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Metal Gear Solid: Tactical Espionage Retrospective

Nearly two and a half decades later, age hasn’t slowed Metal Gear Solid down one bit. 



Snake concept art - image courtesy of Creative Uncut

Time only makes it easier to appreciate just how well Metal Gear Solid balances gameplay and story together — both in the context of its own franchise and modern gaming. In an era that’s been defined by cinematic games, Metal Gear Solid’s elegance is impressively quaint by comparison. Cutscenes can run long, but never without reason. Lengthy scenes are always placed between respectable stretches of gameplay. Gameplay itself is founded on a commitment to reality, but still has mechanical depth and rich, responsive controls. The gameplay loop never plays second fiddle to the story and presents a high skill ceiling that offers room for experimentation. Most importantly, Metal Gear Solid uses the interactivity inherent to gaming to heighten immersion and blur the line between avatar and audience. 

Gameplay is the story just as much as any cutscene, if not more so. Every beat of gameplay is part of a larger narrative that you actively participate in. You may not always have a say in what happens next, but how you get from beat to beat is at your discretion. The story of Metal Gear Solid is just as much watching Liquid monologue at Snake as it is you deciding whether to stealth or fight your way through Shadow Moses. One of the main goals in game design should be finding unique ways to engage the player in what they’re experiencing, in a way that only a video game can. In an excerpt from The World of the Metal Gear Solid translated by Arc Hound, the game’s writer Tomokazu Fukushima touches on the nature of gaming as a medium and the team’s ultimate goal with MGS

While the system employed by cinema and literature is closed to spectators, video games as a medium employ an open system that assumes interaction from the user. There seems to be a misunderstanding that the two systems can be fused when faced with the illusion of ‘the realization of narrative’, but since essential differences [exist] between them, their possible expressions differ and on top of that, their effective crafts are also different.

It can be hard to parse what exactly Fukushima is saying, but games understandably need to approach storytelling from a different perspective to film, television, or books. The mere act of turning an audience into a participant allows for a deeper form of connection, but also demands a narrative structure that takes advantage of the medium to truly thrive. Fukushima continues, 

In Metal Gear Solid, we tried to express things that are not only suitable for a video game, but can only be expressed in a video game.” 

Solid Snake VR cheer - image courtesy of Tenor

Fukushima is specifically referring to the depth of information MGS tucks into optional Codec conversations — essentially giving players agency over how much story their playthrough has while offering an opportunity to include non-essential information that exists primarily to flesh out the world — but his point about expression that’s only possible in a video game applies to Metal Gear Solid on a whole. The plot is really at the mercy of player driven pacing. There’s no rush to move on. What you do between “the story” is your story. An interactive torture sequence gives you a say in how the game ends, while putting the fate of a major character in your hands. The cast and puzzles outright break the fourth wall, acknowledging concepts that could only exist in a video game world, like a boss knowing if you’ve played Castlevania by reading the PlayStation memory card.

Metal Gear Solid simply couldn’t work in another medium without massive concessions. It is a title defined by an unashamedly “video gamey” charm that feels grounded in reality. Even at its most absurd, professional quality voice acting and cutscenes that make use of Hollywood-esque cinematography & pacing lend the plot a natural flow where nothing feels out of place given the context. The presentation has a modern quality that’s genuinely cinematic without ignoring that MGS is first and foremost a video game. Modern cinematic titles do as much as they can to not feel “video gamey,” from giving actions too tangible weight to the detriment of game feel, to downplaying extravagant set pieces and opportunities for engaging gameplay in favor of realism. 

Solid Snake fist pump - image courtesy of wiffle gif

There’s a difference between reality and realism. The Legend of Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma broke it down well at GDC (Games Developers Conference) 2004. Where artistic realism is “a movement to faithfully replicate the real world to whatever extent possible,” artistic reality “is not mimicking the real world, but rather making players feel like what they are experiencing is real.” Realism risks undermining gameplay by emulating real life. Reality recognizes the difference between video games and the real world, and reconciles what it can to keep the experience engaging. Metal Gear Solid is a game that values reality over realism. 

Reality is characters without eyes expressing human emotion through nothing but gestures and powerful performances in order to get around technical limitations. Reality is game mechanics that take real life movement into consideration, but never at the expense of fluid control or the pure fun factor games fundamentally need. Reality is your visible breath in the cold air, footprints left in the snow, and enemies responding to sound — not just because it’s real, but because it makes the gameplay loop more interesting. It’s tight level design that makes every room feel like a real place and takes advantage of the core mechanics in tandem. It’s being able to spot where the game prioritizes its own logic over real life, and not caring because of just how well everything gels. Reality over realism is precisely why Metal Gear Solid has aged so well. 

From MSX to PSX

Snake full body concept art Metal Gear Solid PlayStation - image courtesy of Moby Games

To be clear, reality has been one of Metal Gear’s defining qualities since day one. Both MSX titles make use of realistic sound design where enemies respond to noise. The series’ stories play out like action blockbusters, but have always been rooted in realistic political tension. The staff for Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake did actual field research to get inspiration for mechanics. Nothing feels so real where it makes the gameplay awkward, but you can still see where reality enters the picture. You can only do so much in 8-bit, however, and the MSX2 presented its own unique challenges that prevented both games from matching series creator Hideo Kojima’s full vision. 

In a pre-release interview from 1997 for Famitsu Weekly translated by Shmuplations, Kojima spoke on the leap from the MSX2 to the PlayStation, “I personally like Metal Gear a lot. But most of what I wanted to do in Metal Gear wasn’t possible on the MSX hardware. Because of those limitations I had to cut more and more from the original planning document I’d written. Each time I met with the programmers it was ‘we can’t do this, we can’t do that’.” Things only changed when the PS1 entered the scene,

And so, when it came time to work on a new game, I heard rumors about Sony’s new PlayStation. The polygon rendering speed on this thing is amazing, they said. I heard more rumors about its actual hardware specs too. After hearing all that, I wondered if this might be the system where I could realize my original, full vision of Metal Gear… and the game that has emerged from that is Metal Gear Solid.”

