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For the release of Metal Gear Solid 4 on PlayStation 3, Game commissioned a comprehensive microsite loaded with editorial content. That included an in-depth “History of” feature; something reserved for only the biggest releases.
Metal Gear Solid is a deeply story-driven series that’s over twenty years old. My goal with this retrospective was to make MGS4 more accessible for customers by succinctly summarising the series’ story so far.
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“Choose your own legacy”
Metal Gear Solid is one of the most revered game series ever. A unique mix of stealth, storytelling and style, Hideo Kojima’s Tactical Espionage Action blends engrossing story, inspired direction and philosophical debate with genuine humour, hilarious quirks, brilliant boss battles and ingenious design decisions. If there’s another game that features hiding in a cardboard box, we’ve yet to play it.
Yet Metal Gear Solid is gaming marmite. Detractors consider it the work of a frustrated film director and more interactive movie than game. Fans, however, adore its intricate plotting, post-modern spin and sophisticated sneaking.
So as Snake’s final mission sidles into view, we’ve taken the opportunity to look back at Metal Gear Solid’s highs and lows, based upon six key themes.
Gear – Metal Gear Begins (MSX & NES, 1987, 1990)
Also: Snake’s Revenge (non-Canon)(NES, 1990)
While the first Metal Gear Solid hit UK shores in 1999, the Metal Gear saga, minus the ‘Solid’, began in 1987. MSX and NES Metal Gear and its 1990 Japan-only MSX sequel, Metal Gear: Solid Snake introduced Solid Snake, his covert government unit FOXHOUND, and his one-man mission to rid the world of the titular nuclear-equipped mobile battle tank.
But it was the unusual concept of a hide and seek videogame which was creator Hideo Kojima’s inspiration. In an era of side-scrolling platformers and rudimentary artificial intelligence, to be tasked with sneaking past patrolling enemy soldiers who attacked only if they spotted you, and would hunt you down if you hid, was the height of sophistication.
The plot was special too, laced with subterfuge, double-crosses and genuine shocks. FOXHOUND commander, Big Boss, was unveiled as the first game’s terrorist leader, and in the sequel as Snake’s own father which didn’t stop Snake killing him in an emotive, bittersweet 8bit finale.
Epic and gripping even in 2D, Metal Gear 1 and 2 remain landmarks in videogame history. Both can be found as bonuses on MGS3: Subsistence.
Gene – Metal Gear Solid (PSone, 1999)
Also: MGS: VR Missions (1999), MGS: The Twin Snakes (GC, 2003), MGS: Digital Graphic Novel (PSP, 2006)
Twelve years on and Metal Gear Solid arrived on Sony’s market-leading PlayStation. Snake’s mission was to infiltrate Alaska’s Shadow Moses Island and stop renegade unit FOXHOUND, made up of Revolver Ocelot, Vulcan Raven, Sniper Wolf, Psycho Mantis, Decoy Octopus and their enigmatic leader Liquid Snake, launching a nuclear strike.
But unbeknownst to Snake and the player, he was merely a vessel for FOXIDE, a deadly virus carried by the nanomachines inside his body, designed to target the terrorist’s DNA.
It was a stellar success. The top-down viewpoint, on-screen enemy radar, sneaky gadget-packed 3D gameplay and thrill-ride story surpassed anything in the genre. Metal Gear Solid was a clever game. Taking out enemy soldiers required sweaty-palmed planning and ruthless execution. One false move and you’d be hunted by gun-toting terrorists as a timer ticked tensely down.
And it was inventive. One boss required you to swap joypad ports to stop him reading your thoughts. Kojima even had gamers scratching their heads looking for a radio frequency. ‘It’s on the box’ you were told. Cue players frantically scouring Snake’s inventory and gameworld. As it turned out, it was found in a screenshot—on the back of the game’s own box.
Metal Gear Solid remains one of the few games to make gamers think outside of the confines of its world. It also wasn’t afraid to reference its rich back-story, causing players to read up on the events of the old NES games. Few videogame narratives offer such depth.
The theme of Metal Gear Solid was Gene. Its closing act revealed Snake and Liquid to be clones of Big Boss; products of a project to create the perfect soldier, called Les Enfants Terrible. By sneaking past the Genome Army (themselves combat optimised by Big Boss’s DNA), eliminating the renegade FOXHOUND, defeating Metal Gear Rex, killing his genetically superior twin Liquid (thanks to FOXDIE), rescuing Rex designer Hal ‘Otacon’ Emmerich and saving rookie soldier Meryl Silverburgh, Snake proved that his own choices and character mattered more than the legacy of his genes.
