The Metal Gear video game franchise has a reputation for excellence in storytelling and innovative gameplay. It is also comically difficult. Join Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief and absolutely terrible video gamer Dylan Roth as he plays through the entire Metal Gear canon in anticipation of the long-awaited Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, out this fall.
Last time in SNAAAAAAAKE!, I expressed my disappointment in 1987’s Metal Gear, the 8-bit stealth combat game that launched the acclaimed series of the same name. I felt that it lacked future installments’ complexity in terms of both story and gameplay, and I really didn’t get much out of the experience. I was sort of dreading having to slog through another tedious retro game before allowing myself to explore the later Metal Gear Solid games for the first time, but I’d made a commitment to write about each chapter in the series, and I like to honor my commitments.
Luckily for me, not only is Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake a far superior game to the original, but it actually holds up very well even against its more celebrated sequel, Metal Gear Solid. It’s remarkable how much of what makes MGS so great is right here in Solid Snake, a game released nine years earlier on a far inferior platform, the MSX2 personal computer—particularly considering how little of it is present in the first Metal Gear, which was made only three years before using practically the same technology.
Like Metal Gear, Solid Snake was only released in the US in 2006, packaged with the special edition of Metal Gear Solid 3 for the Playstation 2. (There was a Metal Gear sequel for the NES called Snake’s Revenge, but it was made without the knowledge or involvement of series architect Hideo Kojima, and doesn’t count. It’s sort of like that Peter Cushing Doctor Who movie.) It’s currently available as part of the Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection for the PS3, and on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console. Both versions have benefited from some minor upgrades, like new character portraits that are more consistent with the rest of the canon, and (thank goodness) an Easy Mode, for Dylan.
“No, you’ve got it wrong. I hate war. Just like all the kids here. But… I need it. War is all we know. We can’t make it in the normal world. We need the battlefield to survive. Big Boss gives us a place to fight. Conflict is on our blood. We can’t deny it.”
-Gray Fox (Frank Jaeger)
While still not nearly as intricate as Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake is a hell of a lot meatier than its predecessor. The game begins with a lengthy backstory dump, explaining that the post-Cold War superpowers have committed to total nuclear disarmament, and that world peace may truly be within reach. But that peace is put in jeopardy when a young rogue nation called Zanzibar Land (unrelated to the actual region in Tanzania where Freddie Mercury was born) manages to steal and stockpile most of the remaining nuclear warheads. Zanzibar Land is positioning itself as the world’s sole nuclear power, able to wage war with anyone at will. But even that’s not enough—they’ve also kidnapped Czech scientist Dr. Kio Marv, whose latest discovery may be a viable replacement for traditional fossil fuels, which have fallen into short supply.
On December 24th, 1999, a lone soldier is dragged out of retirement to infiltrate Zanzibar Land, free their prisoners, recover Dr. Marv’s scientific data, and neutralize Zanzibar Land’s nuclear capability. The soldier in question: who else but Solid Snake, the man who, four years earlier, prevented a nuclear war by destroying the walking battle tank Metal Gear. Over the course of the mission, Snake runs through a gauntlet of skilled mercenaries, makes allies, uncovers double-agents, and does battle with the new Metal Gear D. He also has one final confrontation with his traitorous former commander: Big Boss.
Metal Gear 2 introduces some of the philosophical and political musings that the series later became famous for, allowing characters quiet moments or pauses during and between battles to talk about their lives and their beliefs. The most prevalent theme in MG2 is built around what happens to a warrior when there are no more wars to fight. Big Boss seems to view being a warrior as a culture—or even a race—of its own, and feels a primal need to preserve that race. In Zanzibar Land, Big Boss has assembled a generation of children who each grew up in the shadow of violence, with the goal of training them to fight the wars that will create the following generation of soldiers, and so on. For Big Boss (who by his own admission has no interest in sex), war is a method of reproduction, of self-preservation. His wars need no cause, because preserving the cycle of violence is the endgame.