It’s amazing, but not at all surprising, just how much the transition from 8-bit to 3D evolved Metal Gear aesthetically, conceptually, and mechanically. Metal Gear Solid wears its age well for early 3D. The game has a distinct graphical style that makes extensive use of what the PlayStation has to offer while intelligently working around its limitations. You can see this best in how MGS approaches character models. Characters have detailed polygonal bodies with anatomically correct joints, but their faces have no eyes or mouths — just blurs that approximate where said features should be. MGS compensates for the lack of facial features with expressive and fluid character animations. 

Solid Snake concept art face - image courtesy of Moby Games

To compensate for the lack of facial features, MGS make use of theatrical gestures to sell emotion. There’s some great movement to stillness in cutscenes. Characters always move their heads when they talk. Their models gesture dramatically and actors give inspired performances that bring the cast to life. Take Snake, for instance. Snake’s character model captures the spirit of Art Director Yoji Shinkawa’s concept art: dynamic, expressive, and stylish. Even without his eyes, how Snake moves sells how he’s feeling in a given moment in any given moment while conveying elements of his personality to the audience. 

Snake pulls off his mask and confidently poses while riding the cargo elevator up to Shadow Moses in what’s effectively his introductory cutscene. You immediately understand that Snake is someone who maintains his composure in high stress situations. He kneels by Psycho Mantis’ side with a hand on his knee and respectfully listens to his dying words, delicately placing his gas mask back on as a final request. Snake’s body language makes it clear he harbors no contempt against his “enemies.” He sympathizes with his fellow soldiers and allows them to die with dignity. His frantic body reaction when Meryl gets shot sells his desperation without the need for facial expression. He waves his arm wildly, quickly maneuvers into cover, and stares intently at her for the rest of the cutscene. Snake’s panic is clear. 

Metal Gear Solid title card - image courtesy of Quora

Models are just as expressive in gameplay as they are in cutscenes. Snake has a different stance for each gun. He repositions his legs when you aim or fire. His arms and legs move in a methodical rhythm when he crawls. His punches and kicks look like they pack weight while still feeling snappy on a control level. He turns his head and delicately shuffles his feet when you sidle up against walls. Snake even pumps his fist every time you beat a boss. Metal Gear Solid packs a lot of personality into its models. Every action looks and feels seamless, from how Snake moves to guards stretching their arms and yawning when they’ve been left idle for too long. 

While the PlayStation certainly does some heavy lifting technologically, Metal Gear Solid’s graphical style wouldn’t be possible without Yoji Shinkawa’s stellar art direction. Character models are reflective of Shinkawa’s concept art right down to fuzzy eyes, but they’re only one part of a greater whole. Shadow Moses has a palpable atmosphere that makes it easy to immerse yourself in the setting. Dynamic lighting casts realistic shadows that set a mood. Some areas are naturally darker than others, limiting your vision in a way that emulates Snake’s. A cold color palette lends the whole game an almost ethereal quality. Snowflakes fall bright blue, the night sky is covered in dark clouds, and the snow outside is tinted light purple. 

Shadow Moses first person-view - image courtesy of Tumblr

The attention to detail is more meticulous than it needs to be, but it’s the reason the level design ends up carrying such a real sense of space. Everything has its place, even if the player barely notices. “Hal’s Lab. Keep out!” is scribbled on one of the Nuke Building’s doors as you make your way to Otacon’s office. Inside the lab, you can find a PlayStation on one of the desks, posters on the wall, and broken computers following the fight with Gray Fox. The floor in the Commander’s Office is so shiny, the lights above reflect off it. There are animal skulls mounted on the wall, weathered bookcases all filled differently, and what appears to be a 3D model of the Communications Towers to the left hand side. 

Crates, tanks, pipes, walls, and floors are detailed with the appropriate amount of wear. Fluorescent lights and lamps are displayed overhead transparently in rooms with artificial lighting. The tank’s tire tracks are still fresh in the snow when you first enter the Canyon. Sniper Wolf leaves a trail of blood behind following her escape after her first boss battle. The parachute Liquid uses to escape the Hind-D can be seen beyond the snowfield where you fight Sniper Wolf for the second time. It’s hard not to get immersed when everything feels so deliberate, especially the environmental details. Each one adds another layer of reality to the experience. Snake’s breath lingers in the cold air. You leave footprints behind in the snow. Water is reflective and splashes when walked over. Even the audio design goes the extra mile. 

Solid Snake with his back against the wall in the snow - image courtesy of Pinterest

The howling wind outdoors, the industrial hum inside of air ducts, the sound of steam blowing in the Blast Furnace, and ravens cawing in the distance as you get closer to Vulcan Raven’s lair give Shadow Moses a deep personality. The weather, architecture, and world around you don’t just look realistic, they sound realistic. Gameplay-wise, audio’s role in Metal Gear Solid is to make the experience tenser. While speaking to Famitsu, Kojima touched on the tension he sought to create in Metal Gear Solid

After vision, the second-most important kind of tension I wanted to create was audio . . . when I’ve played survival games in the past, it’s been the sound that’s imparted the greatest sense of tension. When you hear the sound, for example, of dead leaves being crunched underfoot, but you don’t know where it’s coming from. Nothing else inspires such dread. (laughs) All you can do is hide. I want to depict that kind of fear and suspense in Metal Gear Solid.”

Metal Gear Solid footprints AI - image courtesy of Neogaf

Metal Gear Solid instills tension and suspense by using sound as a game design tool. Enemies clock your footsteps on certain terrain, but you can always hear theirs’. The audio’s range is dynamic enough where you can tell which direction a guard is coming from just by listening carefully. You can hear guards yawn, sneeze, and even pee under the right circumstances. Footprints splash over water, crunch in the snow, and echo off the ground. The exclamation point that appears over a guard’s head when they spot Snake is accompanied by a distinctly aggressive sound effect. Even if you can’t see what caught you, the sting alone is enough to signify the immediate danger. 

