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The Mad, Unlikely Genius of ‘Metal Gear Solid’

Twenty years since the release of the Japanese espionage classic, the original game’s legacy has been obscured by its sequels. Time to bring ‘Metal Gear’ Solid back into the light.

Konami/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Spy games could have been different. In 1997, U.K. video game developer Rare finished its work on GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo’s first console of the 3D gaming era, the Nintendo 64. GoldenEye 007 adapted the latest James Bond movie, GoldenEye, released in theaters two years earlier. The game’s iconic levels visited the movie’s various settings—Russia, Central Asia, Monte Carlo, and, climatically, Cuba. In the core single-player mode, the player could sprint from one mission objective to the next, hurling gunfire and explosions at the countless, implaccable guards in their way.

Ostensibly, GoldenEye 007 was an espionage game, based on the world’s most famous espionage franchise, starring the world’s most famous spy. But practically, GoldenEye 007 was a classic shooter, modeled after popular arcade brawler Virtua Cop. GoldenEye was an action game, and fair enough: GoldenEye is truly an action movie. Still, GoldenEye was a massive, unexpected hit. It outsold even The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the game’s multiplayer mode—a developer’s afterthought that barely even made it into the official release—was a gaming sensation. The game’s commercial success and critical acclaim might have threatened to remake all of espionage gaming in GoldenEye 007’s cheesy, Westernized image.

But not for long. In September 1998—little more than a year after the North American release of GoldenEye 007—Konami released Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation in Japan. That October, Konami released the game for the same console in North America. The E3 trailer promised action and, more importantly, an immersive tension: The player would be sneaking around a military base having to constantly—and artfully—avoid detection by armed guards and surveillance equipment. The subtitle of Metal Gear Solid, “Tactical Espionage Action,” was displayed in red font against a white background on its sparse CD cover, which seemed to bill the game as a far more wonky and realistic combat simulator than GoldenEye or its first-person combat predecessors, such as Wolfenstein 3D.

In fact, the Metal Gear Solid series would go on to explore the very nature of high-tech military simulations, a key component of modern warfare. But first, it introduced the foundational elements. There’s sneaking. There are disguises. There are double-crosses. There’s torture. There are gadgets, and they’re way more sophisticated than wristwatch lasers and tossed-off mines. The player cannot simply run and gun their way through the levels in athletic silence. The game’s hero, Solid Snake, confronts a freak show legion of terrorists who are all too attentive, overwhelming, and spectacularly verbose.

The series begins with director Hideo Kojima’s first game, Metal Gear, released for the MSX2 in July 1987. Konami spun Metal Gear Solid off from two old-school MSX games, the original recipe and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, promoting the formerly 2D Solid Snake to a new generation of virtual espionage and combat. Kojima continued to direct. MSX hardware sold poorly in North America, and so most Metal Gear Solid players outside of Japan had never played the two earlier Metal Gear games. In October 1998, Metal Gear Solid was their grand introduction to a series that now continues, rebelliously, despite Kojima’s 2015 exodus from Konami.

In the 20 years since its release, Metal Gear Solid has fallen into critical obsolescence. It is a game that is too easily obscured by its sequels—especially Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater, and The Phantom Pain—which better illuminate the most intriguing corners of Kojima’s imagination, plus they play well on newer equipment. But the original Metal Gear Solid is an old, pixelated testament to Kojima’s enduring, mad genius.

The first PlayStation generation popularized the Japanese video game industry’s favorite excess—the cutscene. These are the moments in a video game when gameplay ends and cinema begins. The PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 were the inaugural consoles of the blockbuster video game era. Still, the consoles and their earliest games were so primitive that they struggled to produce realistic CG animations. GoldenEye 007 appeared only a year earlier than Metal Gear Solid, but there appears to be a decade’s worth of technological progress from the former to the latter. In GoldenEye, cutscenes are sparse, and characters do not speak; the game could not support full theatrical animation. The PlayStation was designed to support higher quality video and audio, so here’s a more appropriate comparison: Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997—again, a year before the release of Metal Gear Solid—and while the game did offer some major innovations in RPG battle cinematography, for instance, it also presented cutscenes without voice acting to create a full sense of dramatic performance. (The Final Fantasy series wouldn’t incorporate voice acting until the development of Final Fantasy X, released for the PlayStation 2 in July 2001.)

The era of campy FMV games was over. In the Metal Gear Solid cutscenes, Kojima aspired toward Hollywood blockbuster action. In a dramatic prelude to the game’s first boss fight, the old-fashioned gunslinger Revolver Ocelot introduces himself to Solid Snake with a proud, villainous diatribe about his signature weapon, a Colt Single Action Army, “the greatest handgun ever made.” Solid Snake’s archrival, Liquid Snake, the terrorist leader, turns in a wild and similarly hammy performance in the end game. But the game’s middle act, which places Snake in a bleak stretch of Alaskan wilderness littered with mines, turns to melancholy. Through fierce gun battles, Snake vanquishes Sniper Wolf and Vulcan Raven, whose respective deaths make for tragic meditations on heroism, terrorism, and the militarism that brings these forces into hopeless conversation with one another. Each boss earns their last rites. In the game’s many cutscenes, Kojima even credits the voice actors parenthetically beneath the character names that flash to underscore each new introduction: Revolver Ocelot (Patric Laine), Sniper Wolf (Julie Monroe), Vulcan Raven (Chuck Farley).

