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Age Hasn’t Slowed Metal Gear Down One Bit

Excellent, Snake.



“What I was fixated on making, in the scope of a ‘war’ game, was an escape game. You know that old movie, The Great Escape? I thought it would be awesome to make a game built around a concept like that, of trying to escape from somewhere. But when I told the senior devs on the team about my idea, they were very dismissive:

There’s no games like that.
Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Director & Designer
Metal Gear 1 Opening gif - image courtesy of Tumblr

Stealth as a concept almost challenges gaming’s preconceived notions. Typically, you see enemies on-screen, you engage with them, and then you move on to the next set piece. The gameplay loop is active and the goal is to keep you invested in the action. This is why adventure series even like The Legend of Zelda fill their overworlds with enemies even though they’re easily ignorable. It’s just what’s expected of a video game. Stealth does something very different. You need to resist the medium’s instinctive urge to fight enemies on sight, and carefully avoid them instead. The genre asks you to engage with gameplay passively. Playing passively doesn’t mean a passive experience or a lack of action, however — a notion the original Metal Gear still embodies three and a half decades after release. 

While Metal Gear did not invent stealth in gaming, it did play an important role in codifying the genre. In an interview with Nice Games from 1999, Metal Gear director and designer Hideo Kojima specifically referred to the title as “an escape game.” Konami had been struggling to develop a “war game” for roughly two years before Kojima was put on the project. Inspired by the film The Great Escape and challenged by the MSX2’s low specs, Kojima saw Konami’s desire for a war game as an opportunity to do something different. Albeit, higher-ups weren’t so keen on his idea at first, 

I was still a new planner at Konami, so I guess no one was inclined to listen to what I had to say… there was just zero motivation from the start . . . By and by, the situation only degraded further into passive-aggressive resistance. It got to the point where I was so fed up with working at a corporation like this that I was ready to quit Konami altogether.

Metal Gear Solid Snake Concept Art - image courtesy of Metal Gear Wiki

It wasn’t until Hideo Kojima spoke with an older employee at Konami that things turned around. Taking the lead, his colleague gathered the team together and formally presented Kojima’s project. While “not exactly a ‘rebirth’” according to Kojima, the presentation did get the team on board with the concept of an escape game. Simply being an escape game wasn’t enough, though. At the 2007 GO3 Electronic & Entertainment Expo in Australia, Kojima reflected “Games need heroes . . . no-one wants to play a character that just escapes.” This mindset is what led to the creation of Metal Gear’s protagonist, Solid Snake. A skilled soldier and agent, Snake’s goal isn’t so much escaping as it is stealthing his way through a heavily guarded compound where danger lurks around every corner. 

In practice, the gameplay loop juggles action, stealth, and puzzle-esque design philosophies in tandem. Gameplay in Metal Gear plays out from a top-down perspective where you can see everything on an individual screen at once. Every screen is its own challenge with the goal being to infiltrate as stealthily as possible. Traditional action is traded for tension. You can still fight back & defend yourself, but often from a tactical disadvantage. Alerting a single guard to your presence usually means drawing the attention of multiple enemies off-screen. If you aren’t careful, you’ll quickly be swarmed. All the while, you need to carefully explore the overworld and collect equipment to progress deeper into Outer Heaven. Clever enemy placement and level design turn rooms into outright puzzles with stealth-based solutions. 

Metal Gear Level Design 2 - image courtesy of LP Archive

Outer Heaven’s overall design encourages you to use your surroundings to your advantage. Snake can hide behind crates, in trucks, or even underwater to avoid enemies. Guards have no peripheral vision and can only see straight in front of them. While they can’t hear footsteps, they can hear gunshots. There’s no need for combat, but gameplay can transition into action at any moment. With guards patrolling fixed routes, you need to observe their patterns and respond accordingly. Every screen ultimately poses the same question: stealth or fight? Not that the two are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t matter how you proceed so long so you don’t get caught. Even if you do, you aren’t at the mercy of the game. 

