Welcome back to the Metal Gear retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the third, and arguably most popular, game in the franchise, 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. This game often ends up in the top 5 in “Greatest Games of All Time” lists. Does it still retain its legendary status more than 17 years since its initial release? Read on to find out…
(Note, I have beaten this game once on an emulator in 2007 or 2008 and have experimented with a PS1 copy of it a few times on PS2/PS3. For this playthrough, I decided to try the game out on PS Vita. It played very closely to the PS1 version with no real detriments. The lack of L2/R2 buttons required a bit of experimenting, but I ended up remapping them to the right analog stick with considerable success. If you play the game on Vita, I’d recommend keeping it on digital mode, mapping movement to the D-pad and left analog stick and then mapping L2/R2 to the right analog stick, as this is a very intuitive solution and considerably better than using the awful touch controls.)
Following the completion of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake in 1990, Hideo Kojima moved on to other projects. While he did have plans of putting out a third game on the 3DO in 1994, he instead worked on his own original IP, Policenauts, which would further develop his talents as a director and storyteller. Policenauts is also notable for having a number of references to the Metal Gear series, and actually marked the first appearance of Meryl Silverburgh, who would later be carried over into Metal Gear Solid. By the time that Policenauts was completed in 1995, Kojima was looking into another Metal Gear for the 3DO, but the console was in a decline. As a result, development shifted onto the original PlayStation.
Given how much time had passed since the last Metal Gear release, and not to mention that there were two different continuities depending on the region where each game was played, Kojima decided to give the series a very “soft” reboot and titled the game Metal Gear Solid, retaining the events from the previous games, but not requiring a knowledge of them to be appreciated.
The developers tried to make the game as accurate as possible, utilizing SWAT team members as advisers. The game’s artists also put a lot of effort into small details within the environment with the aim of making the experience as authentic as possible. Levels were also occasionally designed using Lego pieces to conceptualize the game’s spaces. Kojima also wanted to have persistent bodies that would have to be hidden by the player and a dynamically-altered soundtrack. These ambitions were unachievable on the PS1 hardware, but would become possible in subsequent games in the franchise.
Following its initial release in 1998, Metal Gear Solid also received a number of re-releases and a remake. In 1999, a re-release called Metal Gear Solid: Integral was released in Japan with some slight improvements to the game which had been missing from the original Japanese release, but present in the North American version of the game (such as different difficulty levels and the first person camera). The game also packed in a series of simulated gameplay challenges that would be repackaged in international markets as Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions. A remake was also released in 2004 called Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. The game was developed by Silicon Knights and exclusive to the Gamecube. The Twin Snakes‘ gameplay was updated to match Sons of Liberty, and featured re-recorded dialogue and altered cutscenes. As a result of the changes to the original game, including some major tonal dissonance and gameplay-breaking elements, this remake was not particularly liked amongst fans of the series. The game also received one more “pseudo-remake” in the form of the Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel, which is essentially an interactive retelling of the game.
6 years after the Zanzibar Land Uprising, Snake is forcibly called out of retirement once again to infiltrate a secret Alaskan nuclear disposal site called Shadow Moses island. The island has been captured by rebels from the FOXHOUND unit, who take the island’s staff hostage and threaten to launch a nuclear strike if their demands aren’t met. Under the command of Colonel Campbell and receiving support from chief medic Naomi Hunter, local advisor Master Miller, data analyst Mei Ling and military analyst Nastasha Romanenko, Solid Snake is sent in to perform a solo infiltration to save the two high-priority captives, the DARPA Chief Donald Anderson and ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker, and to assess and stop the terrorists from launching a nuclear strike.
Snake infiltrates the island via sea and then makes his way into the base after overhearing the location of the DARPA Chief. Snake makes contact with Anderson, who informs him that the terrorists have captured an experimental Metal Gear, codenamed REX, from the US government. He warns that Metal Gear requires two launch codes to activate, and that the terrorists have already acquired his code via Psycho Mantis’ mind reading powers. However, Anderson reveals that REX can be deactivated with a series of three PAL cards. Before Snake can extract the DARPA Chief, he suddenly begins to convulse and dies of a heart attack. Snake finds this extremely suspicious, but before he can really react, he is released from Anderson’s cell by Meryl Silverburgh, Colonel Campbell’s niece who has acquired an enemy uniform to disguise herself. Snake and Meryl are attacked by enemy Genome Soldiers, but they manage to fight their way through them. As soon as they are defeated, Meryl escapes and runs further into the base using her disguise.
Using the intel provided by Anderson before he died, Snake locates Kenneth Baker. However, he inadvertently stumbles into a trap planted by Revolver Ocelot, who has surrounded Baker with C4 charges. Snake and Ocelot battle, but their fight is interrupted by a mysterious cyborg ninja, who slices Ocelot’s hand off and sets off the C4 trap. Ocelot and the ninja flee as Snake secures Kenneth Baker. Baker reveals that he gave up his launch code under torture, but mentions that he gave the PAL override keys to Meryl. He also gives Snake an optical disc containing data for Metal Gear REX and tells him to make contact with the lead scientist on the project, Dr. Hal Emmerich. Before he can be evacuated, Baker also dies of a heart attack, screaming in rage that the “Pentagon betrayed him” before he succumbs. Now incredibly suspicious about the way that the mission is unfolding, Snake becomes furious at Campbell for keeping secrets from him, but continues to press onwards regardless.
After making contact with Meryl via codec, Snake begins heading towards Dr. Emmerich’s lab. He is contacted by a mysterious stranger calling himself “Deepthroat” who warns Snake of mines and a tank ahead of him piloted by FOXHOUND’s Vulcan Raven. Thanks to the tip, Snake is able to make his way through the mines and defeat the tank before moving on to Emmerich’s lab. As he heads into the lab, he finds the eviscerated bodies of Genome Soldiers and confronts the cyborg ninja once again as he corners Emmerich. Snake and the ninja clash, but the ninja flees after making a number of familiar statements to Snake. Shocked, Snake realizes that the ninja is Gray Fox, his old comrade whom he had killed 6 years earlier in Zanzibar Land. Naomi confirms this, revealing that Gray Fox had been resurrected and used as a test subject in gene therapy, the results of which were used to create the Genome Soldiers. With Gray Fox gone, Snake secures Emmerich, who refers to himself as “Otacon”. Otacon reveals that he had no idea that REX was meant to be capable of launching nuclear strikes, as its weapons were handled by a separate department. He is saddened that his work was being abused to perpetuate nuclear weaponry, and promises Snake to support him to stop the launch.
