The unforgiving Alaskan winter chills you to the bone. Security is definitely beefed up here. Not only are there more armed patrols, but searchlights are running across the launch pad and surveillance cameras are scattered everywhere. There’s no way you can just walk right in through the front door either. The clock is ticking. There are only 18 hours left in the terrorist’s demands before they do the unthinkable. You take a drag from a cigarette and look through your binoculars. You frantically try to come up with a solution. Suddenly it dawns on you that this is only the beginning.
It’s been 20 years since gamers first experienced that moment, yet it still manages to instil feelings of both awe and dread.
Released on the PlayStation on September 3rd, 1998, Metal Gear Solid is truly a rare experience in the gaming world. Helmed by the now legendary game creator Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid created an unforgettable game experience by combining stealth action innovations with groundbreaking cinematic presentation, epic boss battles, and even fourth-wall breaking moments. 20 years later, Metal Gear Solid still manages to immerse players in a way few games are capable of.
Stealth action games had been around long before Metal Gear Solid arrive on the scene; the Metal Gear franchise itself having already begun with the 1987 predecessor, Metal Gear. What the MG series (and in particular Metal Gear Solid) contributed to the genre was a uniquely tense balance of danger and opportunity. A robust AI system meant that the stakes were raised – enemies would investigate loud noises or even footprints left behind by the player. Conversely, players could knock on walls to divert an enemies attention. Guards aren’t the only thing in the players way either; cameras are everywhere, but players can deal with them in a few ways. These digital eyes can either be bypassed by sliding up underneath their blind spot or knocked out with chaff grenades. Unfortunately, those very same grenades also knock out the player’s radar. If the player is caught, the enemy will call in reinforcements to hunt you down. The player can then hide, but they must remain out of sight through three Alert phases. This constant back and forth with the game’s mechanics is tense but fair, achieving a perfectly balanced experience that stealth games to this day struggle to replicate.
Players take control of Solid Snake, an ex-Special Forces agent called out of retirement after his former unit goes rogue and threatens to launch a nuke from the remote Shadow Moses Island. Snake is tasked with rescuing two hostages held by the now terrorists in what is a pretty straightforward story that quickly becomes complicated as both hostages seemingly die of heart attacks shortly after Snake’s infiltration of the island. If it sounds convoluted, well, welcome to Metal Gear but these two events, expertly told through the game’s cutscenes and superb voice acting, expand both the scope of the story and the development of the game’s characters. As the game unfolds the story begins to incorporate larger themes like nuclear proliferation, the human genome project, and the impact of our genes in a way that is both believable and absolutely enthralling.
The game’s heavy use of cutscenes serves two purposes: to effectively communicate all these themes that Hideo Kojima is trying to convey and to almost make the player forget they are playing a video game. With an endless love of cinema, Kojima pushes the gaming medium to its absolute cinematic limit. President of the military defense subcontractor ArmsTech, Kenneth Baker, delivers a powerful speech on the failure of nuclear arms agreements is interspersed with clips of real-life nuclear detonations. Meanwhile, everything involving antagonist Cyborg Ninja bleeds pure, visual spectacle. When the Ninja is around, limbs are lost, soldiers are disemboweled, and scientists literally wet their pants.
None of these wild elements could come close to being believable if it weren’t for the fantastic voice performances of the game’s cast.
David Hayter’s iconic guttural tone as Solid Snake instantly portrays him as a video game badass. Hayter fully embodies the range of Snake; one minute he talks about fighting an old comrade in a minefield, the next he mourns the capture of a close ally during the story. There is also an eager determination to Campbell’s niece Meryl Silverburgh, a soldier out to prove her own worth, expertly captured by Mae West. Christopher Randolph’s nervous waver captures the quiet optimism of Otacon, an ArmsTech developer whose friendship with Snake changes the course of both their lives. And of course, there is the sneering disdain of villain Liquid Snake, the genetic twin of Solid Snake.
Each of the game’s bosses has unique attributes and with names like Revolver Ocelot, Cyborg Ninja, and Vulcan Raven, players are immediately aware that these guys are not here to mess around. Every boss in Metal Gear Solid works like a puzzle; generally, there is a strategy to boss fights that makes total sense in retrospect. Of course chaff grenades knock out the techno-enabled Cyborg Ninja! On top of that, the bosses are all full-fledged characters themselves – the game almost makes the player feel bad for killing them thanks to their death speeches. With her dying breaths, Sniper Wolf reveals she suffered a lifetime of persecution, only joining FoxHound to extract her revenge on the world. Vulcan Raven expresses fear and revulsion of both Solid and Liquid Snake. And the gas mask wearing Psycho Mantis reveals a tragic childhood of neglect and torment, ultimately resulting in the destruction of his soul.
The telepathic Psycho Mantis breaks the fourth wall multiple times, thoroughly blurring the boundary between the player and Solid Snake. Snake is surprised when Mantis reads his mind but the player is completely aghast as he reads off every single Konami game on their memory card. Mantis even speaks directly to the player, telling them he will move their controller right before it vibrates violently. Mantis will also block any input on the controller upon attack, the screen will even briefly appear black with a green “HIDEO” logo in the corner. The only way to work around this is by plugging the controller into the second controller port on your console in a brilliant bit of fourth wall deconstruction. I can honestly say I have never encountered a boss battle quite like it and am yet to be as shocked by a game since.
All these elements combine in the end for one hugely satisfying conclusion. At the climax, players are treated to two high stakes boss battles, an intense chase sequence, and one lingering question on the impact of our genetics on our destinies and, perhaps best of all, the game closes out with The Best is Yet to Come, an original song in Irish Gaelic. To this day I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but tears almost always well up in my eyes when I hear it. Equally haunting yet surprisingly hopeful, this beautiful song perfectly encapsulates the player’s experience with the game and Snake’s personal journey on Shadow Moses.
Although the medium is still quite young, there has recently been heated debate over whether or not video games can be classified as art.
At this point, it’s clear that that question was answered 20 years ago, with a game called Metal Gear Solid.