It’s been seven long years since the release of Metal Gear Solid 4 and the Solid Snake faithful’s patience is finally about to be rewarded with the long awaited fifth entry in the series: The Phantom Pain.
It hasn’t been the smoothest of launch run ups, in fact it’s been one of the worst; but putting the very public decline of Konami to the back of our minds, maybe it’s time to just focus on the game, the brand new (and quite probably last) entry into the storied franchise. The Metal Gear Solid series has been one of the best in modern gaming so in the lead up to The Phantom Pain‘s September release, lets have a look back at the main numbered entries and fondly remember what made them so great.
Part 1: Metal Gear Solid
Although this was the third game set in the Metal Gear universe, series creator Hideo Kojima really tapped into a rare vein for the original Metal Gear Solid, creating one of the most atmospheric, engaging and cinematic experiences ever seen on a console which set a new benchmark for what games could achieve.
I remember renting a copy of Metal Gear Solid from my local Blockbuster video some seventeen years ago and immediately falling in love. Now in those days renting from Blockbusters meant you just got the disc with no manual so it took me absolutely ages to figure out how to save the game (and remember the bit where you had to find Meryl’s radio frequency which was ingeniously written on the game case…didn’t have that either….spent hours cycling through the entire codec) but i didn’t care cause I was happy to play scenes over and over again. Here was a game that finally did what I’d wanted games to do all along, allow you to inhabit a character and actually experience in some little way what it was like to be them in a narrative. Metal Gear Solid made the player the center of the experience, not just an observer. At turns you felt lonely, constantly reaching for your codec for company as you traversed the desolate Shadow Moses; you felt nervous, scared to fire you weapon lest an entire army descend upon you and slowly you came to feel powerful as you mastered the environment and the increasingly difficult bosses.
Kojima’s stealth gameplay was an absolute revelation at the time, and let the player blend action and puzzle solving as they saw fit to tackle a given situation. Of course one man couldn’t take out an entire army, instead the legendary Solid Snake had to use his wits to sneak past guards or quietly take them out as only the most highly-trained operatives could do. Every new stage asked you to assess the environment and make plans putting the player firmly in control of how the game unfolded. When a stealth game gets it right, it builds up nearly unbearable layers of tension as you slowly progress, only to relieve that stress in glorious bursts of action. Metal Gear Solid got it VERY right indeed.
Besides the foundation of stealth gameplay, Metal Gear Solid was littered with innovations which surprised and delighted in equal measure. From subtle mechanics like guards being able to track your footprints in the snow or see the mist of your breath in the ice cold conditions of Alaska, to funny indulgences like Psycho Mantis being able to ‘read your mind’ by detecting the save information in your memory card or the player taking an injection by holding the vibrating controller up to his or her arm. Metal Gear Solid was littered with such ideas which really added a layer of depth to the game world. What it truly revealed was how Hideo Kojima’s mind worked. Here was a developer who saw the whole experience of gaming as a blank canvas not just what was on the disk. The cover art, the game manual, the way you held your controller; all were fair game in crafting this experience. Even to this day it’s hard to think of a single game which has included as many innovations as the original MGS bought to the table.
Of course all this gameplay was there to serve the narrative, one of the first truly cinematic experiences in gaming. Sure the cutscenes were a bit lengthy but you were so into the story at the time you barely noticed. It was a modern political thriller with subtle hints of science fiction which stayed on the right side of wacky. Yes there was a cyborg ninja but somehow it worked in MGS. Of course the highlight was the bosses who were so very well designed and so memorable. Taking on Vulcan Raven with his machine gun or Sniper Wolf or (my personal favourite) Revolver Ocelot, each encounter is littered with memorable moments and the fights have quiet moments and climaxes all of their own. The sequels would push the envelope a bit to far and become a touch inaccessible to a western audience, but Metal Gear Solid hit the sweet spot and gave us an emotional and driven plot.
Not only was Metal Gear Solid the best game on the Playstation (FF VII, Symphony Of The Night and GTA fans be damned) but it might be one of the best games ever. A truly remarkable achievement and the first entry on what was to become a spectacular series.