When talking about video games with someone for an extended period, inevitably the question gets asked: “What’s your favorite game of all-time?” It’s one I’ve never been able to answer. The best I could give might be a top 10 list, and even then, I’d be agonizing over omitting a sentimental favorite. If you ask me what game had the most impact on me though, it’s a question I can answer immediately: Metal Gear Solid for the original PlayStation. More than any other game, MGS redefined what video games could be. On the 25th anniversary of the release of the original Metal Gear, I can think of no more fitting tribute than to discuss what a landmark moment Metal Gear Solid was in my gaming life.
I was 14 when Metal Gear Solid released in the U.S. Like 99.999% of the kids growing up in America in the 1980′s, I hadn’t heard of the MSX; therefore, I hadn’t heard of the Metal Gear series. And yeah, I know the original title released on the NES (and was followed up by a terrible “sequel” call Snake’s Revenge), but the game had eluded my radar. I was far too focused on Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, and pretty much anything else Nintendo Power magazine highlighted. The same would ring true of Metal Gear Solid; somehow I missed any and all preview coverage of the triumphant return of Hideo Kojima’s titular protagonist Solid Snake. There was a news stand store right next to the place where I got my hair cut as a teenager. Typically after getting sheared, I would talk my Mom into letting me pick up a magazine or two to check out. After one particular haircut, I happened upon an issue of a PlayStation magazine (it may have been OPM; I honestly can’t remember the name) that came bundled with a shiny new demo disc. I can’t remember what other previews were packaged on that disc, which is a shame considering I picked it up for one of those other games. What I do remember for sure is one of the demos on this disc was for a title by the name of Metal Gear Solid.
I eventually fired up the Metal Gear Solid demo, unsure what I was about to get myself into. For those who have played MGS, the demo covered the very beginning of the game: the traversal through the dock area, up the cargo elevator, and sneaking by guards on the surface to infiltrate the compound. The demo was subtitled in English, but all of the dialog was spoken in its original Japanese. I had never played a stealth game before, and I didn’t do very well at first. I would routinely get sighted by guards (!) and video cameras, and died often. I remember once getting pissed off that I was outside the giant door that served as the compound entrance and couldn’t figure out how to open it. Somehow, I missed the bit of dialog that explained I needed to crawl in through an air shaft. Despite my frustrations, there was something endearing about the demo that kept me coming back try after try. Eventually, I learned the proper way to sneak around, and was proud to finally make it through the demo without killing a guard or setting off any alerts. It certainly whetted my appetite for the game, and I eagerly anticipated its release.
That said, we weren’t by any means wealthy at the time, and I bought most of my games pre-owned well after they were released. While I knew I wanted to check out Metal Gear Solid, I figured I would have to wait until later on, so I put it out of my head. A few months later, I was in my local Blockbuster looking for something to occupy me over a long holiday weekend. I happened upon their last copy of MGS, and remembered I had enjoyed the demo, so I figured I would give it a shot. The initial thing that struck me upon firing up the game for the first time was the quality of the voice acting. You have to remember, most games back then didn’t have any voice acting, and most of the ones that did amounted to a few one liners being spouted off by a couple of characters. You certainly expected any games that had a deep story to require a ton of reading, like Final Fantasy VII. But as soon as I heard David Hayter’s first lines as Solid Snake – “This is Snake. Colonel, can you hear me?” – I knew this game would be different. It felt, as many people will tell you, like you were watching an engrossing action/spy film.
I quickly went through the same stuff I experienced in the demo, eager to check out the mysterious facility I had infiltrated all those times. Upon entering, I got to really experience what MGS was all about: studying guard patterns, eyeing the sweeps of watchful security cameras, and picking just the right moment to pass through an area unseen. As with anyone playing Metal Gear for the first time, you get caught a lot, and then it’s a frantic race to shoot fast, get away, and find a hiding spot to wait for the alert to pass. Playing the game felt like a constant adrenaline rush; the sneaking served to keep a steady tension in the air at all times. The story, which begins as a seemingly simple mission to stop a group of terrorists from activating a nuclear weapon, doesn’t wait long to begin delivering the Metal Gear series’ trademark twists and turns. The best part about it is Solid Snake’s dialog was written in such way that his reaction to sudden plot twists often mirrored that of the player; he’s just as much in the dark as you are. When the government hostages you encounter drop dead right when you’re about to save them, you suspect there’s more going on than what’s on the surface, and so does Snake. That first night, I planned on only playing for an hour or two. I ended up turning in a marathon six-hour session.