Music also plays an important role when it comes to MGS’ tension. The score always matches the intended emotion on-screen. Expect to hear soft and ambient tracks while stealthing through major areas. “Cavern” is an ominous opening song to score the first bout of gameplay with. “Intruder 1” is a slow and introspective track that reflects the safer early game, while the faster and the rhythmic aggression in “Blast Furnace”’ serves as the perfect theme to open Disc 2 with. The soundtrack reserves its most bombastic songs for action sequences. “Encounter” is a high energy track so catchy you’ll want to trigger alert phases just to hear it. “Duel” is a dramatic rearrangement of “Encounter” that plays during boss fights and is somehow catchier. There’s not a misplaced track in the score. 

More important than audio and visuals, the PlayStation simply lends itself to a deeper level of interactivity than what was possible on the MSX2. When asked about the craftsmanship that goes into games development in a 1999 interview with Nice Games, Kojima replied,

Games are something you use, and your impression and evaluation of them comes from your using them . . . And naturally I want to move people, but the interactive experience of the user comes first. Games are also tools – something to be used. They don’t gain acceptance until they are used; artistic self-indulgence won’t do. In our business, it’s no good to make a game that hardly anyone can play . . . It’s completely possible to do both of course: to have a playable, “usable” game and within those boundaries also infuse it with your individuality and artistic spirit. If the player gets your game and finds the controls pleasing, and on top of that thinks it’s artistic, I’ve no problem with that, but it’s important to realize that a game isn’t a painting.” 

Metal Gear Solid Cardboard box sneaking - image courtesy of Tenor

Essentially, there needs to be more to a game than just pure presentation. Metal Gear Solid’s art and sound direction are impressive to say the least, but they exist in tandem with gameplay. MGS doesn’t just look and sound pretty for the sake of it — its audios and visuals evolve what’s possible in the stealth genre, and create opportunities for deeper player engagement. The level design supports diverse play styles. Every room is built around stealth, but careful enemy placement means gameplay’s flow can change at any moment. You can transition from stealth to combat on the fly, and back again. It’ll be hard, but you can play MGS like an action game and kill everything in sight. You can neglect stealth entirely if that’s your preference, or stealth through every screen while killing as few enemies as possible. You’re free to interact with the game world however you please.

This is encouraged by a toolkit that pushes you to experiment with different weapons and mechanics. Enemy encounters are inherently diverse and you’re often rewarded for playing creatively or taking risks. The best games give you choices — not just narratively (which MGS actually does), but in the moment to moment, as well. Interactivity is just as much a torture sequence that determines your ending as it is deciding whether to stealth or fight your way through the next room. Metal Gear Solid’s gameplay loop is built on giving you a variety of options in how to progress. 

Tactical Espionage Action

Metal Gear Solid Gameplay - image courtesy of Tumblr

It’s not unusual for early 3D games to have control issues. 3D was a difficult transition for many developers and very few got cameras and game feel right on their first try. Fortunately, Metal Gear Solid is right up there with Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as an early 3D title that’s honestly no worse for wear today as it was on launch. Certain mechanics will pose a challenge for audiences accustomed to modern, more homogeneous control schemes, but Metal Gear Solid wouldn’t be half the game it is without its tight controls. 

MGS’ control scheme does an excellent job at both naturally playing off its level design and taking full advantage of the PlayStation controller. Actions are intuitive, with a lot of mechanical flexibility that only becomes clear through playing. In practice, Metal Gear Solid’s controls are easy to pick up, hard to master, but fun no matter your skill level. Snake’s movement was designed with a D-Pad in mind, but he’s no longer confined to four directions. You now have free range over how Snake moves. Walking up to a wall and pressing Up on the D-Pad triggers a context sensitivity action where Snake presses himself up against the wall.

Metal Gear Solid Heliport - image courtesy of Amino Apps

While pressed, the camera pulls back to give you a better vantage point of the screen. While still holding Up, you can use Left or Right to sidle across the wall. By pressing X, you can keep sidling while kneeling. It’s one of the best ways of getting Snake around enemy eyesight while netting you the visual information you need to prepare for what’s ahead. You can also knock on pressed walls with the Circle button to distract nearby guards to your location. 

Pressing X once brings Snake down to a kneel while pressing it again stands him up. Moving the D-Pad while kneeling makes Snake go prone and crawl. Crawling can be used to travel over otherwise loud surfaces like water or grating, sneak into tight spaces like air ducts, or stealth over snow and water without leaving footprints behind. Kneeling and crawling can also be used to dodge certain attacks in boss fights (notably Liquid’s running charge during the final battle). 

Holding down Triangle activates first-person view. Snake locks in place, but the camera swaps to his perspective so you can gain a better understanding of your surroundings or immerse yourself in the space. You can also peer left and right by pressing L1 and R2 respectively. The biggest caveat is that Snake cannot move or shoot in first person. This is admittedly awkward in a modern context, but suits the game just fine. Needing to stop in place to study your layout ties into the tension that defines Metal Gear Solid

Metal Gear Solid Choke Alert - image courtesy of What Culture

Square has a few different functions tied to whether or not you have a weapon equipped and Snake’s positioning. Snake throws enemies to the ground if you press Square while running near them unarmed. If you hold Square while standing still unarmed, Snake chokes enemies. With an enemy in a chokehold, you can either knock them unconscious by pressing Square 9 times or snap their necks by pressing it 10. Choked guards can also be dragged around and used as a human shield. When armed, Square fires, plants, or throws your equipped weapon. 

Circle doubles as your melee attack and action button. Snake can now perform a three hit combo consisting of two punches and a roundhouse kick. While kicking does knock basic enemies down, it leaves Snake open to attack as he brings his leg down. It’s sometimes better to pull back and stick to punching, especially in rooms with multiple enemies. One Circle press does a basic jab, while two is your one-two punch. Unconscious enemies can also be kicked back down while they’re standing up. Melee is a valid combat option, but it all comes down to proper timing. Outside of combat, Circle is used to climb ladders, press elevator buttons, knock on walls, and confirm options on the Codec screen/main menu.