Catching an enemy’s attention triggers the Alert phase of gameplay. This is where Kojima’s initial concept of “escape” comes into play. Now aware of Snake’s presence, guards will turn their efforts towards killing you. How relentless enemies behave depends on whether they’re on Low Alert (designated by a single ! above an enemy’s head when spotted) or High Alert (designated by !!). Low Alert guards will aggro Snake, but they will not follow you between screens or call for reinforcements. High Alert guards will chase you from screen to screen and keep calling for backup unless you kill enough reinforcements or escape the building you’re in altogether. 

Metal Gear High Alert - image courtesy of LPArchive

Whether or not you should stand your ground and fight depends entirely on how close you are to any incoming enemies. Snake’s controls are simple and quite primitive compared to later games. He can only move in four directions and can’t even crawl. He’s also quite slow. Snake moves quick enough to outrun guards, but only if you have a head start. Dodging isn’t really an option in the heat of battle. The best you can do is make smart use of cover, keep your distance, and take advantage of the many weapons at your disposal. 

Snake begins Operation Intrude N313 completely unarmed. Every single weapon has to be acquired on-site in Outer Heaven, and while it isn’t long before you find a gun, Metal Gear essentially throws you into the deep end right away. All Snake has to defend himself initially are his fists. One punch will briefly stun enemies while three punches kill them. Since weapons make noise, it’s often better to silently punch your way through guards. So long as you can exit the screen in time, stun and run tactics are a viable way of getting around enemy placement. Punching will only take Snake so far, however. There are seven different weapons hidden throughout Outer Heaven: five firearms and two explosive devices. 

Metal Gear Firearm gameplay - image courtesy of Wrestling Smarks

The Handgun fires bullets in whatever direction Snake is facing. Your shots need to line up perfectly with enemies to deal damage. Even being a little off can result in a whiffed bullet. The Submachine Gun locks Snake in place, spraying bullets in his direct vicinity. You fire so many shots at once, you’re bound to hit something. You can adjust the trajectory of Remote Controlled Missiles to solve navigational puzzles or fight from a distance. The Grenade Launcher is the only weapon in the game with an aiming reticle, allowing you to position exactly where grenades land. The Rocket Launcher fires a powerful rocket in front of Snake, Plastic Explosives blow up a few seconds after they’re planted, and Land Mines can be discreetly planted on patrol routes for guards to kill themselves on. 

Navigating Outer Heaven plays out like a game of high-stakes hide-and-seek where you’re allowed to hurt the people searching for you. Snake’s full toolkit lets you approach each screen in any number of ways. You can go in guns blazing, lay your own traps, or just stick to stealth. There’s real depth to Metal Gear’s gameplay. In “What Are Connections?”, a conversation between Gen Hoshino and Hideo Kojima featured in The Creative Gene, Kojima reflects on his approach to game design and how he applied it to Metal Gear’s original development, 

“Sometimes I’m making something because I believe in my heart it will be interesting, and [my team will] say, ‘No one has ever done that before. It’ll never work,’ or, ‘What part of that is interesting? Or, ‘You can’t do that,’ and they’ll put on the brakes. But almost nothing is impossible . . . With video games, you don’t truly know if it’s going to be fun until you actually play it . . . When I was making Metal Gear, I started with the idea of a game where the player hides and escapes from enemies, and I made the concept into a game and played it.” 

Kojima continues, 

“At that point, if it’s not fun, what should be the next step? To investigate whether the concept of hiding and escaping from enemies isn’t properly there in the game yet, or if the concept of hiding and escaping from enemies itself just isn’t fun. If it’s the latter, then I should stop making that game then and there. If I start doing what marketing or whoever tells me to do, I’ll lose the ability to make that decision to turn back, and the end result would be a typical video game like any other.” 
(The Creative Gene, 247-248, Hideo Kojima) 

Metal Gear’s core design is fun. It’s nothing especially amazing nowadays, but the novelty holds up reasonably well and for good reason: Kojima’s entire design philosophy behind games development revolves around creating something innovative and fun. “No one has ever done that” and “you can’t do that” are not good reasons to stop yourself from creating art. Developing Metal Gear was clearly an uphill battle for Kojima, but it was one worth fighting, if only to push gaming’s diversity. More than just an escape, stealth, or war game, the original Metal Gear is a full-blown 8-bit adventure set in an elaborately designed overworld with its share of plot twists and a gameplay loop that encourages you to play creatively while experimenting with different approaches. There’s genuine freedom in how to play despite the game’s linear progression. 

