Friday, September 25, 2015

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990) - MSX2

MSX2 box art
When I first played Metal Gear Solid for the Sony Playstation in 1998, I was among the first in the general North American gaming public to do so, having gone to the effort of preordering it. It was one of the first games I'd ever watched video previews of online (something that's completely commonplace these days) and the official trailer Konami released for it had me, among many other gamers I'm sure, salivating in anticipation.

Like a certain someone in my age group and older, I had memories of playing the original Metal Gear on the NES and recognized it as something of a brilliant game given its fairly original premise and gameplay mechanics despite its primitive design and limited capabilities. I'd never played through the game in its entirety though; in fact I never came close. But still the combined experiences of playing through the very early parts of the game and watching someone else advance quite far were more than enough to make me realize retroactively what a special and unique game it was.

The impending release of this 32-bit, 3D sequel had me delving into as much history as I could find on the series (magazines like EGM were a great help in this regard) and I came to discover that not only was the NES game I'd played actually a somewhat inferior port of a previous MSX2 version released only in Japan but also that a sequel, also only released on Japan, stood between it and Metal Gear Solid. There had been no port this time and only the truly hardcore Western gamers who'd gone to great lengths to acquire the MSX system (which never caught on in the North American market but was essentially the standard PC in Japan in the mid through late eighties as well as in parts of Europe and South America) had any shot at playing this sequel: Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. And even then they'd had to import it and play it in Japanese.

What came of all this was that one of the greatest 8-bit games of all time went almost completely unnoticed in the West and actually, given that by 1990 the MSX2 was nearing the end of its own life cycle, there weren't too many Japanese gamers who would experience it back then either. But the West would get its own sequel that same year on the NES: Snake's Revenge. The bad news was that this wasn't a true sequel at all and certainly didn't play like one. While developed by Konami and released under their Ultra imprint (oddly enough, while developed in Japan it was only released in North America), the game had zero involvement from series architect Hideo Kojima, which is absolutely apparent in the final product. In fact, Kojima was completely unaware of the game's existence until a chance meeting on a train with a fellow Konami coworker revealed it to him. This spurred him to create a true sequel, which I guess Konami wholeheartedly supported. This leads one to wonder exactly why they endeavoured to make Snake's Revenge without him in the first place. Whatever the case, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake would not only relegate Snake's Revenge to the status of non-canonical sequel, it would also blow it out of the water in every respect.

Snake's Revenge for the NES
One of the reasons it is one of the greatest 8-bit games ever is simply because it packed in both graphically and sonically about as much as was possible on an 8-bit system. The MSX2 was pushed to its limits and it's apparent that a NES port would have struggled mightily to compare, had one existed. The game features a completely reworked engine to provide a much more elaborate game design than its predecessor. And while the first Metal Gear had the thinnest of stories, which was only very sparsely supplemented with dialogue and one lone plot twist near the finale, Metal Gear 2 offers a much more complex narrative, filled with what could be called cutscenes and lengthy radio conversations. For the first time we're given insight into Snake's personality and motivations. I'd even go so far as to say that the game actually features real character development as the story progresses.

At first Snake's dialogue might seem underdeveloped to veterans of the later games as he's actually pretty mature and polite - quite a far cry from the gruff, cynical character we know so well. But if you think about it, it only makes sense - Snake is younger here and while the events of Outer Heaven were certainly difficult and traumatic for him they weren't much compared to what he's going to go through. It's definitely what happens here in Zanzibar Land that molds him into the Snake of the Metal Gear Solid games. Apparently he was into women's figure skating back then, too.

So what is the story anyway? Here's the setup: It's several years after the events of Metal Gear (sometimes it's stated to be three years, sometimes four) at the end of the twentieth century, Christmas Eve, 1999 to be exact. The world is facing an unprecedented energy crisis with its oil supply going dry. But a Czech scientist, Dr. Leo Marv, has developed a new microbe capable of synthesizing petroleum. This comes to be known as OILIX. During a trip to the United States to discuss his findings with the international scientific community, Marv is kidnapped by agents from the nation of Zanzibar Land, a small nuclear-armed country in central Asia, hoping to use OILIX to cement their military dominance over the rest of the world. Once again FOXHOUND agent Solid Snake is sent in alone to rescue Marv and diffuse the situation, much like his mission in Outer Heaven. Also like the Outer Heaven incident, the enemy has a powerful deterrent to any nation or nations that might try to stop them by force - Metal Gear. This latest model is Metal Gear D.

