On July 13, 1987, a new video game was released for the MSX2 computer system in Japan and Europe. Designed and directed by a man whose name would become synonymous with his long-lived series, the original Metal Gear debuted and Hideo Kojima’s story about espionage, betrayal, and nuclear armament began.
Today, this game is often overshadowed by the more popular title in the series, Metal Gear Solid. However, in honor of Metal Gear’s 30th anniversary, let’s explore how it inspired much of the gameplay that fans love from the franchise that followed, as well as why it is ultimately the reason for the series coming full-circle with its (arguably) final installment, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Metal Gear tells the story of Solid Snake’s first mission as a rookie in the special forces unit, FOXHOUND. On this mission, Snake is sent to a hostile mercenary state called Outer Heaven where he is tasked with discovering the fate of FOXHOUND team member, Gray Fox. Led by commander Big Boss, Snake eventually uncovers that Outer Heaven holds a deadly secret: a weapon capable of launching nuclear attacks from any location. By stealthing through Outer Heaven’s facilities, Snake must confront the state’s mysterious leader and destroy the weapon that threatens the rest of the world.
Although an intriguing concept for the time, in the context of subsequent games from the series, Metal Gear is pretty light on the plot. However, what players appreciated then (and are likely to still appreciate today) is its gameplay, albeit accounting for a dash of age.
Fans of Metal Gear Solid often laud the 1998 title for its innovations in gameplay, looking to the reveal of Meryl’s codec number on the reverse side of the game’s physical case, or the use of multiple game controllers as a mechanic to get through Psycho Mantis’ boss battle, among other numerous little details. While it’s true that Metal Gear Solid should be credited for these impressive creative achievements, looking into the series’ past will uncover hints of the promise to come.
Although not nearly as fleshed-out as its predecessors, Metal Gear features similar gameplay mechanics scattered throughout. Snake will begin the game completely unarmed and is required to collect various weapons and equipment in order to gain access to each new area. He will find keycards to unlock doors, cigarettes that have a sneaky usefulness, and even cardboard boxes that can be utilized as a method of hiding from guards. At one point, Solid Snake is ordered to turn off his gaming system, echoing tricky gameplay mechanics that come in later installments. Unless you’ve played Metal Gear, you may never know how far back these franchise tropes span, and it doesn’t just stop at gameplay.
**SPOILERS ahead for pretty much the entire MGS series, but mostly Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.**
In Metal Gear, Snake must battle through a collection of “uniquely” named bosses (Dirty Duck, Machinegun Kid, Bloody Brad, etc.) and as the game continues, he comes to some rather disturbing realizations about his mission. Similar to later installments, Snake collects various codec numbers from the people who prove themselves to be helpful in his progress through Outer Heaven, but none more so than Big Boss…at least for a while. Metal Gear Solid series veterans will remember this name as the individual who preceded Solid Snake as the bearer of codename “Snake,” and as the protagonist of more than one entry in the franchise. In Metal Gear, Big Boss turns out to be a not-so-nice-guy by feeding his agent false information about how to complete the mission, and then flat-out betraying Solid Snake by attempting to kill him in a climactic final fight. In order to complete the game, Solid Snake must defeat Big Boss and destroy his Metal Gear weapon.
When Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots released in 2008, it brought an end to Solid Snake’s long journey and Big Boss’ as well. Although he was thought to have been eliminated during Solid Snake’s Operation Intrude N313 (his mission in Metal Gear), and then with some more finality in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Big Boss appears apparently alive and well. For some time, this left many to believe that plot points from the original titles had been retroactively modified to make for this emotional conclusion. However, then Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain rolled around and that interpretation changed.
MGSV: The Phantom Pain is a sequel to the prequel series that began with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (seriously, how can anyone not love this series when it lets us make sense of that statement). In this game, we are led to believe that Big Boss is our noble protagonist, but by the end we learn that’s not exactly the case. In actuality, we have donned the role of Venom Snake, a double created by Big Boss to further his own goals and effectively to protect himself from those who might be wishing him harm. In this way, Big Boss was able to avoid altogether the events of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and thus cheat death by sacrificing Venom Snake in the final moments of those games.
Of course, it’s unlikely that Hideo Kojima penned the overarching storyline for the Metal Gear franchise from the start. When Metal Gear released 30 years ago, Venom Snake could hardly have been a glint in his imagination. And yet, he found a way to fold his ending back into the series, creating a new plot point in a nearly 30-year old game, and ultimately completing the series’ timeline, all with one last surprise.
Like its early establishment of MGS gameplay, the series’ plot grew from the Metal Gear seedling, vowing to never forget what had originally established it. The series has progressed into a dauntingly convoluted plot that fans adore, but it’s important to realize that this all started with a simple 30-year-old game. For many, the Metal Gear series may be over, but through its masterfully evolved plot, it continues by asking us to look back and to restart our systems; this time, with wider eyes.