Metal Gear Solid: The Complete History
With many of the greatest game series having started in the late Eighties, we’re reaching a period of multiple quarter-century anniversaries. It’s already happened with Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania.
What’s interesting about Metal Gear is that it wasn’t originally on Nintendo hardware; its debut on the MSX2 in 1987 marked an allegiance with Sony-related systems that continues to this day, despite ports elsewhere.
The original PlayStation, PS2, PSP and PS3 have all gained greater public exposure because of Metal Gear. Even more significant is that the Metal Gear series, despite dips in quality, is one of the few videogames that can constitute a bonafide and epic saga.
The complicated legacy of Solid Snake and his father is a pop culture pastiche masquerading as modern-day Greek tragedy. While Konami’s Castlevania series is longer-running, it lacks the continuity of Big Boss begetting the patricidal Solid Snake.
Countless words have been written about the intricate narrative woven into the series. Indeed, some have argued that its verbose trappings overshadow its other significant accomplishment: although the series did not invent the stealth genre, it popularised it and influenced innumerable copycats, such as Deus Ex, Splinter Cell and Headhunter.
With it being an enduringly rigid pillar of the industry, we look back over 25 years of the Snake, interviewing several of those responsible, while examining both the good and the bad – and looking to the future in Kojima’s Raiden-led sequel, Metal Gear Solid: Rising.
METAL GEAR SOLID
Given the runaway success of Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation, it’s now easy to get lost amid the hyperbole and bravado from Kojima and his acolytes. But until MGS none of Kojima’s games, despite their high quality, had been real blockbusters, and he certainly wasn’t an established name in the West.
For a humbler, more honest view, it’s worth examining Kojima’s interview with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. Rather than overconfidence it reveals a sense of boyish fantasy: “I wanted to create the 3D version of [Metal Gear].
“The original one had a bird’s-eye view, but I only wanted to play hide and seek; like hiding in the lockers, under the tables, seeing the enemy’s foot from there, and running away. That was the kind of tension I wanted to create. I couldn’t do that back then, but I thought that I could do it on PlayStation.”
Of course, discussion of MGS couldn’t be definitive without Jeremy Blaustein, who was responsible for recreating it in English, while retaining all the flair and complexity of the Japanese original.
“I often wonder what kind of hopes Kojima had for Metal Gear Solid in the US. To what degree did he know he was creating a blockbuster?” asks Blaustein, when talking about the start of the project.
“We met in his office and we walked through the R&D group. He was clearly excited by it. We talked a little bit about family; his wife has the same name as my wife, Chie.
“Then he took me back into his office, and he had on a table a big bunch of Lego that he’d built into tunnels and whatnot, and he told me that this was how he did level design.
This iconic chase scene up a long flight of stairs is another scene that originally appeared in Metal Gear 2.
“He actually built the Lego things and would take a little mini-camera and run it through the Lego tunnel and stuff, and this was how he was doing it. But you know, 3D was new to him. He’d never had to work on multiple heights and stuff like this in a three-dimensional sense.”
Alongside these mechanics was also a complex story, expertly translated and refined by Blaustein. We asked about any resources Konami provided, and the research he did: “I had three huge hard-cased ring binders from R&D.
“One of them was filled with original drawings by Yoji Shinkawa of the characters in various clothes and using various weapons. People underestimate how much original work I did.
“My first task was writing dialogue that was military styled, and this was before the internet, so I read books by Richard Marcinko, founder of SEAL Team Six and Red Cell.
“He’s got dozens of books and I read them all [for the natural-sounding] dialogue. This was not a case of translating words, it was writing, and I could have simply translated things and said ‘I don’t care how the English sounds’ – it would have been easier but it wouldn’t have been as good.”
Speaking of dialogue, Snake’s voice actor, David Hayter, was kind enough to answer our questions, including thoughts on the name Solid Snake.
“I guess my first reaction to the name was, ‘Well, I’m not taking my pants off, if that’s what they’re saying.’ I’d been in Hollywood a few years by that time, and had been burned on the pants thing before. My second reaction was something like, ‘I really hope they pay me for this.’”
Snake finds himself in the hands of Russian marksman Revolver Ocelot, for a bit of torture. Fail and you get the bad ending.
