The history of Metal Gear

Feature Paul Martinovic 22 Feb 2013 - 06:00

With Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance out now, Paul takes a timely look back over the series...

When footage of the upcoming Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance was first released to an unsuspecting public, the sound of Solid Snake acolytes choking on their rations was almost audible: sword-fighting? Combos? Bloody Raiden? That’s not Metal Gear – Metal Gear is Solid Snake grumbling unintelligibly while navigating his way through an incomprehensible plot, avoiding guards with unreasonably impaired peripheral vision while wearing a cardboard box on his head.

While this will likely remain the defining image of the Metal Gear franchise in many people’s minds, the games themselves and eccentric creator Hideo Kojima have never been shy of embracing evolution frequently and unpredictably: there’s a restless quality to Kojima’s games, a desire to experiment and try ideas that most developers would either never have the imagination to stumble across or shy away from through fear of failure or ridicule.

Despite the fact the games have been in a constant state of flux since the very beginning, it’s surprising how many of the elements that would come to characterise the series exist in the first entry in the series proper Metal Gear, which appeared on the ill-fated MSX2 gaming system before getting a shoddy port to the NES (which became popular in the west). The famous codex conversations are there, as well as the exclamations marks above alerted enemies' heads, and the basic mechanics of sneaking around and avoiding guards are the same.

There’s also the titular robot supertank itself, and the exploits of Big Boss, Foxhound, and of course Solid Snake, who evolved over the course of the series from a Bruce Campbell-resembling special forces rookie, to the Kurt Russell-alike grizzled sworn enemy of Foxhound in the PS2 games, to the too-old-for-this-shit Clint Eastwood clone in the series’ fourth entry. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, also for the MSX, went on to refine the formula further, with improved graphics and sound, adding more polish to the already inspired mechanics. 

But the series was to catapult into the public’s imagination with Metal Gear Solid, one of a number of Japanese releases from around the same period that would define the PlayStation and gaming as a whole for years to come. While the others would come to popularise and set the template for their respective genres – Resident Evil (survival horror), Gran Turismo (racing), Final Fantasy VII (JRPG) – Metal Gear Solid, despite being probably the definitive stealth game, still really has no analog outside of its own sequels: it’s an inimitable mix of technobabble, absurd humour, conspiracy thriller, cyborg ninjas, and bizarre, outlandish metagaming tricks, including the legendary sequence where you can only beat a boss by removing your controller and plugging it into another slot to confuse him. At the time, Metal Gear Solid was described as a big-budget blockbuster in game form, but there hasn’t been a blockbuster in history with the balls to be this formally ambitious, or just as outright weird.

Weirder was yet to come, however. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty quickly became one of the most hotly-anticipated games on the PS2, and the demo – given away with Kojima’s mecha-shooter Zone Of The Enders – elicited gasps of astonishment at the time; the graphics and atmosphere still hold up to this day. But the full game was another prospect entirely, ratcheting up the post-modernist insanity to dangerous levels. It’s a psychedelic assault on the senses, fitfully genre-hopping between horror, sci-fi, political thriller, weaving hard science with comic lunacy and abundant fourth-wall breaking in a plot that is nigh-on impossible to follow and knows it. 

The game also switched control from the immensely popular Snake to floppy-haired newcomer Raiden halfway through, a move which proved immensely controversial with some fans of the first game, who resented both the almost aggressively complex storyline and having their beloved Snake snatched away from them.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater both took the series back to its roots and represented something of a departure for the series, relocating from the cold steel hangars of the earlier games to the leafy Soviet jungle, as well as introducing a new camouflage mechanic, and a cool Cold War spy-movie aesthetic. The plot is also relatively straightforward, especially compared with its predecessor, and perhaps not coincidentally provides the most emotionally satisfying climax of all the games. The boss fights are also comfortably the best in a series filled with great boss fights – the hour-long cat-and-mouse battle with The End is one of the very best Metal Gear moments.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots returned to Sons Of Liberty’s somewhat unruly nature, with an even more convoluted plot and some bizarre design choices: the games had been famous for their lengthy cut-scenes, but with Guns Of The Patriots they became infamous, with an average length of nine minutes and finishing with a cut-scene epilogue that lasts, incredibly, over an hour. Depending on who you ask, the game is either an expertly judged piece of fanservice and a hugely enjoyable love letter to one of gaming’s greatest franchises, or self-indulgent, self-parodying nonsense. The truth is that it’s probably both. 

The franchise would once again successfully relocate back in time with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, which was originally released to indifference on the PSP, despite rave reviews, but has found a new lease of life after being bundled as part of the recent HD collection. It’s somehow the biggest, deepest game in the series, with a huge variety of missions, a great story, and innovative co-op.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance sees Kojima entrust his beloved franchise with another of Japan’s most interesting developers in Platinum Games, the team behind idiosyncratic, critically-adored games such as Bayonetta, Vanquish, and MadWorld. Early footage of the game suggests the gameplay has more in common with the likes of Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden that the old PS1 and 2 games, with Raiden wielding a high-frequency blade that you use to manually slice through cyborgs and, bizarrely, watermelons alike. 

It begs the question: what makes a Metal Gear game? Is it stealth-based gameplay? Is it Snake? Is it Metal Gear itself? Purists may cry foul at this brave new world for the franchise, but this brief look back over the series should demonstrate that the key characteristics of the Metal Gear franchise have been its willingness to experiment, and its commitment to originality.

As long as Kojima and Platinum are able to sustain this with Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, we won’t have much to worry about. And if not, at least it still keeps the cardboard boxes. There are some things you just don’t mess with.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is out now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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