Metal Gear wants the player to fail. The game’s rough edges are part of the growing pains of an early genre, but taken in the context of the entire Metal Gear series, these challenges also feel like horrifying defense mechanisms. As Solid Snake infiltrates Outer Heaven, the player intrudes upon the game’s world. Neither are welcome, and if they’re caught, they will be destroyed.
Released in 1987 for the MSX2 home computer in Japan, Metal Gear helped lay the groundwork for the stealth genre. It created one of the most iconic video game protagonists and launched the career of one of the most fanatically acclaimed video game auteurs, Hideo Kojima. The Metal Gear series has become a fixture across console generations. Looking back at the game that started it all reveals something less glamorous. It is formative and also tragic.
Metal Gear Retrospective
This story is part of an ongoing series analyzing the Metal Gear games.
Metal Gear peppers the screen with a mixture of guards and fatal hazards meant to stave off progress. Instant death pits open up without warning, tanks fire missiles from multiple screens over, and important doors remain locked until you figure out you need to call an unmentioned ally on your radio. Metal Gear’s narrative mirrors its malicious design. At the end of the game, the leader of Outer Heaven is revealed to be Snake’s own commander, Big Boss. He sent Snake on this mission, expecting he would fail. Metal Gear expects the player to fail, too. But Snake, and the player, succeed anyway.
Outer Heaven, a paradise for career soldiers, is undone by a raw recruit. Metal Gear, a playground for its designer, is undone by the player. Big Boss and his descendants spend numerous games attempting to rebuild this paradise. It’s hard not to see the parallel to Hideo Kojima, making game after game and attempting to rebuild his private, player-resistant fortress.
Viewed in this light, the Metal Gear series as a whole is about a creator versus their offspring. Solid Snake is a clone of Big Boss, although this will not be revealed until Metal Gear Solid. Snake gets sent on a crash course against his father by the shadowy organization known as the Patriots. As the series progresses, more and more games attempt to clarify Big Boss’ motives. Eventually, his vainglorious need to build a soldier’s sanctuary gets painted in a softer light; he is a victim of bureaucratic manipulation looking for a place to express himself. Snake is merely the means that the Patriots use to foil those attempts.
Like Big Boss’ goal in creating a soldier’s paradise, Kojima’s design of the Metal Gear world reflects a yearning for full creative freedom. Both of these endeavors are foiled by the need to design for the player. The Patriots send Snake to undermine his father. Konami sends the player to shatter Kojima’s aspirations. It will take decades, and many more Metal Gear games, before father and son—or player and designer—reconcile.
In Metal Gear, Snake needs to rescue hostages and destroy a dangerous superweapon called Metal Gear, a nuclear-equipped walking battle tank. To accomplish this, Snake must sneak his way through Outer Heaven, gather items, and proceed through the base. Gameplay involves finding the easiest way pass guards on the way to the next objective. If Snake is spotted, the enemy goes into an alert phase and attacks with overwhelming force.
There’s only one criteria for getting spotted in Metal Gear: whether you crossed the enemy’s line of sight. Later games introduce a slew of other mitigating factors and intricate systems that create a spectrum of possibilities for concealment. Metal Gear Solid, for example, introduced a small cone of vision and the ability for guards to check for footprints and sound. Metal Gear Solid 3 features camouflage outfits and tall grass to hide in. In Metal Gear, concealment is a binary state: seen or not seen. Guards’ vision extends across the entire screen. Wander even a pixel into their sight and enemies will descend like a swarm of white blood cells attacking a foreign threat.
Detection being a binary state with sight as the only contributing factor leaves the player completely reliant on geometry in order to survive. Outer Heaven is littered with massive crates and other forms of cover that the player can move behind and remain unseen. Combat is costly in both health and ammo, so traversing Metal Gear revolves around careful positioning. Metal Gear’s tactical action feels like tactical Tetris. Snake fits into bent hallways and tiny nooks as comfortably as a puzzle piece. He navigates around hazards towards safe positions that set him up for explosive moments of success. The game’s spatial design contorts itself into a variety of lanes and hiding spaces of increasingly improbable arrangements. Metal Gear escalates the challenge of each encounter by removing geometry to safely hide behind, or by increasing the amount of enemies and, therefore, limiting the amount of places players can go without being spotted.
Even the slightest adjustment to enemy placement can seriously inhibit the player’s options. Because of this, it is possible to encounter rooms or situations where the player is inevitably doomed to detection. Early in the game, the player comes across a hallway full of security cameras that move up and down the walls. The first camera moves upwards and can be avoided by hiding behind a nearby box. A second camera patrols on the other side of the box; you cannot move to the other side, because the first camera will not move in time. Entering this screen all but assures an alert phase. The solution is to hide using the cardboard box item, which is something the player might never find and will likely not have the first time they enter this screen. The game has no mercy in this room. In other parts of the game, enemy patrols may change depending on where you enter, which ensures players have a chance to hide. But this room never changes.
Moments like this show the core of what Metal Gear is. It is an experiment meant to entertain the designer (Big Boss, or Kojima). Snake, and the player, are the test subject in a series of miniature trials. Some are rigged and some are fair, but they all seem to be in service of satisfying Hideo Kojima’s curiosity, not the player’s needs. For instance, an early game room is full of poison gas and requires a mask to proceed safely. In order to leave the room, the player must remove their gas mask and equip a cardkey to open the door. Situations like this exist to ensure the player faces difficulties; they are made to hurt. The series would later abandon this framework for design that emphasizes creative problem-solving, but in Metal Gear, the game couldn’t give a damn about your comfort.