Snake then finds Meryl to acquire the PAL override keys, but discovers that she only has 1 key card. Frustrated, the pair begin heading towards REX’s hangar. However, they are quickly ambushed by Psycho Mantis, who uses his psychic powers to take control of Meryl and to fool Snake. Luckily, Snake is able to overcome Mantis’ powers, defeating him and saving Meryl in the process. A dying Mantis tells Snake and Meryl about all the evils that he had committed and explains that he found Snake interesting because they both shared a love for killing. With Mantis dead, Snake and Meryl proceed onwards through the Communication Towers. However, they are ambushed again, this time by Sniper Wolf, who shoots Meryl multiple times, using her as bait to lure Snake out of cover. Distraught, Snake hurries back to the armoury to get a sniper rifle, but when he returns, Meryl is gone. He battles Sniper Wolf and defeats her, but when he attempts to interrogate her, Sniper Wolf and a squad of Genome Soldiers take Snake captive.
Snake is then brought to Ocelot, who steals the optical disc that Baker had given to Snake earlier. He then tortures Snake, threatening to kill Meryl is he gives in. Snake endures the torture and then is taken to a holding cell. In the cell, he finds the DARPA Chief’s corpse, but is surprised to see that he appears to have been dead for days and that his blood has been drained out. Eventually, Octacon arrives using stealth camouflage and gives Snake some rations and ketchup. He begs Snake not to kill Sniper Wolf, as he has become very infatuated with her and believes that she is a good person. Snake makes no promises, and uses the ketchup to fool the guard into thinking that he is dead, giving him a chance to break free and escape.
After reacquiring his equipment, Snake heads back to the Communication Towers, where he is attacked by Liquid Snake in a Hind D. After making his way to the second tower, Snake shoots the Hind down using a Stinger Missile Launcher, seemingly killing Liquid. On how way back down from the second tower, Snake is ambushed in an elevator by a squad of four Genome Soldiers with stealth camouflage, but he manages to defeat them after a warning from Otacon. However, when he exits the tower, he is confronted by Sniper Wolf for a second time. He pair fight, and Snake leaves her mortally wounded. Sniper Wolf relates her harsh upbringing and her history with Big Boss, before coming to the realization that all she has ever wanted was for someone to kill her. As Otacon watches on with tears in his eyes, Snake finishes Sniper Wolf. Distraught, Otacon draws upon some unknown resolve and promises to help Snake however he can.
Heading down towards REX’s hangar, Snake is confronted once again by Vulcan Raven, who is now armed with a minigun. Utilizing stealth tactics against Vulcan Raven’s brute force, Snake manages to overcome his foe. Feeling charitable in his death throes, Vulcan Raven reveals that the man who Snake confronted in the DARPA Chief’s cell was actually Decoy Octopus and that the real Donald Anderson was the corpse in the cell when Snake was tortured. Snake tries to press Vulcan Raven for more information, but he refuses and dies. Master Miller also informs Snake that Naomi has been lying to them all, after analyzing some inconsistent statements she had made earlier about her past. Miller insists that Naomi be arrested, as she could be spying for the terrorists and could compromise the mission, and Campbell obeys.
Snake makes his way into REX’s hangar, where Otacon reveals that REX’s railgun has been designed as a stealth weapon – when fired, nuclear missiles won’t require rocket propulsion, rendering them invisible to radar. With the US and Russian governments in disarmament talks during the terrorist takeover, discovery of a project such as REX would create a massive international incident and leave the president in disgrace. Otacon also informs him that there’s a trick to the PAL key – it changes shape in different temperatures, effectively giving it the versatility of three cards in one. Snake also overhears Liquid (who somehow survived the Hind crash) and Ocelot discussing their plans. They have set the strike target as Lop Nor, China, since this is a nuclear test site. This will mean that the governments can try to cover up the strike and that FOXHOUND can continue their negotiations, but that the US government will inevitably be forced to give up state secrets in order to explain what happened and avoid war. At that point, Liquid and Ocelot would be able to sell Metal Gear REX to other governments around the world. They also reveal that they have changed their demands. In addition to $1 billion and Big Boss’s DNA, they have also demanded a vaccine for a disease called FOXDIE. With these demands, Liquid would join forces with a Russian officer named Sergei Gurlukovich and turn Shadow Moses into Outer Heaven, fulfilling Big Boss’s dream of a world where soldiers always have a place.
Snake begins inputting the PAL keys after getting them to the proper temperature to change their shapes. In the process, he is secretly contacted by Naomi, who informs him that she is the adopted sister of Frank Jaeger, aka Gray Fox, who took her in during the Rhodesian Civil War. After Snake killed Gray Fox in the Zanzibar Land uprising, Naomi joined FOXHOUND in hopes of getting her revenge. She reveals that Snake has been injected with FOXDIE, an engineered virus which targets specific genetic codes and then kills them with a heart attack. He had been originally injected with it to kill off the FOXHOUND soldiers and Kenneth Baker, but Naomi had modified it so that it would kill Snake as well. However, she reveals that she regrets this action and admits that she no longer feels hatred towards Snake before Campbell discovers Naomi’s codec and cuts off her transmission. Furious at Campbell for keeping this information from him, Snake tells him that he has been betrayed and used.
