Thursday, August 8, 2013

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake - Tactical Espionage Game

Note: The following review is based on the PS3 port of the original MSX2 version of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake as found within the HD Edition of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater from Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection.

In my review of the MSX2 version of the original Metal Gear (on PS3), I explained how Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection finally gave me the opportunity to explore the early beginnings of one of my favorite franchises. However, what I didn't touch upon, since it wasn't relevant at that point, was the odd history surrounding this earlier point in time. You see, the original Metal Gear was a big hit on the Japanese MSX2 computer, so much so that a port was released in December 22, 1987 -five months after the original MSX2 release- for the Nintendo Famicom in Japan before being released stateside in 1988 by Konami's Ultra Games division for the NES. This was the only way that the game was available in the U.S., but despite a notably shoddy translation of the game, this version became a hit and inspired the 1990 release of an English-only NES sequel simply titled Snake's Revenge. Series creator Hideo Kojima wasn't a fan of the NES games, in fact he thought them to be inferior to the original release, so he created the first officially canon sequel to Metal Gear, which he called Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, released only in Japan on July 20, 1990 (only three months after Snake's Revenge came out in the U.S.). Metal Gear Solid would later come out in 1998 and the rest is history.

However, in all of this, the U.S. market would never get to play Metal Gear or Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake as intended. As far as NES owners were concerned, the Metal Gear games they had were it, as they had never really heard of the original MSX2 games until Metal Gear Solid, which had text summaries of those games included due to their relative obscurity. It wouldn't be until the re-release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, rendered Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, in 2005 (2006 for North America) that most Metal Gear fans even had access to the original games (this would come at a loss of some content to make room for these ports). Since then, updated versions of Metal Gear Solid 3 would always include Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, the latest one on the Legacy Collection being my first real opportunity to try them out. So, with that bit of history out of the way, what do I think of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake? Well, while I found Metal Gear to be enjoyable, I believe that the official sequel improves upon it in every conceivable way.

Similarly with my review of Metal Gear, I'm going to try and review it as if it had first come out, with some later nods to how it was ported. This means that, for all intents and purposes, I'm going to pretend that every game from Metal Gear Solid onward doesn't exist (yet). Also, I once again played on Easy and used a guide in more specific scenarios.

A few years after the Outer Heaven Uprising, the world begins to see a new era of peace. Neighboring countries cease war on each other and everything seems fine, that is until a military junta known as Zanzibar Land is formed. This nation of mercenaries eventually becomes the only nuclear power and holds a cache of weapons large enough to begin taking over other countries. At the same time, the world's oil reserve is drying up faster than expected, which leads Czech biologist Dr. Kio Marv to create OILIX, a microbe which is capable of synthesizing petroleum. Zanzibar Land wishes to use OILIX for themselves, so they kidnap Dr. Marv while he is on his way to the U.S. FOXHOUND agent Solid Snake is sent in by Roy Campbell, in Operation Intrude F014, to diffuse the situation by rescuing Dr. Marv and preventing the secret behind OILIX from falling into the wrong hands. However, there's one weapon which Zanzibar Land has been working on all of this time: a new version of Metal Gear.

Zanzibar Land's newest weapon: Metal Gear D.

Compared with the very simple plot of the first game, Metal Gear 2 is much more complex in both the story and characters, but with this change comes a higher form of storytelling. While the story make take a bit longer to complete the first time around, the characters become more three dimensional and deeper themes are explored, including a discussion on the use of nuclear weapons in the world and what motivates the actions of a select few. There are some real surprises in store as well and the interactions Snake has are very well-written. Codec calls also play a much bigger role, giving information about different characters as well as acting as a medium through which some of the story is communicated. It's interesting how Metal Gear has managed to raise the bar in this regard and hold our attention from beginning to end with old and new characters that we grow attached to and the twists aren't so numerous that the flow of the story is diluted. This difference in ability is a little jarring, but is much more satisfactory in the long run.