Metal Gear Solid item menu - image courtesy of Unity Answers

Holding L2 opens the Item menu and lets you equip a piece of non-offensive gear like the ID Card needed to unlock doors. Holding R2 opens the Weapon menu and lets you equip a firearm or explosive. Pressing L1 or R1 unequips and reequips your last equipped Item or Weapon respectively. The menus themselves are displayed on the sides of the screen and open instantaneously. This keeps the hud minimal and relatively clean, while also making item/weapon swapping a very fluid process. It takes no time at all to equip a different item or weapon and jump right back into gameplay. Lastly, Start pauses the games and displays the name of the current room you’re in and Select opens the Codec, allowing you to talk with Snake’s support staff to get hints or save.

Despite the shift to 3D, Metal Gear Solid maintains Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2’s top down, overhead view — albeit with a flair for the dramatic. Gameplay is framed with some impressive cinematography thanks to dynamic camera angles that move with Snake. The camera pulls back when you enter certain areas, settling on the best perspective for each screen. The hallway before Otacon’s Lab is like something out of a horror movie. The camera tightly hangs onto Snake when you walk in, only to quickly reveal a path littered in blood and dead bodies. The climb up REX alternates between different profile shots of the Metal Gear before you reach the top level, giving you a glimpse of what you’re about to fight.

Metal Gear Solid bloody hallway - image courtesy of Reddit

In terms of gameplay variety, Metal Gear Solid marks a big step forward compared to its predecessors. There are multiple tools and solutions for any given situation, both in regards to stealth and combat. Guns have a nice weight when fired, behave realistically, and are just fun to play around. Snake has a respectable armory of weapons on tap, all with their own spins on the core mechanics. The SOCOM is your standard handgun. Holding Square aims while pressing fires. The difference between a hold and a press allows you to line up your shots carefully without wasting a bullet. Snake auto-aims to the closest target he’s facing, but you can manually aim with the D-Pad as well. Although Snake stops in place to aim and shoot normally, you can move and fire by holding down X. The SOCOM can also be outfitted with a Suppressor that makes it completely silent. 

Metal Gear Solid FAMAS - image courtesy of Metal Gear wiki

The FAMAS is an assault rifle that rapid-fires an array of up 25 bullets wherever you’re aiming. That’s more than enough to kill any guard in the game. Snake auto-aims the FAMAS to the closest target, and you can hold X to move & shoot. The PSG1 is a sniper rifle and one of two weapons you can aim with in first-person view. Equipping the weapon immediately makes Snake go prone. Pressing Square fires at whatever’s in your sight. Aiming feels slow and stiff at first, but quickly speeds up with motion. Precision is especially important since Snake’s hands naturally shake while holding the PSG1. Your scope wobbles back and forth, so you need to maintain a steady aim and have an idea of where you want to shoot before you shoot. You can stabilize Snake’s shaky aim by either taking Diazepam or smoking a Cigarette. 

The Stinger is a first-person rocket launcher with a lock-on function that can reliably take out targets from afar. Unlike the PSG1, Snake’s hands don’t shake while aiming the Stinger. While the lock-on function is handy, it’s not necessary if you have good aim and you can fire rockets at will by pressing Square. The Nikita is a remote-controlled rocket launcher whose trajectory you control with the D-Pad. Pressing Square fires the rocket while holding down Triangle allows you to move the missile in first-person view after it’s been fired. The Nikita missile speeds up if left untouched for long enough, but it’ll also explode prematurely if you keep it in mid-air too long. 

Rounding out Snake’s firearms are his many explosives. C4 can be planted anywhere on the floor or walls with Square and detonated with Circle. You can plant multiple C4s at once, but they detonate in the order they were planted in. Claymores are planted where you stand by pressing Square and detonate as soon as their blast radius is stepped over. Crawling lets you pick up Claymores and traverse them without triggering detonation, and their danger zones are displayed on your mini-map when the Mine Detector is equipped. Grenades are thrown in whatever direction Snake is facing by pressing Square. Holding Square pulls the pin and allows you to toss the Grenade right when it’s about to explode, giving you some control over the blast radius. 

Turrets Chaff Grenaded - image courtesy of Juncture Media

There are three different types of Grenades, all with their own effects. Regular Grenades deal damage upon explosion and kill guards. Stun Grenades produce a white flash that temporarily incapacitate guards and trigger an Alert phase on the spot. You have time to hide while enemies are unconscious, but they’ll immediately start investigating the area. Chaff Grenades disable any electronics in the area, including traps like security cameras and even your own mini-map. 

Like in Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid makes use of a progression system where Snake’s health bar and ammo capacity increase after each boss fight. The early-game is noticeably the hardest part of a playthrough as a result, but needing to carefully manage ammo and rations while dying in three hits teaches you to play carefully — a necessary skill for a stealth game. You’re encouraged to learn the mechanics and explore thoroughly for ammunition, provisions, and gear. 

With so many weapons and mechanics to play around with, Metal Gear Solid never railroads you into a specific play style. Enemies are designed with stealth and traditional offense in mind. Espionage, action, and trickery all have their place. Certain rooms are easier to sneak or fight your way through than others, but it’s ultimately up to you what you do, what you use, and how you get from Point A to Point B. 

Metal Gear Solid enemies on patrol - image courtesy of Pinterest

The overall enemy design pairs well with Snake’s toolkit to keep gameplay engaging and suspenseful. Each guard has a set route they follow, but they’ll break patrol to investigate anything suspicious. Leaving footprints in the snow, hiding in a cardboard box for another area, knocking on a wall, stepping over water or grating, and the sound of bodies dropping warrant investigation. Gunfire and explosions outright alert all guards in your area. Once on the alert, enemies work together in squads to track down & kill Snake. The development team modeled enemy behavior by observing real life SWAT teams in training. According to Hideo Kojima in an interview with GameFan magazine, 

But the biggest thing was when we saw the SWAT teams in their training exercises, I was very impressed by the feeling of tension, and we’ve tried to capture that intensity in the game . . . I think the action in Metal Gear Solid falls right in the middle between the ‘real’ SWAT and the ‘entertainment’ SWAT (laughs).” 
(GameFan Volume 5, Issue 11, Page 152)

There’s just enough reality where Metal Gear Solid’s enemy AI does resemble a real SWAT team, but not so much realism where gameplay is too overwhelming to actually be fun. Guards are an appropriate amount of aggressive. Enemies knock you down with their assault rifles at close-range and shoot at you from afar. They’ll even throw grenades into air ducts if they spot Snake crawling into one. They won’t follow you across major areas, however, and hit and run tactics work so long as you stay out of their line of sight. All that said, it’s still easy to get overwhelmed if you’re careless. 

