The MSX home computer was one of the most beloved platforms in gaming – in Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea, that is. Despite involvement from Microsoft and having been originally conceived by Kazuhiko Nishi, who was vice-president of the company’s Japanese branch at the time, the existence of the MSX remains a somewhat obscure piece of trivia to denizens of most Western countries. However, regardless of nationality, most video game fans know that in 1987, the MSX would spawn what would eventually bloom into one of the medium’s most beloved franchises: Metal Gear.
Playing the Game
In the eighties, a majority of electronic games only gave players one goal: get to the end. This was typically accomplished by an equally simple method: killing everyone in sight. A then up-and-coming programmer named Hideo Kojima offered a different idea to the medium. Rather than mindlessly gunning, stomping, or otherwise defeating bad guys, his game centered on stealth and avoiding capture – the primary inspiration for this project being the 1981 action film Escape from New York.
Metal Gear is played from a top-down perspective reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda. You can only move and attack in the four cardinal directions. Wandering into the enemy’s line of sight or shooting a loud weapon will alert them to your presence. Although forgoing stealth in favor of gunning down all the enemy soldiers may seem like a lucrative idea on paper, the game subtly deters you from doing this. Unlike your character, enemies can shoot diagonally. This fact alone gives them an overwhelming advantage over you. There is a submachine gun that technically allows you to shoot at an angle, but you don’t have direct control over the direction in which the bullets travel, so its use is rather situational. Consequently, it’s best to sneak up on enemies and take them out that way. You can punch enemies in lieu of shooting them – doing so will occasionally net you extra ammunition or a ration, which restores your health.
Though Metal Gear is not an RPG, it features a system that functions in a similar fashion to character levels. Below the health meter is the main character’s class ranking. Rescuing a certain number of prisoners littered throughout the game increases his rank by one star for a maximum of four. Higher ranks increase the main character’s maximum health and allow him to carry more ammunition for each weapon.
For its time, Metal Gear was a very unique game. It was not technically the first of its kind as Castle Wolfenstein, which was originally released for Apple II computers, predates it by six years. Even then, one could argue that Pac-Man served as the blueprint for the genre with its emphasis on avoiding the ghosts until you ate an energizer. Instead, Metal Gear was the game that truly cemented the stealth genre in the eyes of the public not only upon its initial release on the MSX, but also when a port for the NES was created shortly thereafter.
Unfortunately, being one of the earliest games to encourage stealth over combat, there are many areas in which Metal Gear has not held up well. To start with, there are certain points in the game that necessitate using C4 charges to open up secret passages. While this game was somewhat ahead of the pack in that it gave you hints on where to lay the explosives, there is no wall discoloration. Instead, destructible walls make a strange sound when punched. Needless to say, this process is very tedious.
A more subtle flaw with Metal Gear stems from how the game handles its inventory. There are two different inventory screens: one for weapons and another for items that provide more passive utilizes. For instance, equipping body armor will decrease the damage you take from enemy attacks. However, you can only equip one item at a time. It doesn’t seem so bad until you reach a room flooded with poisonous gas. In order to navigate them without dying, you naturally need to equip a gas mask. The problem is that you can’t use the gas mask and the keycards required to open doors at the same time. This means that you unavoidably take damage both when you enter the room (unless you’ve memorized which ones have poisonous gas), and once more upon exiting it.
Speaking of which, the keycard system especially sticks out as an aspect that has aged poorly. Even in 1987, locked doors in games, especially ones with a top-down perspective were nothing unusual. What is unusual is that you need to equip the cards in order use them as opposed to, say, Legend of Zelda where if you have a key, it’s expended automatically upon touching a door. The problem with these cards arises when you start getting more of them (you end the game with a total of eight). There is no way to tell which card opens which doors other than by trial and error, leading to many annoying moments when you’re trying to get out of a room while taking heavy damage from gunfire or poisonous gas.
