Metal Gear (1987)

This series has come very highly recommended to me, and I’m playing through them from the very start. While I understand later games delve into a lot of thematic nuance, Metal Gear is a fairly simple (though not shallow) game. A lot of the more interesting parts of the story come from implication, and retroactive reframing by later games in the series recontextualising and retconning parts of the game. But taken solely on its own terms, as it was when first released nearly thirty years ago, the game is a fairly simple story.

A lot of the more interesting parts of the story come from implication, and retroactive reframing by later games in the series recontextualising and retconning parts of the game. But taken solely on its own terms, as it was when first released nearly thirty years ago, the game is a fairly simple story. Player character “Solid Snake” is an agent in the special forces group “FOXHOUND”, which is not elaborated upon. His mission is to investigate the fortified state “Outer Heaven”, an independent region in some indeterminate region near South Africa. The game follows Snake’s infiltration of Outer Heaven, his radio communications with his commanding officer “Big Boss”, and the secrets he uncovers about Outer Heaven and the supposed weapon of mass destruction it houses, the titular “Metal Gear”, a sort of bipedal highly mobile walking tank equipped with nuclear weapons.

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The gameplay has a fascinating story behind it. The game, and its many sequels, was developed by Japanese company Konami, and spearheaded by series director Hideo Kojima. Kojima was tasked with creating a game about war, but found engine limitations of the MSX platform overly strict and limitive to implement any of the natural gameplay features a war game might have (extensive gunplay, large battles, etc.). Subversively, he made the game about avoiding combat, rather than partaking in it. Stealth games are a popular genre unto themselves now, but in the 1980s, Kojima’s idea was very novel and original. The stealth system in the game is rudimentary, sure – for example, enemy guards can only see in lines directly in front of them – but the ideas underpinning it were very ahead-of-their-time.

In terms of thematic material, the writing is too lean to really dig in too deep, but the game is certainly concerned with the dangers of nuclear weaponry, and there’s a subversive anti-war element running through the game, both in a writing sense (the protagonist’s drive to disarm) and a gameplay sense (the player being rewarded for rescuing prisoners of war). It’s not difficult to see why Kojima was concerned with the dangers of nuclear weaponry, especially in the hands of nations not answering to anyone, as it’s likely he felt the same sense of insecurity and danger during the Cold War (still ongoing at the time of the game’s release!) that many did in regards to the nuclear threat, as well as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki obviously having huge impact on his country.

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There also seems to be a streak of humour running through the game, with bosses having absurd names like “MachineGun Kid”. This is possibly just a result of wonky translation, but from what I’ve heard of later entries in the series, an off-the-wall sense of humour is to be expected.

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I had difficulty adjusting to the 1980s gameplay style, and getting the game running at all was a bit of a task, but I think it’s a worthy venture to follow this decades-spanning series from the very start, and see how the story, gameplay, and visuals evolve along with the times.

The music required no such adjustment period – I already really like old chip-style music like this, and the game had a particularly enjoyable set of tunes. The only music that really got on my nerves was the combat track, but that was more out of the fact it indicates my failure to remain sufficiently stealthy, than any inherent musical flaws. I’ve embedded my favourite track below.

The game has quite a few references to other works of pop culture – Solid Snake’s name is apparently a reference to Snake Plissken, the protagonist of the John Carpenter “Escape from” films, with Kurt Russell playing Snake. The cover of the game is a direct visual reference to Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese character from James Cameron’s “The Terminator”. I’m told later games delve further and further into metatextuality.

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Metal Gear is, all things considered, a fairly slight game. It’s aged better than many other games of the period, but isn’t especially intuitive or anything. Much of my interest in the game stems more from elements separate from the game itself – the series that it spawned, the recontextualisation of story elements, it’s historical importance in terms of stealth gameplay. However, it’s still very much an enjoyable game that I enjoyed my (brief, as they certainly didn’t make 40+ hour gaming behemoths back then) time with.

I give it three radio frequencies, and a guided rocket launcher.

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