Solid Snake Smoking - image courtesy of Reddit

While comparatively simple nowadays, Metal Gear’s toolkit is all about offering variety in what you can play around with. Alongside his weapons, Snake can equip one of many passive items that offers unique in-game benefits. Most pieces of equipment also double as puzzle-solving tools, allowing you to get around obstacles and access new parts of Outer Heaven. Metal Gear follows a Metroidvania-esque style of progression where the level design periodically gates you until you find the right items. Without an in-game map, however, the onus is on you to remember how to navigate Outer Heaven and where you were once blocked. 

You’re gate-checked almost immediately by a gas room that Snake can’t survive without a Gas Mask. It’s not long until you reach a room with electrical flooring that you need to disable with a remote controlled missile. The Building 1 Rooftop is blocked off by both a wind barrier and sheer height. You need a Blast Suit to enter the area and a Parachute to exit. You can’t make calls in Building 2 without a Transmitter and the path to Building 3 is endless without the Compass equipped. Getting lost is frustrating, but finally finding the exact tool you need to progress feels rewarding. So long as you pay attention or take notes, new items help guide you towards the next set piece. This gameplay philosophy also encourages thorough exploration. The only way you’re going to beat the game is by truly taking in the level design. 

Metal Gear Cardboard Box - image courtesy of Tumblr

Other items have more practical uses. Rations heal Snake’s health when consumed and the Antidote cures scorpion poison. Body Armor reduces damage taken. Binoculars let you check in on adjacent screens before leaving the current one, presenting opportunities to prepare for any challenge. Snake can hide inside of a Cardboard Box to avoid detection or use an Oxygen Tank to safely submerge himself underwater. The Flashlight lights up dark areas, the Mine Detector displays planted mines on-screen, and Infrared Goggles tint the screen so you can see infrared lasers. 

Consumable items like rations and ammo restock every time you leave & re-enter a screen. You can easily stock up on everything you need, but Snake’s maximum ammo cap is tight enough where you still need to act in moderation. Along with your maximum health, ammo itself is tied to a full leveling system called Class. Snake begins the game with a 1-Star Rank in Class, which can be increased up to 4-Stars by rescuing prisoners held captive across Outer Heaven. Rescuing five prisoners increases your class by one star, while killing one decreases it. Since certain bosses require a fixed amount of ammo from specific weapons to defeat, you can potentially lock yourself out of completion by killing too many prisoners altogether. When it comes down to it, though, this is a mistake you can only be blindsided by once. 

Metal Gear color coded level design

Even if you need to restart in the grand scheme of things, Outer Heaven is a tightly crafted setting that arguably shines brighter the more time you spend there. Metal Gear nails its presentation, immersing you into a deeply atmospheric 8-bit experience. Outer Heaven’s atmosphere is gloomy with everything shaded in dark, deep colors. Shadows lend each screen visual depth while detailed textures highlight a fortress in decay. The soundtrack composed by Iku Mizutani, Shigehiro Takenouchi, and Motoaki Furukawa is limited, but there isn’t a weak track in the score. “Theme of Tara” is an ominous track that sets the perfect mood for a sneaking mission. “Red Alert” is a fast-paced theme that gets the blood pumping as they hunt Snake down. “Escape (Beyond Big Boss)” is a manic final boss theme that keeps playing up until you finally escape Outer Heaven. 

Level design is an incredibly important part of any stealth game and Metal Gear does not disappoint. Exploring Outer Heaven is a navigational puzzle in and of itself. There are three interconnected buildings on base that you’ll need to backtrack between regularly before the credits roll. Since each building is made up of multiple floors, major areas are color-coded to help you differentiate between each one at a glance. The first floor always has brown tiles, the second floor blue, the third floor black, basements black, and rooftops in shades of gray. This is consistent across the first two buildings, but doesn’t apply to the third which only has one floor. 