After inputting all three PAL keys, Snake discovers that he has unintentionally activated Metal Gear REX, rather than deactivating it. Master Miller contacts Snake, revealing that he was actually Liquid Snake in disguise, and that Master Miller was killed days ago. He reveals that Donald Anderson died before he could give up his launch code, and that the terrorists had been trying to get Snake to locate the PAL keys and figure out how to use them himself, while tricking him into thinking that this would stop Metal Gear from launching. Liquid reveals that the Pentagon is trying to cover up everything at Shadow Moses – they want to recover REX and the bodies of the Genome Soldiers and will eliminate everyone involved in the operation to keep this disgrace from getting out. Finally, Liquid also reveals that he and Snake are brothers, of sorts. They are both the products of the “Les Enfants Terrible” project, which had attempted to clone Big Boss and create his successor. Liquid is jealous of Snake because he received Big Boss’s recessive genes, whereas Snake possesses the dominant genes.
Liquid then climbs inside of REX and battles Snake. Otacon informs Snake to shoot REX’s sensory radome in order to expose the pilot. Snake does so, firing stinger missiles at the radome, but with little effect. However, Gray Fox appears and begins attacking REX with Snake. He tells Snake that the reason he adopted Naomi was because he had killed her parents and felt guilt for his actions. He destroys REX’s radome, but is severely wounded in the battle, losing an arm. REX crushes Gray Fox under its foot and then turns its attention back to Snake. With the cockpit now exposed due to the destroyed radome, Snake begins firing at Liquid until REX begins to explode and is deactivated, knocking Snake unconscious. He wakes up on top of REX with Liquid watching over him. Liquid reveals that the Genome Soldiers are genetic brothers of theirs, as they have been treated with Big Boss’s genes. Liquid believes that he is obeying the “will” of his genes and that he will surpass Big Boss and his inferior heritage by killing Snake. He draws Snake’s attention to Meryl’s unconscious body and warns him that they are nearly out of time – with REX destroyed, the Pentagon would surely attempt damage control and will nuke Shadow Moses to keep any knowledge of the operation from leaking out. Campbell confirms this information, and explains that Meryl had been transferred to Shadow Moses in order to blackmail him into obedience during the operation. He asks for Snake’s forgiveness for lying to him throughout the operation and promises to delay the bombers long enough for Snake and Meryl to escape. However, their transmission is then interrupted by the Secretary of Defence, Jim Houseman, who assures them that bombers are inbound and expresses regret at the DARPA Chief’s death.
With time running short, Liquid and Snake fight once again, this time precariously poised atop REX and with only their fists. Snake eventually prevails, forcing Liquid to fall off of the side of REX. Snake then resuscitates Meryl and the pair hurry to make their escape as the bombers begin to strike Shadow Moses. Otacon offers to stay behind and open up security doors as Snake and Meryl drive a jeep through a supply tunnel. The pair break through a few enemy checkpoints before they are pursued by Liquid once again, who pursues them in a jeep. As they reach the end of the tunnel, the two jeeps crash and Liquid approaches the now-unarmed Snake and Meryl. However, before he can pull the trigger, Liquid succumbs to FOXDIE. Snake takes this as a sign that he is going to die now as well, since he and Liquid are clones and FOXDIE targets specific genes.
The pair then notice that the bombers have stopped their bombardment. Campbell calls and informs them that Houseman has been arrested and that the President has called off the bombers. Campbell informs them that Snake, Meryl and Otacon are now considered “dead” and are free to leave. Snake contacts Naomi and asks when he can expect to succumb to FOXDIE, but she tells him not to worry and to live his life as best he can. Snake and Meryl then ride off together into the Alaskan sunset.
In the game’s post-credits sequence, Revolver Ocelot reports the events of the operation of the President of the United States, revealing that he was acting as a double agent to recover Metal Gear REX’s launch data. He also reveals that the death of the DARPA Chief wasn’t an accident, because the chief recognized Ocelot and had discerned his true motives. He also reveals that Snake was actually the inferior clone, and that the President is the perfect clone of Big Boss – Solidus Snake.
GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
Despite being released 8 years later, Metal Gear Solid plays very similarly to Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. The two main design differences are the shift to 3D and the addition of voice acting and more cinematic elements. That said, these two additions make Metal Gear Solid feel like an enormous leap forward, even if the core gameplay is basically just a refinement on Solid Snake. Shifting to 3D opens up some much-needed improvements to the core gameplay. For example, while Metal Gear Solid still utilizes card keys to gate off sections of the game, they have been made so much more convenient than in previous Metal Gear games. Doors actually display which key card is required to open them, you only carry one key card on you now which constantly upgrades its security clearance (similar to the red/blue/green cards from Solid Snake) and are more conveniently-placed. This last point is in part due to the fact that backtracking is much less prevalent than it was in previous Metal Gear games. In total, you have to backtrack to the start of the game once to acquire a PSG1 sniper rifle for the fight with Sniper Wolf, and then you also get forced here again for the torture sequence. The end of the game also requires that you backtrack through Metal Gear REX’s hangar about 4 times, but these are thankfully relatively short and easy sequences. It is also nice that these backtracking sequences are kept fresh by adding new enemies and obstacles that weren’t there the first time you were there, such as new guards or gun cameras. Interestingly enough, the reliance on key cards and backtracking are easily two of the biggest problems with the game. However, playing through Metal Gear and Solid Snake has given me an appreciation for just how much of an improvement these systems are in Metal Gear Solid and has allowed me to be much more forgiving, although I do remember disliking these design elements the first time I played the game.
Metal Gear Solid also introduces some other gameplay refinements which are much more universally accepted. Probably the best of these is the new shooting mechanics, which finally allow for 360 degree targeting with a lock-on system when enemies get close. The previous two Metal Gear games were artificially made so much more difficult when Snake could only fire in 4 axis, so being able to shoot in any direction opens things up quite a bit and makes encounters much less frustrating to deal with. The game also introduces some new close combat mechanics. Punches no longer kill enemies, and instead knock them out for a couple seconds after you hit them about 5 times. The game also introduces chokeholds, which allow you to kidnap enemies and then snap their necks, and throws, which let you knock over an enemy when they’re facing you. While this expanded arsenal is nice, the unreliability of chokeholds and the minimal effectiveness of punches mean that shooting is a much more reliable method to get through enemies, especially once you acquire the silencer. This is held somewhat in check by end-game ratings which encourage non-lethal gameplay, but the gameplay definitely incentivizes silenced shooting rather than close quarters takedowns.