The Alert System follows the same principles as Metal Gear 2. Gameplay’s default state is the Infiltration phase. Enemies stick to their patrol routes as they aren’t aware of Snake yet and you have full access to your mini-map via the Soliton Radar. Getting spotted by a guard, security camera, or detonating an explosive triggers the Alert phase. Your mini-map jams, elevators are locked down, and enemies break formation to search the area. Killing every guard in an Alert state or hiding for long enough drops you down to the Evasion phase. Your radar is still jammed and you can’t use elevators, but enemies are less aggressive in their pursuit. Once the Evasion phase has been called off, you loop back to Infiltration where guards are none the wiser to your presence. 

Metal Gear Solid Alert - image courtesy of Tumblr

The Alert System means gameplay’s flow can change at any second. It’s hide and seek meets manhunt. There are a few scripted Alert sequences, but you’ll otherwise never be caught unfairly. Metal Gear Solid upgrades Metal Gear 2’s Reactive Radar with the highly detailed Soliton Radar. The Soliton Radar is a mini-map placed on the upper right-hand corner of the screen. It’s too small to show a whole room at once, but scrolls as you move. The radar has a transparent background and depicts room & object borders on-screen. Snake is a white dot, while enemies and security cameras/turrets are red dots. Guard vision cones are blue, cameras are yellow, and both turn red when alerted. You’re given all the tools you need to avoid enemies. Arguably too many. 

It’s easy to just watch the Soliton Radar instead of the actual game if you aren’t careful. This is perhaps why the mini-map is disabled on harder difficulties. It speaks to the level design’s strengths that MGS is still perfectly playable (and fun) without the radar. In the full context of the game, the Soliton Radar is a handy tool for learning level layouts and enemy placements before tackling Hard or Extreme mode. Even then, the radar isn’t so intrusive where it takes away from a Normal playthrough, and it eliminates frustration in its own right. The level design is also strong enough to draw your gaze back where it belongs. 

In the Darkness of Shadow Moses

Every facet of Metal Gear Solid’s level design is deliberate, from enemy and item placement to level geometry. Screens feel like real spaces, which is rooted in the development team creating physical models of each room out of blocks. Per Kojima, “Actually, right now we’re trying to use toy blocks to model the buildings and bases.” Building a physical model helped the team recognize what they’d need to add or amend to each 3D environment to make them fully playable,

The reason why we’re going to the trouble of actually modeling them this way, is that the 3D model reveals things to you that are hard to see in 2D. I mentioned the first-person perspective mode a moment ago, and you can access that anytime to see exactly what Snake is seeing. When I was playing around with it, I noticed irregularities, like you should be able to see a door here, but it’s obscured by a column. In order to better identify those things, we’re building the structures with blocks and then using a CCD (a tiny camera) to peer inside them.” 
– Hideo Kojima

Hideo Kojima working with lego for Metal Gear Solid - image courtesy of Twitter (Oliver Jia)

Playing with toys paid off in MGS’ favor where it counts. Shadow Moses is a deeply immersive setting. The snowfall outside has a cold, desolate quality while the interior buildings cycle through an assortment of warehouses, offices, factories, and underground lairs that keep the aesthetic from feeling one-note. The level design has no shortage of natural stealth opportunities, either. Snake’s perspective swaps into first-person view anytime you enter an air duct or crawl under something like a table or a tank. You can hide behind the cargo inside of trucks by kneeling, and press up against columns, walls, or crates to avoid a guard’s peripheral. 

Traps keep navigation tense and demand you observe your surroundings & pay attention to the Soliton Radar. Infrared lasers hide in plain sight and can only be seen by smoking Cigarettes or wearing Thermal Vision Goggles. Claymore mines are regularly hidden in late-game areas where your mini-map is jammed. Pit Traps fall out from underneath when walked over, killing you if you don’t keep moving. Turrets fire on sight and security cameras alert all guards to your location if spotted. Traps punish careless players and teach them to stay alert. 

Metal Gear Solid Heliport upper level - image courtesy of Metal Gear wiki

Most rooms offer flexibility in how to proceed even if the game on a whole is linear. There isn’t just one “correct” way to make progress. Take the Heliport, the second screen in Metal Gear Solid. The Heliport has multiple floors — a ground level and an upper level — and both lead to the next screen. Snake starts on the south of the ground level and both exits are to the north. The right side of the screen takes you to a snowy field where a guard is on patrol. Unless you crawl, Snake will leave footprints in the snow. Past the field is a staircase with a security camera in front of it and a guard patrolling the upper balcony where the exit is. 

The left hand side is blocked off by a center platform with two searchlights patrolling up and down. It’s possible to cross without getting spotted, but only if you time it just right. There are two security cameras past the platform on the way to the exit. One is by a cargo room and the other is positioned by a sleeping guard in front of the air duct you need to move on. You can beeline to either exit, but you’re rewarded for taking the time to explore. There are Chaff Grenades on the central platform, Stun Grenades in the cargo room, and the SOCOM can be found inside of a truck. The fact that Snake starts with nothing but Cigarettes and Binoculars means exploration always plays a role. If you don’t explore, you won’t find the weapons or items you need to survive. 

Metal Gear Solid heliport - image courtesy of PLaces in Games

Both paths present their own unique challenges and advantages, but there’s flexibility beyond which path to take. If you choose to exit via the upper level, do you crawl over snow to avoid the guard, use your footprints to bait them away from the staircase, or confront them head-on? Do you avoid the camera by sidling or do you head to the platform to grab the Chaff Grenades? If you choose the lower level, do you avoid the spotlights or do you get caught early to bait the guard away from the lower vent altogether? 

