Focus your mind. Sharpen your senses. Swap your controller port. Metal Gear Solid

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Metal Gear Solid (1999)

A stealth-based game? Well, they may be an ideal cup of tea for some people, but usually I can do without. Who wants to lose a game when they get seen, when you can have an action-packed, frantic shootout and blast your way out instead? The Metal Gear Solid games tend to be a different story altogether though, what with their flagrant disregard for the fourth wall and their US-based madcap plots from frustrated-film-director-turned-Americophile Hideo Kojima.

It’s perhaps easy to forget that the groundbreaking Metal Gear Solid 1 for the PlayStation wasn’t the first game in the Metal Gear series. For the MSX2 home computer, which you probably didn’t grow up with, you had Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (confusing titles ahoy). There was an NES port of the original Metal Gear which was decent at the time but hardly inspired, and then you had the even more moribund Snake’s Revenge (no longer part of the wildly expansive Metal Gear canon, which is saying something). In short, this was the game that made waves for the series. It’s interesting to note that these first two artifacts may be played on the special Subsistence edition of Metal Gear Solid 3.

The premise of the game: you are Solid Snake, grizzled, husky veteran soldier, formerly of special forces unit FOXHOUND. Positively ancient in his late thirties, Snake just wants to eke out his retirement in peace, although chose the harsh climes of Alaska to do it in. Fate rebuked him quickly enough for this, as it so happens that a massive terrorist plot is getting underway on Shadow Moses Island in Alaska’s Fox archipelago. The terrorists, as it happens, are being led by members of FOXHOUND. And like any terrorist group worth their salt, they have a nuclear weapon ready to be launched.

With time running short, and the demands of the terrorists unable to be met, it’s all up to one of the best soldiers the FOXHOUND unit ever had and former FOXHOUND commander Colonel Campbell’s old war buddy, Snake. As he makes his way further into the terrorist base, Snake must find and protect the Colonel’s niece, Meryl, find the two hostages (DARPA chief Donald Anderson and ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker), establish whether the terrorists really can launch the nuke, stop them from doing so if they can, and discover just who the terrorist leader, Liquid Snake, really is. The plot, in what would become a familiar Metal Gear style, contains all kinds of twists, turns, deceptions, subversions and crazy moments to become one of the most memorable stories of any game to this day.

The flow of the game is very simple: this is a sneaking mission, and so it wouldn’t do for Snake to be caught by the enemy guards that protect each area. Thus, you must sneak your way past guards as efficiently as you can. What is attractive about the Metal Gear Solid series, even as early as this particular game, is that there are usually several ways you can get through a room. You might make a lot of noise to distract guards to one particular area, or you might simply crawl past them and mind that you don’t run through noisy terrain like puddles.

You can even make footprints in the snow to send the guards on a false trail, something that amazed us all at the time. Or you could try the now famous method of sneaking by in a box (top tip: this usually does not work very well, so try it at your cost). If you really want to risk it and blow away the enemies with unsuppressed weapons, you can try it, but don’t be too surprised if the alarm sounds. PlayStation 1 limitations do manifest a little here – you’ll never have an army of soldiers trying to run you down.

If the guards do see Snake (quite likely on tougher difficulties if you’re not careful, but it should be noted that they are almost legally able to be considered blind on the easier settings), it’s not Game Over. However, the game instantly enters Alert Mode and you will be fired upon. Unlike later games in the series, your health increases as you go through the game and defeat bosses.

So you can usually eat a fair few bullets, and Rations serve as healing items anyway. Still, combat tends to cost you more than benefit you, and in any case why shoot the enemies dead on sight when you can play around with them instead? Tricking enemies into running to and fro or tormenting them in other ways can provide hours of fun by itself. And when you unlock Infinite Ammo or the Stealth Invisibility cheat…

The game comes on two discs, necessary for the game to show off probably its greatest trick – the voice acting. Every single line of dialogue in the game is voice-acted, and done by big name voice-actors, and there is a whole lot of optional stuff that you may not ever hear. To give you an example: quite apart from the lengthy cutscenes, Snake is equipped with a Codec system, more or less a radio transceiver that fits in his ear and allows him to pause the action and have colourful chats with people.

He can have all kinds of conversations with Colonel Campbell; his aide Dr. Naomi Hunter; Mei Ling, who’s tasked with mission data; Master McDonnell Miller, a former drill instructor of Snake’s; Nastasha Romanenko, a nuclear weapons specialist; Hal ‘Otacon’ Emmerich, another long-time character; and a few others crop up as well. Just about every single character in the game, highly important or not, has their own voice-actor and a wealth of dialogue, and it all sounds terrific. The effort mightn’t seem so massive today, but it was staggering at the time, unheard of, and it’s something that the Metal Gear series has only improved upon.

The graphics are pretty quaint looking today, almost enough to be derided. You’d be forgiven for wondering why none of the characters have any discernible facial features. The fact is, this looked like one hell of a game back in the day, although stating that a game’s graphics looked good at some date long ago in the past would probably have to be considered damning with faint praise. The fuzzy graphics do have a charm though, and although it sounds silly even as I write it, the high-quality voice-acting stops the otherwise expressionless characters from looking foolish during cutscenes.

Already having discussed the voice-acting, it must be stated that the audio is fantastic. There aren’t a huge amount of songs in the game, but they are memorable – the Encounter, Tank Hanger, Enclosure, Duel and Escape themes stand out. Probably the most famous song of the game is its enchanting theme tune, The Best is Yet to Come – sang in our native tongue of Gaeilge!

One more thing that ought to be addressed is the remake this game received – on the Nintendo GameCube of all consoles. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, as it’s called, certainly isn’t as cheap as its PS1 forerunner and it certainly is a different entity: the plot, layout of the game and majority of the script haven’t changed, and the graphics have been updated to resemble Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3. But the cutscenes have been taken up all kinds of notches, going from what some fans call the sublime to the ridiculous (the scene where Snake backflips off an incoming missile before firing his own missile back at his assailant has to be seen to be disbelieved).

Other criticisms the GameCube remake gets regard its lesser difficulty on even the tougher settings – many rooms are made trivial by the fact that Snake can easily aim in first person and take enemies down from afar, something not possible on the somewhat limited control scheme of the PlayStation 1 version. Personally, I think the new cutscenes are a hoot; funny, and certainly eyebrow-raising in places, but nothing to turn you off. And aiming in first person is only a bonus.

The new voice-acting, done out of technical necessity, doesn’t fare so well unfortunately – it all sounds a bit phoned in. In particular, Snake’s voice has taken its more croaky aspects on, the heavier accents have been lost (changes that carried over to Metal Gear Solid 4) and Colonel Campbell’s clearly not bothered with it all. Having played through both versions several times, I say get both if you can. If you get the chance, at least play through The Twin Snakes for a more offbeat interpretation of the PlayStation version with, admittedly, inferior voice-acting. It’s an interesting article and deserves a look.

But, as it always is in gaming, nothing can beat the original. And when it comes to games that bring you back to a time when things were simpler, when games were games, and all of those other barely useful clichés, you cannot do much better than this infinitely replayable powerhouse of a game.

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