Also worth noting is that Metal Gear Solid has a much more intuitive design philosophy than previous games in the franchise. Finding your way from place-to-place is quite simple and every location has a very distinct art style and purpose which keeps it memorable. For example, when I discovered that I had to find a hot and a cold room to change the PAL key, I knew exactly what I had to do to accomplish this feat without having to be told how to. This might not seem like a big deal, but Solid Snake had a similar requirement which I found significantly more challenging because I couldn’t for the life of me remember where the hell the hot and cold rooms were. That said, if you do ever get lost, a quick Codec call to Campbell or another support team member is sure to help. The Codec acts as a really great way to get hints without requiring literal arrows pointing you in the direction you need to go. As a result, Metal Gear Solid is a very easy game to pick up and play without requiring a guide (again, unlike Metal Gear or Solid Snake).
As I said previously, the adoption of cinematic elements is one major feature of Metal Gear Solid which really makes it stand out. From the opening moments of the game, it becomes apparent that the direction and cinematography of the cutscenes is top notch. The very deliberate camera angles and neat little tricks that they pull off really make the game’s production values soar through the roof. The game does often feel like you’re involved in a playable movie, and the addition of voice acting really helps in this regard. The voice acting in the game is quite… er… “solid”. Even if the writing can be rather awkward at times, the sincerity of the performances helps overcome this.
With the addition of cutscenes and the emphasis on story elements, Metal Gear Solid‘s design shifts from being primarily gameplay-based to more of an equal balance between story and gameplay. The cutscenes* can be lengthy at times (with one near the end of the game probably clocking in around 20 minutes), but they contextualize the gameplay and make accomplishing your objectives more emotionally satisfying. While Solid Snake clocked in around 6 hours of almost 100% pure gameplay, I finished Metal Gear Solid in 9 leisurely hours (not including continues), which are largely padded out with numerous cutscenes and codec calls. Without these non-playable bits, the game is probably closer to 6 hours long, with speedrunners being known to complete it in just over an hour. That said, I quite like the balance they were able to achieve between gameplay and cutscenes – non-fans might find them off-putting or overly long, but as someone who has played through the entire franchise multiple times, it was refreshing to go back to Metal Gear Solid and see how well balanced the cutscene-to-gameplay ratio was.
The game’s visual style also plays into its cinematic ambitions. It’s quite interesting that nearly every cutscene has been pre-rendered using the in-game engine (with the exception of a handful of live action FMVs during exposition moments). For a game this old, this could have definitely been a detriment if the character models weren’t detailed enough or were animated poorly, but luckily the graphics complement the game’s style quite well. Despite the limited textures and polygon count, the game’s character models do a good job of illustrating a character features to such a point that your imagination is able to fill in the details without actually having the ability to display those details directly. The one big exception to this is during the second battle with Sniper Wolf – this showdown is clearly intended to be occurring in a raging blizzard, but the hardware is just too inadequate to actually render anything more than a light snowfall. For the rest of the game though, Kojima and his development team really do a masterful job of making the most of their hardware and wringing out every ounce of power to create an effective setting.
Similarly to Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid has a really strong visual aesthetic. The colour palette is largely made up of blues, greens, whites, greys and blacks, lending it an extremely cold aesthetic which is clearly meant to invoke the harsh Alaskan environment. It’s actually quite striking, beautiful and distinctive, which makes it stand in sharp contrast to many modern games of this sort which have adopted the “default” blockbuster colour grading of orange and blue.
It’s also worth noting that Metal Gear Solid is extremely unique within the franchise for containing a player-determinant ending. If the player submits during Ocelot’s torture, then Meryl dies in the end and the game takes on a much more melancholy tone. If you don’t submit, then the game takes on a more hopeful tone as Snake attempts to atone for his life’s mistakes and find love. It’s a really unique mechanic which was never really repeated again during the franchise (with the possible exception of some much more minor story elements in The Phantom Pain 17 years later).
While the shift to 3D resulted in some major refinements, it did bring with it the game’s one critical flaw. In the first 2 Metal Gear games, the “screen” system meant that you always knew where enemies were and whether you could be detected as the screen gave you a very wide view to orient yourself within it. However, in Metal Gear Solid, there screen system is completely removed and Snake moves around in a full-rendered area. This is a great improvement in general, but it becomes a problem in execution, as the game features an absolutely wretched camera system. Honestly, I made six separate notes when playing about how much the camera was pissing me off, which is a pretty damning indictment. Like the previous games, Metal Gear Solid utilizes a top-down camera, but it is centered far too close to Snake, making sneaking difficult and generous usage of the Soliton Radar System and first person mode mandatory in order to avoid combat. Even then, the camera is so close to Snake that enemies can see him from off-screen and you’re very rarely going to be shooting at enemies that you can actually see.
Of course, things just get worse when you set off an alert. Like previous games in the franchise, Metal Gear Solid features instant alerts when spotted which jam your radar, but the camera makes these so much worse to deal with. At least you could see the whole screen in Solid Snake and could deal with enemies with the appropriate knowledge. In Metal Gear Solid you can’t tell if enemies are approaching without leaning against an object or by going into first person mode, and if you get spotted again then you’re not even going to know where they are because they will do so off-screen. Making things worse, in some areas running around causes the orientation of the camera to lag a little behind Snake, meaning that you’re going to have even less time to react to enemies in front of you as even less of the screen shows enemies ahead of you. This all means that getting out of alerts can be a massive pain in the ass as you gun down anyone nearby and just try to find somewhere to hide when no one’s looking. The fact that the Japanese original release didn’t feature first person mode and that any difficulty beyond normal removes the radar is just baffling to me. The game is clearly balanced around having the radar and without it you’re basically just being masochistic.
