Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .01

Kept you waiting, huh? (That's the last time I'll do that joke, I promise.)

Welcome to the first proper episode of Metal Gear May Madness, a serial blog in which I'm chronicling my efforts to make it through eight core titles in the Metal Gear franchise before the end of this month. If you missed my first post and aren't entirely sure what's going on here, I'd recommend checking out Episode .00 for the finer details on what I'm up to. First up is the game that started it all - 1987's Metal Gear.

Episode .01 - Metal Gear

Metal Gear's stealth gameplay must have been groundbreaking in 1987

One of the most persistent thoughts I kept revisiting throughout my playthrough of Metal Gear was, "This must have been revolutionary to play when it came out". If ever a game has epitomised the phrase 'ahead of its time', it's Metal Gear. Released in 1987, Metal Gear boasts a surprisingly sophisticated story, and gameplay systems that must have seemed mind-blowingly innovative twenty-five years ago. Take the stealth mechanics, for example - it's possible to sneak around enemies and dispatch them silently, an approach that can't have been common in a world where action equated to the likes of the Rambo-esque Contra and Commando. Or the Codec (dubbed a 'Transceiver' here), the in-game communications device that provides both gameplay hints and story exposition. While both are fairly rudimentary early incarnations of their respective concepts, they represent a completely different way to make the player feel like a one-man infiltration machine. These innovations are layered over a more conventional Metroidvania game structure that's punctuated with keycards, cardboard boxes and RC missiles, making Metal Gear feel like a solid blueprint for all the games that followed. I also can't speak positively about this game without mentioning the boss fights, which are easily among the strongest portions of gameplay - a trend that later games in the franchise continued.

It's unfortunate that all too often, that initial thought was immediately followed up by, "Geez, this really doesn't hold up that well, does it?". See, conceptually I love everything that makes up Metal Gear. I just didn't have any fun actually playing it. Paradoxically, some of that is actually down to the gameplay systems I've just praised. While the stealth mechanics must have been revolutionary back then, they feel positively draconian in 2013 - soldiers have linear rather than conical fields of vision and no apparent sense of hearing, a fact you can abuse to sneak round them at ridiculously close distances. The nature of the game's Alert Mode also means it's very easy to lose your pursuers, in most cases simply by moving onto another screen. While the structure of the game is a solid enough precursor to what the series later became, the lack of player direction and the obtuse methods of obtaining some items often reduce the act of playing Metal Gear to an exercise in trial and error, trying every keycard against every door until something finally gives.

The transceiver may be simplistic, but it's a clear indication of where the series was heading

I'm willing to admit that at least some of this criticism is probably borne by my decision to play through the game on Easy difficulty, a choice that I spent most of my subsequent time with the game deeply regretting. Easy difficulty makes Solid Snake much more resistant to enemy attacks, all but negating the impetus to avoid detection by the enemy. Knowing I wouldn't be in much danger if I was spotted made me play the game much more recklessly than I maybe should have done, a fact that's reflected in the number of alerts I triggered during my short time with the game - a whopping 133. When I originally played the game back in 2006, I did so on Original difficulty, and I don't recall being able to approach it in such a careless manner - quite the opposite actually, I remember Metal Gear being pretty unforgiving. It was a decision made in the interest of keeping this challenge viable, but one that's unfortunately sullied my memory of my initial experience with the game.

I've captured my end-game statistics and embedded them below, if that kind of thing interests you. I'm definitely less than happy with the number of alerts I triggered and the number of enemies I took out, figures that I hope to improve on in the other games.

That's the first game in the series under my belt, and we're only four days through the month, so even at this early stage I'm making steady progress in line with my prediction in Episode .00. Next up is Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, a game which currently holds the honour of being the only instalment in the core Metal Gear franchise that I haven't played before. I'll be hoping to change that in the next few days, so be sure to keep an eye out for another episode of Metal Gear May Madness coming soon. Until then, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.



Currently playing - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (PS2)

Posted by Demoskinos

Hmm, I've never played the MSX version of Metal Gear I've always meant too. You mention the lack of sound detection by the enemies I think that might have been actually a pretty high technical feat to accomplish back then. I'm not going to say I'm an expert programmer or anything but I do positively remember playing Metal Gear Solid 1 and being blown away at how "complex" the AI was. In hind sight the MGS1 AI feels entirely exploitable as well especially if your good at deciphering patterns.