Interestingly, this development owes its existence to the classic horror film Dawn of the Dead. Mr. Kojima was inspired by a scene from the movie where a character had to desperately cycle through several keys in order to open a locked door in order to avoid getting killed by zombies. While I appreciate wanting to add tension to the game, this is a classic example of certain tropes and storytelling techniques not translating well to an interactive medium.
I would have to say that the worst part about this game is how obtuse it can be. There are many times when you’re expected to contact experts via radio in order to advance. Because it’s an older game, it can be difficult to actually trigger these important conversations – oftentimes, it requires you to be in a specific room. Coupled with the fact that it’s not always clear where to go next, it can be difficult to complete this game without a guide. A criticism frequently lodged against the series’ 3D installments is that mission control will explain the player’s objective long past the point where it’s understood. This game demonstrates what happens when the opposite is true. I have to say that I prefer a game that gives the player a clear goal over one that doesn’t – even if said explanation ends up being overly long.
Analyzing the Story
The year is 1995. Outer Heaven, a fortified state near South Africa is home to a large army of mercenaries of disparate backgrounds and nationalities. They have developed a weapon known as Metal Gear, a bipedal tank capable of striking any region of the world with a nuclear missile. Solid Snake is a rookie soldier and member of a special forces battalion known as FOXHOUND. For his first mission, he is to infiltrate the fortress and destroy Metal Gear before it can be used to plunge the world into chaos.
As Metal Gear was originally released in 1987, it’s understandably a bit lacking in regards to its story. This was the era when the instruction manual provided more of a narrative than the game itself. As a consequence of this, the characters are flat and one-dimensional. Those who have played Metal Gear Solid or its sequels before this installment would doubtlessly be shocked to discover the richly-characterized Solid Snake is practically a silent protagonist – largely indistinguishable from any other action game protagonist at the time (other than starting out with cigarettes in his inventory).
While the story is simple, there are some flashes of brilliance that set it apart from its contemporaries. Along with King’s Quest III, Metal Gear is one of the oldest games I can think of that features a major plot twist. At the end of the game, it’s revealed that Big Boss, Snake’s commanding officer, is the leader of Outer Heaven. His goal was to use Metal Gear and its nuclear capabilities in order to achieve world domination. He sent a rookie, believing that he would get captured and feed the authorities with misinformation, but he underestimated Snake, thus unintentionally ruining his own plan.
What makes this particularly intriguing is how well this twist was foreshadowed. Throughout the game, Big Boss would start out giving Snake legitimate advice, but would become less helpful over time. For instance, he tells Snake to use a gas mask for a poisonous room after he has already entered it (a lot of players cite this as a problem with the game, but this is not the case). He also tells Snake to forgo using body armor and orders him to enter a truck which transports him to a previous area of the game. Finally, when Snake is nearing Metal Gear’s chamber, he outright breaks the fourth wall and tells the player to turn off the game console.
Most games in the eighties didn’t rely on complex character interactions. Because of this, whatever interactions were present only served to aid the player. You could rely on the kindness of strangers to give you advice on what to do or where to go next.
Metal Gear, on the other hand, created a scenario where you’re in contact with someone you assume you can depend on before revealing that your trust was misplaced. For those wondering when Mr. Kojima became such an out-of-the-box thinker, here’s your answer – he was one from the very beginning.
Drawing a Conclusion
Metal Gear strikes me as a game that was a little too ahead of its time. The execution of these almost universally forward-looking ideas was about as good as it could have been for 1987 – it’s just that these concepts wouldn’t shine until Mr. Kojima gained more experience as a designer and the technology advanced to the point where he was able to implement them more effectively. Being one of gaming’s older franchises, it’s impossible to play through the series from beginning to end without learning a thing or two about the medium’s history. However, I do have to admit that if it was a standalone game, I would be hesitant to recommend playing Metal Gear because I think a fair chunk of its perceived quality comes from the goodwill established by its sequels which have since surpassed it in every way. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to get because it’s included in the Metal Gear Solid: HD Collection as a bonus feature. I say it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of the franchise or want to get into it and have a high tolerance towards older games. If not, then Metal Gear Solid is unequivocally a better introduction to the series.
Final Score: 5/10