The genesis of Metal Gear

Ahead of the launch of Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance this month, we chart the origins of Hideo Kojima's classic Metal Gear series...

When the seminal Metal Gear Solid launched to huge acclaim in 1998, many of its non-Japanese fans were probably unaware that it wasn’t the first game in the series. And yet, in spite of its perfectly-formed gameplay, which defined the stealth genre and made creator Hideo Kojima a celebrity in gaming circles, Metal Gear Solid was the end result of years of refinement and experimentation by its creator.

Like so many designers whose careers began in the early 80s, Kojima initially had no particular desire to become involved in the games industry at all. It was while studying economics at university, and discovering such classics as Super Mario Bros (he later called Miyamoto’s platformer, “The game of my destiny), that Kojima first began to think about making videogames for a living.

But even at this stage in his life, Kojima was more interested in telling stories than the mechanics of gaming; fascinated by movies and writing, Kojima found himself struggling to fit in when he joined Konami in 1986. At a time when game designers were expected to be able to program, Kojima’s lack of technical ability left him at odds with his colleagues.

“Everyone sort of did everything back then,” Kojima recalled in the documentary G4 Icons. “And when I was hired as a planner, no one else was called that. It wasn’t easy for me to fit into a group. People accused and attacked me as being this guy who didn’t have any technological skills.”

Ad – content continues below

Kojima’s first few months at Konami were, therefore, rather difficult. One of his first attempts at planning a game (a platformer with the weirdly-spelled title, Lost Warld) ended in disaster, when it emerged that what he’d designed was simply too ambitious for the technology of the time. With that effort axed, Kojima’s bosses gave him one final chance to redeem himself: take over the development of a military combat game for the MSX2 called Metal Gear.

Those in control at Konami had expected Kojima to come up with a straight run-and-gun shooter – something akin to 1985’s Green Beret, perhaps or maybe Contra, which was also in development at the company at the time – but they were to be disappointed. Typically, what Kojima had in mind was something more ambitious – a game where the player has to choose their battles carefully against an enemy too numerous and well-armed to take on with pure muscle or firepower. Needless to say, Kojima’s bosses weren’t too keen on this untested idea.

“If I were to work on a game based on war, I wanted to do something more like The Great Escape, where you actually run away rather than just shoot,” Kojima said. “When I came up with my game plan, my superiors said, ‘This rookie’s already failed on one project, and now he’s trying to come up with this weird concept where you don’t fight, but you run away.'”

In spite of their misgivings, Kojima pushed his ideas through development, and the resulting Metal Gear was a success. Its unusual focus on tactics and evasion – along with a smattering of combat, exploration and a keen sense of the dramatic – made the game stand out from the action herd. Popular enough to be translated into English for the small base of MSX users in the west, Metal Gear was also programmed for the Nintendo Entertainment System – Kojima had no involvement with this conversion or its first sequel, Snakes Revenge (1990), however, and he’s since been openly critical of both. 

With Snake’s Revenge entirely missing the point of the original Metal Gear, which mystifyingly devolved into a gun-heavy action game, Kojima worked on a true sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Sadly, in spite of its success in Japan, the MSX-only sequel didn’t make it to the west for more than a decade.

After Metal Gear 2 launched in 1990, Kojima wouldn’t return to the series he began for another four years. In the intervening period, he worked on, among other things, an adventure game called Policenauts. Now, although this game was also a Japan-only release (a western Saturn version was planned, but subsequently dropped), Policenauts would have an accidental but pivotal effect on the future of Metal Gear.

Ad – content continues below

Kojima had long been obsessed with cinema – he’s among the most movie-literate developers currently working – and even the technical restrictions of the 8-bit MSX2 didn’t prevent him from trying to inject a cinematic sensibility into his games. But until Policenauts, he’d yet to find a graphic artist to match his appetite for rugged military drama. The artwork for Metal Gear or Metal Gear 2, although competent, is clearly influenced by the 80s action movies coming out of America at the time, with the box art for Metal Gear clearly modelled on a publicity shot of Michael Biehn in The Terminator.

Artist Yoji Shinkawa joined Konami in 1994, having just left university, and he made an immediate impression on the company’s output. Although influenced by western artists, from French futurist Moebius to the intricate Edwardian illustrations of Willy Pogany, he was blessed with a vibrant style all his own. Policenauts was Shinkawa and Kojima’s first collaboration, and the game coincided with a new generation of technology, which allowed full-motion video and more detailed-anime style graphics to be introduced. 

(As well as a hit in its own right in Japan, Policenauts also introduced the character Meryl Silverburgh, who would later become a regular supporting member of the Metal Gear cast in years to come.)

Although 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, a 3D, more detailed and realistic reimagining of the original Metal Gear, was absolutely Kojima’s concept, with its dark characters and story, the role Shinkawa played in its creation shouldn’t be underestimated. In his hands, Solid Snake became more than another videogame soldier; Shinkawa’s art gave Snake real presence and charisma, while the artist’s sense of movement, form and colour can be seen in everything from the environments, to the mecha design, to the look of the faintly terrifying villain, Psycho Mantis.

Metal Gear Solid did more than just re-establish the Metal Gear series for a new generation of consoles. It introduced a means of working cinema-style storytelling into videogames which has since become a common practice, while its effortlessly cool, sometimes beautiful visual style – a fusion of US military hardware and Japanese sci-fi – has inspired developers everywhere. 

With Metal Gear Solid, Kojima and Shinkawa created a basis for a new series that has continued to evolve over the past 15 years, from full-blown sequels to mobile phone side-stories. It’s telling that, although the series is exploring radically different, combat-heavy territory with this year’s Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Kojima and Shinkawa’s fingerprints are still all over this latest entry in an infinitely adaptable franchise.

Ad – content continues below

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is due out on the 22 February for the PlayStation 3.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.