You're right though that by what were used to today it is absolutely draconian but I can't help but think you might have been a tad harsh on it. Good write up though! I was wondering when we would see the first installment. We're already 4 days in so... seems that you might be on pace to finish up. Good luck!

Posted by dankempster

@demoskinos: If you're a fan of the series (and based on your March exploits I'm assuming you are), I'd highly recommend checking out Metal Gear if you can, if only as an interest piece. It's pretty awesome seeing the foundations of the franchise, especially in light of how similar the games are structurally and mechanically. I'm definitely being unfair on the game by calling it out on its lack of noise detection. I don't think I was expecting the game to feature it - as you say, it would have been an incredibly tall ask on such primitive hardware. There's no denying tt does make the AI easily exploitable though, and that did hamper my enjoyment of the game somewhat. If I'd played it twenty-five years ago I'd most likely have felt differently. It's impressive what the game does manage to achieve, but it also feels like Kojima's presumed vision for the game is held back by the hardware, if that makes sense. I didn't make that very clear in the blog itself.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Are you playing the PS2 version of Metal Gear? Some things are touched up, so you may be getting a false impression of how revolutionary it was. Not from a gameplay perspective, mind you, but a story one. I think they even cleaned up the portraits to conform more to modern canon. Metal Gear 2, on the other hand, takes the foundation from the first game and just runs with it. It's pretty much a 2D version of Metal Gear Solid.

These innovations are layered over a more conventional Metroidvania game structure that's punctuated with keycards, cardboard boxes and RC missiles, making Metal Gear feel like a solid blueprint for all the games that followed.

I'd go with more of a Zelda feel, personally, even though those two genres are pretty damn close to each other. If I were to map out the evolution of gaming genres, I'd place stealth games as an off-shoot of Zelda-esque action adventure games, along with Metroidvania.

The nature of the game's Alert Mode also means it's very easy to lose your pursuers, in most cases simply by moving onto another screen.

I thought that was the NES version only. The MSX version has a 2-exclamation point feature that makes screen jumping impossible. But yea, the key cards in early Metal Gear games sucked ass. How does the security work there, again?

I should mention now that you're omitting Ghost Babel in this feature. I thought it was alright, but it feels like Metal Gear fans don't even know the thing exists.

Posted by dankempster

@video_game_king: Yeah, it's the PS2 port of the MSX version. I'm aware it's got an updated translation, but to my knowledge they didn't alter the nature or delivery of any of the story beats. I'd also agree with the comparisons to Zelda, but as you say yourself, all those sub-genres are pretty closely related. As for the alert stuff, Metal Gear has two types - one exclamation mark alerts can be evaded by leaving the screen, two exclamation mark alerts can't. Maybe it was because I was playing on Easy difficulty, but I encountered way more of the former than the latter. The keycard business is a nightmare - each level of keycard is treated as a separate inventory item, so unless you keep a noted map, it means trying every keycard on every door until you strike it lucky. Metal Gear Solid treated the keycard as a single item, with each level of keycard being able to unlock all lower-level doors in addition to the numbered level. It wasn't until MGS2 that they removed the requirement to equip the card in order to unlock doors though, if memory serves me.

Regarding Ghost Babel, I actually played it a few years back - here's a blog detailing my thoughts on it. I'm not playing it as part of the challenge because its story doesn't fall within the canonical timeline of the core series, but I'm well aware of its existence and I think it's a pretty cool game to boot.

Posted by Video_Game_King
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

Ah! Metal Gear! This was one of those games I didn't quite get as a kid, but I loved watching my dad play it, especially for the story elements. At eight years old, it felt like I was watching a movie of sorts, and I remember being utterly fascinated by the non-cartoony nature of the game (most of my games up until that point had consisted of Mario or Sierra adventure games, so seeing a military-focused game was kind of neat).

I went back a year or two ago and tried to replay Metal Gear, and unfortunately, I just couldn't do it. As you've said, the mechanics just don't hold up today, and there's just no reason to play it after the superior Metal Gear Solid games. I do sorta wish the series would see a reboot, or shift focus away from the Snake/Raiden duo back to a more military-focused espionage/spy game. But for now, I think the Metal Gear games are pretty spectacular, and I can't wait to read the rest of this series.

Posted by natetodamax

Nice blog! I was thinking about checking out the first two games because they're included in the HD collection. It doesn't seem like they're too long so I should be able to bang them out relatively quickly, though I could be wrong.

I recently finished the Metal Gear series for the first time, and overall I thought it was fantastic. Hopefully I'll have time to blog about it tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to your next entries!