Metal Gear Solid was itself proof that the PlayStation was a gamer’s console. Setting new standards for production, inspired in design and satisfying at its conclusion, this was one of the great games of its era. Criticised for being short (12+ hours coasting through, but under 5 if you rushed), and for relying heavily on the dialogue-driven Codec (Snake’s in-ear radio) to tell the story, there was still nothing like it. A PS2 sequel topped everyone’s most wanted lists.
Meme – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2, 2002)
Also: MGS2: Substance, (PS2, Xbox, 2004)
Hailed as a ‘killer app’ and delayed in the UK to stifle the Xbox launch, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty proved a controversial follow-up. Consternation centred on the fact that Metal Gear Solid’s rock-hard hero Solid Snake was replaced by girly white-haired Raiden for the majority of the game. No-one saw it coming.
Moreover, Kojima went to town on the plot, confusing with elaborate Codec dialogue, long cutscenes and a bonkers screenplay, enhancing what made MGS1 so divisive. Ocelot now had Liquid Snake’s arm grafted to him, which somehow took him over. FOXHOUND were replaced by another set of superpowered freaks called Dead Cell—one of which, Vamp, seemed immortal. And a longwinded climax practically told you that everything had been a cover-up. Plenty were perplexed. A disillusioned few swore off the series for life.
Which was a shame because, between breaks in play, Sons of Liberty was astonishing. For starters, it oozed production values; with unrivalled graphical detail and a soundtrack courtesy of Hollywood Harry Gregson Williams, fronted by a rousing re-edit of the MGS theme.
Gameplay followed suit. This was an extrapolation of everything that defined Metal Gear. Refined A.I., a new hold-up technique and some ingeniously designed rooms gave MGS2 a sandbox feel. Lockers, tables, first-person aiming and hiding bodies made sneaking at once tenser, but more open to interpretation. And the big plot twist, the Big Brother style Patriots, put the entire saga into a new context.
MGS2 made everything bigger. It showed Kojima wasn’t afraid to sacrifice popular opinion to pursue his vision. Impenetrable at its most pretentious but compelling, playable and stupendously surreal at its peak, Sons of Liberty is, with hindsight, a contradicted game, but still a bonafide blockbuster.
It evolved Kojima’s storytelling, too. Though controversial, playing as Raiden gave a newfound respect for Snake. The theme also evolved, becoming Meme. Kojima wanted to express that we should pick ideas, culture and beliefs for ourselves; passing on these memes to shape the future.
MGS2’s story reflected this, seeing Snake and Liquid’s older clone brother, Solidus, turning terrorist to rebel against the secret censorship of the all-controlling Patriots. The Patriots became an ominous, faceless, oppressive uber-foe, who have still to be defeated, which is what makes Metal Gear Solid 4 such a tantalising prospect.
Scene – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2, 2005)
Also: MGS3: Subsistence, (PS2, 2006)
The stage firmly set for a climactic battle between Snake, Liquid and The Patriots, Kojima instead made a prequel. Set in the Cold War era, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater starred Snake and Liquid’s Dad, Big Boss, in his Darth Vader style turn to evil which led to the events of NES Metal Gear. This was Kojima’s Revenge of the Sith.
The theme, Scene, was something different. Kojima had explored Gene, and genetic legacy. He’d gone into Meme, and handing down values. But Scene focused on adapting to the here and now. It was expressed in the gameplay, with Snake adapting to his jungle surroundings through camouflage and cannibalising wildlife. And it was explored in the narrative, which discussed how values of people, politics and nations change with the times.
At the same time, Metal Gear Solid 3 detailed the origins of the Patriots; who ultimately pulled the world’s political strings; of Metal Gear technology; and of Big Boss himself, known by another codename: Naked Snake.
But there was an awful lot of stop-and-start. Cutscenes and Codec conversations were prevalent in the opening quarter of this longest ever, 20+ hour Metal Gear. Healing and feeding menu screens ate into gameplay too. The jungle, meanwhile, presented fewer hiding places. Getting spotted meant running between areas (with long loading screens) or hiding in foliage for minutes at a time. Snake Eater was slow going.
