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Ghost Babel Title Screen - image courtesy of Youtube Ghost Babel Title Screen - image courtesy of Youtube


Metal Gear: Ghost Babel – A Legacy Left Behind on the Game Boy Color

Metal Gear: Ghost Babel is as worthy of a legacy as Metal Gear Solid itself.



For most gamers, Metal Gear Solid means immersive 3D environments and some of the best voice acting in the industry — very much not the 2D foundation Metal Gear was built on. The original Metal Gear and Solid Snake are relegated to footnotes when they should be championed alongside their Solid successors. This goes double for Ghost Babel, an all too often overlooked game that briefly kept 2D Metal Gear alive after its transition into 3D. Non-canon and quickly overshadowed by Sons of Liberty, Ghost Babel effectively has no legacy. But that’s not indicative of its quality — the game deserves to be remembered with the rest of the series. Ghost Babel makes impressive use of the Game Boy Color’s hardware graphically, musically, and mechanically; tells a gripping story in 8-bit; is overflowing with gameplay variety; and, most importantly, showed Metal Gear could still innovate without Kojima.

Chris and snake from Ghost Babel - image courtesy of tvtropes

More so than other video game franchises, it’s easy to attribute all of Metal Gear’s successes and best qualities to a single auteur. Metal Gear is Hideo Kojima’s brainchild at the end of the day, but he was always one of many developers who made each game possible. Game design is a collaborative effort, more so than most forms of art. Kojima may like to wear his name with pride as evidenced by “A Hideo Kojima Game” appearing above Death Stranding’s (and once The Phantom Pain’s) title, but he’s never tried to claim total ownership over Metal Gear. If anything, the fact Kojima wanted to pass the torch onto his team as early as the end of Metal Gear Solid’s production speaks to the trust he had in game development’s inherent collaboration. 

But as I said at the end of Metal Gear Solid, I really think it is time for me to hand the director role over to someone else. I might do the initial planning for the next game but not much more than that.”
– Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Creator (September, 2001)

Metal Gear shouldn’t exist without Kojima” isn’t exactly an uncommon sentiment, but it feels defeatist while putting too much stock in one man’s role amongst hundreds. There’s nothing wrong with a franchise coming to a definitive close — if anything, more long-running series could stand to end, video game or otherwise — but Metal Gear always felt like it was taken before its time. Not just because of Hideo Kojima’s sudden departure from Konami, but because Metal Gear: Ghost Babel already proved the series could work beyond his direction back in 2000.

Released exclusively for the Game Boy Color and localized as Metal Gear Solid internationally, Ghost Babel was the first Metal Gear title Kojima took a backseat role on as producer. Ghost Babel’s production began after Konami of Europe encouraged the idea of a Game Boy Metal Gear following the success of Metal Gear Solid. In an interview with Weekly Famitsu #572 translated by Arc Hound, Kojima clarified, “The game was already being well-received overseas, so we received a request from Europe asking us why [we] weren’t making a Game Boy version too.” The bulk of Kojima’s involvement in Ghost Babel seems to stem from the conceptual phase, 

We were about to start our research on the PlayStation 2 around that period as well. While the PS2 is pretty good in terms of visuals and sounds, I wanted to be bold and re-explore the question of “what is a game”. Naturally we couldn’t use polygons, but I thought we would re-evaluate the essence of Metal Gear in sprite form.”

Solid Snake Ghost Babel concept art - image courtesy of Reddit

The fact Kojima was involved with the game’s production at all could be taken as a sign that he’s the secret ingredient to Metal Gear’s success — he did essentially kick start development — but he took a seemingly hands-off approach from there. In a round table talk among the development team featured in the Konami Perfect Series guidebooks, Ghost Babel’s Art Director Ikuya Nakamura explained, “The original Metal Gear released on the MSX back in 1987 was already a 2D game . . . we aimed to create a game that wouldn’t feel dumbed-down to players who already experienced MGS1.Ghost Babel revisits the 2D mold that built the series, but with an opportunity to adopt Metal Gear Solid’s many mechanical and design advancements.

