Looking back I could probably break down video games into 6 or maybe 7 distinct eras of gaming. Where each era was defined by distinct takes and preferences on what I was interested in playing, on which platforms, and the social aspects that went along with each. In probably my “second gaming era” sporting striped Izod shirts, jean shorts, and mid high tube socks with the red stripes on the top; in between watching Airwolf and The A-Team I was a diehard PC and NES gamer. While a space prowling female bounty hunter or dungeon battles in Phantasy Star dominated television sets for western audiences during most of 1987. I was hunting for something else, something different. One day a friend of mine was complaining about this a game he just “didn’t get”. The next day, we traded games, something that was pretty common place at school or when going to a friend’s house. I do not even remember which two carts I gave him for Metal Gear, it didn’t really matter, the rest as they say was history. Unbeknown to my friends and I who came over to play Metal Gear, we would be witnessing the birth and popularization of an entire genre.
Just like there was nothing as great as the original MTV channel, there really was nothing like Metal Gear on the gaming market. No one referred to games of this type as “stealth genre” in the late 80s, it was unheard of. As proof I searched for scans of the original Nintendo Power magazine which has the title described as an “action adventure”. We twelve year olds just referred to stealth gameplay as “sneaking around”. Sneaking around, laying traps, taking your time to get to the next screen scratching your nether regions at each black loading pause. Game historians would probably mention at this time that Castle Wolfenstein and 005 where some of the first “stealth” games ever made, and that is true. However, they did not achieve the success and following Metal Gear and it’s sequels would reach.
Developed and created by Hideo Kojima, you play Solid Snake, a rookie operative sent in to ascertain the fate of Gray Fox, FOXHOUND’s senior operative who has lost contact with the rest of the group. The game’s opening levels were unforgiving, trying to navigate through patrolling soldiers with no weapons, just your ability to run past them. As you progressed, you would find some traps, weapons and this would eventually bring you to Gray Fox. Gray Fox would explain that Metal Gear was a bipedal vertical war machine, capable of deploying nuclear warheads.
The 1987 game is laughable by today’s standards in terms of graphics and gameplay mechanics. For those that grew up hooked on Metal Gear however, it was it’s unique take on what action meant that kept people hooked. Still, it wasn’t a true game of “stealth” by today’s means. Looking at it now it was almost an “avoidance” game more so than a tactical stealth game. The game was severely limited by the hardware limitations of the NES console, none more hampering than the screen to screen loading. After it’s release and it’s quick 8bit sequel, it still wasn’t the type of game that other development houses were rushing to imitate. It was different, but the “avoidance style” would not come to end, but it would undergo a refinement period. It would be many years before Hideo Kojima could expand on significantly on this blossoming game series.
The next advancement in the series came with Metal Gear Solid, it’s hallmark release on the Playstation system over ten years after the original. This game’s release marked a time when Metal Gear began to soar in terms of both sales and popularity. By this time, other game developers were releasing their own variations on the sneaking around concept. By the late 90s with games like Thief and Hitman, it would officially be dubbed the “stealth genre”, with legions of supporting fans who craved this particular style of tactical action. The stealth genre would still be considered an offshoot of the more popular first person shooter explosion. I would revel in the change of pace from constant shooting, to the slower more methodical pace of stealth games that frowned upon reckless constant destruction.
Metal Gear Solid, it’s successor stormed into consoles (and later PC) with a new look and new means to elevate its storytelling for gamers. Once again, Solid Snake sets out to infiltrate his ex-employer, the renegade special forces unit Foxhound, this time in an icy island base near Alaska. The base was previously being used as a nuclear disposal site, and together with a stolen nuclear capable vertical tank known as Metal Gear REX (I guess these things are just lying around), the rebel forces were demanding Big Boss’s remains from the United States or face nuclear Armageddon. Extensive cutscenes wove together an even more complex story in the Metal Gear saga, with a much higher degree of cinematic flair thanks to extensive voice acting work. David Hayter instantly became an icon in the series as the English speaking voice of Solid Snake, a role he would reprise over and over again until Metal Gear 4.