The difficulty curve gets harder as you unlock access to the other buildings. Building 1 is made up of three floors, a basement, a rooftop, and a pathway that leads to Building 2. While potentially overwhelming at first, the building is easy to navigate once you learn the layout. An elevator hub lets you save and quickly access every floor. Enemies aren’t too aggressive. There aren’t that many traps. The initial area is even isolated from the rest of Building 1 until later in the game, keeping you where you need to be until it’s time to move on. 

Outer Heaven - courtesy of Metal Gear Wiki

Building 2 is made up of two floors, a basement, a rooftop, and a tunnel system that leads to Building 3. Its layout is considerably more complex than Building 1’s. Rather than one elevator hub, there are two on each side of the building and they’re both broken — one only goes up while the other only goes down. You risk getting lost or trapping yourself on the wrong floor if you don’t chart a route. Building 2 also gets more aggressive with traps and enemy placement, which readies you for the even more dangerous Building 3. It’s not uncommon for late-game screens to be teeming with guards on patrol. 

There are other enemy types besides guards who have their own mannerisms as well, including bosses. Sleeping dogs will wake up and chase Snake down as soon as they see him. Jetpack guards fly around the screen and can come at you from any angle, making Alert encounters particularly stressful. Scorpions block the way to Building 3 in packs, swarming Snake on sight and dealing poison damage. Metal Gear’s bosses are fun little challenges with their own quirks that keep battles fresh. They’re not quite puzzles, but attack patterns are simple enough where there’s generally a “solution” to each fight. 

Outer Heaven Metal Gear MSX - image courtesy of Reddit

Shotmaker is fought right after Snake is captured and loses all his gear. Punching Shotmaker won’t work, but punching the suspiciously placed doors in the arena unlocks a side room where you can reclaim your gun and fight back. Dirty Duck holds three prisoners hostage inside his arena while throwing a non-stop loop of boomerangs. You need to find a spot where you can damage Dirty Duck without hurting any hostages. While killing one potentially lowers your rank, letting all three die counts as a full-on fail state. The penultimate fight against TX-55 Metal Gear can only be destroyed by planting a 16-sequence set of plastic explosives between its left and right legs in the correct order. Dr. Madnar tells Snake the first 15 sequences in-game, but you need to figure out the finishing blow yourself. 

Like bosses, traps present you with a problem to solve. Electrical floors can only be disabled by remotely taking out their grids from afar. Security cameras move back and forth between fixed positions, often placed carefully enough where one wrong move means detection. Stepping over an invisible pit trap triggers a hole that quickly expands out from the trap’s center. Snake has a split second to keep moving or plummet. Of course, some traps are just designed to give you a hard time — as they should. Rolling barrels can potentially crush you in tight rooms. Gas rooms force you to unequip a passive item in favor of the Gas Mask (and drain your health anytime you need to use a keycard). Some trucks will just send Snake back to earlier parts of Outer Heaven, forcing you to backtrack. 

You can at least use keycards to make backtracking easier, but the process is very tedious in execution. There’s no way of knowing which doors take which key and higher-tier cards do not open lower-tier doors like in Metal Gear Solid 1 or 2. There are eight cards in total, which feels like four too many at the end of the day. If nothing else, they help segment Outer Heaven’s progression in a (fairly) natural manner. If you get a new card, chances are you passed some doors you couldn’t open on the way.

Metal Gear Keycard - image courtesy of LPArchive

Keycards aren’t the only bit of obtuse or frustrating design in Metal Gear. While possibly a glitch, the game never tells you Schneider’s frequency when you need it. Stepping into the wrong truck after dropping down into the courtyard sends you to where you entered Outer Heaven, forcing you to trek all the way back to the roof. You need the Enemy Uniform to get into Building 2, but it’s hidden behind a bombable wall in Building 1’s basement maze. There’s nothing wrong with this on its own, but there are no visual cues that indicate a wall can be blown up. You just need to punch every wall you see and hope a (?) pops up above Snake’s head. The fact there are fail states at all is bound to irritate some players.