The gameplay, though. Metal Gear Solid was not the first video game to encourage stealthy discretion, but it was the first major video game to recruit so many environmental concerns—acoustics, lighting, footprints, weather, the conspicuous corpses, and even the common cold—into its gameplay. There were plenty of video games where a player might creep along walls and walk cautiously to avoid detection, but Metal Gear Solid asked players to knock on those walls and draw attention—strategically—and then neutralize opponents in any number of lethal or sedative ways. Players doesn’t just defeat enemies; ideally, they conquer an environment.

These environmental concerns, combined with a new cinematography, forged a gameplay experience that felt—and truly was—innovative, despite its more conventional elements. Functionally, navigating Solid Snake from one level’s boss to the next level’s boss—was a classic progression familiar enough to anyone who played 1980s video games like the original Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In Metal Gear Solid, the boss fights themselves were (with one famous exception) pretty conventional: The player studies the boss’s movements, identifies their weaknesses, and then rehearses an exploitative attack pattern to completion. There are moments in Metal Gear Solid when the Shadow Moses corridors are no more less sophisticated than a Game Boy map.

But the game engine affords small, transformative advantages. Occasionally, the player will have to squeeze Solid Snake through an air duct, a movement which bends the camera to a narrowed, first-person perspective; the rooms and hallway ahead look quite different this way. On foot, Solid Snake confronts a combat helicopter with a Stinger missile launcher, requiring the player to take aim across low rooftops in first-person perspective once again. Later, Snake fights Sniper Wolf, a duel which requires the player to study the dark Alaskan battleground, dusted with snow, through a rifle scope. These are simple, fleeting vistas, but they bring new life to a cold, dead island haunted by endless night.

In later games, the political and philosophical concerns become a greater, definitive share of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. The game’s immediate sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, released in November 2001, reprocessed the original Shadow Moses mission as a military simulation, starring a Solid Snake pretender, Raiden, who must mimic Solid Snake’s legendary heroics in the so-called Shadow Moses Incident. Thus, Metal Gear Solid 2 elaborated upon the original game’s concerns about nuclear proliferation, scientific exploration, the global arms trade, post-Soviet geopolitics, and the competitive micromanagement of human legacies. Metal Gear Solid 2 recontextualizes its predecessor: It posits modern heroism as a business—nothing more, nothing less—in service of empire.

In Metal Gear Solid, the top-secret, weaponized FOXDIE virus—which threatens to eradicate the Shadow Moses terrorist leaders but also Solid Snake himself—comes to symbolize the rogue soldier’s dreadful, inevitable submission to the state. The conflicted Dr. Naomi Hunter describes Solid Snake’s legacy as curse. “Each person is born with their fate written into their own genetic code. It’s unchangeable. Immutable,” Dr. Hunter tells Snake. “But that’s not all there is to life.” Following the success of Metal Gear Solid, Kojima would spend a couple decades pitting Solid Snake, his clone “brothers,” and Revolver Ocelot against Dr. Hunter’s conclusion. Kojima’s characters fight a long, bitter war that spans a full century of global conflict.

While developing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Kojima fell into his own spectacular conflict with his bosses at Konami, who began to scrub Kojima’s overabundant personal branding from the company’s marketing materials. Kojima’s vision has, at turns, proved unwieldy. So, too, did his ego. Kojima’s later Metal Gear Solid games can seem as if they succeed despite themselves. His development teams build fundamentally great gameplay experiences to support Kojima’s filibuster cutscenes about political economy, human language, and hamburgers. The series culminates with Metal Gear Solid V (which predates the original 1987 game, Metal Gear), a series of freelance missions starring Naked Snake in which the player is otherwise free to roam central Afghanistan and the borderlands between Angola and Zaire. The latest entry, Metal Gear Survive—developed using the Fox Engine and released in February—is the first entry to lack Kojima’s involvement entirely. Currently, Kojima is developing a reportedly bizarre game called Death Stranding at his own studio, Kojima Productions.

Thematically, the Metal Gear Solid ending forms the genetic code for the whole series. Together, Solid Snake and rogue soldier Meryl Silverburgh exit the Shadow Moses ruins, mounting a jet ski at dawn. They contemplate Dr. Hunter’s wisdom about genetic legacies and fate. They talk. In the end, there’s surprisingly little flirtation between these two sexy, triumphant soldiers—they’re too busy philosophizing about survival and self-determination. Solid Snake sounds optimistic; he and Meryl both sound exceedingly sentimental. “I think it’s time we look for a new path in life. A new purpose,” Snake tells Meryl.

It’s a pretty sunny conclusion for such a violent and wacky game. It sure beats the lo-res loop of James Bond and Natalya Simonova smooching brainlessly in the Cuban jungle as the GoldenEye 007 end credits roll. Metal Gear Solid sure beats knee-jerk heroism for only Her Majesty’s sake.