Early experiments aim to inconvenience the player, but later encounters get even more sinister. Metal Gear strikes directly at the player through boss fights. Unlike the later games, which tend to give a deeper context to antagonists’ arrivals, these fights arrive with next to no warning. The player enters the screen and gets immediately attacked.
Nearly every boss fight in Metal Gear births future variations. A fight against a rooftop helicopter morphs into the Hind-D battle in Metal Gear Solid. A surprise face off with a tank in Metal Gear sets the groundwork for the first Vulcan Raven battle in Metal Gear Solid. An early fight against four soldiers births the recurring trope of a once-per-game battle against a squad of enemies: Solid Snake will fight the Four Horsemen in Metal Gear 2, a squad of Genome Soldiers in Metal Gear Solid, have a gunfight against Gurlukovich Special Forces in Metal Gear Solid 2’s opening chapter, and fight the nanotech FROG squad in Guns of the Patriots. These repetitions and remixes feel like iterations upon Metal Gear’s first failed attempt to stop the player—like a desperate scramble to find some way, any way to finally put an end to the player’s tyranny.
Metal Gear’s design philosophy becomes more stark in comparison with another watershed stealth game series: Wolfenstein, which preceded Metal Gear’s 1987 release. Silas Warner’s original Castle Wolfenstein (1981) and its sequel Beyond Castle Wolfenstein (1984) focus on the tools and systems of stealth. The player can use disguises to get around and pick locks to find weapons. They interact directly with Nazi guards who ask for code phrases. If you beat Castle Wolfenstein, you can load the game again and attempt to complete an entirely new level configuration. Wolfenstein is about what you do and is comprised of items that create emergent gameplay scenarios.
Metal Gear is a game about where you are. It has more in common with The Legend of Zelda than Wolfenstein. Items are a means to facilitate further exploration. They incentivize backtracking and memorization of the game space. Consider how Metal Gear handles disguises in comparison to Wolfenstein. In Metal Gear, the player gains access to a disguise whose sole use is to sneak past a guard blocking the way to Building 2. If you don’t have the disguise, it is necessary to circle back and hunt through the rest of the game world until you find it. In Wolfenstein, a disguise is just another tool; there can be more than one way to advance. In Metal Gear, disguises are context-dependent. Puzzles only have one good answer, and if you don’t know what it is, you better figure it out.
There is one scenario in Metal Gear that can render the game unwinnable. Throughout the game, as Snake rescues hostages and defeats bosses, his class rank increases, measured by a number of stars at the bottom of the screen. Higher ranks grant more health and the ability to hold more ammo. In order to destroy Metal Gear, the player must detonate 16 C4 explosives on the mech’s right and left legs in a specific sequence. Before this, they encounter a villain named Coward Duck who hides behind a hostage. Shooting the hostage lowers the player’s rank. If they somehow make it to Metal Gear’s location without the necessary rank, they will not have enough C4 to destroy it. Because the door locks behind them, they cannot leave to rescue spare hostages and increase their rank again.
They are forever trapped inside that room. In a multiverse full of failed attempts to foil the player, this is the only scenario where the game succeeds. It is a devious and cruel last-ditch effort to save Outer Heaven—and, by extension, the game world—from destruction. It is the one time that Kojima successfully engineers failure, but even that can be undone once the player reloads an older save.
Metal Gear designs for failure but, still, it is surmountable. Because of this, there’s an immense satisfaction to beating the game. The player gets a taste of what it’s like to be Solid Snake, overcoming supposedly impossible odds. If it took cleverness and perseverance for the player to clear Metal Gear’s obstacles, then Snake must possess these qualities in even greater quantity within the game’s fictional world.
Metal Gear creates an intoxicating image: the tough, lone soldier. Players share in Snake’s victories. They inhabit his body. The game’s punishing design encourages them to feel, in some way, the same fears that Snake feels. Each victory helps them identify with him and, eventually, as him.
This is counter to the in-game theme of Metal Gear: to design a fortress so impenetrable and challenging that no soldier (or player) would ever return. In crafting for failure, Kojima set the stage for an escalating series of empowerments that players began to crave like a drug.
Subsequent Metal Gear games are monuments to the first. Big Boss’ failure reverberates outwards narratively, creating dangerous echos. The memory of Outer Heaven never fades within the game’s fiction, and players will find themselves playing through familiar set pieces for the entirety of the series.
Metal Gear is the framework upon which every other game in the series is built, often in extremely literal ways. Its structure has been exaggerated, recontextualized, reaffirmed, mocked and parodied. It will never be completely forgotten.
Rightfully or wrongfully, the Metal Gear saga is inextricably linked with its creator Hideo Kojima. Metal Gear marks the birth of the myth of Kojima as supreme auteur; even this analysis couldn’t help but see the creator in his creation. However, the tensions at the core of the franchise are larger than any single man. They are the inescapable tensions of a genre where players are always the intruder. The player is not welcome in Outer Heaven; they will not be welcome anywhere. And Metal Gear is the moment where that previously unspoken sentiment is finally voiced.