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30th Anniversary Retrospective: The ‘Metal Gear’ Series’ Uniquely Self-Aware Journey



Metal Gear is a name that, by now, is permanently etched not only into the history of video games, but outside culture at large, unlike any other multimedia franchise before or since.

The series had its humble start in Japan on July 13th, 1987 with Metal Gear for the MSX (not to be confused with the shoddy Metal Gear NES port/remake Konami put out in late 1987), as the first officially released game by then fledgling game developer, Hideo Kojima, for the gaming giant, Konami. It was successful enough, in a very roundabout way, to warrant a sequel for the MSX2, titled Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (MG2), in 1990, which then, nearly a decade after, led to the immensely successful and groundbreaking Metal Gear Solid (MGS1) for the original Sony PlayStation. Skyrocketing from there, the series grew and grew into the tour de force it is remembered as today. Thirty years since the release of the first Metal Gear, after eight mainline games and numerous spin-off titles, it’s influence can be seen far and wide across all boards.

Snake vs. TX-55 Metal Gear, from the original MSX release of ‘Metal Gear’ (1987)

It takes more than simply playing the Metal Gear games to get a good grasp on what the series is all about and what it conveys to its audience. The most important lesson to appreciate the series can be summarized as: “in order to love something, you must also learn to hate it”. For those looking in, the series does not travel in any comprehensible path, but is laid out in more of a broken argyle pattern, subject to the ever-evolving interests and moods of its creator, Hideo Kojima.

This is not entirely a fault, but partly a choice by design. Despite the large body of work established within the Metal Gear world, Kojima has little interest in a precise, all-encompassing series canon; a canon which limits what he wants to communicate via his games. The story/timeline of the series is at times nothing more than a rough draft from which Kojima tangents off depending on the themes of each release, and what he wants to say to his audience at that particular moment in his life, or what is happening in the world in regard to societal views and, of course, war. This meta nature of the Metal Gear series is tied into the very themes the games tackle, including socio-political and philosophical concepts regarding memetics, genetics, identity, individuality, pacifism and war.

‘Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake’ (1990)

Of course, these serious topics are tackled against a silly military/espionage sci-fi backdrop: a backdrop which includes the eponymous nuke-shooting bipedal dinosaur robot things, super soldier clones of the ultimate soldier, cardboard boxes as legit espionage equipment, and more. Featured, also, are protagonists with goofy names like Solid Snake and Big Boss, as well as other colorfully named supporting characters and baddies like Liquid Snake, Solidus Snake, Gray Fox, Otacon, Revolver Ocelot, Master Miller, Fatman, The End, Running Man, Dr. Strangelove, Skull Face and more.

Ironically, over the years, the looser canon has created a conflict amongst fans, with some trying to tie all loose ends of the larger story into a whole with great futility, and others adhering more to an appreciation of Kojima’s storytelling via conceptual constructs laid on top of silly, fun, stealth action.

‘Metal Gear Solid’ (1998)

Since the original MSX releases of the first two games only came out in Japan, my story with the series began at the end of the 90s, like it did for many others around the globe. As if everything was in the right place for its arrival, Metal Gear Solid (MGS1) for the original PlayStation was an experience that can never be replicated. MGS1 captured my interest like no other game truly had before then. To this day, nearly twenty years after its release, the uniquely beautiful atmosphere, as you sneak through the adventure with Solid Snake, stands on its own as a timeless classic.

The stealth gameplay, combined with novel storytelling methods to video games of the time via lengthy cut-scenes and radio drama-like Codec dialogs, helped legitimize what would become iconic staples for every Metal Gear title to follow thereafter. The games quirky way of breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with the player, making the player experience part of the experience of the game’s characters, was a meta leap that helped establish what was to follow through to the rest of the series.

‘Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty’ (2001)

The peak of the meta communication with fans, however, came to full fruition with the now infamously brilliant release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. While other creators would have looked at the success of a game and tried to faithfully follow up with a sequel that met fan expectations, Kojima decided to throw all of that out the window. This was done in favor of a revelation-like post-modern take on how gamers consume media, the nature of self-identity, memetics vs. genetics, as well as a commentary on our personal role in helping give up our own personal liberties in return for comfort (albeit a message delivered via possibly the worst English script translation in the series).

