25 Years of NES Part 22: Metal Gear
There are few bigger game series over the last decade than the Metal Gear Solid series. As you assuredly know, the genesis of that series was Metal Gear for the NES. Well, actually, it was for the Japanese NES competitor the MSX and the NES version is a slightly bastardized port, but for us Americans its genesis was on the NES. What is amazing about that flawed, inscrutable game is that other than graphically, it has changed very little from its early form to the blockbuster, trend setting Solid series. Metal Gear was always something of a military flavored, story-heavy Zelda clone.
Zelda-clone might not be entirely accurate. While Metal Gear does share similarities with Zelda. The game uses set screens and does not scroll, just like Zelda. Snake, the protagonist, acquires weapons and tools that allow him to get to new places, again similar to Zelda. The lack of scrolling is less a design decision and more a limitation forced on the game by its original system. Like any good game, Metal Gear embraced and excelled both because and despite the limitations placed on it. The slow acquisition of tools is not something that is distinct to Zelda, many games do similar things. However, at first blush the games seem similar. They both share a focus on things other than just combat. The biggest place they diverge is that Metal Gear is linear and Zelda is much less so. Sure, you mostly have to go in order in Zelda, but you can find your way around the intended path. There is less of that in Metal Gear.
Another big difference is Metal Gear’s focus on story. That is easily the game’s biggest failing and biggest source of unintentional humor. While the story of Metal Gear is actually not bad, its translation was hilariously terrible. Whether it is Big Boss’s transmissions opening with “Snake, I forget to tell you something” or the snoozy first enemy’s admission that he “feel asleep” the game is full of delicious Engrish. I especially like the boss who proudly proclaims that he is the Shoot Gunner. The problem is that the game depends on getting information from various transmissions and the game is translated in such a way to make that much harder than it should be. It is amusing now, with walkthroughs and Gamefaqs, but then it was horrible.
The most remarkable thing about Metal Gear is how little it actually changed very little to become Metal Gear Solid. There are significant, undeniable changes in the presentation department. Metal Gear Solid is a fine looking PS1 game; Metal Gear is an NES game. The very notion of three dimensional space is a humongous shift in how the game if viewed and played. The structure of the 2 games is very similar; Snake is dropped off with little gear near the enemy base and must infiltrate with help from a variety of talking heads via radio. There is an emphasis on stealth and finding gear and a story that twists itself around several times. Also remarkable is how few games tried to ape Metal Gear between the games; I do not know of any.
Unfortunately, for Metal Gear, the success of its sequel pretty much makes it irrelevant. Metal Gear Solid not only looks better, but it also has a much better translation. Plus, it is hard to imagine Snake not voiced by David Hayter. Metal Gear is a unique and ambitious game, especially for the NES, but the failings of things outside of the game, most notably the translation, almost made it one of those games that are depressing in their uniqueness.