How Metal Gear Solid empowered the stealth genre

The PS1 classic, Metal Gear Solid, brought higing in lockers to the masses, and stealth hasn't been the same since...

The year is 1998. Millions of PlayStation owners excitedly pop in the latest action-adventure game from publisher Konami, the intriguingly-titled Metal Gear Solid. Following a five-minute-long and highly atmospheric opening cut scene, the lead character, a special forces commando named Solid Snake, is dropped off at the entrance to a quiet dock, where a white-clad guard patrols.

“Right then,” thinks the player. “I’ve got no gun. That guy has a gun. Time to run up to him, knock him out, and nick his gun. Then the shooting can start!” They do this. Snake promptly gets shot in the head.

Undeterred, the crafty player tries a different tack the second time around. This time, they quietly sneak up to the guard. But before they can finish knocking him out, a large exclamation mark appears above his head, the brand new DualShock rumble controller nearly jumps out of the player’s hand, and some more guards show up to promptly shoot Snake in the head.

Some gamers probably gave up in despair at this point, but the lucky ones that persevered might have put a little more thought into their third effort. They might have remembered the instructions from their commanding officer at the start of the game to hide out and wait for an elevator. “But surely no video game’s opening sequence would require you to sit and hide waiting for a lift for five minutes?” Not any video game, no. But Metal Gear Solid? Well… yes it would, frankly. And that was just the start of it.

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In an age where the so-called “stealth ‘em up” is one of the biggest, and frequently most thrilling, genres in gaming, it might seem quaint that the concept was ever so alien. But the landscape was very different when 1998 rolled around. First-person shooters, with emphasis on little more than “run and gun” gameplay, were very much the rage, and while the better entries in the genre, timeless classics such as the previous year’s Quake II on the PC or Goldeneye for the N64, might add depth of atmosphere or story, the gameplay itself was often as repetitive as it could be frenetic.

FPS titles had never really got a look in on the PlayStation, but even the third-person action games of the sort generally preferred by its users, most notably the Tomb Raider series, felt stuck in a similar gameplay rut. Hence why Metal Gear Solid was such a shock to the senses, and why its gameplay mechanics felt so astonishingly new.

There was evidently something in the air in ‘98. Although Metal Gear Solid had been in development for nearly four years, in fact starting as a project for the ill-fated 3DO console, it managed to hit shelves shortly after a similarly revolutionary stealth-based game, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. Hot on its heels, meanwhile, was Thief: The Dark Project for the PC. And the PC market’s biggest hit of 1998, Half-Life, while still generally a more conventional 3D shooter, did contain sequences that required the player to back off from combat rather than run directly into a firefight.

It was Metal Gear Solid, however, that was the biggest hit. And yet its stealth elements were just one of a number of unique, and occasionally bizarre, quirks brought to the game by its developer, the brilliant, and possibly slightly mad genius, Hideo Kojima. Here was a game, for example, in which you could defeat a boss by plugging your pad into the second controller port, so that he wouldn’t notice you were there, or which required you to make a glorified phone call each time you wanted to save your game. Indeed, to Kojima’s eyes, stealth-based gameplay was nothing new, MGS was in fact the third game in his Metal Gear series, whose previous MSX and NES-based instalments had also featured heavy use of run-and-hide action.

But to the millions of PS1 owners who knew nothing of the series in advance beyond a much-hyped publicity campaign, Metal Gear Solid’s gameplay was a genuine revelation. Taking the stealthy path was hard-wired into its very nature, the Soliton radar wasn’t there to show you people you could kill, but people you had to avoid. There was a specific button combination designed for the purpose of distracting guards off their patrol routes so that you could nip past them. And, perhaps most famously, the game littered cardboard boxes around for Snake to shuffle around beneath, in one memorable instance, even dousing it in wolf urine to avoid attack.

The huge success of Metal Gear Solid, which eventually sold over six million copies, was instrumental in popularising the stealth genre, and in the years that followed, stealth-based gameplay became a feather in the cap of a number of different series. Splinter Cell and Assassin’ s Creed were exponents of heavily stealth-orientated play, while the Hitman series gave the player a direct choice between confrontation or stealth, but, to begin with at least, weighted its rewards in favour of the latter.

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Perhaps the most startling of the games that chose to give players a direct choice, however, was the PC’s Deus Ex, an RPG-shooter hybrid released in 2000. Here was a game that it was possible to complete by killing just about every single enemy and non-player-character encountered, or none of them. For many players, the stealth route was a significantly more satisfying way to play the game, and when its hugely anticipated prequel, Human Revolution, was released in 2011, stealth was integrated more heavily into the gameplay. An MGS-esque radar now assisted the player’s sneaking, while there was even a detectable visual influence whenever the game shifted to a third-person “hiding” viewpoint.

The Metal Gear series, meanwhile, continued to evolve its own stealth gameplay over a succession of sequels. The sequel Sons of Liberty enabled greater tactical combat from cover positions, while prequel Snake Eater added a camouflage element to assist in its heavy use of outdoor environments. And in the most recent sequel, Guns of the Patriots, stealth even became an element in a wider-scale battlefield.

But, it’s the original, PS1 Metal Gear Solid that still startles. It may look like a standard late ‘90s PlayStation action game, but beneath graphics that, admittedly, look pretty dated nowadays lies one of that rarest of treasures, a game that truly defined an entire genre. Tenchu supporters may quibble slightly over exactly how much of a debt is owed to MGS alone, but it was the latter game that caused the shockwave. Fifteen years later, few games, even those by Kojima himself, have had similar impact.