How Kojima’s iconic series has managed to stay fresh, inventive, and brilliant after almost thirty years.
For nearly thirty years, Hideo Kojima’s seminal stealth series has enthralled gamers with its gripping gameplay, detailed worlds, and its bonkers plot. Like Vamp himself, Metal Gear Solid doesn’t seem capable of dying. Whereas other long-running franchises have languished in the face of irrelevancy, the adventures of Snake seem to get stronger and stronger with each passing decade.
It all started in 1987.
Released for the MSX2, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear was something of a revelation. It’s slow, methodical pace was born out of necessity, as the MSX2’s hardware was not suitable for face-paced, bullet-ridden gameplay. Kojima’s superiors were sceptical of the stealth-based nature of the game but their doubts were put to rest as Metal Gear became a resounding success. The legendary designer has made no secret about the Metal Gear series’ film inspirations; with 1963’s The Great Escape being the most powerful influence. The theme of “running away from the enemy” served as a foundation to Metal Gear’s stealth-based gameplay, as the WWII film evoked the familiarly oppressive settings of patrolling guards, spotlights and tall walls. In addition, Kojima wanted to capture the thrill of the more action-packed scenes, citing the scene where Steve McQueen and his 250 cohorts attempt to break out of the prison under the noses of the Nazi guards. When he was first approached to make a war game, this was the scene that popped into the game-maker’s head; a moment that captured the thrill of hiding. A sequel – Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake – followed in 1990 but it wasn’t until Snake’s foray into the third dimension that the world truly became aware of Kojima’s epic series.
Released in 1998 for the PlayStation, Metal Gear Solid was a landmark videogame. It introduced many of the familiar tropes now seen in the series, such as its cinematic cutscenes, philosophical and political themes, as well as David Hayter as Solid Snake. In truth, it could be seen that MGS is merely a 3D recreation of Metal Gear 2, as there is quite a lot both games have in common in terms of gameplay and structure. Still, there really was nothing like it at the time thanks to those fancy polygons. The ‘3D environment’ of Metal Gear was in fact inspired by John Romero’s zombie opus, the 1979 film Dawn of the Dead. More specifically, the shopping mall which the film is placed is displayed as the ultimate environment; where the survivors can access a multitude of different tools and items and escape the undead menace. The complexity of such a building is highlighted within Solid Snake’s own play-area; with air vents, crawlspaces, crates and a variety of other hiding places providing solace for the player whilst enabling enjoyment via experimenting with the ‘playground’. The soldiers were the ‘zombies’ – enemies to be dealt with while the player was in a tight space. Similarly, the original Metal Gear titles had players fumbling for key-cards in order to open the right doors. This was an intentional homage to DOTD, where a character tries to find the right key before he is attacked by a zombie.
The filmic influences were much more obvious in PS2’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. With the Terminator-inspired opening, to ‘Snake Plissken’, and the anime-inspired Solidus Snake, it was clear that Hideo Kojima relished in the newfound fame of Metal Gear. What was also clear was that the man refused to rest on his laurels. MGS2 was perhaps the first clear sign that he wasn’t averse to reinventing the wheel (for better or worse). Truly, Sons of Liberty was one of the most talked-about videogames of all time and the reason can be summed-up in one word: Raiden.
In a sense, Raiden was the representation of Hideo Kojima’s anarchic artistic vision. A white haired pretty boy who replaced the grizzled Solid Snake after the game’s Tanker prologue, he was deliberately hidden from preview events until people actually got their mitts on the game itself. Reasons for this choice ranged from Kojima’s insistence that it would be fun ‘working’ with Snake (rather than ‘being’ him) to appeasing female gamers with his cosmetically-pleasing looks. It wasn’t just Raiden that caused a stir within Metal Gear fandom – there were other things, too. The incredibly long cutscenes, the complicated philosophical themes, as well as the continuous shattering of the fourth-wall all ensured that MGS2 was a truly unforgettable, postmodern experience.
The 2004 prequel, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, was a continuation of this ‘always evolve’ ideology. Though the irony in bringing the story back to 1964 in order to ‘evolve’ is obvious to all, it was clear that Hideo Kojima viewed Metal Gear as a franchise that had to be memorable and unique with each passing sequel. As if he relished in trolling the vicious anti-Raiden fanbase, he gave the limelight to Big Boss – a guy who was Snake, but wasn’t really Snake. Such blatant subversion of fan expectations seemed to become the rule, rather than the exception. The gameplay itself was always growing in new ways, too. Instead of industrial bases, Snake now trawled the jungles of Russia as he stalked foes, hunted for food, and mended injuries like some proto-Bear Grylls.
Solid Snake finally returned in 2008 with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, but in that true Kojima style, he was a little worse for wear. True, fans finally got to play as the nicotine-addicted Kurt Russell-alike after seven long years, but he was no longer as spritely as he once was. His back ached, he was wracked with coughing fits, and he now looked like a 70 year-old. Still, he had a rockin’ ‘stache, so it all wasn’t so bad.
MGS4 was further proof that this was a franchise that simply refused to stand still. Who else would’ve taken an iconic videogame character like Snake, and give him a life expectancy of six months? Who else would make the poor guy suffer asthma, nanomachine-induced strokes, knife wounds, facial burns, broken bones and being cooked in a microwave? Not only that, but the overall tone of the game was a depressing one; the theme of mortality and finality was always prevalent – as was the increasing absence of humanity in the face of the military and political system.