The year 1987 marked the birth of one of gaming’s most well-known franchises: Metal Gear. Originally released for the MSX, it was soon ported to the Famicom and its North American counterpart, the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). Though its localization was a tad spotty, it nonetheless became a surprise hit in the West, selling close to one million copies. Konami would go on to commission a sequel eventually titled Snake’s Revenge with the goal of specifically aiming towards their unexpected, newfound market.
Owing to the MSX version of Metal Gear having sold relatively fewer copies, Hideo Kojima, the creator of the series, wasn’t interested in making a sequel. In fact, until he ran into a member of the development staff behind Snake’s Revenge on a train headed for Tokyo, he was completely unaware of its existence. During this conversation, he was asked to create a true sequel to his original game. When the train reached its destination, Mr. Kojima already had the basic storyline in mind and approached his boss the following day with his new plan. He was quickly approved and in 1990, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake was released for the MSX. Ironically, despite the NES port of his original game being such a success in the West, it wouldn’t be until sixteen years later that Metal Gear 2 would see the light of day outside of Japan as a bonus feature on an updated version of a future installment.
Playing the Game
Metal Gear 2 is an early example of a stealth-action game. It is played from a top-down perspective similar to the first Legend of Zelda. You are limited to moving and shooting in the four cardinal directions. At any given time, you can equip one weapon and one item that functions as a passive utility. As one would expect of a game from this genre, you are dissuaded from fighting unless absolutely necessary – especially in the beginning when you can only take a few hits before dying. Though you eventually amass an impressive arsenal of weapons and gadgets, it’s difficult to avoid taking damage when being swarmed by enemy soldiers, not helped by the fact that they, unlike you, are able to shoot at an angle.
You can now crawl on the ground in order to enter narrow passageways, such as air vents, and hide from soldiers underneath tables, stationary vehicles, and other sufficiently large objects. It can also be used to silently move across hard floors and other surfaces that produce a loud noise when stepped on.
Enemies in this game are a little bit smarter than their Outer Heaven counterparts. To start with, they can now turn their heads, meaning that their field of vision isn’t limited to an imaginary straight line directly in front of them. If you get spotted, the alert phase is triggered, and reinforcements will appear. Leaving the screen by itself is no longer enough to shake off enemies. You need to move to a different area which has no enemies onscreen. Once you’ve done that, a few soldiers will come looking for you and you’ll enter what is referred to as the evasion phase. During this time, all you need to do is stay of out of their sight until the timer on the right side of the screen hits zero. As soon as it does, they will give up on their search and leave, resuming their standard patrol.
As enemies can now freely travel between screens, Metal Gear 2 became the first game in the series to feature a radar. The red dot represents you while the white ones indicate the locations of the patrolling guards. It has a range of nine screens with the one you’re occupying situated in the center. Using this radar is vital to avoid getting caught. In the event that you trigger an alert phase, the enemy will jam the device and it will only become usable again once you have successfully evaded them.
Based on the sheer number of new gameplay mechanics introduced – many of which would become iconic to the series, Metal Gear 2 is a significant improvement over its predecessor. Although knowing where to go next can be unintuitive at times, it’s not nearly as bad as it could get in the original where you couldn’t contact mission control unless you stood in the right room. In a stark contrast to the monotonously-designed Outer Heaven, Zanzibar Land, the setting of Metal Gear 2, has an excellent, intuitive layout, with every area being easily distinguishable and fun to explore. Because the rank system has been dropped entirely, you no longer need to concern yourself with saving hostages, cutting down the busywork significantly. Instead, your life meter and carrying capacity increase upon defeating a boss.
The elevation in quality isn’t limited to its structure. In Metal Gear, entering a gas-filled room or diving underwater damaged you. The former situation was especially annoying because, for whatever reason, you had to take off your gas mask in order to use a keycard to open a door, making you unavoidably get hurt every time you attempted to leave them. This time around, a situation where your character cannot breathe causes an oxygen meter to appear and your life bar remains intact until it is depleted. Wearing the gas mask (or using the oxygen tank) in this game lengthens the meter while causing it to decrease at a slower rate. It may seem like a small detail, but it’s one I appreciated considering how it saved me from having to hunt for rations (healing items) every time these rooms shaved off enough of my health through attrition.
The game does have its fair share of shortcomings, however. The most notable one is the return of the keycard system. There are a total of nine in this game, all of which open different doors, and there is still no way of determining the right one other than trial-and-error. It’s not as though the cards suggest a level of security clearance, either, so don’t expect the sixth card to be able to open doors the first five could. Mr. Kojima was inspired by a classic horror movie when implementing this idea, but inadvertently demonstrated that some storytelling tropes don’t work so well in an interactive medium. Luckily, every third card you obtain can be replaced with a colored one that has three levels coded into it. For example, the red card can open any door the first three could. It is good thinking because although there are nine cards, you never have to cycle through more than four at a time, but it’s still not exactly a design choice that has aged well.