The essence of Metal Gear feels very much alive in Ghost Babel and the end result reflects the best qualities of the 2D titles and MGS. It feels like the dev team was really able to pinpoint what 2D and 3D Metal Gear’s greatest strengths are. Ghost Babel balances the MSX games’ faster pace, detailed sprite work, and a greater focus on exploration & puzzle solving with Solid’s denser atmosphere, heightened commitment to realism in the gameplay, and high-quality presentation.

Although the final game emulates Solid’s realistic art style as best it can for the Game Boy Color, there was some hesitation on how to proceed graphically due to potential technical challenges, 

When we decided to do a Metal Gear game on the Game Boy, one of the first [issues] that came up was how to do the graphics. Because the hardware specifications of the Game Boy are much weaker than the PlayStation, there was some consideration on using a comical graphic style instead of a realistic approach that would be technically difficult.
– Ikuya Nakamura

Solid Snake Ghost Babel Sprite - image courtesy of Blogspot

The team ultimately settled on translating Metal Gear Solid’s art style as best they could so as not to lose MGS’ realistic qualities. Nakamura clarified, “The worldview of the Metal Gear that players are expecting is a realistic one as depicted by Yoji Shinkawa’s artwork on the PlayStation version, so we didn’t want to break that worldview with the Game Boy version.” Aesthetically, Ghost Babel’s sprites do have more in common with Solid’s 3D models than they do Metal Gear or Solid Snake’s 8-bit sprite work. There’s an attention to detail and fluidity present you simply won’t find in other handheld games of the era. 

Snake’s sprite might just be the best example. The jump in quality from Solid Snake to Ghost Babel is stunning, especially because you can clearly see the MGS influence in how Snake moves. He subtly swings his arms and bends his knees as he runs. His punches are quick jabs, but carry a visual weight with each hit. The way Snake crawls on the ground, how he falls when he takes damage, presses his body up against walls, and kneels down to plant explosives are all rooted in the same realistic movements seen in Solid. His bandana even sways with every step, which was a visual detail Metal Gear Solid actually couldn’t pull off on the PlayStation. 

Metal Gear Ghost Babel Gameplay - image courtesy of The Washington post

Snake’s obviously a highlight, but Ghost Babel looks fantastic from top to bottom. Enemy animations are just as impressive. Guards will knock you down with their assault rifles when at close range and aim directly at you from a distance. They fall to their knees before collapsing on the ground if you knock them unconscious. Some guards will even stretch their arms and yawn when idle for too long before turning their heads down and falling asleep. Others might stop and sneeze. There’s a lot of personalities crammed into 8-bit. 

This applies to the overall art direction just as much. There’s careful shading applied to walls and objects. Everything casts a shadow, from Snake to crates. Floors are uniquely tiled and textured depending on the setting. Indoor areas are slicker in their presentation while the outdoors are visually rougher. Ghost Babel takes huge advantage of the Game Boy Color’s expansive color palette. The jungles are dense with greenery, Galuade Fortress cycles through several different colored tile sets, and the game’s many set pieces offer opportunities to indulge in more vibrant color schemes. You don’t see much pink or purple in Metal Gear. Backgrounds aren’t as in-depth as in Solid Snake, but they’re still some of the best pixel art on the Game Boy. 

Ghost Babel Slasher Hawk dies - image courtesy of Super Adventures in Gaming

Ghost Babel also sports some of the Game Boy’s best music. Norihiko Hibino and Kazuki Maraoka’s score is one of the series’ strongest. The soundtrack juggles a respectable mix of remixed tracks from Metal Gear, Solid Snake, and MGS along with plenty of original compositions. “Infiltration 1”, “Infiltration 2”, and “Maintenance Base” are atmospheric stage songs that sound far moodier than anything else in Metal Gear. “Reminiscence” is a beautiful track that plays during the story’s heaviest moments while “Regret” stands out for its more-reserved placement. Rearrangements are relegated to VR Missions, keeping the focus on new songs, but it’s worth checking out the mode just to hear new takes on “Theme of Tara”, “Frequency 140.85”, and MGS’ Game Over jingle. 