Blaustein was also there for recording sessions, and revealed that character roles weren’t pre- determined: “I don’t think that David had to be Snake; it could have turned out very differently, because it wasn’t like Kris Zimmerman [the voice director] had determined, by her own design, how the voices were going to sound.
I also remember the reason we gave Mei Ling a Chinese accent was because we worried that, with several female parts, it would be difficult to tell them apart unless they had some characteristics,” he adds.
The degree of work Blaustein put into the project was unprecedented for a localisation, with the heavy demands he placed on himself eventually requiring a diazepam prescription. History speaks for itself, showing that MGS resonated so well with an English audience specifically because of Blaustein’s tireless work.
Yet Kojima was dismissive of his efforts, arranging a different localiser for the sequel, and having everything retranslated and re-recorded for the GameCube update Twin Snakes.
“If I could change anything,” says Blaustein reflectively, “I would make sure that I responded to Kojima’s issues to make sure he understood my reasons for making any minor changes. He simply doesn’t understand the nature of game translations and the need to make adjustments for cross- cultural reasons.”
We also ask if Blaustein kept those ring binders: “I did, but when I moved [to Japan] a couple of years ago I put them in storage. I have a definite memory of breaking them open and handing out sheets of artwork to some kids at a birthday party. I thought they would think it was cool.
“And they were just collecting dust. Part of me was thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe someone will want these some day,’ but another part of me was thinking…”
At this point in the interview Blaustein’s daughter, Zoe, interrupts to say “mottainai”, which means a terrible or regrettable waste. Perhaps, but it’s also nice to think that in someone’s bedroom, somewhere, there’s original Shinkawa artwork on a wall.
METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY
As the most anticipated release of its era, it’s no exaggeration to say that Metal Gear Solid 2 legitimised the PS2. Many consumers ignored the cheaper but equally impressive Dreamcast, simply because of the promise of MGS2.
As Konami’s most important project you’d assume it would spare no effort bringing it to America and Europe. Yet in contrast to previously, Konami’s treatment of MGS2 was akin to slamming a long silver bullet into a well-greased chamber, spinning the revolver, and hoping for the best.
Konami unceremoniously pawned the project onto INTAC, a loose-running translation agency which didn’t even use NDAs. Fortunately for Konami, INTAC assigned the work to freelancer Agness Kaku. As an Ivy League graduate who was a double-native in English and Japanese, Kaku was the best replacement they could have hoped for.
Unfortunately Konami offered little freedom and certainly no spiral-bound notebooks like they did with Blaustein: “I never received anything but text. It was extremely unglamorous. Unfortunately that’s prevalent throughout the entertainment industry.
There are almost no quality checks. It’s up to the ethics of the individual translator. I was excited to be working on a blockbuster – I killed myself doing it and actually got less than $5,000 for the job. I have never taken, nor would ever take, a job and piss on it; I have a thoroughly old-world work ethic.”
Although young at the time, Kaku was already experienced in game localisation and had demonstrated her skill on Game Boy Color’s Metal Gear: Ghost Babel.
Although MGS2 was DVD-based, with a vast capacity, there were still word limits: “It was for screen width, which was a nightmare. You have to do this incredibly low-tech thing.
Of course, situations such as this can be avoided entirely by distracting the guards with a dirty magazine. Just like real life.
“I used a monotype font, 26 or 56 or whatever it was, and I created a little ruler and would type everything, and when it hit the end of that [everything] had to be changed! You write the way you think it should be, and then relentlessly cut and rephrase.”
Kaku also had to deal with factual mistakes: “Most of it was US government stuff, and US military – and there were some outright errors. Acronyms, and rank I think. Some of it had to do with jurisdiction or things they were responsible for. I’m not sure if all my corrections made it in there. I did try.”
We were given exclusive access to Kaku’s original files, which contain curious oddities in the original script and messages to Konami requesting permission to make changes.
After Kojima’s dissatisfaction with the liberties taken by Blaustein though, things were non- negotiable. “I can give you one right off the bat – all of that sneak stuff. Sneak point, sneak suit, I thought it sounded really lame.”
Kaku claims she would have changed it to ‘infiltration point’ and ‘stealth suit’ but was not allowed. “It had to stick very close. You couldn’t even take out redundancies in the dialogue to save character count.