Moreover, some of the puzzle solutions are downright bizarre. |By far the most infamous one involves hatching a full-grown owl out of an egg and equipping it, whereupon it begins to hoot, tricking a guard into thinking that it’s nighttime and prompting him to deactivate a security gate. No part of that sentence was made up.| Metal Gear 2 was created in a time when video games ran on a logic that often made no sense from a practical standpoint. Part of this was a natural consequence of the medium being in its infancy while the rest can be chalked up to a need to grant the game longevity. I can attest to having played many adventure games in my youth that seemed arduous when I first tried them only to later be astounded how short they became when I actually knew what I was doing. To put this observation in context, it should be noted Metal Gear 2 was released in the same year as King’s Quest V, which was arguably that series’ low point as far as puzzle design is concerned. While it’s doubtful that two companies across the ocean from each other before the age of the internet would have influenced each other to a significant degree, I can’t help but find a parallel between the two, nonetheless. Fortunately, learning how to progress isn’t too much of a hassle, and your radio staff is on standby to give you hints if you’re totally stumped.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers. Skip to the conclusion if you wish to experience Metal Gear 2 blind.
The Outer Heaven Uprising culminated with the destruction of the heavily fortified state. Solid Snake, the man responsible for infiltrating the fortress and saving the world from nuclear war, disappeared from the battlefield, traumatized by the ordeal. The year is now 1999. The Cold War has ended, and the world breathed a sigh of relief as it seemed as though nuclear proliferation would also cease.
However, with the end of an era, a new crisis has arisen. Oil reserves have reached critically low levels. As most vehicles still rely on it, governments were prepared to take drastic actions to obtain more. Then a miracle happened – a Czech scientist named Kio Marv successfully bioengineered a new species of algae dubbed OILIX. These eukaryotes use photosynthesis to consume biological materials, secreting a substance identical in structure to high-quality petroleum. Such a discovery would be an invaluable asset due to being able to produce oil with very little time and effort. He unveiled his discovery to the World Energy Conference in Prague, and was slated to conduct a demonstration in the United States only for him to get kidnapped.
It didn’t take long for the authorities to discover that the forces responsible for his disappearance represent Zanzibar Land, a democratic military regime situated in Central Asia between the former Soviet Union, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The leaders of this state intend to hold the world hostage now that they have control over its oil supply. Not only that, but thanks to the efforts of a powerful mercenary force years before, they are the world’s sole remaining nuclear power. Solid Snake is called upon once more by his former unit’s newest commander, Roy Campbell, to enter Zanzibar Land and rescue Kio Marv before they have a chance to achieve total global domination.
Metal Gear featured a plot that was standard for a game made in the eighties, albeit one that featured an inventive twist. It wouldn’t be until Metal Gear Solid, the series’ first 3D installment, that the cinematic elements that have been present from the beginning would shine, telling a story more complex than most of its contemporaries. In this regard, Metal Gear 2 served as an intermediary step between the two chapters.
It’s evident from the premise alone that Mr. Kojima put forth much more effort into storytelling than he did with his previous effort. This shows in the game proper as well; Snake has quite a bit of dialogue, major characters have backstories, and the antagonists have surprisingly complex motivations, painting the overall morality in shades of gray. One part I found particularly interesting was how the game demonstrates a horrible repercussion which resulted from the ending of Metal Gear. The Outer Heaven Uprising ended with NATO leveling the mighty micronation in a brutal air raid. This action directly caused many innocent people to die as well as orphaning several children. While traveling through Zanzibar Land, you meet these children, and you learn that they are grateful for the man who serves as this game’s primary antagonist, whom they refer to as the “one-eyed man.”
That’s not to say the plot is incredible, though. Despite being a major step up from the fairly basic plot of the original, it has a lot of moments that are flat out laughable – even by the standards of what is admittedly a rather zany series. To anyone who played the 3D installments before this game, which is very possible considering that this game wasn’t officially localized until 2006, Metal Gear 2 marked an important event in the series’ timeline. Snake’s trials in Zanzibar Land would see him kill his best friend, Gray Fox, in a minefield and immediately afterward, Big Boss, the man who betrayed his own unit in the previous game. The latter was especially notable because Snake had to kill Big Boss knowing that he was his father. Considering how the events of this game left Snake shell-shocked by the time of the Shadow Moses Island Incident of Metal Gear Solid, it’s extremely jarring to learn that he won his duel with Big Boss by incinerating him with a makeshift flamethrower (using the classic hairspray and cigarette lighter combination, no less), and just before facing off against Gray Fox, he had to deal with one of the most terrifying beasts to ever walk the planet Earth.
Drawing a Conclusion
The original Metal Gear had plenty of sound ideas, and while the execution was about as good as it could have been for 1987, considering it outdated is an almost unavoidable conclusion. This is not true of the sequel, however, for this was when the flashes of brilliance from the original began to take root, cementing Mr. Kojima as one of the most talented creators in the medium. In fact, in certain aspects such as level design, I actually feel as though it has held up better than its direct successor, Metal Gear Solid. If you have not experienced this game before, I highly recommend playing it at least once. Like its predecessor, Metal Gear 2 is a part of the HD Collection, making it easy to obtain a copy. It may take some time to get used to the original 2D interpretation of a series that wouldn’t truly flourish until the 3D revolution of the mid-nineties, but I think there’s a surprising amount of rewarding gameplay to be found if you give it the time of day.
Though later games paint the Zanzibar Land Disturbance as much more epic than how it was actually depicted, it was still entertaining to see how the story would unfold. Indeed, in 1990, Metal Gear 2 was arguably the closest one could get to experiencing an action movie from the protagonist’s perspective, and for that alone, it deserves most of the praise it gets – poisonous hamsters notwithstanding.
Final Score: 7/10