Ghost Babel nails the presentation, but where it really excels is in how it makes the most out of the Game Boy Color mechanically. The game boasts one of the best-developed control schemes on the system. Snake can now move in eight directions, improving mobility by a fair bit. A punches, B uses your equipped weapon, Start crawls, and Select opens up the in-game menu. From there, Up and Down on the D-Pad allow you to cycle through Items; Left and Right cycle through Weapons; and Start opens the Codec. Every single button has a meaningful use, and often in multiple ways that help expand gameplay’s complexity. 

Metal Gear Ghost Babel Gameplay 2 - image courtesy of Samus Aran x Solid Snake Tumblr

Like in Metal Gear Solid, Snake can press himself against walls to sidle through tight spaces or grant you a vantage point. By holding down the B-button while up against a wall, the screen will scroll to show you what’s up ahead. You can also press A to knock on pressed surfaces to distract guards. The control scheme plays like a simplified version of MGS in the best way possible. Concessions had to be made, but the spirit is there and plays to the Game Boy Color’s strengths. 

Ghost Babel’s tool kit similarly isn’t as expansive as Metal Gear Solid’s, but there are more than enough weapons to play around with. The Five-SeveN is your standard handgun. It only fires directly in front of you and Snake has to briefly stop in place to shoot, but you can now aim diagonally instead of just four directions. The Five-SeveN can also be outfitted with a Suppressor hidden in the early game. The R5 Assault Rifle locks Snake and rapid-fires a straight line of bullets wherever you’re aiming by holding down the B-button. Alternatively, you can tap the B-button to use the R5 as a stiffer version of the Five-SeveN. 

Snake launches Nikita - image courtesy of Lets Play Archive the dark id

The Nikita is a remote-controlled missile whose trajectory you dictate with the D-Pad. You can move the Nikita missile in eight directions, using it to take out electrical panels or enemies from afar. There are three types of Grenades, but all of them are tossed directly in front of Snake instead of using an aiming reticle ala Metal Gear 2. Regular Grenades deal damage on detonation, Stun Grenades will temporarily immobilize guards, and Chaff Grenades disable all electronics in an area, from security cameras to your radar. Finally, C4 can be planted and detonated from a distance while Landmines go off as soon as they’re walked over. 

Unsuppressed gunfire and explosions automatically trigger the alert phase when enemies are nearby, demanding strategic use of your gear if you want to stay stealthy. This goes double for your explosives, as they can actually lure enemies who are off-screen into your current room. Combat ends up carrying a risk versus reward quality, as a result. You have to weigh the potential risk of using your weapons at any given moment. There’s a time and place for everything. Part of the challenge is determining when to fight back and when to stay in the shadows. 

Ghost Babel O2 room - image courtesy of Lets Play Archive The Dark Id

Items tend to be situational and function mainly as passive, puzzle solving, or explorative tools. The Gas Mask slows down O2 drain in poisonous rooms, Thermal Goggles show off heat signatures and double as Night Vision Goggles, and the Mine Detector displays hidden Landmines on the mini-map. Cardboard Boxes still let you hide in plain sight and the ID Card has been adjusted to match its functionality in MGS. You need to manually equip them to open doors, but you now only need to keep track of a single Card, unlike the other 2D Metal Gears. 

While Ghost Babel understandably takes great inspiration from Solid Snake and Metal Gear Solid, it also carves out an identity of its own. Long before Portable Ops and Peace Walker, Ghost Babel was the first stage-based Metal Gear. Rather than playing through one uninterrupted campaign from start to finish, the main story is segmented into 13 Stages. This stage-by-stage structure just as much serves as an opportunity to play around with different set pieces. Describing Ghost Babel’s format, the game’s director Nojiri Shinta said, 

The game basically revolves around infiltration and avoiding conflicts by hiding, but the objective varies depending on the stage. For example, you might have to infiltrate in darkness, demolish a building or fight a boss depending on the situation.” 

