Metal Gear. Where do I start? This is the U.S. version of the game that began the series that would spawn, in my opinion, the best Playstation game, and one of the best games of all time: Metal Gear Solid. It shows, too. All the elements are there, most notably the emphasis of stealth over gunplay. However, this was my toughest review yet, because I had a bias tugging me in two opposite directions. On one hand, I love the series, so I’m tempted to give Metal Gear a high score that it can put on its mom’s fridge. On the other hand, I had to be objective. And it appears our beloved Hideo Kojima might have bitten off a bit more than his late eighties technology could chew.
Following my usual style, this second paragraph explains the premise of the game, which is usually self-explanatory or already well-known. Just skip it. Go ahead, that third paragraph’s looking good, ain’t it? If you’re still here, Metal Gear introduces us to the world of Solid Snake as conceptualized by certified videogame genius Hideo Kojima. Ya see, Snake (that’s you, kids), has been recruited into Fox Hound, an elite military group led by Big Boss. BB tells Snake that there’s this scary ol’ military complex called Outer Heaven run by some wacko in South America. They sent in another Fox Hounder by the name of Grey Fox to check it out, but he never got around to coming home. In fact, his last transmission consisted of only two words: Metal Gear. He might have been describing the object that got caught in his rib cage when the Outer Heavenites ran him down with a tank, but Big Boss doesn’t think so. He dispatches Snake to rescue Grey Fox and find out what the deal is with this Metal Gear thing. Not to ruin it for you, but Metal Gear ends up being–surprise, surprise–a big ass weapon.
Plot sound familiar? It should if you’ve even heard of any of the other games, because the EXACT same thing happens in each of them, right down to the various obstacles you must overcome, the order of the boss fights, and the dramatic surprise ending. Only a few critical details change in each installment, making any given episode of the Metal Gear series a kind of Mad-Libs videogame:
“Solid Snake lands weaponless outside the foreboding complex known only as [ADJECTIVE NOUN]. [SHADOWY, YET TRUSTED MILITARY LEADER] has sent him to rescue [FORMER AGENT] from the clutches of [SOUTH AMERICAN COUNTRY] dictator, General [GOOFY NAME] and his elite fighting force consisting of [STRING OF VAGUELY THREATENING ANIMAL NAMES]. Little does he know, their insidious plot revolves around the construction of [ANOTHER DAMN METAL GEAR]. This frightening model is equipped with [ALWAYS NUCLEAR WARHEADS CAPABLE OF FIRING FROM ANYWHERE, YET WE’RE STILL SHOCKED]. Snake will need the help of [DR./PROFESSOR SOMEBODY], Metal Gear’s creator, to stop the terrifying machine, but he also must keep an eye out for [SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER/NIECE/GIRLFRIEND] and deal with the possible betrayal of [FORMER AGENT] in the process.”
I honestly don’t mean to sound cynical. Companies produce hundreds of games a year with plots swiped from their previous games, and twice that many with no plots at all. Sure, we know that a Metal Gear game is always going to be a jumble of paternity, politics, and cautionary messages regarding nuclear disarmament, but we stick with the series. Why? Because the plot, while always intriguing, is secondary to the unprecedented quality of the gameplay. From the outset of each game, Kojima sets it up so you can rely on your wits rather than your brawn. By using stealth and strategy, you can avoid enemies that you’d be forced to shoot in a less complex game. If we players are afforded the opportunity to sneak around a bit, and feel as though we’ve outsmarted our Nintendo, we’re glad to call it a Metal Gear and toss more money Konami’s way.
So does the first Metal Gear live up to this standard? It should, it introduced it. The problem is, while this is the game that gave us the formula, it isn’t the one that perfected it. That honor goes to Metal Gear Solid.
Until MGS brought us that oh-so-fine 3D technology, we were forced to sneak around in the rather awkward 3/4 perspective. At this angle, taking a guard by surprise becomes overly difficult, because you don’t have a good vantage point to judge if your punch is going to land. By the time you swing and miss, he’ll have turned around and shot you. Additionally, there is no way of telling how far a guard’s view extends. While future entries in the series would employ light cones extending from an enemy’s head to indicate their line of sight, Metal Gear leaves you in the dark. This becomes less of a problem once you find a gun (and a silencer to keep your actions covert), but that defeats the stealth element, which is the game’s main draw.
Another issue is the double-bladed sword of regeneration. And, no, that’s not a weapon in the game. Almost all items and characters regenerate as soon as you leave a screen. So if you’re low on health, no problem. Just find one ration, and keep exiting and reentering the room to collect it as many times as you need. Same goes for ammo. Conversely, that guard you killed in the last screen will be hale and hearty when you return. This means that all the work you did to cleverly sneak up on and subdue your prey will have been for naught, again making the stealth option less attractive. This also means that if you killed a guard near a door, then when you come back out through that door, you’re going to run right into him. In several cases, you find yourself unable to avoid taking damage. Even puzzles like destroying a control panel to turn off an electric floor will be waiting there for you to complete all over again as soon as you leave the room. This wouldn’t be a problem in a more linear game. However, in the free-roaming Metal Gear, where backtracking is so important, it is a major annoyance.
