Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Top 50 Games - 2. Metal Gear Solid

"That's it, Snake. Hurt me more!" No, this isn't hardcore fetishistic porno-masochism on the level of "Venus In Furs", but rather a line from my second favorite video game of all time. Starring the unfortunately named Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid tells a riveting tale of spies, nukes, cyborg ninjas, otakus, sadists, mind-readers, cigarettes, keycards, exclamation points, cardboard boxes, and other such miscellany. It may no longer be gaming's strongest artistic argument, but Hideo Kojima's definitive masterwork remains the second-most affecting game I've ever played. And, as if this list weren't proof enough, I've played a lot of affecting games. *Deep breath* Here we go.
It's rare for one game to invent a genre. In the early days of the Atari 2600 and even the NES, many games practically were their own genre, sometimes with names to match (Adventure, anyone?). As is the case in many burgeoning developments, innovation was often the product of things simply having not been invented yet. The mid-90's saw the advent of 3D gaming, and with this new dimension came an incredible opportunity to invent. While Hideo Kojima and Konami had already made Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake for the Japanese MSX2 computer in 1987 and 1990, respectively, their stealth elements were novel rather than revolutionary. It wasn't until 1998, the year of Metal Gear Solid's release on the Sony Playstation, that "tactical espionage action" would truly be born. Metal Gear Solid did not take complete advantage of its three dimensions; the camera still hung overhead and the game itself almost resembled a next-gen update of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Nevertheless, it was the ambition that arrived with 3D gaming, along with superior production values, that turned an obscure Japanese series into a nearly unprecedented blockbuster, introducing these new players to stealth-action in the process (Tenchu and Thief were milestones in the stealth movement to be sure, but MGS was the eye-opener).
So how does Metal Gear Solid go about making us reconsider our approach to action games? In many, many ways. The basics are unsurprisingly taught in the game's first areas. Snake enters the facility on Shadow Moses island by water, at the end of an underground canal that a few sentries are patrolling. He must reach a nearby elevator to get to the surface, but is outnumbered and weaponless. You must observe the patrol patterns of the guards with your naked eye, the radar screen, and binoculars. Sound can be a a friend or foe here, as accidentally splashing through a puddle can alert the enemy, but choosing to knock on a wall can distract him. Alternatively, you could simply speed through the area, flipping over and snapping the necks of guards along the way like a madman. After Snake reaches the surface of the snowy Alaskan base, additional wrinkles in the formula must be considered. You can leave traceable footprints in the snow, can be discovered by cameras or disable them with chaff grenades, can be caught in a searchlight, can pick up a laser-sighted pistol in the back of a parked truck, can crawl through ventilation ducts, etc. These additions to the gameplay and their tactical implications never stop coming. Every single area on Shadow Moses lends itself to new methods of playing. A room piled with nuclear warheads prevents Snake from using ballistic weapons, a snow-covered minefield asks the grizzled agent to get on his belly, one particularly harrowing scene forces Snake to run up the staircase of a large tower while being chased by an army of heavily-outfitted soldiers, at a certain point Snake must pay attention to the way the guards strut their stuff in order to find Meryl, and the scenario following a torture sequence has Snake play dead with a bottle of ketchup. Authored direction and restriction (as in the last five examples) is balanced perfectly with sandbox-style freedom (sticking C4 explosives to the backs of urinating guards in the men's bathroom, tossing them into a pit of lava, etc.) While having to avoid the attention of enemies (else Snake collapse in a hail of gunfire) certainly adds tension, it rarely leads to any unpleasant anxiousness; from start to finish, Metal Gear Solid is fun and ridiculously clever. Very few games since have boasted as many fantastic playable ideas.
Along with housing new genres such as stealth and survival-horror, the Playstation was the first console to bear the cinematic video game. Final Fantasy VII's high production values and glossy CG custscenes did a lot to introduce players to the new school of gaming, but Metal Gear Solid (mostly because its custscenes were in-engine) could be seen as the successor to Super Mario Bros. when it comes to prophesying the path that video games would take in the next ten years. Metal Gear Solid was the first game with such sophisticated presentation that it could be called an interactive movie. Although today's detesters would call MGS such a name as an insult, back in 1998 it was high praise indeed. Empty praise it was not though, as Metal Gear Solid's cinematic ambition was put to good use; it's hard to remember that cutscenes are a storytelling crutch when you're wrapped up in this game's movie-like grandeur. We all know that Kojima is a masturbatory director who could use some restraint or, even better, an editor. But before MGS came out, video games didn't need restraint. They were crude and simple, with sprite-based pantomimes (or worse: empty, muddy 3D spaces) and bleep-y bloop-y soundtracks. Video games needed to prove their storytelling worth to those who couldn't see past the pixels. They needed spectacle. Metal Gear Solid provided this showy magnetism, as well as a story that, although flawed, is actually worth giving a damn about.