Ghost Babel Ranking - image courtesy of Lets Play Archive The Dark Id

Each stage isolates you to one chunk of the map, keeping gameplay and navigation focused on a specific goal while still leaving room for exploration & experimentation. Ghost Babel also makes use of an end-of-stage Ranking system that encourages you to play stealthily and non-lethally. Upon completing a stage, you’ll be graded on how long it took you to finish the level, how many times Snake was spotted, how many enemies were killed, and how many Rations you used. All four metrics are then calculated to award you one of five ranks — Terrible, Poor, Good, Great, and Excellent. The better you pay attention to the level design, the better your grade. 

Ghost Babel’s stage segmentation leads to a unique game flow and pace compared to the rest of the series. You keep any gear you find between stages along with health upgrades from defeating bosses, but you won’t always have a chance to backtrack and grab ammo or rations you may have missed. It’s important to explore thoroughly whenever you have the chance. Anytime you do backtrack, settings are recontextualized in order to keep gameplay engaging. Stage 3 is a level that requires traditional exploration while Stage 4 uses its layout to present a set of linear stealth challenges before diverging into a new map. Stages 5 and 6 are set in the same building, but 6 takes place during a power outage that renders the whole area dark while disabling 5’s central gimmick. 

Ghost Babel Pit Trap - image courtesy of the Dark Id (Lets Play Archive)

Stages make regular use of large maps with dungeon-esque layouts. Maps aren’t afraid to open up or trust you to find your way, but the level design also knows when to constrict itself and nudge you towards where you need to go. There’s a healthy balance between railroaded linearity and freeform exploration. Traps likewise help keep stages dynamic and appear with greater frequency than in the MSX games. Security cameras generally line the walls of heavily guarded areas, ready to alert soldiers to your presence if you misstep. Turrets don’t trigger the alert phase, but they’ll shoot Snake on sight if they catch you. 

Infrared sensors regularly swap between panels, giving you brief windows to proceed undetected. Electrical floors can’t be bypassed while active, shock Snake when stepped on, and surge their voltage through any nearby bodies of water. Sound-based traps are in an abundance as well. Regular puddles of water don’t leave footprints behind, but their splashes make noise unless crawled over. Similarly, grates will echo Snake’s footsteps and startling the birds outside of Galuade Fortress will put guards on the alert. Dogs don’t call enemies to their location, but they can hear footsteps, see from a far distance, and track Snake’s scent. 

Ghost Babel Hiding in box - image courtest of Vizzed

With so many traps on tap, it’s only fair Ghost Babel presents just as many stealth opportunities. Hiding spots are generous and it’s up to you to take proper advantage of them. Crates can be hidden behind or pressed up against. You can sidle your way into tight spaces or just stick yourself between some cracks. Trucks and tables can be crawled under. Snake will peer out of crawl spaces so you can see exactly where he is, but guards won’t be able to spot him so low. Vents lead to elaborate air duct tunnels that enemies will never follow you into. Items like the Chaff Grenade also disable certain traps altogether so long as you can afford a potential alert. 

Beyond getting around traps, Ghost Babel’s puzzle design is much more involved than Metal Gear, Solid Snake, and even Metal Gear Solid. With few exceptions, each stage has a central puzzle or challenge you need to solve in order to proceed. Stage 2 takes place on a large map full of bunkers, lost doors, and dead ends. Your task is to find the next ID Card and then the exit. You have to explore carefully and pay close attention to both where you’re going and how you’re getting there. The game wastes no time in introducing you to what is essentially a navigational puzzle, setting you up for set pieces like rescuing Jimmy in Stage 5 or the C4 planting mission in Stage 9. 

Ghost Babel Terminal puzzle - image courtesy of lets play archive the dark id

Most puzzles are Zelda-esque when it comes to difficulty, in that they’re more interested in presenting an engaging mental challenge than trying to drive you insane with odd logic. Gone are the days of hatching an owl to trick a trained soldier into thinking it’s nighttime. The only caveat is that solutions for some puzzles are randomized between playthroughs. The door puzzle in Stage 3 will be different each time you play the game, requiring you to pay note to which terminals trigger which doors. Stage 9 changes the location of all four C4 spots, meaning you will always need to actually explore. 