Big Boss’s inner circle is made up of soldiers and mercenaries who similarly can’t allow for a world without war to erode their purpose. The first boss in the game, Black Ninja, is a resistance fighter on Snake’s side in the first Metal Gear, but is sacrificed by the US government in order to preserve the operation’s secrecy. They assume him killed in a cover-up bombing, but instead, he finds a new home in Big Boss’s army. Black Ninja can never trust self-serving politicians since the last government he trusted tried to kill him, but he still needs a war to fight. Big Boss provides one for him—a fight without politics.
Solid Snake’s former FOXHOUND colleague Gray Fox has also joined up with Big Boss, feeling that he has nothing else to offer the world other than his prowess for killing. We learn that he once had a shot at true love, but it fell apart due to political red tape (creating another warrior with a resentment toward conventional government), and he doesn’t believe he’s really equipped to make someone happy.
Snake, on the other hand, thinks he may still have a shot at a life off of the battlefield, even if it’s difficult. He claims that the thing that separates him from Big Boss is his love of life, but the player doesn’t get to see much of that from him aside from a tendency to flirt with every woman he meets. (They all flirt back—superspies are irresistible.) Snake actually manages to be the least interesting character in the game, apart from a few of the less fleshed-out bosses. His tendency to ask stupid questions in order to obtain exposition for the player makes him come across as pretty dense, and he’s not nearly as smooth as he thinks he is. While the dialogue definitely improves in the next installment, Metal Gear 2 really highlights how much voice actor David Hayter breathes life into the role of Solid Snake, making him into the likable and complex player character that we know and love.
Metal Gear 2 is a full meal of a video game, offering a wide variety of stealth, combat, and puzzle scenarios. The act of sneaking past guards and security cameras is far more exciting in this game than in the first Metal Gear, and maybe even than in Metal Gear Solid. Where Solid shows you guards’ field of view in your radar screen, Metal Gear 2 requires you to eyeball it, judging their arc-shaped eyelines as they move their heads and bodies—not the easiest task in an 80bit world. Being seen by a guard means being swarmed within seconds, and in the early parts of the game before you’ve earned a larger health bar, it’s practically a death sentence. As you level up, however, your need to sneak is lessened and your ability to fight is increased, which helps keep the gameplay from getting stale.
Each boss battle in Metal Gear 2 is unique, requiring a different set of skills and weapons. For one, you need to track down an invisible opponent by tracing the sound of his footsteps as he runs across different types of flooring. For another, you must anticipate where a teleporting boss will next appear, and hit him before he ports again. Snake has no weapons or equipment at the beginning of the final battle with Big Boss, and has to evade machine gun fire until you can put something together. Your eventual weapon: a lighter and a can of aerosol spray.
Playing Metal Gear 2 on Easy Mode was adequately challenging while rarely becoming frustrating. For me, the ideal difficulty is one where I almost never have to repeat a task more than five times. If I can’t beat a level/puzzle/mission after that many attempts, that’s when I start to get grumpy. This only happened to me in a handful of stages, at which point I had to resort to an online walkthrough to get past it. In some cases, this is unavoidable, as occasionally the solution to a puzzle is only found in the original MSX2 instruction manual, which is not included in the Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection.
Metal Gear 2 features a wide variety of intuitive puzzles, and the solution may elude you if you underestimate the capabilities of the 8-bit game. I didn’t expect, for instance, to have to take a puff of a cigarette before hang gliding off a building, to calm Snake’s nerves. A crucial item is hidden in a crawlspace full of diseased rodents that can kill you instantly, so you need to draw them out by opening one of your rations and shoot them as they bottleneck out of the crawlspace. When a path is blocked by an acidic spill, you need to neutralize it with something basic—chocolate! (There are a number of food-based puzzles in Metal Gear 2, probably from one day in the design process when Kojima was particularly hungry.) As always, your support team can provide you with clues to these puzzles via radio.
I’m going to close up here with a big, bold statement. I bought Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection for $36. If Metal Gear 2 had been the only game in the box, I’d have considered it money well spent.
BUT, lucky for both of us, it wasn’t. We’re just getting started.
Next time: Metal Gear Solid!