The characters were as memorable as the winding plot. From Solid Snake, the bad-ass soldier/spy, to the mission’s commander Roy Campbell. There was the flirtatious doctor Naomi Hunter who held a treacherous secret, and the delightfully awkward Otacon. The villains of defunct special forces group FOXHOUND were Bond-esque with their unique names and talents. Liquid Snake, the psychotic terrorist leader. The gunslinging Revolver Ocelot. Psycho Mantis, the insane telepath. The cunning Sniper Wolf. Vulcan Raven, the enormous and stoic shaman. And that’s just naming a handful. Each character was memorable in their own way, whether through memorable dialog (Metal Gear?!), or their actions. I can’t think of a game, even today, that had as memorable a group as Metal Gear Solid has, and your investment in them, no matter if you were rooting for them or (in the case of the baddies) for their comeuppance. They, as much as the driving narrative, made it impossible to put the controller down.
The game grabbed a hold of me that weekend, and refused to let go. I was enthralled by all of Metal Gear Solid’s iconic moments: Revolver Ocelot “giving” the mysterious Cyborg Ninja a hand. How does Psycho Mantis know I played Symphony of the Night? Being forced to leave a wounded Meryl seemingly dying in a snow-covered corridor. Single-handedly destroying a tank, and then a Hind D. A grueling sniper battle during an intense snow storm. The first time you laid eyes on Metal Gear REX. What blew me away even more were all of the shocking plot twists: Liquid is my twin brother? “Grey Fox! No doubt about it!” Naomi’s revenge-fueled double cross. Finding out the DARPA chief you spoke to wasn’t who he appeared to be. The deception of “Master Miller.” And the coup de grace: finding out while you thought you were deactivating REX, you ended up being the lynchpin in the plan of the very people you were attempting to stop. I had never experienced a game with so many memorable scenes, so many jaw-dropping “WTF” moments.
Was it hard to follow? Hell yeah! Upon beating the game, I remember literally writing all of the twists down on a piece of paper just so after the fact I could rationalize in my head, “Yes, all this shit really did happen!” Metal Gear was the first game I ever played that didn’t hold your hand through the story, didn’t apologize for the complexities of its plot. The gripping story drove the experience forward like no game ever had. I beat Metal Gear Solid (the first time) in 18 hours. It happened that weekend. I couldn’t put the game down. I ended up playing it through twice more before returning it to Blockbuster (it goes a lot quicker when you can skip over many of the conversations). I will tell you, I’m not the type of gamer that can play through a game a second time right after beating it. I did it with MGS.
This is why Metal Gear Solid amazed me so, because it was able to tell a story in a way no game had ever been able to before. The combination of tense action, dramatic cut scenes, and uncompromising plot made this the first game to feel almost Hollywood-like. It showed me game stories didn’t have to be an after-thought. Sure, RPG’s had come before and addressed adult themes in their plots. None had come before that tied everything together, that had the steady pacing Metal Gear Solid did. Hell, it was better than most movies in the sense that a movie only has about two hours to tell its story (and it was MGS, not the Marvel movies, that taught me you had better pay attention after the credits). Even the longest films can only squeeze in so much. What’s more, it proved it could be done in a genre outside of the Role-Playing realm, which previously was one of the few places to turn for truly solid gaming stories. It marked a personal turning point for me, when I realized more than ever that games could be more than “games,” and that excited me for the future of the medium. It may not be a perfect game by any means (even for its time, the camera and controls weren’t the greatest), but no game ever struck me the way that Metal Gear Solid did, and no game truly has since.