The difficulty curve beyond puzzles isn’t as merciful. Ghost Babel’s enemies are surprisingly intelligent and their AI feels especially sophisticated for the Game Boy Color. Guards have a tendency to patrol around each other, lining up their eyesight so you have to use cover and move in tandem with them. They’re quick to respond to noise and investigate screens thoroughly. When alerted, enemies will fight back as squads instead of rushing in. Some will aim at you from a distance, while others will prioritize melee attacks over shooting simply because knocking Snake down stuns him. 

Metal Gear Ghost Babel Radar and Alert - image by Renan Fontes

Aside from enemy aggression, the Alert system hasn’t undergone too many changes. Level 1 is still the Infiltration phase. Your mini-map is active and enemies stay on their patrol routes. Getting caught triggers Level 3, Alert. Enemy squads will start to hunt you down, your radar gets jammed, and elevators are disabled until guards call off the search. Hiding for long enough drops you to Level 2, Evasion. The radar and elevators are still inoperable while enemies search for Snake between screens. Enemies are relentless enough that triggering an Alert at the wrong time can spell certain doom. Avoiding unnecessary combat requires scouting out each screen accordingly and using your radar to its fullest. 

Like in Solid Snake, the radar sits at the top-right corner of the screen. Given the Game Boy Color’s limited view, however, the radar has been significantly scaled down. Rather than showing you nine rooms on a 3×3 grid, Ghost Babel’s radar only shows a small approximation of the surrounding area. That said, this isn’t a bad thing. The smaller radar steals virtually no focus while still conveying everything you need to know at a glance. Walkable areas are in black, out of bounds in green, Snake is a big red dot, and enemies and security cameras are small red dots. That’s plenty to prepare for oncoming screens. 

Ghost Babel Slasher Hawk battle - image courtesy of Lets Play archive

Ghost Babel’s boss fights follow the Metal Gear 2 school of thought, which is to say they aren’t especially difficult, but they are extremely memorable. The game’s bosses blend outstanding sprite work with attack patterns that are legitimately fun to counter. Slasher Hawk keeps you on the move by throwing a boomerang and later his hawk from the upper ground. You have to find a rhythm between dodging and throwing Grenades or else the fight will never end. Marionette Owl is battled in total darkness and uses two dolls that get picked up on your Thermal Goggles. With all three sprites giving off heat, you need to keep a close eye on Owl to deal consistent damage. 

Pyro Bison relentlessly sprays everything in his path with a flamethrower and can only be damaged from behind. You need to take advantage of the large boss arena and pursue him. Black Arts Viper runs around his arena like a maniac, activating trip wire that’ll explode if crossed at the wrong moment. The battle becomes a game of cat and mouse where you’re constantly trying to chase Viper while avoiding his many traps. Metal Gear GANDER has six weak points that allow you to approach the fight in a number of different ways. It’s possible to take down GANDER with some patience and lots of grenades, but beating the boss quickly demands you use specific weapons to key in on weak points. What Ghost Babel’s bosses lack in the challenge, they make up for in creativity. 

Pyro Bison dies Ghost Babel - image courtesy of Lets Play Archive The Dark ID

Even though they don’t put up much of a fight, the bosses of Black Chamber do a good job at emulating FOXHOUND’s penchant for theatricality while still standing out on their own. They’re a compelling cast of villains with dark backstories that instill their encounters with Snake with pathos and real world morbidity. All four members are victims of trauma out of their control. Slasher Hawk grew up experiencing intense racism in Australia, to the point where he never felt he was a part of the culture or country. Marionette Owl found his close friend Laura dismembered when he was just 12 years old, which led him towards becoming a serial killer himself. Pyro Bison has no backstory of his own but keeps count of how many enemies you’ve killed and admonishes you for murdering his allies. 