That’s not the end of the camera woes though. The game also sometimes changes the camera angle into a more cinematic view, sort of like the system employed by the PS1 Resident Evil games. The issue here is that, while the perspective is on an angle, the controls remain identical. So, while the game’s perspective looks like you need to go up-right to avoid a security camera, the game actually wants you to press up to go straight, and pressing up-right will actually walk you right into the security camera’s view (and into an instant alert). This caused me no end of trouble in the early sections of the game before I realized what the issue was.
Furthermore, the mid-to-late sections of the game just push the camera frustrations to their limit. This point of the game often leaves your radar jammed, at which point Kojima just seems to delight in placing gun cameras in places where they don’t even appear on the in-game camera until you’re right inside their range. As a result, you end up having to go into first person view quite frequently to avoid taking damage from such cheap sources. Clearly, Metal Gear Solid‘s camera is its biggest weakness, adding quite a bit of frustration and somewhat souring the series’ translation to 3D, even if it is otherwise a great improvement.
I laughed very early on in Metal Gear Solid when Mei Ling warned me that the Genome Soldiers have heightened senses, because their vision cones are rather pathetic in-game. This is likely due to the limited camera, but they can only see a few meters ahead of themselves and have no peripheral vision. They’re also total idiots – if you knock them out or shoot them, they’ll look around for about 5 seconds and then go back to a normal patrol as if nothing happened. That said, they do get a few cool tricks that they can use to find you. Like Solid Snake, they can hear footsteps depending on the terrain you move along (including puddles now) and can see your footprints in the snow at one point in the game and track them.
However, as at least one reviewer has pointed out, the core gameplay of evading regular guards is quite limited within Metal Gear Solid, which is clearly why the game features as much backtracking as it does. The game seems to value set pieces and boss battles at least as much as its core gameplay. Solid Snake featured a few gameplay twists, such as following the green beret through the jungle, but Metal Gear Solid shakes things up constantly. In addition to the frequent boss battles, the game also features a rappelling section, shootouts up a seemingly-endless stairway, an elevator ambush and a prison escape sequence. While some people might decry the lack of core gameplay, I do appreciate the ambition involved in creating such a diverse group of set pieces, which really goes a long way to making Metal Gear Solid feel like the playable action movie it so clearly wants to be.
Metal Gear Solid also features the first of many torture sequences which would become a series staple. Personally, I absolutely hate this sequence, as button mashing is not my forte in the slightest. I do like that success or failure results in a narrative split, but I am just a horrid button masher. The first time I beat this game, 7 or 8 years ago now, I didn’t make it very far and submitted, although I was left very disappointed when it turned out that Meryl died because of me. As a result, for this playthrough I resolved to complete it successfully and save Meryl. I must have tried almost a dozen times but couldn’t even get close as I tried desperately to cheat the game by messing with PS Vita control remapping (it turns out that the sequence is looking for button presses and releases, so if you map the O button to every single button on the system or onto analog sticks, then it’s going to register this as you simply holding onto the O button rather than tapping it). In the end, I paid one of my brothers $5 to complete it for me, but even then it took him 3 or 4 tries to finish it, with us suspending the Vita part way through to let his finger rest. That was when we discovered that, if you succeed, then you have to beat it at least 1 more time!!!!!!!! Thank God I saved when I got into the prison cell, but holy shit did the torture sequence ever leave me incredibly frustrated and ended up stretching out my playthrough for a few more days as I felt so deflated by how irritating it was. So, uh, yeah… this part actually annoyed me far more than the camera woes, but for most people I imagine that this won’t be quite so big an issue.
One other aspect of the gameplay design I want to cover before moving on to the boss battles is that disc 2 is definitely a hell of a lot weaker than disc 1, at least until REX is activated. Disc 1 has quite a lot of momentum propelling the story ahead at a breakneck pace and a lot more involving gameplay. Disc 2 involves considerably less interesting gameplay, as you largely throw chaff grenades to disable gun cameras and backtrack quite a few times. The radar is also jammed quite often in these areas, which makes it very annoying when you end up in areas with gun cameras and mines hidden off-screen without receiving any sort of warning ahead of time. It is clearly largely annoying filler and busywork to keep the game going for another hour or so (with the loss of the PAL key being the most egregious example), but at least the Vulcan Raven fight and story sequences keep this part of the game afloat until the climax hits.
With the jump to the PS1, Metal Gear Solid‘s boss battles have gotten far more interesting than they were in previous Metal Gear games. In fact, this game might just have the absolute best batch of boss battles in the entire series, as the FOXHOUND unit has very distinct personalities, interesting gameplay twists and reasonable challenge to make for some of the most memorable encounters in the whole franchise.
The fight with Revolver Ocelot is, in a lot of ways, a rather straightforward and easy gunfight, but it is very enjoyable and features just enough twists to keep it interesting – the center of the room is booby-trapped with C4, you have to be careful about not hitting Kenneth Baker with a stray bullet as you try to track Ocelot, not to mention that Ocelot can ricochet bullets and has a reload count that you need to exploit to catch him off guard. It’s a much deeper fight than you would reasonably expect a shootout like this to be, and that’s not even covering how enjoyably hammy Ocelot can be.
The fight with Gray Fox is quite fun and is clever for harkening back to the minefield fight with him in Solid Snake. Furthermore, while it is a simple beat ’em up in a lot of ways, Kojima makes the very wise decision to add different “stages” to the fight – a feature which is a staple in many of Metal Gear Solid‘s boss battles. The first stage of the fight is a rather straightforward fight, the second stage sees Gray Fox utilizing stealth camouflage to get close to Snake, while stage three involves powerful but slow attacks. These sorts of boss fight progressions go a long way to keeping Metal Gear Solid‘s bosses interesting and challenging, even when they feature otherwise-simple mechanics.
The Psycho Mantis fight is also often considered one of the greatest boss battles of all time for Mantis’ extremely creative attacks and parlour tricks (which are still hilarious, even though they have been so widely covered since the game was released). The fight itself is rather simple (boiling down to “dodge the things that Mantis throws at you”), but it is quite enjoyable and the fourth-wall breaks involved in fighting and beating him are very clever. Probably the biggest boon to the fight though is Mantis’ insane and unabashedly evil personality, which makes him extremely memorable and satisfying to defeat.