The back of the box for Metal Gear Solid promises "A taut, gripping story." If anybody tells you that it's perfect, they don't know what they're talking about. Neither does anyone who thinks it a sloppy throwaway spy tale that doesn't have any power to emotionally affect the player. Kojima is a guy with a lot of ideas, and although that's admirable, sometimes it gets to be too much when it comes to the story. MGS is stuffed to the brim with ruminations on genetics, fate, love, nuclear war, and existential doubt. It's heavy stuff, and not all of it is approached with grace. Nevertheless, the combination of high-quality machinima, a memorable script, and unprecedented professional voice acting turns what could have been a headache-inducing anime plot into a supremely powerful narrative. Solid Snake travels along a believable character arc; his cold heart is slowly thawed by the friendship of Otacon and the love of Meryl. I was sad to see Meryl absent from MGS2 (yes, I know she's in 4, but still); I thought she was a great character. In fact, all of the characters are great. The plot of the Metal Gear series may appear to be nothing more than an impossible jumble of techno-babble and amateur philosophy, but its mythology is undeniably rich and packed with unforgettable faces.
If any of these ridiculously cool characters aren't your friends, then they're most likely your enemies. And since they aren't generic balaclava-wearing Genome Soldiers, that means they're FOX-HOUND. Let's not mince words here; Metal Gear Solid has the best boss battles ever. There are some fantastic encounters in MGS3 (The End is, as I claimed earlier, the best of all time) and in games outside of the series (Sephiroth, Ganon, Krauser, the Hydra, GLaDOS, Giygas, the Colossi, etc.), but in the breadth and brilliance of Metal Gear Solid's most salient battles, nothing else can compare (okay, Shadow of the Colossus comes kind of close). Things start off simple, requiring Snake to throw the one-two punch of chaff grenade and frag grenade into the opening of a tank. Next, he must deal with the ricocheting bullets from Revolver Ocelot's Colt Single Action Army ("The greatest gun ever created"). But soon enough Snake must outsmart and out-martial-art an invisible, super-agile undead cyborg ninja named Gray Fox. Later, something terrible happens. In a long, tall, narrow hallway, the eerie red dot of a laser sight flashes on Meryl's stomach. Sniper Wolf, FOX-HOUND's resident femme fatale, takes two shots. To make a long story short, Snake runs away to obtain a sniper rifle, comes back, unexpected things happen, and finally he confronts her. This time, however, it's outside and in the middle of a raging snowstorm. To further add to the confusion, Snake's friend Otacon is in love with Wolf. So yeah, it's a pretty emotional affair. After beating your opponent at her own game, the crippled assassin exhales a long, heartbreaking monologue interspersed with bloody coughing fits before Snake solemnly puts her out of her misery, as Otacon kneels at her side, weeping uncontrollably. Never before has a video game treated its antagonists with such respect, turning them from mere "bosses" into genuine approximations of human beings.
This tense sniper duel is certainly a standout moment, but we're all aware of what may be Metal Gear Solid's most ingenious moment. I personally prefer The End, but many, many people will tell you that Psycho Mantis is the greatest boss of all time. They aren't lying. Before the encounter, mysterious chanting music can be heard reverberating on the wooden walls that surround Snake and Meryl. Pressing triangle normally allows Snake to look around in first-person, but if you try it within the hallway that leads to Mantis' office, the screen turns a sickly green as you stare at Snake from just behind and above Meryl. Upon entering, Meryl starts acting weird, pleading for Snake to make love to her while aiming her Desert Eagle at his confounded face. After knocking Meryl unconscious, Psycho Mantis reveals himself to Snake and proceeds to show off a variety of fancy parlor tricks: moving your DualShock controller across the floor and reading your memory card, commenting on both the games you play ("You like Castlevania, don't you?") and the number of times you save. After this freaky introduction, the real battle begins, but the trickery persists. Psycho Mantis will use telekineses to hurl a chair at you, and just before you dodge out of the way, he'll pretend to turn off the TV screen (with HIDEO in green running across the upper-right corner of the blackness). Mantis, a skilled mind reader, can anticipate nearly every one of Snake's attacks and appropriately evade them. After many minutes of confusion teetering on the verge of frustration, you call Colonel Campbell again, hoping to receive some help. Suddenly, the "retired old warhorse" has a eureka moment, determining that Psycho Mantis won't be able to read your movements if you switch your controller to Port 2. It works, and Mantis is defeated (I've actually managed to proudly defeat him without resorting to this method). Talk about a mindfuck; the fight with Psycho Mantis takes the 4th wall and tears it to subatomic shreds.
Everywhere you look in Metal Gear Solid, there's genius. More than a competent stealth-action game with a compelling plot, MGS is as dense with creative and humorous details as diamond is with particles of carbon. In another 4th wall-defying example, the only way to contact Meryl at a certain point is to discover her Codec frequency in a screenshot on the back of the actual game's CD case. There are dogs that fall in love with Snake, there's a tuxedo that he can wear just like one well known agent of the British Empire, there's Johnny, who gets his uniform stolen as well as a bad case of diarrhea, and much more. The story's weighty subject matter never hangs too gloomily over the experience, as Kojima's special brand of humor infiltrates Shadow Moses as effectively as Solid Snake. A big reason for the number 2 at the left of this game's title is simply because every goddamn moment, every subtle touch of care, is fixed permanently in my memory.
Metal Gear Solid is important. It was paramount in the invention of both the stealth genre and the cinematic gaming experience. Metal Gear Solid is fun. I still enjoy avoiding a guard's line of sight while setting up a Claymore mine for him to foolishly waltz onto. Metal Gear Solid is riveting. Rarely have I encountered such a bombastic, engrossing story in a video game. Metal Gear Solid is visionary and awesome and funny and wonderful. It's my second favorite game of all time.

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