But when it gathered momentum, MGS3 was a triumph. The 1960’s setting made this a low-tech Metal Gear Solid, lacking on-screen radar or hi-spec gadgets, but the story was far easier to follow. Snake’s mission to rescue a Soviet scientist and destroy the nuclear-equipped Shagohod tank (the forebear to Metal Gear robots) encompassed memorable characters including a young Ocelot, megalomaniacal cyborg Colonel Volgin, femme fatale Eva, and Snake’s mentor, The Boss, accompanied by her team, the Cobras.
Slow start aside, MGS3’s main criticisms lay in the camera, and the Cobras’ lack of depth. MGS1 and 2’s bosses had intricate personal histories, but here they were simply The Boss’s war comrades. Nonetheless, they made for spectacular battles, and when MGS3 re-released as Subsistence the following year with a new free-floating camera and online multiplayer, fans and critics were unanimous that Metal Gear Solid 3 was another sneaky Kojima corker.
Small – Handheld Metal Gears (GBA, PSP)
As well as the famous home-system versions, the Metal Gear series has spawned a selection of stylish portable spinoffs to varying degrees of success. Here’s the handheld titles any true Metal Gear gamer may wish to track down
- Metal Gear: Ghost Babel (2000): A GameBoy Color title that played a little like the original NES Metal Gears, renamed simply Metal Gear Solid in the west. Starring Solid Snake, the story was later dubbed an ‘alternate sequel to Metal Gear’ by Kojima.
- Metal Gear Ac!d 1 & 2 (2005, 2006): Replaced MGS’s action with a turn-based card battle system. Not your typical Metal Gear, Ac!d is the most cult release amongst series fans.
- Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (2007): A proper MGS game in shrunken-down form and a direct story sequel to MGS3, again featuring Naked Snake/Big Boss as the main character, this time in the 1970’s as he established the fledgling FOXHOUND.
- Portable Ops pioneered a squad system, allowing players to recruit soldiers and utilise their unique abilities. It also boasted Wi-Fi compatible online multiplayer that took a lot from Subsistence, and proved a huge success for Sony’s smaller system.
- Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Plus (2008): Portable Ops Plus gave gamers extra multiplayer content in the form of new characters (including Raiden), new missions and tutorials, plus a new singleplayer component that put aside story to focus on randomly generated missions. One for fans of the first game’s online offering.
Sense – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3, 2008)
Underpinning the themes of Metal Gear Solids 1 to 3 has been a central theme of passing on information to future generations. MGS1 was Gene. MGS2 was Meme. MGS3’s Scene discussed how the times and places we live in dictate the information we see and share. Metal Gear Solid 4’s Sense focuses on how perceptions and feelings influence those choices.
What we know about Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has us extremely excited. In the five years since Sons of Liberty, Snake’s clone body has aged considerably. His last mission is to stop Liquid, in control of Ocelot’s body, launching a military coup against the United States, secretly controlled by The Patriots.
MGS4 will span five global locations including the Middle East, and a snowy area looking suspiciously like MGS1’s Shadow Moses, where Snake will face new bosses with familiar codenames; Crying Wolf, Raging Raven, Screaming Mantis and Laughing Octopus. As the final chapter, all remaining stories of an enormous ensemble cast must be tied up especially Snake, pictured holding a gun to his own mouth on several occasions.
Sense is apparent in Old Snake’s new armoury. The Solid Eye combines binoculars, thermal and night vision goggles to one all-purpose sight sense. The Octo Cammo Suit mimics the look of surfaces it touches to conceal Snake from sight. And the Metal Gear Mk.II can scout ahead to stun enemies, becoming an advanced eyes, ears and attack option.
Sense is also apparent in the new Stress and Psyche system. The explosive MGS4 warzone causes Snake’s stress to soar, increasing accuracy and damage resistance for a short while at the expense of psyche, which will eventually crash, affecting stamina and health. It promises a constant balancing act, maintained with cigarettes, adult magazines, and stealthier approaches. Those who wish, however, can go gung-ho, earning Drebin Points to buy new weapons from MGS4’s gun launderer. And of course, it will all be framed by epic cinematics, evocative sound and the option to see catch-up flashbacks from past Metal Gears.
But what of the remaining sense? Will MGS4 conclusion leave behind a bitter taste? The proof will be in the playing, but Kojima has promised a true fan service, with the boldest, most Metal Gear MGS ever. The inclusion of Metal Gear Online makes this an immense package, and production values are unparalleled.