“You had to see a one-to-one correspondence on a micro scale, not macro. That’s something I’d only come across in science translations, and legal.”
Even then it wasn’t over, as Kaku explains: “Konami made extensive edits, by three people. When I played through the final product about a year later, I could see stuff, and I knew I had never written it.”
On the tanker it’s possible to jump behind the bar for a gunfight. Every bottle can be shot, showcasing the incredible degree of interaction.
The first appearance of MGS2 was the demo bundled with Konami’s Zone Of The Enders. The hype seemed justified, but there was little indication of the difficulties Kaku was experiencing. This demo, exclusively featuring Snake, also seeded the series’ best-kept secret: the pretty boy character Raiden.
It was such a well orchestrated ruse that even lead actor David Hayter was taken by surprise: “We recorded the game in order, which we don’t always do, so we did the ‘tanker episode’ first.
“That felt like a fairly straightforward sequel – Otacon and I were working together in New York, there was a hot Russian assassin, and so on.
“The ‘leaping off the bridge’ sequence was super-cool. Then… everything changed. I slowly became aware that I was no longer the player character and, in fact, I wasn’t even acknowledging myself as Snake! The game got a little stranger with each sequence.
“However, I can’t say that I totally understood everything when we were recording the first game either, so I put my trust in Mr Kojima. In the end I loved MGS2.”
There certainly was plenty to love, as MGS2 featured an unprecedented degree of environmental interactivity, which even now outclasses the static worlds of recent blockbusters.
Despite this, both fans and critics asked if the series’ narrative had jumped the shark, alienated by Snake’s replacement and silly subplot additions involving an immortal water-walking Jesus-lookalike and a talking prosthetic arm.
Kaku has unfairly been blamed by fans for their dissatisfaction, when in truth MGS2 is the work of several editors, and original script writer Kojima. “I don’t think he’s a writer,” Kaku shockingly claims. “The fact that he would even be considered one shows how low the standards are in the game industry.
“Nothing in MGS2 is above a fanfic level. He wouldn’t last a morning in a network TV writers’ room, and those aren’t exactly turning out the Dark Tower series or The Wire.”
METAL GEAR SOLID: THE TWIN SNAKES
Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes was released on GameCube around the same time as Snake Eater, and for unfathomable reasons Kojima demanded a retranslation from the original Japanese, despite Blaustein’s sterling work for the PlayStation release.
All the dialogue was re-recorded, using most of the original cast (with the exception of Mei Ling). Bringing the cast back was thanks to David Hayter.
As he explains: “Well, I have always felt, since the time I was very little, that the voice of any specific character is an extremely important thing.
“When they changed the voice of Kermit, I knew. When they changed the voice of Bugs Bunny, I felt it. So, when we were talking about re-recording the entire first game for Twin Snakes, I felt it was very important to give the fans of that incredible game a similar experience.
“I had become a huge fan of the game myself by then, so I just felt it would be good for the gaming experience. Plus, the voice cast we got on MGS was amazing, and they deserved to come back.”
METAL GEAR SOLID 3 SNAKE EATER
After the release of MGS2, and with the looming arrival of Snake Eater at the end of 2004, any studio developing a stealth title had to be aware of the series. While MGS dominated the console market, the PC was known for the Thief series.
Randy Smith, designer on the three Thief games, shares his thoughts: “By the time we started development on Thief 3 [released May 2004], it was clear that expanding into the console audience was a step which was overdue. Of course, during development we paid attention to stealth titles.
“We had a lot of respect for the MGS series’ approach to stealth and carefully considered its feedback system. Ours was more immersive, but theirs was clearer, and to some extent that fits the expectations of PC versus console games.
“We didn’t feel like it was a competitor exactly; it’s not like people had finite money to spend on stealth titles and would pick just one.”
Scott Youngblood, lead designer on the later Syphon Filter games, explains how MGS undoubtedly affected everyone: “We were aware of the series, as you typically are when you’re in development of a competing title.
While we were still working on Syphon Filter 3 we had already begun breaking ground on Omega Strain as well as an early version of a scrapped PS3 title. MGS was always considered competition, but we were able to differentiate Syphon Filter from MGS enough that players often would buy both games.”