Later rooms generally don’t have multiple entrances for a single area, but the Heliport’s spirit lives on through the core gameplay loop — in that there’s always variety in how to proceed. Guards can be stealthed around, fought, or baited with noise. You can risk an alert with Stun Grenades if you know where to hide, and snapping necks is a great way of moving quietly and lethally. Strong level geometry and architecture give you plenty of hiding spots. It’s possible to clear most, if not all, rooms non-lethally. There’s no wrong way to play.

Unfortunately, the level design becomes more restrictive the closer you get to the end, especially in Disc 2. In that sense, Metal Gear Solid’s level design is weaker than Metal Gear 2. There are plenty of stealth opportunities as far as what you can interact with, but there aren’t many guards to stealth around past a certain point. Later screens are also tighter and smaller, which naturally limits what you can interact with. The back-half ultimately has fewer straight stealth segments in favor of focused set pieces. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does fundamentally alter MGS’ pace.

Metal Gear Solid Communications Tower - image courtesy of Make a Gif

There’s essentially no stealth starting at the Communications Tower up to the end of Disc 1. Instead, you’re presented with different set pieces that reflect the story’s rising stakes. You’re immediately chased in a staircase climb up the tower. Then, you need to rappel down the tower while avoiding helicopter gunfire. After you’re back down, you have to fight your way back into and up the tower while avoiding turrets every four floors. Once you’ve finally made it to the top, you’re treated to three back to back boss fights. Two inside in the tower — against the Hind-D and four invisible soldiers inside the tower elevator — and two outside — against Sniper Wolf in a snowfield. The Blast Furnace is the last major area that embodies the Heliport’s design philosophy in earnest: stealth versus combat with plenty of wiggle room with how to do either. 

Like Metal Gear 2, MGS relies on backtracking as a form of navigation. You need to head back to the armory before fighting Sniper Wolf to get a sniper rifle, and later change the PAL Card’s shape by visiting hot and cold areas in a sequence directly inspired by Gustava’s Brooch from MG2 (the key difference being you could reshape the Broach in advance to get around backtracking, something that isn’t possible with the PAL Card). Backtracking never lasts long, though, and it gives you a chance to take in the level design before the story takes full control. The backtrack to the Communications Tower following the torture sequence is fairly lengthy, but checking out floor B2 of the Nuke Building with your new Lv. 6 ID Card nets you Body Armor. The last bout of backtracking throws new enemies into the mix, as well. The PAL key puzzle revamps Vulcan Raven’s arena into the last real stealth room by adding guards on patrol. 

Metal Gear Solid back cover - image courtesy of Amazon

Metal Gear Solid doesn’t have as many puzzles as its predecessors, but it doesn’t suffer for it. This is as much due to an increase in traditional set pieces, as it is simple quality over quantity. MGS’ best puzzles are far more interesting than anything in Metal Gear or Metal Gear 2. Some puzzles break the fourth wall to play with interactivity in creative ways. You learn Meryl’s Codec frequency by reading it off the back of the game’s physical case. Psycho Mantis can’t be damaged without physically moving the controller into another port to fight his “mind control.” The prison puzzle is more traditional, but the game’s stand out nonetheless. There’s a respectable amount of variety in how to escape. You can trick the guard into thinking you’ve escaped by hiding under your bed while he’s pooping; spill ketchup under your body to make him think you’re dead; or simply wait for Gray Fox to break you out. 

Bosses themselves might just be the single best part of Metal Gear Solid. Their battles make use of creative gimmicks, offer plenty of variety in how to fight back, and take place in well-designed arenas that keep encounters tense. The duel against Revolver Ocelot is the only straight gunfight in the game. It’s a battle all about positioning. The center of the room is filled with C4 and a hostage you need to keep alive. Misfiring can result in you killing the hostage and blowing up the room altogether. You can either chase Ocelot, hold your ground and aim as best you can, or drop Stun Grenades. He’s a good boss to help players get accustomed to the mechanics. 

Metal Gear Solid Gray Fox fight - image courtesy of Medium

Gray Fox is fought in a hand-to-hand battle that prepares you for the final fight against Liquid later. Landing a full three-hit combo is the best way to deal damage at first, but Gray Fox switches up his move set over the course of the fight. He’ll eventually dodge your first punch and immediately perform a counter-strike. Unless you pull back your hits, Gray Fox will always hit Snake as he’s putting down his leg. The fight encourages you to perform a three-hit combo only to make it clear that full combos won’t always work and you need to be deliberate with your punches. You can also “cheat” by using Chaff Grenades to immobilize Gray Fox, although he’ll fight back more aggressively as a trade-off. 

Psycho Mantis is a mix of a puzzle fight and a more traditional battle. Figuring out how to damage him is only half the equation. You still need to dodge his barrage of furniture and be quick to shoot when he appears. The Hind-D is a game of cat & mouse between Snake and an attack helicopter. The Hind circles the arena looking for Snake, with only a center pillar to hide behind. There’s an element of risk versus reward at play. You can be aggressive and attack the Hind-D any time it pops up, risking getting damaged, or you can be passive and only fire when it’s completely safe, risking only your time. It’s the difference between hiding while the Hind hunts for you, versus hunting the Hind yourself. 

Snake vs Sniper Wolf - image courtesy of Amino Apps

Both battles against Sniper Wolf present different long-range challenges. The first battle is fought in a tight arena where Snake and Wolf are both in clear view of each other. The fight is essentially a race to see who can stabilize their aim and shoot first. The second battle is fought in a wide open snow field where Wolf strategically moves between trees while you have minimal cover. The fight is a test of your patience, persistence, and positioning. It’s also flexible. If you can’t manage the PSG1, the Nikita works as an alternative means of defeating Wolf from afar. 

Vulcan Raven is fought in a huge arena with plenty of room for you to hide. Gunfire doesn’t work against him, but explosives do. You need to plant Claymores and C4 as Raven patrols the room searching for Snake, or hit him from behind with the Stinger and Nikita. Dealing damage immediately puts him on the alert, so it’s important to keep moving while remembering where your explosives are — lest you blow up alongside them. The longer the fight goes on, the more damage the arena takes. Certain routes become blocked off, making it harder to stealth without catching Raven’s attention. 