Unlike so many of the games of the day, this extensive setup isn't just written in the game's booklet - it's all presented as an introduction once you start playing. Anyone playing Metal Gear 2 for the first time will quickly discover that while Metal Gear is the series' starting point, its alpha, it is Metal Gear 2 that truly laid the groundwork for all that was to come afterward. From a storytelling and presentation standpoint (extremely cinematic, particularly for an 8-bit game) as well as gameplay standpoint, it was a massive leap forward and practically everything that defines the Metal Gear series was established here. This was the game that introduced the ability to crouch and crawl, to distract patrolling guards by making noise and guards that could see in more than just straight lines. It was here that the radar showing your and enemies's locations was introduced along with an evasion mode following the alert phase. Long radio conversations (codec later in the series) were first established here, as well as dialogue reflecting Kojima's own personal views on various world politics, war and nuclear weapons.

Metal Gear 2's story and gameplay elements were so extraordinary that really, most of what happens in Metal Gear Solid is just a reiteration of them. When I was playing through Metal Gear Solid for the first time, I was blown away, as I imagine most gamers were. Now, I'm sure I still would have been had I played Metal Gear 2 first, but it couldn't possibly be the same. Why? Because when I stated that much of Metal Gear Solid was a reiteration of Metal Gear 2, I was being quite literal. Not only were elements I've already mentioned above again present in the new (Metal Gear Solid) game but even certain plot points, encounters and scenarios were actually lifted verbatim from the MSX2 masterpiece. Fight with a cyborg ninja? Check. Attacked by a Russian helicopter? Check. The need to backtrack through previously visited areas to advance further (more on that later)? Check-a-roony. There's way more than just that but I don't want to give everything away. But I will just mention that when I first played through Metal Gear Solid 2 and got to the part where on the Big Shell Raiden is contacted by a mysterious character warning him of invisible landmines in his path I thought "Oh, right. Just like in the last one where Gray Fox as the Ninja contacts Snake." Well, little did I know at the time that that scenario in the first Metal Gear Solid was just an echo itself from Metal Gear 2!

Metal Gear 2's Black Ninja
As to the gameplay, it's still based on the first Metal Gear but with more abilities, challenges and options. You're still sneaking around inside large bases (and some outdoor areas, too) with multiple floors and many doors requiring different levels of keycards to open. Being detected still brings an alert mode wherein you're chased by not only every enemy on the screen but also those of adjoining screens as well. Security cameras, trap doors, mines and other traps have to be negotiated and you're able to acquire different types of equipment to help you deal with them.

One tweak is that in the original Metal Gear you need to improve your rank, which is basically like gaining levels, so that you have a longer life bar and can hold more ammunition. This is accomplished by rescuing hostages being held in cells scattered around Outer Heaven. In Metal Gear 2 it's a little more straightforward - gone are ranks but you still gain the same perks upon defeating bosses - another element that would show up again in Metal Gear Solid.

Besides Marv and a couple other essential characters, there aren't any other prisoners that need rescuing. Replacing them are children - war orphans taken in by Big Boss (who is once again the primary antagonist - I probably should have mentioned that earlier) who will give you information and tips when you talk to them. In a weird, kind of sick twist, it's actually possible for Snake to kill them but you lose health if you do. The more children you talk to, the more is peeled back about Big Boss's character and for the first time in the series you learn that he isn't just a straightforward heartless villain. I will point out that the revelation that Big Boss is Snake's father isn't actually in this game and was only retconned later in Metal Gear Solid. But knowing that detail during the final confrontation certainly makes it a more emotional gaming experience.

