Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Essentials #32: Metal Gear Solid

When Konami's Metal Gear Solid arrived on the Sony PlayStation in 1998, my video game diet still consisted primarily of 2-D fighting games, with the occasional racing game or JRPG now and again. I considered myself an enthusiastic gamer, but I didn't go out of my way to follow the industry through magazines or websites, or even really discuss them outside of when I was playing them. So if Hideo Kojima's stealth action game was a big deal, I didn't know it.

I mean, I was vaguely familiar with the 8-bit Metal Gear. I had even briefly tried out the NES version, but, after getting helplessly mauled by the dogs at the beginning of the mission, I dismissed it as pretty terrible by the action game standards even of its time. Snake's Revenge was equally unremarkable. I certainly didn't recognize it as a series to be revered alongside other Konami staples like Castlevania and Contra, and I hadn't been waiting for a 32-bit revival. Yet, looking back now, if there were one single game that I would credit with having kept me playing video games to this day, it would have to be Metal Gear Solid.

I didn't purchase Metal Gear Solid on release day. I acquired it a year or two later, after already having played 989's Syphon Filter. In fact, I picked it up on sale precisely because I had heard, somewhere or other--the sentiment was common enough that it had trickled down to me without my having to conduct research--that Syphon Filter was actually a mediocre wannabe imitation of Metal Gear Solid. Given that I had already been enjoying the supposedly lesser title, I figured it was worth a look to see how much better the cinematic game could get, although I still don't think I would have bothered but for the Toys "R" Us coupon that allowed me to get it for five dollars off its already reduced Greatest Hits price. And thank goodness I did, because it was way better than Syphon Filter!

When Mario 64 added a third dimension to video games, I personally wasn't all that excited. I had tried the game, and, to me, it was still just running around and jumping on things, mostly just for the sake of jumping on things. The new dimension that I sought, though I hadn't realized it, was what Metal Gear Solid brought with its revelatory degree of immersion achieved through cutting-edge technology, spectacular art direction, and bold storytelling.

The density of this script and the level of detail of this world and these characters were as nothing I'd seen before. Final Fantasy had some gorgeous backgrounds, but they were always pre-rendered and static. Metal Gear Solid was all real-time, which allowed for dynamic camera work that felt truly cinematic. The voice acting, no longer a mere novelty, was of a much higher caliber than anything that had come before it. This was no Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Resident Evil. These were actual actors with notable voice credits to their names. Liquid Snake, voiced by Cam Clarke (AKA James Flinders), despite a blurry and expressionless face, possessed more screen presence than many Hollywood actors. This first would also be David Hayter's least exaggerated and consequently best performance as Solid Snake, at least until Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

The story was perhaps not a drama on par with the greatest in film. With weepy characters like Meryl and Otacon, it was really more melodrama, while the cadre of villainous freaks could only have existed as video game bosses. And, while this was all so new that I was still unsure how to critique the verbose dialogue, even then I found the consecutive speeches on the "selfish gene," the "asymmetry theory," and "Gulf War babies" to be a bit much. But what it lacked in finesse it made up in audacity and raw power. Syphon Filter, though a fine game, was not visionary. Its script read just like a movie, but not a great one. The bolder, more eccentric Metal Gear Solid, on the other hand, operated with a forceful conviction that expressed no intention to merely imitate any previous work of any medium. It felt like a blockbuster, but it was also fantastic in that Japanese video game way. How often, after all, did James Bond ever go up against cyborg ninjas or bipedal, nuclear-equipped tanks? And there was an anti-war story in there too, as well as something about the Human Genome Project, although, at the time, I just saw it as comic garnish to the action.

I think, even more than the real-time cinematics, what I most enjoyed was the Codec radio, which was quite unlike a movie, or any other game for that matter. These optional dialogues allowed the game a volume of personality normally reserved for epic-scale RPGs, but these weren't just random townspeople talking to you for no reason. The conversations between Snake and his support crew were often interesting, amusing, sometimes even a little touching. I often found myself spending over ten minutes doing nothing but listening to Codec dialogues.

Of course, back in those days, I valued Metal Gear's story and gameplay equally.

To my surprise, while I had been expecting some sort of gun-based action game, this was almost more of a puzzle game. The first thing I did was load up the VR training exercises, and I quickly gathered that Metal Gear Solid was based almost entirely around patterns. Upon entering any room, the first thing to do was to find a good spot to hide and observe the enemy movements and map layout. I would spot the holes and then make my move. It was not a game about pulling off precision headshots while evading fire. Beyond just skill with a gamepad, there was a level of thoughtfulness and strategy at work as I perceived solutions to these puzzle boards. And it was fun!

