Over the last month or so, I pulled my PlayStation 3 out of the cupboard and played through Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, 3, and 4 for the first time in years. I wanted to see how well these games held up, as they've become colossal in the hearts and minds of players in the time since their release.
My brain doesn't have enough bandwidth to process the full sequence of bizarre events that take place in this iconic saga, let alone lay them out intelligibly here for you. So, I won't be trying to explain what these games are about, or where they go narratively. Suffice it to say the godless territory that is the Metal Gear saga's story has this enduring legacy of complexity bordering on nonsense (in the best possible sense) for excellent reason.
Instead, I thought I'd just jot down some thoughts about each game. There's so much you could say, as these games are so dense that writing almost anything about them becomes a little overwhelming. So I'm just going to tread lightly here and share a few thoughts on each game without diving to the depths of this, the Mariana Trench of video game stories.
Before I start, though, I just want to say it really is a shame that there's no convenient way to experience the Metal Gear series on a modern system. This is a pretty landmark series, filled with memorable moments that anyone playing games in a particular period will have doubtlessly experienced and shared with others. It's sad to see it start to fade into obscurity as Konami fails to bring ports or remasters to current game platforms. In fact, a few of the games just went off sale (temporarily, we're assured) while Konami renews the licenses for historical footage used in the games. It should be easy for newcomers to Metal Gear to find and play these titles. Because they're ridiculous and brilliant in equal measure, and -- despite the sometimes unbelievable ratio of cutscene to gameplay -- have always felt like games that uniquely embraced and celebrated their medium.
Finally, I'd just like to address the omission of Metal Gear Solid V. Basically, I didn't return to this one because I don't like it. I played 40-odd hours at launch and found that there just wasn't enough of what made Metal Gear fun in there for me. I really felt the lack of David Hayter, (proper) codec conversations, and couldn't get into the super bare-bones narrative, or the unfinished feeling to the latter half of the game. When I think Metal Gear, I think story before I think gameplay (as good as that gameplay often is) and the lack of fulfilling character moments in MGSV really put me off. Also, I never played Peace Walker, so that affected my understanding of the premise.
Metal Gear Solid (1998, PlayStation)
This may be the greatest title released for PlayStation. It's almost unbelievable how well this game holds up, from both a cinematic and gameplay perspective. No, "holds up" doesn't do justice here. Metal Gear Solid feels timeless, still as enjoyable and surprising as the day it came out.
There's a long list you could write here about things games just weren't doing in 1998 that Metal Gear Solid did. Using camera perspectives to convey tone and emotion. Scoring sequences with thematic music to build tension and erupt in moments of conflict1. Delivering an unprecedented volume of spoken dialogue via a sizeable cast of actors. Using a minimal but effective interface to make sure menus never became a barrier to gameplay. Game design and boss mechanics that celebrated what it meant to be a video game on PlayStation in 1998. There's a lot here, and so much of it still feels rich and exciting.
It was really fun to re-experience all those MGS1 moments that have entered a sort of video games canon, or at least a shared lexicon among players. Finding Meryl's codec number, the trick to beating Psycho Mantis, the cutscene that plays after defeating Sniper Wolf. Even people who never played the series know some of this stuff through osmosis.
On that note, if you don't intend to ever play MGS1, just go check out this cutscene and see what this crazy game was going for. In 1998!
Wikipedia explains that 1998 is:
[...] retrospectively considered one of the best in video game history due to the release of numerous critically acclaimed, commercially successful and influential titles across all platforms and genres at the time.
...and that's in no small part due to this game. Great stuff!
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001, PlayStation 2)
I think Metal Gear Solid 2 is one of the boldest games ever made. It was the most anticipated game of its time, with the biggest development budget of its day and extremely high expectations from fans. After a long wait, it seemed to deliver upon everyone's wildest dreams. The opening chapter is this thrilling cinematic sequence, filled with slick stealth gameplay and knowing references to older games in the series; it's the ultimate love letter to series fanatics. Then, all of that is taken away from the player, and MGS2 starts "for real". You're no longer playing as Snake. You're playing as this whiny, unlikeable guy, and the smoothly integrated tutorials experienced in the first chapter, a refinement over the first game, are replaced with a return to codec conversations which take you out of the gameplay. Suddenly, characters are repeating lines from MGS1, and the structure of this sequel starts to feel seriously similar to the events of the first...