Sniper Wolf dies - image courtesy of amino apps

Like in Metal Gear 2, bosses monologue after their battles are over to offer context on their motivations and backstory. Unlike Metal Gear 2, MGS really makes the most out of what would otherwise be bit parts in another game. Villains come off as fleshed-out characters with compelling backstories and some of the best dialogue in the game. Psycho Mantis is more than just a sadist. He’s a victim of intense childhood trauma and his own inability to filter out people’s thoughts. He’s hyper-aware of humanity’s worst tendencies, which brings out the worst in him. Sniper Wolf isn’t just some cruel huntress looking to kill Meryl or Snake for sport. She wants to take revenge on the world for her own mistreatment, only to come to terms with her own hypocrisy in death, 

I watched the brutality… the stupidity of mankind through the scope of my rifle. I joined this group of revolutionaries… to take my revenge on the world. But… I have shamed myself and my people. I am no longer the wolf I was born to be… In the name of vengeance, I sold my body and my soul. Now… I am nothing more than a dog.

Metal Gear Solid bosses concept art - image courtesy of Moby Games

MGS uses its bosses to blur the line between absolute good and absolute evil. Snake is genuinely respectful toward his enemies. He listens to their perspective and tries to empathize with who they were in their final moments. Snake himself understands better than anyone how empty a soldier’s life can be, so of course, he’d bear FOXHOUND no ill will beyond the mission. 

Metal Gear Solid has a great rhythm of stealth, action, exploration, puzzle-solving, and story when it comes down to it. The early-game starts out stealth-heavy, giving you the space you need to experiment and learn the mechanics in fun environments. The mid-game pivots towards a set-piece-heavy experience, actively testing your skills with focused gameplay challenges. The endgame is a mix of stealth screens and set pieces, winding down the level design’s scope as the story reaches its climax. MGS’ gameplay loop is ever-evolving. It grounds itself in reality but regularly experiments with different mechanics and its environments in creative ways. 

No Match for the Legend

Metal Gear Solid has a solid balance of gameplay and story, but it’s undeniably narrative heavy at the end of the day. Fortunately, the story is well written and compelling enough where cutscenes feel like a treat, not a chore. A lot of consideration went into cutscene length (surprisingly). According to Kojima

The story for Metal Gear is very complicated, so I think cutscenes will be necessary. The one thing I want to avoid, though, are those tedious scenes where characters are just blabbering at each other for 4 or 5 minutes.” 

While Kojima’s comment can read like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Metal Gear Solid doesn’t fall into tedium. There’s a good balance between traditional cutscenes and Codec conversations that the story alternates between. Traditional cutscenes are reserved for big plot moments that need to convey some form of action, while the Codec is used for dialogue-heavy interactions.

Codec conversations take place on a black green between two green portraits speaking to each other. They regularly feature some of the best dialogue in the game, but the whole script deserves praise — particularly the localization. Jeremy Blaustein’s original English translation for Metal Gear Solid is nothing short of excellent. Two and a half decades later, it’s still the series’ best script. Abrupt philosophical discussions about life and love somehow sound natural against a Hollywood action blockbuster backdrop. Dialogue is often over the top, but in a classically theatrical way that makes it clear to the audience the script is favoring thematic discussion over emulating real speech. 

Snake and Naomi Codec call - image courtesy of Gyfcat

This doesn’t mean there aren’t unnatural bits of dialogue, but lines are sold with so much conviction and sincerity that it’s hard not to take the script seriously even at its most absurd. There’s a thought behind every line. David Hayter’s performance as Snake is cool, confident, and just aloof enough to be endearing, but also profoundly human. Cam Clarke chews every scene he’s in as Liquid while still coming off as an intimidating threat every step of the way. Christopher Randolph’s Otacon is so pathetic and weird, you can’t help but love him. Jennifer Hale as Naomi might be the game’s standout performance aside from Hayter, capturing a wide range of emotion as Naomi’s role changes over the course of the story. 

Metal Gear 2 didn’t shy away from touching on mature topics like child soldiers, but Metal Gear Solid feels thematically quite richer. It has more to say about the horrors and existential threats mankind faces in reality. In an issue of Weekly Famitsu from September, 1996, Kojima briefly touched on what he wants players to take away from the game, 

Since we use war as a motif, there’s some heroic parts. You have your guns blazing, shooting at bad guys. You are cool, you are a hero, you’re that sort-of guy. However, if all that remains are just stuff that was cool, then I really wouldn’t call that ‘entertainment.’ I want players to be conscious of what war means and what is a nuclear weapon by the time they’re done watching [the] ending.”

Nuclear war is one of the game’s most front-and-center themes, and the story often goes out of its way to highlight the very real danger nuclear weapons pose. Otacon despairing over his father being born on the day of the Hiroshima bomb is a little hokey, but it’s also a poignant way of touching on the generational trauma war leaves behind. Cutscenes often cut to real-life footage of explosions, machinery, and people to remind the audience that weapons capable of wiping out the human race do in fact exist. The game ends by listing the amount of nuclear warheads that were active as of 1998. Metal Gears don’t exist in reality, but the threat they pose is real enough. 

Metal Gear Solid nuclear warheads text - image courtesy of Reddit

Metal Gear Solid’s other main theme is genetics, albeit framed in terms of identity and fate. Snake and Liquid are both clones of Big Boss, but neither one is an exact replica. Where Liquid resigns himself to follow in Big Boss’ footsteps, Snake walks his own path. Snake is a clone of the greatest soldier who ever lived, but he doesn’t share Big Boss’ contempt for the world. Snake’s not quite a hero in the traditional sense, but he will step up to save the day when no one else will (which is exactly what makes him so easy to manipulate). Snake does not allow himself to be a victim of his genes like Liquid. 

