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‘Metal Gear Solid’ Was Basically Pac-Man, And That Made It Great

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‘Metal Gear Solid’ Was Basically Pac-Man, And That Made It Great

Words: Jeremy Peel

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This article is part of GAMINGbible's PlayStation At 25 content, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Sony's debut console in the UK. Find more content here.

The crossbow was invented independently on four different continents, by people thousands of miles apart, with no means of communication. It's a recognised phenomenon - dubbed multiple discovery, with a Wikipedia page and everything - and there are similar stories behind the blast furnace and the discovery of magnetism. But the one 'multiple discovery' that I'm most interested in is the stealth game.

Back in 1998, an American studio named Looking Glass put out Thief: The Dark Project. Meanwhile in Japan, Acquire Corp produced Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, and Konami released Metal Gear Solid. All in the same year.

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None of these developers can claim to have made the first stealth game: they all came to the idea simultaneously. The sociologist Robert K Merton once wrote that certain discoveries seem to become "virtually inevitable" when people have the right kind of knowledge and the social need. In other words: at a certain point, people really needed crossbows, and had the tools to build them. And in 1998, we really needed stealth games.

Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, MobyGames.com
Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, MobyGames.com

Perhaps we were getting sick of straightforward shooters and action games. Stealth games were a way to reconfigure their innovations - the 3D engines with fancy lighting that implied shadow, and geometry which blocked vision to create tension and surprise.

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The beauty of a multiple discovery is that each inventor uses their own method. Though all of these stealth games shared a premise - to avoid action rather than create it - they each found different ways to facilitate that goal. Looking Glass valued slow pacing and meticulous simulation. The studio's biggest commercial success had been 1995's Flight Unlimited, and Thief was inspired by submarine tactics.

Metal Gear Solid wasn't like that at all. It was a product of the same period, but fed by a completely different set of values. Designer and director Hideo Kojima and his team decided that a first-person camera would be too difficult to control - and to be honest, many who'd played Looking Glass's System Shock and Ultima Underworld would probably agree. Instead, Konami opted for an overhead view, with the option of dipping into first-person to survey the area or navigate a confined space.

Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, Sony PlayStation Store
Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, Sony PlayStation Store
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The dev team built out levels using Lego bricks in the office, pulling a real camera back and forth to test whether their prototype rooms worked in both isometric view and close-up. The roaming perspective meant Kojima could play at being a movie director, employing dramatic framing for cutscenes and critical moments, yet still allow players a clear angle on the action. Stealth games may have been new, but Konami had already realised what they were about: gathering as much information as possible in order to circumvent your enemies.

The distant camera during stealth segments gave Metal Gear Solid an arcade-like feel - compounded by the blocky shipping containers of its levels and the right angles enforced by the rudimentary PlayStation d-pad. In that context, it felt like a closer relative to Pac-Man than to Thief.

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The first Metal Gear Solid is singular in retrospect - it's an evolutionary dead end, even as it kickstarted one of the most successful series of all time

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Perhaps that shouldn't have been a surprise: although the original 1987 Metal Gear launched on the MSX2 home computer, it was the contemporary of plenty of arcade maze games. In fact, the Pac-Man series went isometric the year Metal Gear came out, with Pac-Mania - the fifth-most successful table arcade unit of 1987, according to Japan's Game Machine magazine.

Metal Gear Solid had not just the look but also the pace of Pac-Man. Snake's default movement speed wasn't a crawl or a crouch, but a healthy jog. And, since sound hadn't yet become a key component of the series, there was no incentive to creep up on enemies - better to circumvent them quickly, keeping one eye on the mini-map's red blips. Ghosts, if you will.

When things went bad, enemies called reinforcements. But given the slip they'd quickly return to their patrols, lending Metal Gear Solid the feel of an absurd cat-and-mouse chase. Here was a game about running full pelt around a facility, dodging vision cones like a superspy Benny Hill.

Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, MobyGames.com
Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, MobyGames.com

Ultimately, the Western developers won out. Modern stealth games like Dishonored are built in the image of Thief - they tend to be slow and considered, rather than fast-paced and daft. Over time, Kojima and the Metal Gear games followed suit, simulating complex AI routines that encouraged you to hang back and observe. Death Stranding, Kojima's latest, features the most glacial stealth of his career - forcing you to stand stock still as you attempt to locate the semi-transparent BTs in your vicinity.

It's a trend that makes the first Metal Gear Solid singular in retrospect - an evolutionary dead end, even as it kickstarted one of the most successful series of all time. It also represents an opportunity for indies, who have often found huge audiences by occupying the genre vacuums AAA developers leave behind. Just look at 2019's Wargroove, which became an instant hit simply by doing Advance Wars when Nintendo wouldn't.

Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, MobyGames.com
Metal Gear Solid / Credit: Konami, MobyGames.com

I remember once interviewing developer Mike Bithell about his then-new project - a stealth game named Volume. I asked what happened when you were spotted, since as a Thief fan I considered that the measure of a stealth game - the moment when the limits of the AI was tested, and the true breadth of your options revealed.

Bithell replied that nothing would happen: you'd have a short time in which to break line of sight, after which the stage would simply restart. His reference point wasn't Thief, but rather Metal Gear Solid - and specifically its 'VR training' missions.

VR training teaches all of the Metal Gear Solid's stealth elements - including some, like low cover, footsteps, and distraction, that rarely feature in the game proper. But it's less of a tutorial and more an abstract set of levels, elegantly uncomplicated. That's exactly what Volume became, pulling on many of the same mechanics.

Volume was five years ago; Metal Gear Solid more than 20. And if you ask me, not enough games are exploiting their absence. There's a simplicity to Metal Gear Solid's maze-like stealth that doesn't ask too much patience, offers plenty of satisfaction, and - oddly, considering its fame - is in danger of being forgotten.

Follow the author on Twitter at @jeremy_peel, and GAMINGbible at @GAMINGbible. Find more PlayStation At 25 content here.

Featured Image Credit: Konami

Topics: Feature, PlayStation At 25, Konami, PlayStation, Retro Gaming, Metal Gear Solid

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