The boss fights are expanded slightly too, usually there's a bit of dialogue from them after you defeat them and you can also get some background info on them from one of your radio contacts. None of the fights are too hard once you figure out what to do but they offer a nice variety of required tactics over the course of the game. The fight with the Hind D helicopter bears mentioning because although this is a 2D 8-bit game, it's done in such a way that the fight actually feels somewhat three-dimensional - testament to the innovation of Kojima - something we've all become familiar with over the years.

Original MSX radio screen vs. updated PS2 radio screen

As much as I must gush about the game's story, presentation and gameplay, I will admit that it isn't perfect. A significant amount of backtracking is required and some gamers can find that tedious. Usually, as someone with limited patience,  I'd be among them, but honestly, I enjoy this game so much that it really didn't bother me at all. Also, early in the game there is a swamp you must traverse and if you step into the wrong area, you'll quickly start to sink, which can lead to death if you don't backstep very quickly. This sounds like a pretty standard videogame challenge but I'll tell you now that there is no way visually to tell where you should and shouldn't step. Your route has to be figured out through trial and error. Again, this might be acceptable except that this swamp is four screens in size and you have to take a long, convoluted route to navigate it safely. Getting through it is easily the most irksome part of the game. For me at least.
As improved as the game's engine is over the original Metal Gear, for some reason Snake can still only move in four directions which, while not hampering you in any way while you play, just seems kind of weird given all the other changes and advancements.

Another "flaw" is something that is really no fault of the game. It's just a small story point. As the game was released in 1990, it presupposes that by 1999, the year in which it is set, the Soviet Union will still be around. One of the characters is a member of the Czechoslovakian Secret Police - an organization that was dissolved even before the Czech Republic and Slovakia became separate countries. But hey, no big deal. Also, the game's plot really makes NATO come off as a bunch of dicks. Genocidal dicks, practically.

While Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake is unarguably one of the greatest games of its era and one of the more influential games of all time, the fact that it was released exclusively on a dying system just when the 16-bit era was kicking off ensured that in Japan it would only make a small blip on the radar. And of course in North America, none at all. This has to be one of the bigger, well, I don't want to use a word as strong as tragedy so we'll go with "unfortunate occurrences" in gaming history as a plethora of gamers who were active at the time of its release, myself included, missed out on it altogether and didn't even learn of its existence until years later, let alone get the chance to actually play it. In 1998, with the buildup for Metal Gear Solid, a fan translation of the game was done along with an online version of its instruction manual but this also went largely unnoticed.

Snake crawling through a vent
The aforementioned facts also ensured that the game was released in limited quantities so these days it is a highly sought after and highly expensive collector's item. A copy will set you back around three hundred bucks US and that's without the box. A complete version could cost over five hundred, which is more than the MSX2 itself goes for these days. Thankfully, since 2006 gamers have had the option of experiencing this classic by way of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence and later Metal Gear Solid The Legacy Collection.

A mobile phone version was released in Japan in 2004 as well and all of the changes made from the original version were carried over into the PS2 port. These included the addition of thermal goggles, increasing the amount of land mines you can place on one screen, revamped character portraits on the transceiver screen, frequency numbers being saved in a memory window after using them for the first time, name-changes for some of the characters and several more. Because of a few gameplay tweaks and a different saving system, I would assume the original MSX2 version is probably at least slightly more difficult to play through than the updated ports.

The fact that a twenty-five year old, 8-bit game that was barely acknowledged in its time let alone celebrated, could be so complex, well-presented and fun to contemporary gamers marks it as a truly special game. If you're playing it for the first time you'll find yourself marveling how it's so similar to Metal Gear Solid - an amazing game in its own right for a much, much more powerful console with what I can only assume was a much, much higher budget and longer development time. Not only does Metal Gear 2 "hold up" today, it actually shatters expectations of the uninitiated and rivals many current games in enjoyability. Play it any way you can, whether you're a Metal Gear fan or not.

Metal Gear!?
cole d'arc

Cole d'arc is a writer based out of Halifax, NS. He is a practiced blogeteer and professional lister at Five-O-Rama, is the man behind Cole Talks Comics on YouTube, and a founding member of The Sausage Factory live stream movie discussion show.