The clumsy writing has resulted on some video memes being released showcasing MGS’s simplicity and repetition, mocking Solid Snake’s predilection for answering someone back in the form of a lingering question. Times has changed for me by the time 1998 rolled around. For starters I was already finished up with school, and I was a father. It is no surprise that my daughter likes stealth games more than straight up shooters. I was also embroiled in Starcraft and Half-Life, probably one of the many “great years” for games. I played the Playstation version and the PC version at a later date, while I loved them both, I began to realize that it was shame this growing series was locked into one platform for so long. Regardless of those flaws, I loved the game. I wasn’t the only one, it was a tremendous commercial success as MGS games would typically be with each release. Others had taken notice as around the late 90s you had a few options for stealth, in full 3d from first or third person perspectives for different stylistic approaches. However it proved to be Metal Gear Solid, as the most financially successful of the bunch, it’s approach and storytelling was effective. In time, another Hideo Kojima stealth game would be released, this time it wouldn’t impress me or hook me as its predecessors.
“[Kojima] the grandfather of stealth games, deserves the deep historical tour before getting to what is perhaps one of the greatest stealth games ever released. It is the culmination and refinement of nearly thirty years of Metal Gear’ing.”
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was one of the most highly anticipated games of it’s time despite launching exclusively on Sony PlayStation 2 system for over a decade. However, from where I sit, it was hardly an improvement over Metal Gear Solid. While at first it appears to be a successor to the series, but with a grander soundtrack and more polygons, however in a cheese maneuver Solid Snake is “apparently” killed. Someone built yet another Metal Gear machine, and was apparently selling it on Ebay. Oh, and let’s not forget after Snake is “dead”, he pops up as a janitor. You are no longer playing Snake however, instead you receive a replacement protagonist in Raiden. Who I found to be utterly irritating, poorly voiced, with a background I could not have cared less for. Times had also changed for me again, my stable of kids had grown. I had less patience and need to own multiple consoles need varying systems to get my gaming fix, so this title rained a little on its own stealth parade.
Other than tacking on a first person view mode to clumsily target specific body areas for your shot, there was not a whole of difference in how you were playing in MGS and MGS2. I expected another leap in terms what stealth games could do, not must “more” of everything that had previously been done.
While it failed to capture my particular attention it was a huge commercial success. Which I am pretty sure comes more from the snowball from previous games, more so than the titles ability to elevate the series. The plot was mired in several philosophical concepts that were neither fully discussed, nor woven effectively with the game’s central theme. Instead of high tension or excitement during most of the game, I was lost, drowning in a sea Hideo’s unfiltered thoughts with logical concrete boots on. It still sits as my least favorite Metal Gear game of all time, not that it was necessarily an offensively bad game. It was just a tremendous step backwards despite the flowery and grander way it presented itself.
While it was ludicrous to imagine world governments would just sit back and allow some mercenaries to constantly build MechWarrior-esque mass destruction platforms, it was harder to imagine it with the uneven explanations and pseudo-psychological reflection interjected with in every cutscene. By MGS2, not only was I older and more offspring, but also more mature and less captivated by simply “fan bliss”. Games like Splinter Cell, Fallout Tactics, Grand Theft Auto III, and Ghost Recon, were available around the same time MGS2 was launched, with PC versions for better scalability and performance. Each of those titles were pushing boundaries in strategy, stealth, and larger scope gaming. With each of those titles, offering something that Metal Gear was not. In particular Splinter Cell gained a big following because it was the sharper serious version of Metal Gear, but a concise more realistic story.
Matters would improve slightly with Metal Gear 3: Snake Eater. You go backwards on the MGS timeline to 1964 and into the role of Big Boss himself. From this vantage point, Kojima begins to draw you closer to understand how many of the game’s known story elements came to be. It was an excellent prequel, by jumping back to this point in time, the stealth gameplay in the series was deepened. This third chapter introduced survival concepts, such as hunting for food, using camouflage in the rain forest which as a whole these concepts were innovative.
Up to this point Big Boss might have been thought of as the original “bad guy” that started it all. This third chapter endeared him to many fans of Metal Gear, Kojima blurred the defined black-and-white lines set forth in his 1987 game. With this prequel, shows some of Kojima’s versatility as a game director, and once again his desire to augment what we know of stealth games in general. They could be more than just hiding in a dark empty office clonking guards that walk by. More than just shooting out candles and lights to get to other side of the street.