I found the Sniper Wolf fights to be the most frustrating during my playtime. It’s a reasonably fun confrontation, but the game’s shooting controls with sniper rifles make it very challenging to line up a shot without getting hit first (and worse, when you get shot, the camera gets thrown far to the side, meaning that you’re going to get shot again before you can line up another shot). I ended up burning through all 4 of my rations to just barely beat her the first time. The second fight is actually harder in this regard, but thankfully there are some exploits – you can easily defeat her in this fight by using nikita missiles or stingers if you aren’t adept with the game’s sniping mechanics. Sniper Wolf is made much more interesting thanks to Otacon’s infatuation with her and her tragic history, which makes her defeat an extremely sombre moment and easily one of the highlights of the entire franchise.
Vulcan Raven is a rather fun fight. You don’t stand a chance if you try to take him on directly, meaning that you have to hide from him and try to lure him into C4 or claymore traps, or shoot him with nikita missiles. It’s kind of like the anti-shootout boss battle, as stealth is basically the only way to get through alive. That said, it’s a rather easy fight to get through without a scratch, but it can be quite tense trying to track him with a nikita missile and then seeing him approach your position on the radar. He’s a rather strange and ridiculous character, but somehow also manages to come across as absolutely badass at the same time (which I’m sure is helped by his epic minigun).
The game also features quite a few fights with Liquid Snake, and they’re all very thrilling. The fight with the Hind D is easy but very fun as you basically play hide and seek and lock on with your stinger missiles. This is definitely the best Hind D fight in the franchise by far. The two-stage fight with Liquid in Metal Gear REX (which, by the way, is the coolest Metal Gear design in the whole franchise by far) is also a fantastic fight and extremely impressive for a PS1 game. After the extremely simple Metal Gear fights in Metal Gear and Solid Snake, it’s awesome to see a Metal Gear actually able to follow you around and move to try to kill you without getting gimped by the limited hardware. In fact, I’m still shocked and impressed that they managed to get it running on PS1 at all. That said, with chaff/stun grenades and stinger missiles, the battle is incredibly easy to complete without taking any damage.
Of course, that’s not the end of Liquid, as you end up fist fighting him on top of REX. This sequence clearly draws a parallel to the Gray Fox fight from Solid Snake, with a time limit making it even more intense. Liquid has enough health that you have to be extremely aggressive while also avoiding his heavy attacks, or you are guaranteed to run out of time. It’s a simple but extremely satisfying battle. The game also concludes with an amazing escape sequence as Snake fires a machine gun on a jeep into enemy patrols and Liquid, who is pursuing in a jeep of his own. The fight is notable for actually letting you fire the machine gun in first person mode, making it much easier to actually hit Liquid during the fight, although I wonder why the hell they didn’t let us shoot this way through the rest of the game as it would have helped matters quite a bit. All-in-all, Liquid makes for a fantastically smug final antagonist and is easily one of the greatest villains in the entire franchise, despite only appearing in this game (although Kojima has admitted that he would have kept him alive if he had realized that the series was going to continue).**
With the stronger emphasis on storytelling, Metal Gear Solid finally reaches a point where the specifics of the plot and characters actually drive the game forward. Solid Snake certainly made great strides in this regard, but Metal Gear Solid has a much more involved and interesting story to tell which is, in a lot of ways, more interesting than the sorts of blockbuster films that the game seems to emulate. This is in part due to the fact that Metal Gear Solid is not content to just tell a straightforward B-movie story (like Solid Snake did), but rather tries to add some depth and feature a couple key themes. Foremost amongst these is the question of whether a person’s fate is controlled by their genes. A number of characters’ actions are defined based on the way that they perceive this question, and much of the plot is advanced based on their changing beliefs.
Naomi Hunter is probably the most obvious example of a character who fits squarely into the “genes theme”. Naomi is a doctor and states that she got into her field because she was a war orphan. She grew up with no knowledge of her biological family or native land, leaving her with no connection to her past. By going into the field of biology, Naomi was able to look directly into her genes to study her specific legacy in exact detail. Through this study, she developed a belief that a person’s fate is built directly into their genes via their biological predispositions. This ties directly into her relationship with Solid Snake. Naomi is aware that Solid Snake is a genetically-modified clone of Big Boss, designed to be the ultimate soldier. As a result, she believes that Snake is an monstrous killer, especially after he kills her adopted brother, Frank Jaeger. Naomi sums this up rather succinctly when she declares to Snake that “It’s your genes, they make you predisposed to violence!”
However, over the course of the mission, Naomi’s perception of Snake begins to change. Her picture of Snake as an emotionless assassin is tested on a number of occasions as he begins to assert his own agency and begins to develop feelings for Meryl. Naomi is audibly shocked when Snake refuses to leave Meryl after she is wounded by Sniper Wolf, and when he resolves to save her life rather than continue onward with the mission. She also finds it surprising that Snake still considers Frank Jaeger a friend, despite having to kill him as part of a mission, which causes her to declare him an “animal”. However, when he encounters Gray Fox during the Shadow Moses incident, he demonstrates that he still considers him a friend and tries to help, showing that Zanzibar Land wasn’t a personal vendetta.
By the end of Metal Gear Solid, Snake’s actions have shown Naomi that her beliefs about genes were far too extreme, as he has proven that he creates his own fate. In the ending, Snake questions Naomi on when (or if) he can expect to succumb to FOXDIE, but Naomi refuses to give him a straight answer. Instead, she tells Snake that:
“You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate, to be ruled by your genes. Human beings can choose the kind of life that they want to live. What’s important is that you choose life… and then live. […] Genes exist to pass down our hopes and dreams for the future through our children. Living is a link to the future. That’s how all life works. Loving each other, teaching each other… that’s how we can change the world. I finally realized it. The true meaning of life…”
Similarly to Naomi, Liquid is completely obsessed with his genes (despite having a wretched understanding of how they actually work). Liquid has been led to believe that, because he received Big Boss’s recessive genetic traits, he is therefore the inferior clone whereas Solid Snake’s dominant genes make him superior. As a result, he feels that both Solid Snake and Big Boss have robbed him of his future and forced him into obscurity. While he, like Naomi, believes that genes define an individual and set their fate, his entire life struggle revolves around fighting back against his fate regardless. Liquid also espouses the “Selfish Gene Theory“, claiming that he wishes to save Big Boss’s genetic successors from extinction – since Solid Snake, Liquid Snake and the Genome Soldiers are all based on Big Boss’s genetic code, they are all susceptible to the same diseases and lack the diversity necessary to adapt. Of course, he will do so by defeating Solid Snake, set himself up as the last son of Big Boss and diversify the Genome Soldiers to keep them from extinction.
In contrast, Solid Snake doesn’t care about his genes at all, but rather believes that he is free to do what he wants. Whether or not this is true is a major question throughout Metal Gear Solid and ties into the ending of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake very well. If you remember, in the ending of Solid Snake, Big Boss tells Snake that whichever one of them comes out on top will be fated to fight forever, to which Snake claims that he will live his life however he chooses. However, by the time Metal Gear Solid rolls around, Snake is once again killing professionally. Psycho Mantis really brings this into perspective. In his dying monologue, he states that he hates humanity because all that they care about is sex, but that Snake is different. He is like Mantis, someone defined by violence who isn’t concerned with carrying on his genetic legacy. Furthermore, the reveal of the Genome Soldiers as genetic successors of Big Boss essentially means that Snake has been committing fratricide throughout the whole game. Whether or not Snake is truly in control of his fate is an ambiguous question for about the first third of the game due to his actions.
However, as the mission progresses, Snake begins to display more examples of agency. Initially, Snake tells Meryl that if she slows him down, he’ll kill her. However, Snake begins to develop feelings for Meryl as the mission goes on and refuses to finish her and carry on with the mission when she is wounded by Sniper Wolf. He also expresses genuine sorrow and weakness when Meryl is captured (and possibly killed), causing him to fight back in an effort to redeem himself. When Mantis insists that Snake is destined to kill Snake rebuffs this assertion, stating that “A strong man doesn’t need to read the future. He makes his own.” Snake also chides Naomi on a couple occasions, telling her that she is too worried about her past and what her genes say instead of living in the “now” and doing what you feel is right. Ultimately, despite now knowing his exact genetic legacy and facing down potential death as a result of FOXDIE, Snake finally asserts himself unequivocally as he decides to live, riding into the sunset with Meryl (or Otacon) into a bright future.
There are also a couple other aspects of the game which demonstrate the “genes theme”. FOXDIE itself is a pretty clear example, as it is a weapon which attacks a person based on their genes (put another way, it causes a target’s genes to literally decide their fate). Meryl also fits into the theme as she claims that she became a soldier in order to understand her father, who died in war when she was young.
Like most Metal Gear games, there is a strong anti-nuclear sentiment running throughout Metal Gear Solid, although this is the first game in the franchise to truly hammer these feelings home. This is expressed most obviously when Kenneth Baker tells Snake just how real the threat of nuclear attack is in this day and age, whenever Snake speaks with Otacon about the horrifying capabilities of Metal Gear REX, and whenever Snake calls Nastasha on the Codec – in a lot of ways, she seems to be Kojima’s espy to espouse his feelings about nuclear weaponry. The threat is also just ever prevalent throughout the narrative, with lots of reminders throughout the story stemming from the fact that Shadow Moses is a nuclear disposal facility (not to mention the giant, nuclear-equipped threat that is the primary threat in the plot).
Metal Gear Solid marks the first game in the franchise with that utilizes frequent and complex plot twists, a narrative trick that would become a series hallmark from this point onward. Unfortunately, some of these plot twist don’t hold up quite as well under scrutiny as the twists in later game in the series, which actually undermines the otherwise-engaging narrative. In addition to the aforementioned poor understanding of genetics which messes with the “Snake and Liquid are Big Boss’s clones” twist, Metal Gear Solid also revolves heavily around a major plot twist near the ending which throws the rest of the game for a loop. This is the reveal that FOXHOUND has manipulated Snake into activating Metal Gear REX using the PAL key system after making him believe that this will stop it from launching. It is honestly a rather cool idea for a twist and is set up cleverly throughout the story (such as having Decoy Octopus give you a lot of the early objectives while in disguise). Unfortunately, for each good set-up attempt, the game undermines it with some strange narrative decisions which I can’t chalk up to anything other than gaping plot holes. One problem with this is the fact that Psycho Mantis, Sniper Wolf and Vulcan Raven all seem to have been in on the plan, but yet all of them do try to kill Snake and are willing to sacrifice their lives for… some reason? Or what about all the myriad of ways that the FOXHOUND unit puts themselves and Snake in danger when they could have easily just put up minimal resistance, allowed Snake to reach Metal Gear and then have to fight off all of FOXHOUND together? Why do they even need Snake to activate the PAL system anyway? They had both Meryl and Kenneth Baker in custody and had already broken Baker under torture, could they not have gotten him to admit the location of the PAL key and how to activate it? Why did they need Snake at all? That’s not even the end of the plot holes unfortunately, because Otacon and Kenneth Baker are both under the impression that the PAL key will override the launch codes as well – how could they get this wrong? The game doesn’t really give us an explanation.
Luckily, the other twists are all handled in a far better fashion. The whole game sets up that there’s more to Naomi than meets the eye, so when it is revealed that she was a spy all along, her motivations and actions actually make sense. The twist regarding Master Miller is also rather clever, although I do have a hard time believing that Campbell and Snake would mistake Liquid Snake for Miller. The post-credits sequence also adds a ton of twists and manages to tie into subsequent games in the franchise surprisingly well. This scene alone lays the foundation for a number of future plot points, from the reveal of the third clone (Solidus), to the importance of Ocelot (who was really a seemingly-minor character here) and the reveal that Snake is actually the inferior clone. Considering how the Metal Gear franchise was clearly cobbled together piece by piece, it’s interesting how these plot points and some future retcons tie in so well and actually make Metal Gear Solid‘s story feel even richer in retrospect (particularly the identities of the DARPA Chief and Dr. Clark).
It’s also worth noting that Metal Gear Solid throws in a huge retcon with surprising deftness. This would be the reveal that Solid Snake knew that he was the son of Big Boss, a plot element which many of us who didn’t play the first two Metal Gear games would have assumed was revealed there. However, this is not the case and it is only casually brought up by Snake here in a codec call. While this doesn’t contradict Metal Gear or Solid Snake, it does make it rather odd that Snake or Big Boss wouldn’t bring up their familial relationship during the battle and it does make it rather unclear exactly when Snake became aware of this – all we know for certain is that it was sometime before he killed Big Boss, meaning that it either happened prior to Metal Gear or sometime off-screen just before the battle in Solid Snake. Not that I should really nitpick it all that much, as it was an inspired retcon which also makes the previous 2 Metal Gear games’ narratives richer and would open up some fantastic future plot points.
Moving on to the characters, Metal Gear Solid definitely has one of the best casts of characters in the entire franchise. Every character has a very interesting and distinct personality, from the protagonists, to the villains, to the support staff. In fact, it’s quite impressive that the support staff get a ton of interaction within the plot, whereas in basically every other Metal Gear game they tend to be relegated to exposition dumps or hint sources. The only expendable support staff member is Nastasha, as you can easily play through the whole game without ever contacting her if you don’t want to. That said, she still is a very interesting and well-rounded character who, unfortunately, disappears after this game. She has some background importance within Sons of Liberty, but I was quite disappointed when she was left out of Guns of the Patriots entirely, making her basically the only surviving character from the Solid games to be left out of the series’ conclusion.
As for the villains though, we’re absolutely spoiled with a wealth of fantastic antagonists. As I wrote earlier, Liquid Snake is easily one of the best villains in the entire franchise, with his imposing figure, clever strategy and his relationship with Snake setting him up as a natural match. However, his supporting crew are all just as memorable. Revolver Ocelot is already quite interesting as the cowboy-and-torture-loving sadist, and that’s before we even find out that he has chronic backstabbing disorder. Psycho Mantis is extremely interesting and unique, but is really pushed into the upper echelons of villains in the franchise due to his fantastic dying monologue (not to mention his tragic final words: “This is the first time I’ve ever used my power to help someone. It’s strange… it feels… kind of… nice”). The same goes for Sniper Wolf – she is incredibly interesting due to her code of honour and her extremely tragic backstory and you really feel for her by the time that Snake is forced to kill her.*** Vulcan Raven is probably the strangest FOXHOUND member, but he is quite badass when he runs around after you with his minigun and his dying monologue is interesting (although not nearly as good as Wolf or Mantis’). All-in-all, Metal Gear Solid easily has the best cast of villains in the entire franchise, none of the other games even come close to recapturing the personality of the FOXHOUND unit.
Metal Gear Solid‘s key players are all also quite well defined. Snake continues to be a really great lead, and now that he has much more dialogue (with great voice acting to go along with it), he comes across as being exceptionally badass with a ton of personality. Meryl has a great emotional journey as she wrestles with her desire to become a soldier and understand her dead father, while also falling for Snake over the course of the mission. I was really feeling for her and this was a primary motivator for me to not submit to Ocelot’s torture… no matter how much that part frustrated the hell out of me. Otacon is also an inspired addition to the cast. He starts out as a lovable loser who pisses himself and hides at the sight of danger, but as the plot progresses he gains his own type of unique courage and even offers to sacrifice himself to allow Snake and Meryl a chance to escape the island before it is nuked. Gray Fox is also quite interesting and is wisely used in a very sparing fashion, making him into an effective wildcard. You can never be sure when exactly he may show up, but when he does show up you know something insane is going to go down.
Also, before I wrap things up, I have to give special mention to some of the fantastic lines in Metal Gear Solid. While the writing can be awkward at times (the line about ending up as “worm food” stands out as being incredibly strange to me for whatever reason), there are some really inspired moments, many of which have become personal anthems of sorts. Here are just a few of the great character moments captured in the dialogue:
Otacon: “Snake… What was she fighting for? What am I fighting for? What are you fighting for?”
Solid Snake: “There are no heroes in war. The only heroes I know are either dead or in prison. One or the other.”
Meryl Silverburgh: “But Snake, you’re a hero, aren’t you?”
Solid Snake: “I’m just a man who’s good at what he does: Killing.”
Solid Snake: “Never doubt yourself. Just let it make you stronger. Learn something from it!”
Sniper Wolf: “I finally understand. I wasn’t waiting to kill people, I was waiting for someone to kill me. A man like you. You’re a hero.”
Gray Fox: “We’re not tools of the government or anyone else. Fighting was the only thing I was good at, but at least I always fought for what I believed in.”
All-in-all, despite a terribly inadequate camera, a wonky plot twist and a infuriating torture sequence, Metal Gear Solid is a landmark game well-deserving of the praise it has had heaped upon it since its release. It take the already-great foundation established by Solid Snake and improves upon it in nearly every way, making it significantly more accessible, while also introducing fantastic new cinematic elements, telling a very engrossing story and featuring some very ambitious, action-packed gameplay. There’s a good reason why this game is still so highly regarded to this day. If you can get used to the camera and try not to worry too much about the big twist, then you’re going to have a hell of a time with Metal Gear Solid. It’s truly a masterpiece of gaming excellence.
*Note that I include codec calls in this umbrella definition, especially when a pair of cutscenes are interrupted by a codec call – you don’t get to take control again and at that point it’s basically just a part of the cutscene.
**Personally I’m glad that Kojima did kill Liquid here. This is actually the nice thing about having the franchise’s story get put together over time – we get cool, one-off villains with a lot of importance to the overarching plot without having to involve them in every event.
***Although she could stand to button up her shirt, it’s cold in Alaska!!!