Monday, July 29, 2013

Metal Gear (MSX) - Go Ahead Solid Snake!

Note: The following review is based on the PS3 port of the original MSX2 version of Metal Gear as found within the HD Edition of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater from Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection.

As I've said before in my review of Metal Gear Solid: Bande DessinĂ©e, I have grown to love the Metal Gear franchise for its powerful storytelling and ever-improving gameplay. However, in my love for the games, I grew more curious about possibly playing the original Metal Gear to see where it all began. While I did settle initially for the text summaries of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid, I still wanted to know how it played. It wasn't until more recently that I found out you could play these games through the re-release of Metal Gear Solid 3, which I was able to obtain thanks to Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection. As I present the following review to you, I'd like to fully disclose that for the sake of completing it quicker to get to other stuff, I played on the added Easy difficulty and used a guide to help me get through some sections. Apart from that, I'm going to do my best to try and forget all knowledge I have of future Metal Gear games and review this one as if it first came out in 1987 (with some nods later to how the game was ported). Now let's dive into Metal Gear and see the beginnings of the Stealth genre (or at least the game which has had the most influence on this type of gameplay).

It's been discovered that a fortress known as Outer Heaven has developed a weapon of mass destruction known as Metal Gear, a walking nuclear battle tank capable of launching a nuclear warhead from anywhere in the world. In response, FOXHOUND agent Solid Snake has been sent in by unit leader Big Boss after a failed attempt by agent Gray Fox to stop the activity. The mission: Infiltrate Outer Heaven, destroy Metal Gear and rescue Gray Fox before it's too late.

The story of Metal Gear is actually pretty simple and straight-forward. In the time it takes to complete the mission, codenamed Intrude N313, the story is crystal clear and easy to digest. There's no real meat to it however as Gray Fox barely plays a role in the events, plus a side story that pops up ends up taking more prominence. Still, there's no confusion involved and it's simplicity is definitely not a weak point. The only surprise is a major twist at the end, which has some interesting foreshadowing through a couple of codec conversations, including one which breaks the fourth wall, leading up to a legitimate shocker. Basically, the story manages to not get in the way of the gameplay, but it's nice that they thought of a clear beginning, middle and end that satisfies everyone by tying itself up and not leaving out any important information. A stinger at the end credits hints at the story continuing beyond the ending, which seems like interesting material for a sequel.

The titular Metal Gear.

Playing the game is also easy to understand, since there aren't that many buttons required to play. Solid Snake has access to both an items menu and a weapons menu, each mapped to their own button and easy to navigate and switch between. While I do like the ease of access, and how selecting is just simply going through an implied grid, I do have to question how the items are laid out. As soon as you get a new item, it takes up the next spot down on the grid, no questions asked. I did get used to this system, but it still felt a bit awkward at times having to try and select items like the key cards when they are sometimes so far apart from each other, especially when I'm in a situation where the availability of the item is paramount. Similarly, the codec menu is easy to use and you can even access numbers without having to manually dial them in, but it's a little too easy to accidentally skip an important piece of text and there's one character who you are told to call, but his number isn't listed anywhere or said by anyone at all, which forces you to either fiddle around with the codec to find it out manually or wait for him to contact you much later so you can save it. Also, there are only specific rooms in which you can use the codec. While this is odd but not much of a problem, it gets a little annoying when you trigger the exact same codec calls just by making it back to the same screen it first appeared. It should be noted that there is a certain character who you must contact in order to beat the game, meaning that if you screw up in the requirements to contact them, you're out of luck.

As for what applies to Snake's mission, the game manages to be a combination of easy to learn but hard to master. The main element is sneaking past the guards, though you aren't really penalized except in rank for having to take some of them out (sometimes unavoidably). The weapons are easy to use and aiming is precise, since you only aim in four directions anyway, but sneaking is also made pretty easy since the guards operate on a line-of-sight basis, meaning you can be right next to them as long as one doesn't notice you're there. Level design is also good, the screen-based programming allowing for complex yet visually distinctive areas and plenty of room to lay traps for Snake to overcome, including infrared lasers and pitfalls. However, there are plenty of secret areas which require you to know where exactly to punch before planting an explosive against particular walls. It can get frustrating to locate these, since finding them is pretty much required to beat the game. Going through doors also sometimes requires you to be in a room filled with gas, meaning that you can take unavoidable damage, even if you do your best to minimize it.

Solid Snake (middle) avoiding detection from guards.

Even if you end up using a guide, however, a degree of challenge is still present. Getting around the traps takes patience and occasionally quick reflexes that a guide can't teach you and the bosses require knowledge of their weaknesses, and plenty of ammo, in order to take down. While some can still be pretty easy, the fight against Metal Gear requires a specific pattern given to you, and even then you have to guess the final piece of the puzzle. I enjoyed the challenge because it kept me invested in the game and showed that they put quite a bit of care into the overall design.

I would also like to commend the sound design. The stage music is well-written and while it's not entirely memorable, you may find yourself wanting to hear it again later. Triggering an alert phase makes a very distinctive sound, while bringing up an exclamation point over a guard's head, and when you are spotted by a camera or break a laser, you know that's it's time to either fight or flee. Whatever situation you're in may influence that decision, but what's for sure is that you'll know exactly what to do. Each stage and environment has its own music, which I think really helps to diversify the locales. The sound may be on a loop, but it's a loop that may bear repeating.

Before I end this review, I'd like to come out of the past for just a moment to talk about the porting for this version. From what I was able to gather based on research, and my limited knowledge of the game beforehand, the script is rewritten to be a more accurate translation of the original Japanese along with other changes. Some names were changed, including making Dr. Pettrovich into Dr. Madnar, and they added an unlockable Infinite Bandanna and an optional Easy difficulty. There's also a Boss Survival mode, which is basically a boss rush that times you based on how quickly you were able to beat every boss in a row. The last one is a fun addition that I'm sure many players will use simply to test their skill on either difficulty without having to replay the game to those points. The graphics also look improved to some degree, though all it's really doing is making the original 8-bit stuff look cleaner; the retro glory is still there for people to enjoy.

When all is said and done, Metal Gear is very solid game. The story is simple but complex enough to keep things interesting and the gameplay mechanics are sound and are used to the game's advantage. I'd encourage others to give this game a shot, especially if they are looking for something fresh and new. Though it's not perfect, I enjoyed my time playing it and I can't wait to see how this develops in the future; this is the birth of a new genre.

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