Like many, I’m sure, my introduction to video games was through the NES. As someone who was born in the mid-‘80’-s, I missed out on Atari, the industry crash and there was no arcade presence in my small town. Sega nearly lured me away from the brand that had hooked me into video games with their slick commercials, “blast processing” and Sonic the Hedgehog, but in the great 16-bit war, I chose the Super Nintendo. As consoles transitioned into 3-D, there was no doubt in my mind what console I would choose. Super Mario 64 was so incredible, and besides, what the heck is a PlayStation? Is that the name of an arcade or a console?
I can’t be the only one who chose the Nintendo 64 in that generation and was disappointed by the decision that they made. I can’t deny I didn’t spend hours playing Nintendo classics like the above mentioned Super Mario 64, Rare developed titles like Diddy Kong Racing, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still one of my favorite games of all time, but just owning a Nintendo 64 in that generation was rough. You would have to wait months between new releases and the N64’s biggest selling feature, multiplayer, meant little to me because I only really cared about single-player games. Meanwhile magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly would have pages of previews for amazing looking titles coming to the Sony PlayStation, many of which came from franchise that defected to the console from Nintendo like Mega Man and Castlevania.
The first time a non-Nintendo console entered our house was in Christmas of 1999. My older brother got one for Christmas that year, and one of the many games he got for it was Metal Gear Solid. For one reason or another, I missed Metal Gear on the NES, mostly because I played side-scrolling action games like Mega Man, so I had no nostalgia for the franchise. When it was coming out in 1998, I don’t even think it even registered on my radar, as all I could think about was Ocarina of Time. With no real expectations for what Metal Gear Solid was, I sat down to watch my brother play it, and within moments I went from being an observer to counting down the minutes until my he went out with his friends so I could have the PlayStation all to myself.
Video games now feature thousands of lives of recorded dialogue and utilize full production studios to capture actors for their cut-scenes. What you have to understand is that playing strictly on video games consoles in the ‘90’-s – our family wouldn’t own a PC until 1996 – there was no real expectation of presentation or story. I should preface this by saying that JRPG’s were lost on me, so I missed beloved games from Square like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. Video games had stories sure, but they were overly basic like rescue the princess or stop the mad scientist from taking over the world. This was for the most part true even on the Nintendo 64, a platform dominated by mostly platformers and party games. Metal Gear Solid on the other hand was like a movie, but a movie you could play, and not in a way like those FMV games that were on the Sega CD.
In the opening moments of Metal Gear Solid, the player as retired legendary soldier Solid Snake are being inserted via a one-main submarine into the fictional island of Shadow Moses in Alaska which has been overtaken by terrorists. While your insertion into the island is happening, credits are being displayed on-screen – just like in a movie – which is something that is normally reserved for when you finished games, not at the start. Upfront you knew the names of the actors – or at least, you thought you did as many had pseudonyms – the producers, and the author behind the entire game: Hideo Kojima, who would go on to become a household name for video game fans after this game.
Your simple goal at the start is to make it from the back of a warehouse to an elevator in the front, avoiding detection from the guards on patrol. Should the player wish, you can complete this task without ever confronting an enemy, or you can sneak up behind them and snap their neck. As a teenager of the age of fifteen, I chose the latter option and I knew once I did, it would be hard to go back to playing Banjo-Kazooie.
There’s a level of maturity on display in Metal Gear Solid in both its story design and gameplay that was unlike anything I had ever played before. You weren’t a cartoon character collecting widgets or racing go-karts, you were a lone soldier, albeit a highly trained one, thrown behind enemy lines with nothing but your skills and wits to keep you safe. Metal Gear Solid is clearly inspired by Hollywood action films, yet it still managed to weave in themes about genetic experimentation, nuclear proliferation and man’s predisposition to war into its story line. It did so through lengthy cut-scenes and radio conversations via a futuristic radio called a codec, and while you were probably doing more watching than playing, you were engrossed by the story because of the direction of the actors by Kris Zimmerman and the actors themselves. Metal Gear Solid would put names like David Hayter and Jennifer Hale on the map, and it’s because of the sincerity of the performances that you took characters with names like Solid Snake, Revolver Ocelot and Psycho Mantis seriously.
Complementing Metal Gear Solid’s gripping story was its expertly paced campaign which also didn’t make you want to put your DualShock down. At its core, Metal Gear Solid is a stealth action game where you’re rewarded more for being sneaky and quiet than going guns blazing. What kept me coming back was that the game always kept throwing something new at me without ever becoming obnoxious, save the ending maybe where you have to backtrack through a large area to change a key by freezing and heating it. Metal Gear Solid has countless set-pieces, like a sniper battle in a snowstorm and rappelling down a building while you’re getting chased by a helicopter that you fight on a rooftop shortly afterwards. All are weaved organically into the game, and rarely, again except for the end, do any of them feel forced or out of place both in the game’s design and in its fiction.
The terrorists occupying the base, made up of a defecting military unit that Solid Snake was once a part of, make up some of the best bosses in a video game outside of a collection of robot masters. From the hand-to-hand brawl with the cyborg ninja, getting chased in a freezing warehouse by the mini-gun toting Vulcan Raven and the fight with the Metal Gear mechanical monstrosity itself, there isn’t really a bad boss fight in Metal Gear Solid. One of the more unforgettable moments in this game that showed how important games could be as an effective storytelling moment is the fight with Psycho Mantis. It may seem silly now, but when he breaks the fourth wall, requesting you to place your controller on the ground only to then “move it with his mind” haunted me the first time it happened. How you topple him: by putting your controller in the second controller port so he can’t read your mind is similarly unforgettable.
October 21 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the date Metal Gear Solid was published in North America, and although I wouldn’t come to discover it over a year after that, the moment I did, it changed me forever. Metal Gear Solid showed me how video games could be an effective storytelling medium on par, and in some respects better given its themes, than movies. The Christmas of 1999, I went from never owning a PlayStation to being envious of those with them and started to expect more from the video games I played. I owe all of that to Metal Gear Solid, a series I barely knew of before to one I would buy consoles for just to play future entries in.