The Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid 1 (Part 2)

In our modern world, we are often too consumed by the thought of tomorrow. In with the new and out with the old screams our contemporary mantra. Evolution is, after all, a path to greatness, leaving the past to a eagerly forgotten history. This ferocious attitude is perhaps in no greater a presence than in the video games community, where old treasures are consistently thrown to the bowels of time. Today’s gaming generation is detached from the medium’s history, in a far more alarming rate than that of movie goers and other consumers of media. Young people still expose themselves to the likes of Citizen Kane and The Old Man and The Sea. Few young gamers are willing to do the same for our rich history, enriched by titles like Metal Gear Solid.

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As I perhaps made clear in previous Retrospective posts, I’m no nostalgic elitist. My gaming perspective is built upon the last three generations only, and with the exception of the first two PlayStation consoles. But unlike the hordes of gamers pointing their envious, outspoken noses to the future inspired by the ultimately meaningless promise of better graphics and quicker distribution platforms (graphics alone DON’T make for good games, people), I find regular journeys to the past both inspirational and downright pleasurable. It’s an unexpected joy, and Metal Gear Solid for that little grey box is perhaps the best nostalgic-blind retro experience I’ve had. Continuing on from last week, here’s all the reasons in the world why the game that blew a generation away is still amazing and relevant today.

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Like a number of other games I’ve covered in this column, Metal Gear Solid occupies a space in the public mind that separates it from mere legacy. It commands a historical following, and its wakes are still felt today, both in its direct sequels and in games at large. Solid Snake is an eternal face to gaming, sitting beside the Links and Master Chiefs in terms of public adoration. Hideo Kojima, as crazy and maniacal a creator he is, is still celebrated for his wit and ingenuity by the majority of those that have opened themselves up to his twisted work.

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We are nearing the fifth main title in a series that’s technically been around since near gaming’s genesis, as the original Metal Gear found tremendous success on the NES. It’s a series that has seen spinoffs and rereleases out the wazoo (I’m playing it thanks to the most recent Legacy Collection). It’s a series that managed to worm its way into the proving ground of beloved franchises, Super Smash Brothers, despite having only tangental connection to Nintendo Platforms, as at least Sonic had a few original titles on Big N’s boxes and portables throughout the years.

Sure, it’s widely accepted that Hideo could use an editor, and as lauded as MGS4 was, it’s become the punchline for every joke about games with a few too many cutscenes. Despite my adoration for its wanton, hilarious energy, Metal Gear Rising seems to carry a mixed reception from fans of the series. And there are certainly those that doubt that the magic can continue forever.

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But as it stands, every game in the series has been widely celebrated, even MGS2 with all of its main character swap-out drama. On that note alone, it’s perhaps the most critically acclaimed series ever, with nary a black sheep among its flock. And as long as its shepherd stands watch, it looks like that won’t change anytime soon.

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But how did the first game in the series play to someone with minimal exposure to the series? Could this be gaming’s Gold Finger? Or does it sink without nostalgic support lifting it above it’s actual entertainment and artistic value in the modern context? Those of you who read my Part 1 from last week probably won’t be surprised when I say that having now beaten it, my impression is entirely positive.

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Even though games from its generation are difficult to play today thanks to antiquated 3D graphics, Metal Gear Solid had a strong enough core to often force me to forget just how old it is. Of course, this would all come crashing down once I’d witness one of the game’s many dialogue where lips don’t move with the voices and heads bob up and down like lazy puppets, but overall, this is one of the most beautiful games from this era in gaming I’ve ever seen. And it was on the PlayStation, with its inferior power and everything.

Naturally, polygon counts and texture richness don’t amount for everything when judging visual appeal, and Metal Gear Solid manages to succeed thanks to a greater focus on atmosphere and layout, far more attentive to both details and the overall synergy of its setting than say, the first Tomb Raider or even Super Mario 64. Despite the fact that these were the awkward, young years of developing in 3D, Hideo Kojima planned this game so well that it feels just as approachable and understandable now as it likely did back then. Slam a new coat of graphics paint on it and it would have little showing its age.

He finally found his eyes in Twin Snakes.

He finally found his eyes in Twin Snakes.

I was also left astounded by both the sound design and writing, which helped propel that ever-important aspect of atmosphere. I’d say this is the best auditory experience to be had in this generation. While most games on the PlayStation suffered from uncomfortable , empty silences, MGS didn’t forget the importance of ambience, and it really shows. I spent the majority of the game wearing Sony’s wireless PS3 headphones, and I was even able to notice the careful use of stereo sound, a feature that few would have benefited from or noticed back in the day.

Like all good pieces of work, everything heard and seen has the distinct mark of deliberateness. No presentation choice was arbitrary, and the experience as a whole shows insurmountable strength as a result. It’s a living, breathing piece of art, not just a money sponge designed to entice and tease the dollars right out of our wallets in the store. It experienced success on its own merits, and played astoundingly well for its time.

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Speaking of which, the gameplay is the third member of the gaming holy trinity to determine a successful piece of work. While certainly not perfect, I’m still left with the same impression of brilliance as I did last week. Sneaking, waiting, watching was as thrilling at the end as it was at the very beginning. And while its features weren’t as fleshed out or fluid as they were in subsequent games in the series (it took some time to get used to no first person shooting option), this is one of the best controlled games of the platform.

Every kill felt necessary. Every sneak was thrilling. Even the boss fights, the latter of which awoke some of my dormant wrath and consumed several hours of raw trial and error, had the mark of great boss fights: the loud, inexplicable sigh of relief at their ends. Truly, Metal Gear Solid was comfortable in its own gameplay formula. Once I synched my mind with it, nothing could stand in my way.

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So what can be said of Kojima’s gem now that the formal evaluations are out of the way? Beyond the fact that few games have given me such satisfaction upon their completion or that even fewer games have seen me complete them with that level of end boss difficulty (seriously, screw Metal Gear Rex), I have not felt a game this old weave its fingers into my brain in a very, very long time. Not since I was young and impressionable, when Pokemon Gold felt real and I adopted true feelings of responsibility and power when playing SimCity 3000. Today, if I were able to play those games without my rose-colored glasses, they would likely not grip my emotions in such a powerful way. And yet Metal Gear Solid has done just that.

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The story of Solid Snake, though convoluted and twisty, holds a remarkable grasp to the strength of human interaction and existential thought. This is not merely an action game with a black/white separation of evil and good, nor does it begin or end with the shallow story structure of the common shooter. This was a tale of inheritance, broken expectation, and global consequence. It’s Kojima’s way of speaking to the world through the only lens he knows how.

And it’s deliciously meta, understanding its boundaries of gamehood, even proudly wearing it on its chest, bare, for all to see. The constant in-character mentions of controller ports and action buttons, a passing poke at me, the player, for being lazy and free enough to be able to play games at all, and the battle with Psycho Mantis, all refusing to let me forget that despite its ingenious, atmospheric power, this is still a game and will only ever be a game. Snake’s perspective is my perspective. He knows what I know. He sees what I see. And if my arm starts to hurt from pressing the circle button too much, so does his. What chaotic, anarchistic genius.

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So what we have at the end of this experience is a title that every game enthusiast must play. After checking all the bulletpoints of solid game design, it even manages to inspire profound thought and even attempts to change your perspective, even if you don’t feel like letting it in. But that’s ok, because Metal Gear Solid is strong enough to survive on its own merits, guns blazing and fast into the unknowable future, where constant streams of new and fresh try and distract us from the diamonds of our past.

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