As a well-meaning slight against those who simply loved “being” Solid Snake in the MGS1, expertly killing enemies and expecting to do the same in a sequel, the main protagonist was switched to a bish?nen rookie soldier by the name of Raiden; someone, who like the aforementioned real-life gamer, wanted to emulate the very masculine badass Solid Snake. This bait-and-switch was something that was a secret until the day of the game’s release, something many saw as a punishment they were beguiled to endure; it only drove in MGS2‘s themes further. In hindsight, I hope it is realized by those same gamers just how effective Kojima’s attempted message was, as it only grows more relevant with each passing year.

Various promotional and conceptual artworks by series art director, Yoji Shinkawa. It’s easy to see how his influence gave the series its signature look and feel. (Click for bigger image)

As the series grew from a niche following to a worldwide phenomenon, with the meta-ness of the series established, it’s as though anything that came after MGS2 was made with an all-bets-are-off mindset. The follow-up, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (MGS3), removed from the then-current timeline, instead focusing on a completely different story featuring series anti-hero Big Boss as the protagonist, set many years before the events of the rest of the series. In MGS2’s wake, Kojima also helped produce a number of spin-off MG titles including the underrated Metal Gear AC!D RPG series, new games like Boktai: The Sun Is in Your Hand and Zone of the Enders: 2nd Runner (sequel to 2001’s Zone of the Enders), as well as an utterly misguided, laughably bad remake of MGS1 titled Twin Snakes. Kojima appeared to have let go of what he wanted to do with the series, using MGS2 as an excuse to open the flood gates for his endless ideas. It was almost like MGS2 was the logical cathartic end for what started in 1987, and Kojima was now allowed to fully explore all possible ends to his visions.

It also became clear to longtime fans of the series that Kojima had become tired of Metal Gear and wanted to break away from it, to dive into new, more exciting territories but, for better or for worse, was forced into continuing the series owing to its unexpected critical and financial success, and fan demand. The amalgamation of having to do things due to demand ultimately resulted in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which I consider to be the worst point in the series. But, this too ties well into the meta nature of the series, as the game features an overly convoluted story that tries to take all the abstract ideas from previous games and make them physically incarnate. Subtle themes take a backseat to an action-oriented set-piece-to-set-piece experience, with gameplay that focuses on combat instead of stealth. Hell, it’s a machinist’s wet dream, with all manner of guns and bombs available to purchase via a menu at any point during the game.

Possibly unintentionally, MGS4 acknowledges MGS2‘s meta by offering those who simply wanted to be Solid Snake again a chance to do just that, one last time to get it out of their system.

‘Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’ (2015)

Still, as much as I dislike MGS4, I am more than happy that it exists, as it served its purpose by being one more message Kojima wanted to convey. His constant communication through his art is the whole foundation of what Metal Gear came to be about. MGS4 was another release that lead to more new beginnings, and truly gave Kojima a freedom to disregard the burden of a canon he had long overgrown. The “Big Boss trilogy” that followed (MGS: Peace Walker, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and MGSV: Phantom Pain) tore itself apart to forge a new identity, letting go of any preconceived notion as to how things should be, much like how it was in 1987 when Kojima first created Metal Gear, and in 2001, after the impact of MGS2.

True to the meta world of Metal Gear, Kojima’s unceremonious and weird departure from Konami and Metal Gear (as well as then upcoming Silent Hills, insanely anticipated as the result of a playable teaser known as PT, and a possible Zone of the Enders 3) served, bittersweetly, to free Kojima even further. With Kojima now working independently on his next big project, Death Stranding, it is the same as it was when Metal Gear was first created. Even if I don’t like what he comes up with next, I know that, just like Metal Gear, it will be, uncompromisingly, “a Hideo Kojima game”—and that’s what it’s all really about.

Immensely fascinated by the arts and interactive media, Maxwell N's views and opinions are backed by a vast knowledge of and passion for film, music, literature and video game history. His other endeavors and hobbies include fiction writing, creating experimental soundscapes, and photography. A Los Angeles, CA local, he currently lives with his wife and two pet potatoes/parrots in Austin, TX. He can mostly be found hanging around Twitter as @maxn_