All of this is just the beginning of possibly one of the most post-modern games out there, one which reflects on what it means to be such a highly anticipated game, the enduring challenge of satisfying unrealistic player expectations, and how to craft something unique while ostensibly under the obligation to deliver more of the same, but better.
Smarter people than I have put this much more eloquently, so I recommend you check out Critical Close-up: Metal Gear Solid 2 if you're curious about how far this fascinating game pushes that post-modern streak (spoiler: really far!).
Alongside all of this, MGS2 manages to deliver more of that top tier "Metal Gear" storytelling, fantastic stealth action gameplay, and more of those "if you know" moments that define the series for fans. This is doubtlessly a superb follow-up to MGS1.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004, PlayStation 2)
With MGS3, we get a prequel set in 1964. With the times comes a new James Bond feel, complete with showy intro sequence set to a bombastic theme (what a thrill!).
I enjoyed the survival elements added to the game in MGS3, but felt they became a little repetitive over time. As Snake undertakes his mission in the Soviet jungle, you'll need to manage hunger by hunting for meals and heal wounds using a variety of medicines. These are cool ideas in theory, but they play out the same way every time, so after healing your 30th bullet wound it sort of loses its lustre.
I enjoy the bosses a little less in MGS3. As good as some of the fights are, the characterisation becomes a little basic for my tastes. MGS1 and 2 put in quite a bit of work to humanise the enemies you face and give you more information about their motives. Usually, by the time you defeat them, you feel badly for them. In MGS3, each boss is named after some abstract concept like "the end" or "the pain", and they sort of just yell their given word before you kill them and they explode. It's goofy and enjoyable, but it doesn't quite reach the deliciously sincere melodrama of the previous games. With that said, there are still some great fights in MGS3, and Big Boss's final showdown with The Boss is a true highlight.
The lack of technology back in 1964 means Big Boss is mostly without a radar. As enemies can be fairly hidden in the jungle, this presents a whole new set of interesting environmental challenges which really shake up the gameplay.
With the lack of radar comes the inevitable increase in being detected, so it's a good thing that the encounter music is so damn good in MGS3. I love this track, particularly around the 1:50 mark, as it eases into a cautious stealth melody. In a series filled with brilliant music, MGS3 features some of the absolute best.
MGS3 is the epitome of the series for many people. It doesn't quite get there for me, but hell if it isn't an excellent ride all the same.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008, PlayStation 3)
MGS4 is where the series really dials in the feel of gameplay and gets it just right. Don't get me wrong, it was never bad by any means, but here they absolutely perfect the stealth action formula and a combination of tightly tuned controls and excellent stealth mechanics allow you to pull off some seriously fun feats of sneaking and espionage.
The only complaint I could hold against MGS4's gameplay is that there is comparatively little of it, as this is really Metal Gear Solid: The Movie, featuring more than 9 hours of cutscenes. Once you put the controller down at the end of the game, you've still got a 71 minute cutscene to go before everything gets wrapped up.
I'm mixed on this, because cutscenes are where MGS delivers some of its most compelling moments, from hilarious goofiness to disarmingly sincere character moments. For the most part, what you watch in MGS4 is really fantastic. It's just that the game part is also really fun, so more of that would have been welcome.
MGS4 also digs right into the labyrinthine plot of the franchise and starts dishing out answers to the big mysteries and revealing the ultimate fate of the sizeable cast of characters met along the way. There's a lot of satisfying closure in this game, even if it does take the length of several films to get there. There's also what is probably one of the best boss fights in all games (from a narrative perspective, at least) which is a really fulfilling moment, especially if you've just played all the main series entries back-to-back.
Kept you reading, huh?
OK! I think that's enough for now. I really enjoyed revisiting this series, and I'm hoping that one day they can figure out a way to get everything playable in one convenient package, on a modern platform, for posterity. Right now, it feels like the best way to play is with the Legacy Collection on PS3, which is how I did it. With all the games fairly fresh in my memory, I can definitely say this is a series that earned its legendary status and I think even someone who hadn't played them before would get a lot out of the experience.