By taking into account your apparel, stealth gaming broke out into broad daylight action and it felt new again. Creeping up on enemies masked in jungle camouflage was great, and adding a survival aspect layer of looking for food felt more Nicaraguan guerilla warrior. It brought me back to the series with a smile, not in 2004 mind you. Once again Konami and Sony collaborated into holding down this great series to one platform for many years. Many gamers who wanted to replay this game and no longer have the hardware to do it, have turned to emulators or special edition releases on other platforms. Considering how well revamped and older games do on Steam and GoG it seems like ridiculously poor decision making at Konami. Regardless, while still not a huge revolution in terms of stealth gameplay, Metal Gear 3 was a viable link in this storied franchise chain. If you’re keeping track, 2004 when this title first released I was busy kicking anus in City 17, as Gordon Freeman. I honestly procrastinated playing through this chapter for a long while, until I heard and started to follow news of a part IV, then I wanted to play catch up, I’m glad I did. What part III accomplished was melding two unexpected genres together with the survival aspects and stealth, and it was blended so well they felt like they naturally belonged together.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots released to extensive fanfare, it was the reason many gamers ended up with a PlayStation 3 in their homes (I was one of those, I also wanted a good BluRay player). Sliding that MGS4 disc and waiting two hundred years to dive into this one felt longer than waiting for it’s release. I had one child in middle school watching the install with me. Two other little boys fighting over controllers. Jumping in you had the feeling you were going to play something truly special. It was that same tingle when Metal Gear Solid landed and it just blew mostly everything out of the water. On a slightly incredulous side note, in my research I found out that Kojima wanted to retire from MGS series entirely, and it was understandable, at the time, he had already spent nearly twenty years of his life developing Metal Gear games. Fan displeasure soon prompted Kojima to return and concluded Solid Snake’s story. Which is good thing for the series, since this chapter was really entertaining and fun.
Amazing boss battles captured the imagination, filled you with feverish expectations as each presented a unique challenge. Upon defeating the mechanical suit each opponent was in, they sprung out for a difference psychic battle afterwards. All of which were highly enjoyable. Music was excellent, I still listen to the soundtrack from time to time. It was an extremely polished game, with high production values at every turn.
Are there nitpicks with MGS4? There are. After the first couple of missions, the rest of Guns of the Patriots was pretty bland in comparison. Mission design ranged from linear, to too short, to a sudden quick turn and before you know it you are plopped into the middle of the final confrontation. The reason for this is that nearly half the game’s content was non-interactive cutscenes. You watched as much as you played.
MGS4 was extensive in what it wanted to accomplish in terms of storytelling. However, once again the uneven directorial aspect of Kojima’s repertoire would rear its badly scripted head. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge foreign film buff, especially Asian movies, I am in tune with the subtle and not so subtle differences between Asian and Western touches, mainly with it’s relevance to film. Japanese films in general often feature several reflective moments, meant to provoke emotion or deeper inner dissection of story points. So it wasn’t a problem with not “getting it” with me.
A superb example of Japanese reflective art house filmmaking is Shunji Iwai, however MGS4 is light years away from genius Japanese cinema. In fact it’s constant reliance on these slow reflective moments bogged the game down. You’d have Otacon come in babbling about nanomachines and countries using modified PMC soldiers to wage continuous wars around the world to help maintain the world’s economies in tact. To this Solid Snake will stare into space for about 10 minutes. Or watch a little girl fry eggs about 9-10 different times. What did it add to the story? Nothing. Does adding one hundred acronyms for a million different little factions, weapons, plot devices really make it more complex and deep? Or is it more like spraying mace in your eyes and the assailant gets in close while you roll around blindly and whispers “trust me this stuff is really deep”?
Regardless of all these shortcomings, like I said, Metal Gear Solid 4, was closer to a near perfect game than ever before. One of the best Metal Gears I had played, up to that point. It effectively concludes the storylines for Solid Snake, the younger protégé and clone of Big Boss, which was one of the other many great aspects to this game. Solid Snake’s moral code shaped by different experiences which obviously made him the unflinching column of good. Meanwhile, Big Boss and other long time villains and heroes, took a different path and ended up doing what they thought was better for the world. In the end, they were forced to watch it twisted into corrupt mutations of their dreams. The series has had its ups and downs, and it had already accomplished more than most games series achieve. I’ve left out some other MGS releases since they add little to overall gameplay advances we’ve covered. Keep in mind that each Metal Gear release starting with Metal Gear Solid on landed firmly in the top 50 video games of that year, usually in the top three. That alone is an incredible feat. By now, stealth is a firmly established genre, with games that do not particular focus on stealth will include stealth elements for optional use. The intelligent and tactical approach is here to stay, and clearly Metal Gear has had a huge hand in this concept over the years.
Each Metal Gear pushed the envelope into bigger or more daring storytelling. From screen to screen, to 3d isometric views, to jungle survival, all the way to bigger campaigns with sprawling active warzones and dazzling high tech weaponry on display. But could there be more to stealth games? Was this it? What could come about to significantly impact what we know as stealth games? Please follow me into the next article, where I will review The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima’s next epic release.