Ghost Babel is deeply conscious of what goes into a Metal Gear story, to the point where its plot ends up featuring darker subject matter than its predecessors. It’s almost funny going from the M-rated Metal Gear Solid to an E-rated Game Boy Color game that never shies away from discussing the horrors of racial prejudice, ethnic genocide, and the United States’ role as a geopolitical scourge. That it’s handled rather poignantly is the cherry on top. Some character deaths are also shockingly grisly for a Nintendo game. Pyro Bison self-immolates on-screen and Jimmy — a teenager — blows up in front of Snake’s eyes. Not quite “E for Everyone.”

In general, Ghost Babel’s writing is very much on par with the rest of the series. The game’s story was written by Fukushima, who’s best known for working on Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 3’s Codec conversations. In the round table, Fukushima described his approach to Ghost Babel’s storytelling, 

In order to not betray the expectations of the fans we made up to this point, we wrote the story with the idea of being worthy of the series while also surpassing all the previous games . . . That’s why the scenario we wrote for the game goes beyond what people expect from a Game Boy game. It’s a story full of betrayal and conspiracies.” 

Ghost Babel Viper dies - image courtesy of the lets play archive the dark id

Ghost Babel’s story feels like a natural extension of the themes Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake touched on in its own plot – – the idea that there are no true heroes or villains, and the inescapable effects war has on people. Snake’s heroics at Outer Heaven was staged and he was no hero at all. The whole affair was backed by the CIA and used to divert attention from their connection to Big Boss and reassert the United States military dominance. Mythologizing Snake’s role in the matter kept all eyes on him and FOXHOUND, which inadvertently led to the creation of Black Chamber to take on the covert operations FOXHOUND no longer could. It’s this exact reason Viper resents Snake so deeply. 

You wouldn’t know, would you? How much blood was shed to buy your glory….?” 

It’s fitting that Ghost Babel finds a way to touch on Solid’s themes of legacy, and almost tragedy. A game with no real legacy of its own does an excellent job at deconstructing the notion of a “heroic legacy.” The greatest thing Snake ever did was kill his father in an elaborate lie orchestrated by his own government. He didn’t save the world. He didn’t truly stop Metal Gear or Outer Heaven — their legacies live on with him. The story forces Snake to confront his status as a “Legend,” the reach of his legacy, and become an actual hero in his own right. He stops being a tool of the government or anyone else, and chooses to destroy the legacy he was given as retribution for all who suffered on his and the United States’ warpath, 

I have to go back . . . To understand. Why we had to fight this fight, what it was that I did…. and who Solid Snake was. I’m going to confront the faceless men who play chess with people’s lives and hearts in the shadows, so that I can understand. And they will confess. Every conspiracy they wove, every victim left on the trail of their private gain, everything…. It’s the only thing I can do for the casualties of their — and my — dirty war…

Metal Gear Ghost Babel Snake vs Metal Gear - image courtesy of Cracked

There’s so much to appreciate about Ghost Babel when all is said and done, and that’s rooted in the game’s passionate development team. Kojima was the producer and was absolutely involved to some extent, but you can’t pin a collaborative effort’s success on one man. Just like every other Metal Gear, Ghost Babel is as good as it is because of passionate collaboration from the whole team. Nojiri’s direction, Fukushima’s writing, Ikuya’s art direction — every role matters in making a video game possible. It may not be “A Hideo Kojima Game”, but it’s certainly of the same caliber. To quote Nojiri Shinta, “It’s a game where you can immerse yourself in the world of Metal Gear.Ghost Babel manages to translate the best qualities of the MSX games and Metal Gear Solid onto an 8-bit handheld. 

Ghost Babel is one of the best titles on the Game Boy Color and the game that should have spawned a series of handheld Metal Gear spin-offs. Its gameplay has the same level of depth present in its international namesake. Tight level design encourages stealth at every turn while giving you enough variety to proceed how you please. The story is as compelling and nuanced as anything else in the series, and the simply outstanding presentation is leagues above virtually everything else on the GBC. Metal Gear: Ghost Babel is as worthy of a legacy as Metal Gear Solid itself. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.