It may still be marmite, but for its many, many fans Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots will be a fitting finale to a trailblazing series, a great goodbye to Tactical Espionage Action, and a Sense-sational send-off for Solid Snake.
The History of Metal Gear Solid – Timeline
- The Manhattan Project, worked on by Otacon’s grandfather.
- The Boss sets up The Cobra Unit, who go on to help win WWII for Allied forces.
- The Boss Gives birth to Ocelot, who is taken by The Philosophers.
- Hiroshima is bombed. On the same day, Otacon’s father is born.
- The Boss disbands The Cobras.
- Jack becomes a student of The Boss.
- The Boss abandons Jack on a mission.
1964 Events of Metal Gear Solid 3
- Jack, codenamed ‘Naked Snake’, infiltrates the Soviet jungle, defeats Shagohod, kills The Boss and gets a new codename, ‘Big Boss’.
- EVA, a Chinese spy, steals The Philosophers Legacy.
1970 Events of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.
- Big Boss meets Roy Campbell and Frank Jaegar, and defeats the first Metal Gear.
- Ocelot retrieves The Philosophers Legacy.
- American Branch of The Philosophers change their name to The Patriots.
- Big Boss officially establishes FOXHOUND, with Roy Campbell his second in charge.
- Les Enfants Terribles Project. Big Boss is cloned; Snake, Liquid and Solidus are born.
- Big Boss breaks Frank Jaegar out of prison camp and officially adopts him.
- Frank Jaegar officially adopts Naomi. Big Boss gets them into the US with the surname ‘Hunter’.
- Solid Snake joins FOXHOUND.
- Events of Metal Gear. Snake infiltrates Outer Heaven, rescues FOXHOUND operative Frank Jaeger, now codenamed Grey Fox, defeats the turncoat Big Boss and destroys Metal Gear.
- Following Big Boss’s turn, Roy Campbell becomes FOXHOUND commander-in-chief.
1999 Events of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.
- Snake infiltrates Zanzibar Land, fights and kills both the turncoat Grey Fox, and the returning Big Boss, who reveals before he dies that he is Snake’s father.
2005 Events of Metal Gear Solid.
- Dr. Naomi Hunter injects Snake with nanomachines carrying FOXDIE; a deadly virus designed to target FOXHOUND member’s DNA. Angry over Grey Fox’s death, Naomi also programs FOXDIE to kill Snake at a random time.
- Grey Fox returns as a cyborg ninja, cutting off Ocelot’s hand and fighting Solid Snake, before giving his life helping Snake battle Metal Gear Rex.
- Liquid Snake details the Les Enfants Terribles project to Solid Snake.
- Commanded by Campbell via Codec, Snake infiltrates Shadow Moses, stops FOXHOUND, kills Liquid (thanks to FOXDIE) and defeats Metal Gear Rex, rescuing Campbell illegitimate daughter Meryl and Rex designer Hal ‘Otacon’ Emmerich.
2007 Events of Metal Gear Solid 2 ‘Tanker’ Chapter.
- Snake meets and battles Olga Gurlukovich aboard an oil tanker on the Hudson River.
- Ocelot, now with the ‘dead’ Liquid Snake’s arm grafted to him, steals the new Metal Gear Ray.
Snake and Raiden – Metal Gear Solid Timeline 2008
- Olga Gurlukovich gives birth to Sunny, who is kidnapped by The Patriots.
2009 Events of Metal Gear Solid 2 ‘Big Shell’ Chapter.
- Ocelot’s body is overtaken by the consciousness of Liquid Snake.
- The Patriots are officially revealed as the true power in the United States.
- Raiden infiltrates Big Shell, meets Snake, fights members of Dead Cell, battles a series of Metal Gear Rays aboard Arsenal Gear, and kills Solidus, who was attempting to liberate Manhattan from Patriot control.
2009-2014 (Date unknown)
- Sons of the Patriots (SOP) system implemented, placing nanomachines in every solder for maximum battlefield efficiency.
- Snake and Otacon rescue Sunny. She’s an awful cook.
- Liquid Ocelot kidnaps Naomi Hunter in order to control the SOP nanomachines.
2014 Events of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
- A prematurely aged, FOXDIE-ravaged Solid Snake is hired by the UN to eliminate Liquid Ocelot, who is engineering an SOP override, and building forces for an armed insurrection against The Patriots.
- War has changed…