, never once mentioned or observed. Metal Gear will remember what you do and how you perform actually has a bearing on the game.

This last thought is something game designers have been chasing forever. As technology advances designers are often left struggling with the design dilemma of creating a good game while also having player actions matter in some way. Implementation of these ideas are difficult and sometimes make the player feel like they don’t even matter if it’s done poorly. Well, MGS did it successfully. In the nineties.

Perhaps the reason why Metal Gear Solid has aged so well is because it wasn’t afraid to try something a little different. It didn’t need a million different button combinations unlike some newer games, it embraced the limitations before it and then created a system that used the mechanics to the best of its ability. It was difficult, punishing at times, but ultimately a rewarding experience that made the player ache to sneak more and become better. Kojima did something brilliant, something a lot of games are still trying to emulate today. He made us matter.

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#1 AngelsandDemons 2015-11-05 23:32
Reading your description of the Psycho Mantis fight makes me realize what a revolutionary fight that was for its time. I always wonder about the editing process of Hideo's games after that point as MGS was a relatively tight and complete experience, crazy dialogue and conspiracy aside; but, each sequel became further and further off the rails....

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