But the experience was at its very best when gameplay and cinematics merged. While the series is these days criticized for its non-interactivity, Metal Gear Solid was a game which truly allowed the player to live the action movie moments that no other video game could offer. Rappelling down the side of a building? Check. Taking out a helicopter with a missile launcher? Yep. And it all flowed effortlessly, never taking the player out of the experience, thanks to a perfectly balanced default difficulty level. The final vehicular chase sequence down that tunnel was, up to that point, the most exhilarating video game sequence I'd ever experienced. Yet, if it was possible, I was even more excited after it was over than I had been during it, because this game showed me a vision of the future of gaming that I had never before dreamed of.

Metal Gear Solid was the first title to evolve the video game experience from what I had known since I first started gaming. I look back now and wonder how things might have gone differently, had I never picked it up at Toys "R" Us that day. Considering the other games I was enjoying back then, would Street Fighter, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy really have kept me in the game? I think I would have still played Street Fighter now and then, but it wouldn't have been a year-round thing. I've already grown somewhat bored of Castlevania and Final Fantasy. No, Metal Gear Solid is not the best game I ever played, nor is it my favorite, but it may have been the most important in my development into the gamer I am today.

The Twin Snakes

In 2004, Konami released a Nintendo GameCube remake developed by Silicon Knights. Conceived jointly with Shigeru Miyamoto, the object was to introduce Kojima's classic to the Nintendo audience, in the process updating it for new technology with enhanced graphics and gameplay mechanics out of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The result was a mixed bag that most fans would not consider a canonical part of the series.

The ability to aim and shoot in first person made the game drastically easier and removed a lot of the thoughtfulness that went into sneaking. On the other hand, enhanced senses on the AI and the addition of radio men made some parts harder to slip through. With a few very subtle exceptions, the level designs were left the same as in the original, and, in that respect, Twin Snakes felt almost more like a port of a six-year-old game than a full-fledged remake for a new generation. Featuring much simpler layouts than in MGS2, most rooms were just boxes. It felt dated.

No less controversial were the redone audio and visuals.

The original PS1 voice recording sessions were conducted without the benefit of a sound-proof studio, and, with the better sound systems of 2004, all sorts of gnarly background noises became newly apparent in the old files, so Konami decided to bring the entire cast back to re-record all the voice acting for the mostly unchanged and still massive script. In the process, they also effected a few significant changes in the performances. For starters, Naomi and Mei Ling had their accents removed. I personally thought Naomi's English accent gave her a cold-blooded edge appropriate to the character, and I know a lot of players loved Mei Ling's wild Chinese accent, but, apparently, based on their backgrounds, those characters were never supposed to have had accents in the first place.

The ninja was re-cast entirely, with Rob Paulsen taking over for Greg Eagles, who would reprise his other role as the DARPA chief. If you grew up watching cartoons in the late 80s and early 90s, then you know Paulsen's voice. He is probably best known for having played Raphael on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but he was in practically every show, almost always playing the sarcastic characters. To say the least, his sardonic, even slightly shrill voice was an odd fit for a psychotic reborn ninja. Even though Paulsen is a professional, who can modify his delivery to suit a role, in this case, I found his voice just too recognizable to the point of distraction.

Konami and Silicon Knights also replaced all of the music, with the exception of Rika Muranaka's vocal theme, "The Best Is Yet To Come." The new stuff was not bad, but I can remember maybe two tracks off the original score, and none from Twin Snakes.

In terms of the visuals, the updated graphics were mostly a nice upgrade, and it was cool to see the old characters with actual faces on the polygonal models. That said, compared to the PS2 titles, there was something a little off about Snake's face. From an artistic standpoint, the Twin Snakes designs were neither better nor worse, nor even necessarily less faithful to Yoji Shinkawa's artwork, but it was another slightly distracting discrepancy next to the canonical Kojima games.

Most contentious were the redone cut scenes by Japanese film director Ryuhei Kitamura. The director of Versus and Azumi, Kitamura injected a lot of slick over-the-top action choreography. Some of it was cool, much of it was excessive, but, for me, the one inexcusable change was to the ending. In the original, Snake was pinned hopelessly under his jeep and would have been dog meat had not the FoxDie virus activated in Liquid right then. In Twin Snakes, Snake slithered easily out from under the vehicle and looked ready to go another few rounds. Liquid, battered and gasping for air, could barely lift his gun. Clearly, Snake had the upper hand, and, as a result, the FoxDie was rendered almost extraneous.

Whatever its flaws, I would say Twin Snakes is worth playing for any fan of the series. But I wouldn't consider it a suitable substitute for the experience of the original.

Metal Gear

While replaying the Solid titles again in preparation for the release of MGS4, I also took the opportunity to finally play through the 8-bit installments for the first time via the PS2 ports included on the second "Persistence" disc of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence.