Metal Gear Solid also spends a good while meditating on purpose in relation to a soldier’s life, a theme inherited from Solid Snake. Both MGS and MG2 ask the player to consider what soldiers have to live for when they aren’t fighting. Liquid’s own motivation is fundamentally rooted in a fear of losing your place in the world, 

When [Big Boss] was young, during the Cold War, the world needed men like us. We were valued then. We were desired. But things… are different now. With all the liars and hypocrites running the world, war isn’t what it used to be… We’re losing our place in a world that no longer needs us. A world that now spurns our very existence.

Solid Snake MGS briefing - image courtesy of gyfcat

The fact that Snake has no real purpose at the start of MGS vindicates Liquid, while tying back to Big Boss’ ideology from Metal Gear 2 that soldiers inherently have no purpose without conflict. Snake genuinely has no purpose if he doesn’t have something to fight for. Metal Gear Solid is Snake’s journey towards finding what he believes in, but the game does convey quite clearly that his life had little meaning off the battlefield. He chooses to fight and live for nothing. His fate legitimizes Big Boss’ worldview, but Gray Fox offers important perspective, “Snake, we’re not tools of the government or anyone else! Fighting was the only thing… the only thing I was good at, but… At least I always fought for what I believed in…” Snake doesn’t have to stop fighting, so long as he fights for what he believes in. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The series’ overarching relationship with perspective is one of its most thematically important. Metal Gear 2 deconstructs the idea of absolute good and absolute evil by highlighting the negative consequences of Snake’s actions in the first game, and making characters sympathetic towards Big Boss. Snake isn’t really a hero. He may have stopped Metal Gear at Outer Heaven, but his actions directly resulted in the deaths of countless people. Big Boss is more than just a villain and is in many ways more heroic than the “hero.” He gives the ostracized a place to call home.

Big Boss concept art MGS - image courtesy of Metal Gear wiki

Metal Gear Solid embraces this dichotomy between Snake and Big Boss by showing their reputations in-universe. Snake is the “Legendary Solid Snake.” He’s a myth that people know little about and one that he refutes outright, “The reality is no match for the legend, I’m afraid.” And he’s right. The reality is that he spent years drinking alone in Alaska with his dogs. Compare this to how characters speak about Big Boss, who was the series’ main antagonist up until Solid. Sniper Wolf remembers him with deep devotion, The governments of the world turned a blind eye to our misery. But then… he appeared. My hero… Saladin… he took me away from all that… He’s responsible for saving Naomi during the Mozambican Civil War, “He brought us to this land of freedom, this America.” 

Big Boss may be a clear “villain” in the eyes of Snake and the world, but he’s revered as a genuine hero by those who know him. Their legacies are only half-truths. Snake can’t live up to the legend and Big Boss isn’t quite a complete monster. More than nukes and genes, perspective is where Metal Gear Solid’s thematic writing shines. Characters are nuanced, three-dimensional, and gray in terms of morality. The fact there aren’t clear “good guys” or “bad guys” beyond the twin Snakes keeps the story compelling and the audience guessing. It’s also more real. Evil is mundane in reality and having good intentions isn’t enough to make you a hero. “Heroes” like Snake are just men who blindly follow orders. “Villains” like Big Boss are capable of deep compassion. No one person is wholly good or bad. 

In many ways, Snake is almost a deconstruction of the average play style in gaming. He’s ostensibly a hero, but the nature of his the story means he kills countless people. Liquid’s, “You enjoy all the killing, that’s why,” is just as much directed as Snake as it is to the audience. So much of the story’s weight stems from making you feel a connection to Snake on a gameplay level. He has his own defined personality, but he’s also your avatar. Describing the relationship between Snake and players, Kojima said

I don’t want MGS to be a game where you just go from one mission to the next, knocking over objectives. I want players to feel an identification with the protagonist. If players come away understanding why Solid Snake is fighting, how he feels about it, and what he is thinking, that would be the highest achievement in my mind.” 

Metal Gear Solid Torture - image courtesy of Tenor

The story does a great job at getting you to understand Snake’s motivation, but it’s the interactivity that makes you feel his struggle. Quite literally when it comes to the game’s torture sequence. Roughly halfway through the game, Snake is captured outside the Communications Tower and interrogated by Ocelot on a device that sends electric shocks through his body. Snake’s health drains while the machine is on and the torture lasts until you find a way to break out or submit. During torture, you can either press Circle repeatedly to regain health or press X to give up. Your choice actually matters narratively, too, so you can’t give up without facing serious consequences. 

If Snake endures torture and breaks out of his cell without giving in, Meryl survives the story. If Snake gives in, Meryl dies. You have actual agency in how the story plays out and the ending’s tone reflects your choice. Escaping with Meryl feels triumphant, while escaping with Otacon has a tinge of sorrow to it. Using torture as a means of connecting the player to their avatar is a frankly inspired design choice. You feel Snake’s pain on a visceral level. The game forces you to make a hard decision: either take the easy way out and let someone die in your place, or put your fingers through hell to save her. The interactivity adds an incredible amount of weight to the story, Snake’s arc, and your role as “player.”

The Best is Yet to Come

Snake and Metal Gear Rex concept art - image courtesy of Moby Games

As much as Metal Gear Solid improves on its MSX brethren, it’s not fully representative of everything Kojima wanted to pull off, “I wouldn’t call it ideal. I do feel that overall I accomplished what I wanted to, but there’s many things I’m still unsatisfied with.” At the same time, limitations bolster art and it’s important to “kill your darlings” artistically. You’re never going to achieve perfection or be able to include everything you want in the artistic process. Part of why MGS works as well as it does is because of its lack of bloat. Everything in the game has its place and there’s virtually no filler to wade through. Maybe it’s for the best MGS isn’t any more or less than what it is. 

Metal Gear Solid is a tightly paced game with memorable set pieces, great gameplay variety, a gripping story, and fun level design. The plot respects your intelligence and readily explores mature themes grounded in reality. Cutscenes are long, but amazing performances make it hard to notice. Gameplay feels just real enough to be immersive without getting lost in needless realism. There are missed opportunities for more stealth and certain mechanics could have been pushed further, but everything coalesces into an experience that doesn’t wear out its welcome and makes it easy to come back for repeat playthroughs. Nearly two and a half decades later, age hasn’t slowed Metal Gear Solid down one bit. 

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.