It goes without saying that every once in a while a game comes around that is dubbed as an experience. Beyond the simple fact that every game is an experience in and of itself, we tend to use such terminology when a game is lauded as above and beyond or is considered essential playing. Unfortunately, while many believe the endless praise they pay towards these games helps them remain appreciated down the road, it often has an undesired effect - sometimes that praise only delays the negative and unforeseen - or rather ignored - aspects of a game from being seen. While there are several games that come to mind when looking for the usual suspects, one game tops them all: Metal Gear Solid.
Now, I'm not here to rain on anyone's parade. I still have a great deal of respect for what Metal Gear Solid brings to the table, and I couldn't imagine any serious PS1 library without it, it's just that after my latest play through I'm no longer willing to let the game's triumphs overshadow the things that drive me clinically insane. So what are those things? Well, before we get into that let's look at why the game is celebrated.
As if it's any kind of real surprise, the driving force behind Metal Gear Solid is the narrative and its cinematic nature. Of course, we all know the jokes that go along with this territory: "Metal Gear Solid is a great movie, err... game to play" and "there's about fifteen minutes of gameplay in the entire game." While there is some obvious hyperbole in there, there's a bit of truth to the sarcasm. Additionally, the skepticism that many level at the story and its plausibility is justified as well. Still, this being a video game, a place where imagination should be allowed to roam free, and taking into account what Kojima and his crew were trying to accomplish, I'm willing to sacrifice some control and realism for the sake of the overall vision. The most crucial element in all of this is the characterization of the game's key players. The full voice acting goes a long way in accomplishing this and it's amazing well done (outside the hilariously bad continue screen pleas) but it's the writing that clinches it. Unlike a Mega Man X game where Capcom tries (and fails) to make us feel bad about "retiring" bad guys, Metal Gear Solid actually does make one feel bad about gunning down the members of FoxHound. For example, while the actions of Psycho Mantis and Sniper Wolf are far from excusable, once we hear about their tragic pasts they become more than a mere obstacle blocking your way. As poignant as the characters end up being, the obvious anti-nuke message and the "just live" sentiment near the end come off a lot more tongue-in-cheek than most would probably like. We all know that Snake is going to be dragged back to the battlefield at one point or another, there's no need to toy with us about that.
As for my problems with Metal Gear Solid, some of them actually start with a quick read of the manual. I'm not talking about misprints or misinformation; I'm talking about the writing of loaded statements. Can anyone read the section on the second page (What is "Metal Gear"?) and not feel the bar has been set way beyond the sky? "Fighting alone does not make a game, stealth is more important!" "Metal Gear had a huge impact on gamers and manufactures alike." "...the "Metal Gear" series continued to be widely discussed as a visionary masterpiece." All these of these cringe worthy statement beg the question: why couldn't Konami let their product speak for itself? So, I take it a game that emphasizes stealth is better than a game that encourages running and running, or a game that has both. If Metal Gear had such an impact, why didn't we see a game during the SNES/Genesis era? Finally, when a company calls their own product a "visionary masterpiece" I can't help but lose a little faith in what I've been told about Kojima's humbleness. We won't even touch things like the phrase “human drama” in it's relation to a video game or putting the words "Metal Gear" in parentheses.
Okay, so the above doesn't really count because we're not really talking about the game, so let's get to that all-important element, game play. I'll admit years ago everything seemed fine and dandy to me in this respect; snapping necks and shooting stinger missiles quickly became second nature. Unfortunately, I completely forgot about the ill-conceived inventory system (why can't the Key Card always be active? I love switching between items like crazy in gas-filled rooms) or how touchy the controls are when it comes to the difference of flipping an enemy over my shoulder and choking them. The kicker is just how annoying some of the scenarios you're thrown into can be (the communications tower) and surprising amount of expertise they require. At times it feels like you're set up to fail. I'm hardly against trail and error (actually, I think they give badges out to Syphon Filter players for that), and I know I'm not a particularly good Metal Gear Solid player, but I'm just not going to put in all that time to remember the game backwards and forwards, and remember where cheaply placed camera turrets are in electronically jammed areas. All in all, there's a level of cheapness ingrained within that I just couldn't ignore anymore.
Ironically, as troublesome as the above can be, the true meat of Metal Gear Solid's game play is the various boss fights. You'll stumble upon bosses at a super accelerated rate and they pretty much make the game what it is, not the parts in-between. Unfortunately, as fun and inventive as some of these battles are (the Hind, Sniper Wolf) they often feel more like an extension of the storyline than a component of the game play. There really isn't a boss fight that's not unique or memorable in its own way, but this is another area where the current reality snaps one out of their nostalgia fueled bliss. Some of these fights are annoying as hell to say the least, especially the two tortuous battles that lie beyond the titular battle tank.
Sound wise, beyond the previously mentioned voice acting, Metal Gear is competent to stellar. While I'm always in the mood for a good "Duel" (the boss theme) and can easily appreciate the rest of the mood-setting score, it's simply workman-like its construction and application. It's not really inspiring despite being appropriate. As for the sound effects, the amount of detail easily shows when your fire your weapons in areas that produce an echo or when you tap walls to attract enemies.
Despite all the qualms above, is Metal Gear Solid still worth owning and playing? The answer is an unsurprising yes, but at the same time I can no longer pretend the game is the bulletproof masterpiece many bill it as. Additionally, I am also done with the thought that it is automatically better than any of the Syphon Filter titles because of its pedigree. That may be true when it comes to narrative and cinematic quality, but not when it comes to the game play, which should be at the front of any gaming experience. Metal Gear Solid takes a gamble in this respect and wins, but it's not exactly the prettiest kind of win. Still, if there is anything could help Metal Gear Solid in the present, it's for people to be realistic about how it stands today and not pretty up the picture because they can.