To be sure, the original Metal Gear, first released in 1987 for the MSX2 home computer, was a dated product, but it was also surprisingly playable even over two decades later. In fact, besides Metal Gear Solid, it was the only Metal Gear that I actually had fun playing.

Gameplay was simple yet elegant. As in the PS1 game, you would enter a room, observe enemy patterns, and then slip through a perceived hole. This must have been an even more novel experience in 1987. During the course of Snake's first mission, you would also have to evade cameras, detonate plastic explosive, spot laser tripwires with infrared goggles, and don a cardboard box. I was especially surprised when I came upon a sequence that required me to use a remote-controlled missile launcher to take out the circuit box powering an electrified floor. When I did the same thing in Metal Gear Solid, it felt new and inventive. Who knew that Kojima was actually reusing an old trick from eleven years prior? It even had an early precursor to the Codec, although the feature was more often used for lame gags than to dispense useful advice, let alone story.

Indeed, aside from the fantastic twist at the end--the unexpected origin of the "Campbell flips out" moment in MGS2--there really was no story to the original Metal Gear, so, except for history's sake, I don't see much reason to play through it now. While the mechanics are easy to pick up, the game is still a chore due to tons of backtracking, heinous pitfalls and level design that's twisted, nonsensical, and maddeningly repetitive.

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake

More relevant to the plot of the series was the second installment, originally released in 1990 for the MSX2.

Although Metal Gear Solid essentially kicked off a new series, it was itself very much the sequel to Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which featured both Gray Fox and Big Boss prominently in a much more fleshed-out script than the first game possessed. Even Master Miller was there, and, to my surprise, the real thing was about as inane as the Liquid-with-shades version. No wonder Snake was fooled.

The version included in Subsistence, by the way, was actually a little more than a port. The character portraits in the original MSX2 version were all made to resemble real-life actors (and Albert Einstein). For the Subsistence version, those images were replaced with new Yoji Shinkawa artwork, and, while it was amusing to see Sean Connery as Big Boss, it was far cooler to see Shinkawa's rendition of Gray Fox's pre-ninja face.

Here we had the real roots of the trademark Metal Gear storytelling. Villains would subject Snake to long philosophical speeches about war, while allies would be spilling their life stories after having barely met you. Even four sequels later, it was strong stuff, and, for any fan of Metal Gear Solid, I would say that Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake is well worth experiencing, despite its often irritating gameplay.

In relation to its predecessor, I felt about this sequel very much as I felt about Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The fundamental design was the same as in the first game--you still progressed via an overhead perspective while trying to stay out of enemies' sights--but the formerly elegant experience was now muddied with all sorts of new complications.

featured the introduction of the radar, but there were no vision cones, and, as in the first game, enemies could spot Snake clear across the length of the screen. Moreover, the guards could now turn in eight directions, and I would almost always find myself foiled as I walked into a diagonal stare. Also, guard routes were much longer and could span multiple screens. Given their slowness and the radar's limited usefulness, I often didn't have the patience to wait and see where they were looking when. After a while, I gave up trying to play it straight and just ran like crazy, knowing that their bullets could not catch me, and the alarm would be silenced once I entered a new area. (That, by the way, is a reliable tactic throughout the series.) Still, there were some great moments, many of which were recreated in Metal Gear Solid. In one familiar mission, Snake would have to make an undercover female by stalking her to the ladies' room. And the "shape memory alloy" trick? Yep, Kojima first used it in 1990.

But I was personally more excited to experience the scenes that were actually referenced in the story of Metal Gear Solid. In that game, hearing Snake describe to Naomi how he fought Gray Fox hand-to-hand in a minefield, I was imagining the most hardcore fistfight of all time. When, years later, I finally arrived at that moment in MG2, and Gray Fox said to Snake, "I've been waiting for this," chills ran down my spine. But then the fight turned out to be totally lame! The mines, no threat at all to either man, only lined the edges of the small room. Meanwhile, Fox himself just ran in a circular perimeter around Snake. For the entire fight, I just stood in one place and punched Fox every time he passed by.

The fight against Big Boss, on the other hand, was superbly designed, absurdly conceived. Big Boss himself was the cyborg this time, and he was indeed tough. The only thing that could hurt his rebuilt body was a makeshift flamethrower that Snake would have to construct from components found during the fight. At the end, Big Boss would gasp, "It's not... over... yet..." But, actually, it was. And that part where Snake found out that Big Boss was his father? Never happened.

Possibly the most ridiculous moment in the entire series, however, was a boss fight against the Albert Einstein-esque scientist, who would grab Snake from behind and lock him in a chokehold. The only way to save Snake was to direct several remote-controlled missiles around into the old man's back. Why was Snake being overpowered by an old scientist? Why did it take multiple missiles direct to the body to take the mere human out? And why wouldn't Snake himself be killed in the explosions? Ah, 8-bit Metal Gear...

No comments: