Retro Review – Metal Gear Solid (1998)

As part of a new feature, I’m taking a look at some older games as well. I thought it might be interesting to look at games that came out at this time several years ago, so to start with I’ll be looking at games released 10, 15, 20 or 25 years ago. I’ll mostly not be going for anything older, as I’m not old enough to have played them at the time so they have little real affinity to me. I won’t rule it out though, as there are of course some gems from back then. I’ll also not be looking at anything more recent, as games from 5 years ago are still from this current generation and much more likely to be remembered and indeed still being played by people. I’m open to requests for future reviews within the year ranges from whichever month I’m writing in so feel free to let me know in the comments.

I’m also going to make an effort to not just pick the most obvious and popular games, but the timing on this one just wouldn’t let me skip it! These will also generally be a bit shorter than modern game reviews, but I couldn’t help myself with this one.

15 years ago today Metal Gear Solid was released on the Sony PlayStation. At the time I didn’t know what to expect, as back then I had no idea that there were two previous games in the series (Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake – worry not though, I’ve been through them both several times since) as these had been released on the not terribly well known in Europe MSX. I never even saw one of these as a kid, so had no way to try these out until emulation became more accessible. Sorry Konami! He’d designed successful games previously, but the massive success of Metal Gear Solid made designer Hideo Kojima a star in the video game world and has gone on to become a very well known figure.

Metal Gear Solid then was launched to rave reviews, and I think it was based on the Official PlayStation Magazine’s recommendation that I decided to pick it up, and I was utterly blown away. Right from the first cutscene the level of storytelling was almost unprecedented in games of the time and the at times twisty plot wove a complex and deep world that I’ve been very interested in the subsequent expansions of since.

For the very few of you reading who don’t know, Metal Gear Solid casts you as a former special forces agent called back into service to save the world, which on the surface of it is a fairly basic action movie premise. Solid Snake is tasked with taking down the rogue agents of Foxhound, who have hijacked a nuclear training exercise on Shadow Moses Island in Antarctica. The various agents of Foxhound you face during the game all have their own gimmick and animal themed codenames, and each give interesting boss fights. The terrorists are led by Liquid Snake, who shares more than just a codename with our hero.

Snake has to make his way across the island, all the while collecting new weapons and gear to take down different enemies or destroy obstacles. You’ll also pick up an access card allowing you through locked doors, and are granted higher level cards to get to previously inaccessible areas. Along the way you meet many memorable characters, not just the supporting cast but also the villains. The ultimate goal of the game is to take down the ‘walking nuclear battle tank’ of the title, Metal Gear before Liquid is able to use it to launch a nuclear weapon.

Structurally, the game has a lot in common with its predecessor, Metal Gear 2. Massive sections of how the game work are very similar. The back tracking to collect weapons, the temperature controlled keys, the Hind battle and even some character arcs – it’s almost more like a 3D remake than a sequel. This isn’t even really much of a complaint, as I and probably most people who played it at the time had never played Metal Gear 2 and was none the wiser for many years after so at the time it all felt fresh and new.

Visually, as with many games of the era it hasn’t aged too well. On my most recent play I was playing the PlayStation Network version of the game (the fourth time I’ve now bought it. Guess I’m just a sucker like that.) I initially tried to play it on my TV but it just looked terrible. Not a lot of people will have played the original PlayStation on a screen larger than 21 inches at the time, certainly not compared to how many people game on 40+ inch screens these days. Back in 1998 however, the visuals were well received, and looked pretty decent on my 14 inch TV. I ended up playing through it on my PSP instead, and on the 4.3 inch screen the graphics actually looked quite crisp. The character models have aged the worst as they have very little detail particularly on the faces, but you’re never in doubt as to what the characters look like thanks to the animated portraits in the Codec sequences.

Voice actor and screen writer David Hayter provides the voice of Solid Snake, and while he’s almost gone on to become a growly parody of himself these days in his first outing he’s much more understated. Great performances are given by the rest of the cast too, with Paul Eiding’s Colonel Campbell being one of my favourites. The music too is still great, and has been in regular play on my playlist for over a decade. I prefer the music here over the over orchestrated score from the next couple of games, and the loss of most of the music was my main problem with the HD (for the time) GameCube remake, the Twin Snakes.

Control wise the inability to control the camera just feels wrong to modern gaming sensibilities. Despite the 3D trappings, MGS has much more in common with the older 2D games in the series, and controls from a mostly top down view. As with most original PlayStation games you the game would default to D-pad controls with the option of switching to analog mode with a Dual Analog or Dual Shock controller but this sadly didn’t add any camera controls on the right stick. The use face buttons for looking around and shooting instead of the shoulder buttons also just don’t feel right anymore, even more so after Metal Gear Solid 4 was released with modern style dual analog controls. I seem to remember being able to aim much easier when I first played it, but that could just be memory playing tricks on me. The guns now seem very inaccurate compared to modern games, and the lack of a first/third person aiming mode really feels counter intuitive now.

I’d probably suggest the PSP as the platform of choice for any future plays of the game if not for two things: I couldn’t seem to mash circle fast enough for the torture scene to survive it (although I could just be rubbish now) and the D-Pad didn’t want to let me crouch walk in blast furnace, plunging me to my death over and over – I got around that my remapping to the analog stick but it wasn’t comfortable enough to use it by default though.

I’m rather biased favourably towards this game, but generally I find it still holds up very well, and particularly considering how convoluted the plot of the games has gotten by the more recent instalments is much more accessible! The only real problem with the game playing it now is the controls as they do feel quite clunky compared to modern layouts, a problem common among games from this era – to some extent you can mitigate this on newer emulated versions on the PS3 or handhelds as they allow you to remap the controls and end up with buttons where you’d now expect to find them. I’m sure almost everyone reading this will have played it long ago, but for anyone who hasn’t it’s well worth getting hold of.

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