Why 1987’s Metal Gear Is Still Important

Before The Phantom Pain, there was Metal Gear - Hideo Kojima’s stealth game for the MSX2 computer.

In honor of the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Den of Geek is looking back at the history of Metal Gear this week. We begin with the story of the very first game in the series, the seminal Metal Gear for the MSX2 computer!

Really, it’s a miracle that the Metal Gear franchise exists at all. The original game was made for a system that few people outside Japan owned, and released by a company that had little faith in it. Yet 28 years later, Metal Gears huge: a multi-system, multi-media best-seller that is now one of the most important properties in Konami’s line-up. But back in the late 80s, Metal Gears pioneering ideas were widely frowned on in the Japanese developer’s offices.

Metal Gear designer Hideo Kojima cut an awkward figure when he began working at Konami in 1986. He’d studied economics at university, and had only become interested in video games when he picked up Super Mario Bros. a few months earlier. Super Mario was, he later said, “The game of my destiny.” Unable to program, Kojima was first hired as a planner, but his lack of technical skill often left him ostracised by his colleagues.

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Kojima’s career was almost over before it started: his first game as planner, Lost Warld (yes, that is the correct spelling) was cancelled when it was found to be too complex to run on its host machine, the MSX. With one strike already against his name, Kojima was handed a new task: make a military combat game.

One year before, Konami had scored an arcade hit with the military action game Green Beret (known in some territories as Rush N’ Attack), and Kojima’s superiors probably expected him to make something similar: a game with plenty of pace, guns, and explosions. Instead, Kojima came up with an altogether new and untested concept: what if, rather than wade into an overwhelming force head-on, you tried to sneak around it? Kojima’s bosses, it’s safe to say, weren’t especially taken with this idea. 

“If I were to work on a game based on war,” Kojima later recalled, “I wanted to do something more like The Great Escape, where you actually run away rather than just shoot. 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.'”

It’s a miracle that Kojima was allowed to continue with Metal Gear at all. In fact, a collection of old design documents, dusted off by Kojima, photographed and uploaded to his Twitter feed, give a hint at the behind-the-scenes battle to get Metal Gear made. One document, carrying the early working title Metal Gear (Intruder), has a huge, official-looking red stamp across it: “Rejected.”

Nevertheless, Kojima clearly persevered. What emerged was a game that not only made the best possible use of the MSX2’s limited hardware, but also spawned a whole new genre: the stealth game.

Metal Gear introduces Solid Snake, a soldier whose mission is to infitrate an enemy stronghold and destroy the titular weapon: a towering, walking tank capable of firing nuclear missiles.

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Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how many of the ideas which would become famous in later games – not least the equally seminal Metal Gear Solid exist here in 8-bit form. Kojima’s now-famous love for cinema is evident even in this early incarnation, with its top-down perspective and tiny grey sprites.

Unlike most games of the time, which were decidedly one-note, Metal Gear’s gameplay has real light and shade, shifting effortlessly between stealth and action set-pieces. You enter the stronghold with no weapons of any kind, and Snake is hopelessly vulnerable to attack: if you cross a guard’s line of sight, chances are you’ll be gunned down within seconds. Metal Gear sees you criss-crossing the map in search of rations, key-cards, and other items, all the while skilfully evading enemy soldiers and security systems. But gradually, increasingy powerful weapons are thrown into the mix, including a grenade launcher and an exceedingly satisfying Uzi, and the cat-and-mouse moments are occasionally punctuated by the occasional boss battle.

The game’s cinematic nature is underlined by its roster of non-player characters – including Gray Fox, who makes his franchise debut here – and abrupt turns of fortune, like the scene where you’re captured and lose everything you’ve collected. These are all trappings we take for granted in action games now, but were strikingly new back in 1987. Kojima’s fouth-wall-destroying sense of mischief makes an early showing here as well: at one point, your commander, Big Boss, will suddenly tell you to turn off your computer – a plot point that Kojima would later introduce in Metal Gear Solid 2. This all builds to a superb final-act twist, which even 28 years later, is still too good to reveal here.

Shortly after Metal Gear launched in Japan, the game began to proliferate elsewhere – though frustratingly, few got to play it as Kojima originally intended. A localized version of the game, translated for the small MSX2 market in Europe, was evidently rushed, with dreadful spelling and a severely cut-down script which left almost half of its radio conversations out altogether. 

The first version of Metal Gear to hit the U.S. wasn’t even overseen by Kojima. The NES incarnation, released later in 1987, is considerably different from the MSX2 original, with retooled graphics, increased difficulty – and, weirdly, no appearance from Metal Gear itself. It later emerged that Konami’s management had handed off development of the NES version to an entirely different design team, who were given just three months to prepare it for release. Kojima has been openly critical of the NES port and its sequel, Snake’s Revenge, designed to capitalize on that game’s western success.

All this meant that, for many years, few gamers – particularly in America – would have played or even heard of Snake’s debut on the MSX2. Fortunately, the franchise’s later success meant that the original Metal Gear was never quite forgotten – a faithful port of the MSX version (with a decent translation this time) appeared as a bonus on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (and, by extension, the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection disc).

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But even now, the MSX2 incarnation is seldom discussed as much as Metal Gear Solid, the 1998 PlayStation game which made Hideo Kojima internationally famous, and really brought the stealth genre to the masses. Yet Metal Gear remains a great game, even after all these years, where so many early series entries are interesting purely from a historical point of view – few gamers would want to spend more than a few minutes in the company of the original Street Fighter, for example – Metal Gear is a superb action game in its own right.

With the series now known as much for its cinematics as its gameplay, there’s something refreshing about Metal Gear. Made at a time when computers were incapable of dazzling our eyes with Hollywood-style cut-scenes, Kojima’s 1987 debut presents his design ideas in their purest form.

The newest Metal Gear game, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, is out today for XBO, PS4, and PC.