Another annoyance is the pass card system. You’ve got to collect pass cards to open various doors in the Outer Heaven complex, but you must have the right card equipped or you’re out in the cold. So while a string of enemies chases you, you’re forced to keep going through your menu and equipping different cards to see which, if any, will facilitate your escape. Couldn’t the door just open if you have the right card in your inventory? It becomes an especially bothersome issue when you must equip a gas mask to stay alive in a gas filled room, but then must quickly un-equip it and equip a pass card when you need to use a door. In the time it takes to take off the mask and use the card, you’re guaranteed to lose some life to the noxious fumes. This is a gripe of mine with all the Metal Gear games and hasn’t yet been fixed even in the most recent installments. At least in later games, the door numbers are labeled. Not so here.
Complicating matters further is the lack of guidance from Big Boss. I hate to sound like I want my hand held the whole way through, but it’s very easy to have no idea what to do next, or even first. Sure, exploration is a huge part of this game, but when you’re bogged down by the regenerating bad guys and the hunt for the correct pass card, it’d be nice to hear something general like “Go take a look at Building 1 first.” Or at the very least be told which building IS building one. I spent quite a while trying to figure out how to get captured, after a POW told me Grey Fox was being held in a hidden cell. When I finally gave up and looked at a walkthrough, it revealed that I had to enter a particular empty truck, and walk all the way to the left before a guard would come in and arrest me. How was I supposed to know that? If I see a truck with no items in it, I leave. Later MGS adventures allowed you to radio your superior at any time to remind you of your current objective or for more background info. Here, he’s often, as the manual puts it, out to lunch.
Add to this the fact that the only way to travel long distance is by hopping on the back of trucks. Not a bad idea, but certainly one implemented better in later Metal Gears. In this game, innocently checking a truck for items can result in your being transported to an entirely different area, sometimes with no immediate way to return. And don’t even bother trying to find the original NES manual to help you out with any of these issues. The English version’s not only useless, but it takes great liberties in embellishing Kojima’s story, further confusing the gameplay.
Speaking of different versions, it should be noted that while Metal Gear for NES introduced us stateside folks to Solid Snake and his kooky adventures, the Japanese had the pleasure a year earlier on the MSX system. Apparently the differences between the two versions weren’t major, but whoever Konami hired to translate their game into English had no right to accept the fee. “Uh-oh! The truck have started to move!” and “I forget to tell you something!” are just the tip of the iceberg. It occasionally gets to the point where you have no idea what to do next because you’ve just been given a clue that sounds like it should have arrived on stationary with “From The Desk of Yoda” stamped on it. In a game that’s so easy to get lost in, this may turn off some players.
But wait; let’s get off the bad-mouthin’ boat for a second. Forgetting about the comparisons to its younger brothers, is this a good stand-alone game? Well, if your patient, it ain’t half bad. The story is actually quite good, with a very nice plot twist, if you’re experiencing it for the first time. There’s an interesting rank system that allows you to increase your maximum health and ammo as you rescue more POWs. And we do see a lot of what would later become standard in the MGS series, such as hugging the walls to blend into the shadows (slightly darker pixels), and learning the movement patterns of guards to properly slip past them. In fact, that’s what’s so frustrating. The stealth elements that are the corner stone of the series are very present, but since enemies regenerate and alarms are silenced the moment the screen changes, they become unnecessary. Likewise, the free-roaming feel exists, but without the support structure to keep players from getting lost and bored.
Oh, I guess should throw in the required technical stuff, too. The graphics are fine, but not outstanding. Snake has a few colors on his uniform, but guards are generally solid tan. The standard NES green and brown jungle backgrounds can get a bit tedious, but are sufficient. Sound-wise, though, the game really shines. The tunes are surprisingly rich and appropriately intense while still being catchy enough to hum.
If you play Metal Gear and then play Metal Gear Solid, it’s fairly easy to tell that MGS was the game Hideo Kojima meant to make all along. He just had to wait for the technology to catch up with him. All the concepts are there in Metal Gear, and they’re passable, but you’ll have to play Metal Gear Solid to really see those concepts executed in a fashion worthy of their brilliance. The bottom line is this was a test run for a later, better game, and at that it was successful. Maybe Metal Gear Solid spoiled me, but if it did, it did so deservedly.
It’s a generally playable Nintendo game, with a substantial plot and innovative style. Certainly revolutionary for its time.
If you already know the plot from Metal Gear Solid, there’s nothing to keep you interested here. Good ideas limited by the available technology equal an often frustrating experience.
“I feel asleep!!” — ‘B.A. Dozer’, elite Outer Heaven guard