As Youngblood elaborates, inspiration and evolution were inevitable: “While both series are stealth in nature, to me MGS always felt a bit more stealthy than Syhpon Filter. We intentionally made ours more run-and-gun to give players a new experience if they had just come from playing an MGS game.
Choosing the right fatigues and face paint will enable you to blend into the environment better and avoid the enemy.
Every developer out there draws inspiration from other games. Fresh ideas are rare as companies are unwilling to bet millions of dollars on an unproven idea. That’s why you frequently see games that are evolutions of other games.”
It’s known that Kojima wanted to end the story of Solid Snake with MGS2, and his involvement with the series too, so it’s interesting that Kojima being dragged back for MGS3 resulted not only in a desperately needed return to form, but such a major evolution that many players now claim it as their favourite.
Ryan Payton, who was an up-and-coming member of Kojima Productions and host of the studio’s podcast, explains why: “MGS3 is my favourite game of all time. The story is clean and powerful, its characters are masterfully crafted, and the Cold War backdrop is oozing with drama, fun and crazy conspiracy theories.
“The gameplay is smartly tied to the major theme of the narrative and it is, in my opinion, the greatest-sounding game ever made. The cinematic presentation is unprecedented, and its encouragement of non-lethal methods to progress is revolutionary. I’m disappointed that this idea hasn’t been borrowed by more modern games. In my book, it doesn’t get any better than MGS3.”
MGS3 featured an unprecedented degree of depth which, some argue, has yet to be bettered even by its sequels. Set in 1964, it dropped the technology for a back-to-basics Rambo-esque approach. Camouflaged uniforms and face-paint could be collected and mixed for any environment.
Food also needed to be procured, to maintain stamina. There was a dizzying amount to forage, including fruits, mushrooms, insect nests, birds, mammals and, of course, snakes. The best addition, however, had to be Snake’s medical repertoire, where you could even burn leeches off with fresh Cubans.
Each of the bosses is memorable. The End would die if you saved and returned a week later, while The Pain shot bees out of his mouth.
With fans having such fondness for MGS3, we asked Snake’s voice actor, David Hayter, how much fun it was to record: “You know, working on all of the games has been really, really fun. But as the actors and production crew came back together for each game, it got progressively more fun.
MGS3 was just a blast to record. When we recorded the [Ape Escape tie-in] Snake Vs. Monkey sequence, that may have been the first time that I was allowed to be satirically funny in-game with Snake, and that was a relief, after a few years of just being funny in between actual takes. I actually got to say ‘Snake versus Monkey…’ in my trademark growl!”
When MGS3 was later re-released with the Subsistence moniker, as a bonus it included English ports of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 from the MSX – arguably reason alone to buy the package.
We asked Hayter if he’d played any of the 2D games in the series: “I’m embarrassed to say, but I have not played those games. I guess I am less motivated when I don’t get to hear myself talk for twenty-some odd hours.”
METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS
Up until the release of Metal Gear Solid 4, much like with MGS2 previously, everything beyond the first chapter was shrouded in secrecy. This is rare in today’s world of media hype being generated months, even years, before a game’s release.
Because of this secrecy it made later scenes, like Snake’s return to Shadow Moses and his controlling of Metal Gear Rex, all the more astounding. Ryan Payton, formerly of Kojima Productions and general right-hand man during the game’s development, explains: “A lot of credit goes to the team’s dedication to the project and strict adherence to confidentiality rules.
“The team also has the added benefit of being in Japan – it’s much harder for things to leak out. If you ask the Japanese media to keep a secret, even if they’ve stumbled upon a scoop, they usually won’t do anything with it.”
Solid Snake also made a return, having been usurped in the previous two instalments, but he was a changed man. Rapidly aged as a result of genetic engineering prior to his birth and with FOXDIE mutating inside him, Snake was in his final days, carrying a pathogen that could end humanity; a time bomb more dangerous than the Metal Gear weapons he had spent his entire life fighting.
Anyone who left their PS3 idle would have seen the title-screen demo where Snake places a gun in his mouth, as if to commit suicide. Ultimately he doesn’t – and the less said about the preposterous ending, involving old men smothering each other, the better – but this initial premise of Snake having to die was rather poignant.