For better or worse, Metal Gear is a game that expects you to be taking some notes and preferably drawing a map along the way. You will get lost, you will get confused, but that almost adds to the gameplay loop in its own way. You’re truly fending for yourself in dangerous territory, fighting at a perpetual disadvantage. Outer Heaven does everything it can to make you earn victory. Mistakes have actual consequences. That doesn’t make MG’s setbacks any less frustrating when you encounter them for the first time, but they’re fairly easy to reconcile in hindsight. Take frequencies, for instance. 

Big Boss Concept Art Metal Gear 1 -image courtesy of Metal Gear Wiki

Snake has a transceiver he can use to contact his support team: Big Boss, Schneider, Diane, and Jennifer. There’s no menu to select calls off like in Metal Gear Solid. You need to keep track of frequencies yourself, and if you don’t write them down, you’ll be consulting a guide anytime you want to call someone. Frequencies also change in the second half once you reach Building 2, forcing you to relearn everyone’s. On a first playthrough, all the upkeep can feel like maintenance. There’s a reason later games save Codec frequencies, after all. At the same time, it’s more immersive to need to manually keep track of frequencies yourself. It’s busywork that keeps you engaged with the game’s world and blurs the line between audience & avatar. Immersion is more than just keeping your eyes glued to a screen — it’s meeting an experience on its own terms. 

There weren’t any stories at that time in action games.
– Hideo Kojima on Metal Gear’s story

One important aspect about the transceiver that’s easy to overlook nowadays is how it offered a Metal Gear’s gameplay loop a narrative element in a generation where that wasn’t the norm. The transceiver calls aren’t too in-depth or even that compelling — Big Boss offers basic hints, Schneider directs you where to find items, Diane sometimes tells you boss strategies, Jennifer provides misc. support in the second half — but they help grant the story some charm and a sense of flow. Giving Snake a cast to talk to and contextualize what’s happening makes it easier to get invested in the story. Just as importantly, Metal Gear uses the transceiver to play with audience expectations in a game. 

If someone is giving you instructions on how to play a game, your instinct is to trust them — especially if those instructions come from the game itself. Big Boss betraying Snake is a Darth Vader level twist at this point, but it still carries weight thanks to how their dynamic is presented. Despite serving as MG’s hint system, Big Boss never actually helps you. The deceit starts as early as Building 1 when he conveniently forgets to warn Sanke about a room you need a gas mask for. He only calls in with the “hint” after you start breathing in the fumes. It’s as if the game expects you to die in some traps and then call Big Boss after the fact for help. It’s almost ingenious. You can easily excuse it as Metal Gear not wanting to ruin puzzles for you. 

Most video game narratives were fairly straightforward in the 80s, but little twists keep Metal Gear engaging. The story starts simple and gradually evolves in scope. What begins as a rescue mission spirals into you needing to stop a nuclear weapon. But it turns out your commanding officer who’s been “assisting” you the whole time is actually the terrorist leader you’ve been trying to stop all along. There’s a great sense of narrative progression and the constant escalation is just fun. The reveal that Big Boss set Snake up to fail and has been puppeteering everything behind the scenes sets the tone for all the wild plot twists the franchise would pull off later, while just functioning as a solid twist in its own right. 

Solid Snake vs Big Boss Final Battle - image courtesy of imgur

Although Metal Gear is not the escape game Hideo Kojima envisioned, it does deliver on his promise of a tried and true escape when all is said and done. Part of the reason the Big Boss reveal lands so well goes beyond just recontextualizing the plot: it’s about the meaning of the moment. You’ve just destroyed a nuclear weapon, Outer Heaven is on the cusp of self-destruction, and a 300-second time limit is all you have to defeat the final boss. The man who’s been undermining you all game shows up one last time to pose a final challenge. All this makes the final battle surprisingly tense, but watching Outer Heaven explode behind Snake in the distance is simply cathartic. 

To say that Metal Gear shows its age would be an understatement, but age hasn’t slowed it down one bit. Even as just an acquired taste, the original MG holds up well. From how the story is integrated into the experience to gameplay’s scope and variety, you can feel its influence on stealth as a genre and mechanic to this day. Hideo Kojima’s efforts at creating more than a simple war game paid off in spades, but Konami was half-right in the end — there really were no games like Metal Gear.

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.