Then there's the actual gameplay. The standards set by Metal Gear receive some much-needed tweaks, such as the item menu now consolidating items so that they aren't so far apart, but there are also some new introductions. The biggest change is that Solid Snake now has the ability to crawl, which introduces a lot more options for sneaking around the buildings of Zanzibar Land and contributes to an increased level of challenge. Guards will also now respond to different levels of noise that the player makes, which means that they'll become suspicious if they hear you on a metallic or squeaky floor. The other really major addition is the presence of a radar in the corner of the screen, which allows you to see what's ahead and plan accordingly; this was a feature that I wished the original game had so that I wouldn't be forced to guess whether or not the next screen had an enemy lying in wait. Now it's possible to figure out where everyone is and be more careful as a result.

Other tweaks and additions include items which consolidate key cards for ease of use as well as access to more weaponry to create an increased variety of scenarios, particularly during the many boss battles of the game. Some situations require a degree of common sense to get through, though I must admit that I did have a harder time figuring out what to do sometimes, no thanks to codec calls not being helpful sometimes and a glitch (or what I presume to be a glitch, it could have just been bad timing) that prevented me from contacting one specific number to make sure it got saved. A higher level of gameplay is there regardless and I found the numerous tweaks and design changes to help make the game more enjoyable; by the way, there's a reason you now have three different types of rations, but I'd rather let you find out for yourself.

Solid Snake can now crawl under objects to hide.

The bosses, I feel, are much better designed. While they don't require knowledge of specific weapons to take down, for the most part, they do require you to figure out their pattern of attack and, by extension, it is easier to figure out the most effective weapon to use against them. Using the codec will also give you a good idea of what to do, which is very helpful if it's your first time. There is also a boss rush of sorts at the end, but it's more the kind where you're fighting a slew of new bosses in a row as opposed to a stream of ones you've already faced. Metal Gear D also doesn't require knowledge of a particular pattern, but rather requires that you dodge its attacks fast enough while getting in a few good shots, which actually makes it more exciting than avoiding laser cameras and blowing up a stationary object. Most of the boss fights in this game aren't particularly memorable, but there seems to be more thought put into it this time around, which is always welcome.

What also amazes me about Metal Gear 2 is the increased technological scale of it. Metal Gear D is designed very well visually and even though the game is still 8-bit, the animations are much more impressive to the point where even the opening credits cinematic is cool to look at. The fact that a microbe only a few microns wide can be such a big deal is also an intriguing idea to think about, which makes me wonder if there's such a thing either in existence or if anyone has ever considered the idea of something on the scale of OILIX. I also liked how they integrated shape memory alloy into one of the bigger puzzles of the game, though it may be easy for players to forget exactly where to go to make all of the functions work.

The loading screen for new areas, featuring a cute fox.

The sound design is also improved dramatically. There is an abundance of different sounds that Snake can create while walking around Zanzibar Land, with a handy visual aid should you be unable to hear the distinct sounds (this should help the hearing impaired should they wish to play). I also liked the music of this game a lot better. Metal Gear had some tracks which are quite memorable, but there's more complexity to the music of Metal Gear 2, creating tunes which are equally memorable, but also better written and take full advantage of the range available for an 8-bit video game.

At this moment, I'd like to fast forward to today and discuss porting. A lot of the changes made to Metal Gear remain here, a new difficulty setting and an unlockable game mode and item, but there are some other tweaks as well. Names have been tweaked a bit from the original Japanese version for various reasons, but the portraits were also redrawn to avoid legal trouble from celebrities that the characters were obviously based on. The new Yoji Shinkawa art I feel fits the characters better anyway and they are much more consistent with what comes later. Controls were also obviously changed, but like the previous game, you can oddly see an Enter Key prompt when scrolling through dialogue (which, by the way, is still to easy to skip past).

Metal Gear was a solid game, but Metal Gear 2 is a vast improvement in just about every way. The animations are better, the gameplay and story are better, even the music is better. Hideo Kojima has managed to take what was the beginning stages of a new genre and create what is undoubtedly a masterpiece for the MSX2. If you weren't impressed by Metal Gear, then give Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake a whirl. I can promise you that you'll find something to like here, even if it isn't something you'd normally play. While the ending does seem to wrap things up, it would be interesting to see if this franchise will carry on into the future, because I'm really impressed by what Kojima and Konami have accomplished here.

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