Dave Hayter shares this feeling: “MGS4 was a pretty emotionally draining experience. I was a little surprised by the ending, as I thought that Snake would probably just cap himself, instead of heading back to the ranch to die. But the game is a masterpiece, so what the hell. It was tragic. I really felt for Snake.
Arguably the best bit in the game, Snake has to return to the island of Shadow Moses. It starts with a dream of the original PSone opening.
“I first discovered his advanced decrepitude when they called me in to do some voice tests as a man of seventy, and then at ninety. I was like, ‘Uh… What’s going on? Why aren’t I still in my thirties?’
“But once we got into it, it was so heartbreaking and such a compelling end for this guy who had sacrificed everything for his country, that I came to love it as a dramatic device.”
However, it wasn’t all melancholy during the voice recording, as Hayter adds: “I can tell you that watching hours and hours of motion-capture performance of Drebin’s monkey in MGS4 – played to simian perfection by an actor in a mo-cap suit – produced endless hilarity.”
MGS4 underwent a major overhaul from its predecessor: camo selection was simplified, the culinary smorgasbord reduced, and gone entirely was the healing screen.
“I have one big complaint about MGS3”, says Hayter, “and that’s the time spent in menus patching up Snake. With MGS4 we were able to streamline controls and keep players in the game more.
“For those who don’t like streamlined designs and loathe modernisation, I can respect that. But those folks need to realise that games, even in 2011, are way too complicated for the majority of people out there, and we’re all in the business of getting more people to enjoy our games. If you like the way the old games play, great! Go pick up MGS HD Collection!”
With refinement and streamlining a priority, we ask if the team ever considered making MGS4 first-person only: “We certainly did toy around with the idea of having a lot more FPS control in the game, but never to the extent that players could play the entire thing in first- person”, answers Payton.
Although the online component came bundled with MGS4 in the West, in Japan it was sold as an entirely separate game!
With increasing talk about the Japan-versus-West divide, he is also aware of the significance the series now has: “With Japan struggling in the international games business, I believe the Metal Gear franchise is more important than ever.
Kojima Productions has inherited the heavy weight of proving to the world that Japanese games can continue innovating in story, design, sound and graphics technology. The good news is that I think the team at Kojima Productions is up to the task!”
Undoubtedly it is, since while a lot of other Japanese developers struggled with high-definition graphics, Kojima Productions was one of the first to produce something genuinely impressive on PS3.
In fact, at an early TGS demo, Konami famously proclaimed that Snake’s moustache had as many polygons as one enemy soldier from MGS3.
Which is perhaps a little sad and shows how fortunate Kojima was joining Konami when he did; in today’s industry, requiring increasingly massive teams, each person working on Snake’s moustache would have had dreams to make games which were every bit as valid as Kojima’s was in 1987.
In interviews, Kojima has commented on ending Snake’s story and the MGS saga – indeed Solid Snake was absent from MGS3, replaced by his father Big Boss. We asked Payton his views on bringing Snake back, “This is just my guess, but I believe Hideo, like the rest of us, simply loves the Solid Snake character.
“Snake is an icon of videogame history and culture, he’s a timeless hero. And few people remember this, but he’s also quite funny. So I think it was natural for us to return to Solid Snake’s tale on PS3.”
But will we see Snake again? “You’ll have to ask the La Li Lu Le Lo about that…”
METAL GEAR SOLID: PEACE WALKER
Apart from Ghost Babel, other portable Metal Gear games include the Ac!d card-based titles, Portable Ops, and Peace Walker, all on PSP. While Portable Ops introduced us to a young Roy Campbell, it was let down by the fact you were more encouraged to use generic soldiers than Snake himself.
Peace Walker, meanwhile, was a more traditional MGS. As Ryan Payton puts it: “Peace Walker is a fantastic game victimised by the unfortunate controls of PlayStation Portable.” A valid point, since Peace Walker has since been remastered for HD Collection on consoles.
We have to take issue, however, with the story revisions which take place in Peace Walker. Payton explains: “Canonical revisions, retconning if you will, is a cryptic dialogue you have with your passionate fans.
“When a series runs for 25 years and has eight canonical games, it’s inevitable that story changes need to take place to maintain consistency. I think it’s the community’s job to hold the studio’s feet to the fire and keep them honest, and it’s the studio’s job to keep canonical changes to a minimum.”