Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
You can't really talk or comment or think about Metal Gear Solid like you used to without noticing the large black shroud that's appeared over it. That's the outcome of the recent turmoil at Konami, and it's made it a sad time to love the series that made Hideo Kojima famous.
Metal Gear Solid may not even be "his" anymore, or at least after Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is released in September. And whatever the internal truths at Konami may be, their public actions have put the entire MGS legacy in question, if not outright jeopardy. When MGSV is over and done with, it may be time to follow Snake's lead and spread the ashes of the series' past over our faces.
This all makes right now perhaps a strange time to reflect, but reflect we shall. After all, Kojima's Metal Gear is still Metal Gear even when stripped of his name. But it's because of Kojima's goofy, hallucinatory blend of uncompromising vision, self-awareness, and refusal to present reality at face value that MGS is chock full of memories, from the ludicrous to the gravely sobering.
So Kojima's not far removed from Big Boss. He inspires such fierce and absolute loyalty from his most devoted followers that countless have spent decades shouldering the weight of MGS's increasingly dense plot like overloaded packs of field equipment. Few series have as much baggage, or as much meat—there's more eating in one helping of its meta-commentary, long-winded gravitas, and deranged narrative matrices than Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed could eke out in a hundred servings.
It goes without saying that most creators (particularly Japanese ones, who lean more toward auteur sensibilities than many of the West's equivalents) eventually leave their most-famous creations behind to do something new, and Kojima's more than earned the right to make whatever he wants. But you have to wonder what Metal Gear really means without him, or why anyone would want to bother trying to find out.
On to the best bits, then, or at least some of my favorites. Disagreements are assured. Oh, spoilers, obviously.
Snake's nightmare – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Most modern big-budget games go out of their way to beat players over the head in pointing out hidden secrets or fan-service aspects they might otherwise miss. Not MGS—you could miss some of its best-hidden treasures without a guide. Take the nightmare Snake has late in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, after being captured, tortured, and thrown in a jail cell in the mountain fortress of Groznyj Grad, for instance.
Triggering this optional sequence requires two steps. First, you have to save your progress when you're dragged to the brig. Second, you have to exit the game entirely. If you're lucky (as I was when first playing the game), watching Snake get beaten within an inch of his life by Volgin and company will feel like a good stopping point. Saving your progress here prompts Para-Medic to tell Snake a story about Bela Lugosi's Dracula; Snake growls back that he'll probably have nightmares.
Come back later and the expected fade-in to Groznyj Grad's dingy lock-up is replaced by what resembles a rejected concept from Silent Hill. Instead of controlling Snake, you move a sullen-looking kid wielding two hooked blades around a dirty room, hacking and slashing at misshapen zombies that pop open like gory wind-up toys as blood splashes across a washed-out sepia and orange screen. Cut down these soulless hordes for a confusing couple of minutes and the view jumps back to Snake, jarred awake from the intensity of his apparent dream.
Upon discovery, I couldn't believe what had just happened. It wasn't until much later I would learn the nightmare, called "Guy Savage" by Konami staff, only takes place if you let Snake "fall asleep" by saving and exiting the game—continue pushing on at this point and he never loses consciousness. Sadly, all traces of "Guy Savage" have been inexplicably cut from modern versions of MGS3 (likely because it was originally being developed as its own game before the project stalled), though it's still present on old PS2 discs. Kojima also sort of revisited the motif later in the game and then again during MGS4 in a very unexpected place.
Rogue's gallery – Metal Gear Solid
The cast of adversaries in the original Metal Gear Solid made Kojima a recognizable name in the West, while the game itself revived the dormant concept of stealth that the original Metal Gear pioneered over a decade earlier while introducing a new generation of players to Solid Snake. And what an intro MGS had.
I remember being 14, listening to Campbell's awkwardly translated descriptions of FOXHOUND while watching Snake travel through the Bering Strait toward Shadow Moses. These outlandish terrorists sounded like larger-than-life figures ripped straight from comics, with their intriguing complement of animal codenames, I couldn't wait to face this group of renegades, before I even had a grasp of who they were.
From there, FOXHOUND took on mythic proportions and somehow never failed to disappoint. In 1998 (as it is now) it was unlikely you'd seen bosses like these, where one minute you'd be facing down a Russian gunship and the next a minigun-wielding giant was getting eaten alive by a flock of ravens. You could get a good sense of Ocelot from his loving obsession with the Colt Single Action Army, whose bullets kicked all over a small C4-wired area; likewise Grey Fox's bloody, off-kilter introduction heightened tension like a horror film, before the exoskeleton-clad ninja unleashed the battle-hungry mania of a mind melted by unchecked cybernetic augmentation.
And then there was Psycho Mantis, the granddaddy of all boss battles, who truly fucked with you by reading out the Konami saves on your memory card and demonstrating his psychokinetic power by making your DualShock vibrate. Each passing encounter suited to its character, with Codec-based backstories and wonderfully overwrought death scenes breathing more life into every unit member's thoughts and motivations, to the point where you felt you knew them. FOXHOUND set a precedent for MGS that Dead Cell and the Cobra unit built upon, and the rest is history.
Snake crawls through the microwave corridor – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Metal Gear Solid 4's themes dealt with suffering more than any other games of the series—a fitting end to Solid Snake's saga that paralleled Kojima's own beleaguered relationship with MGS. Every stop was pulled out and every possible loose end tied off with appearances from close to the whole extended Metal Gear cast.
It was a completely batshit finale even for Kojima and the send-off had its price: resembling a crusty, aching Clint Eastwood with a mullet, Snake has prematurely aged and doesn't have long to live due to some genetic complications with his origins as a clone of Big Boss. Continuing the parallel between creator and creation, Kojima puts Snake through more excruciating abuse than you're likely to find afflicting nearly any other video game protagonist. That MGS4 intentionally goes out of its way to present an emotional barrage of trauma to pretty much everyone you've ever loved in the series works on multiple levels.
The culmination of MGS4's emotional slugfest happens as Snake must infiltrate Liquid Ocelot's (Ocelot's consciousness merged with Snake's dead clone in MGS2, if you'd forgotten) floating base to upload a virus into the Patriots' global AI network, thereby breaking Liquid's hold over the nanomachine-controlled army he plans to use for world domination. This being the end of the game, the objective, the base server room, is heavily guarded, and accessing it requires going through a long security hallway emitting microwave radiation. By this point in the game Snake is already worn to the bone, routinely stabbing himself in the neck with syringes of medicine to keep his encroaching illness at bay, the left side of his face horribly burned from an explosion earlier. He's been run ragged, to say the least.
Furthermore, cyborg Raiden, more stubborn than ever, has put himself in critical condition (he was crushed by blocking the physical force of Liquid's base—basically holding back an Arsenal Gear model with his bare hands—to save Snake), and Otacon's pint-sized Metal Gear Mk. III, the key to uploading the virus, is doomed to be ripped apart by drones if going in solo. With no other options, Snake must brave the emitters himself to protect the Mk. III.
This isn't suited to a cutscene, so Kojima makes you control Snake as the radiation eats through his smoking OctoCamo suit until he is reduced to crawling, inch by agonizing inch, through the blinding pain. The twist of the knife is when the screen splits in two, allowing you to simultaneously witness a montage of your allies being overwhelmed by Liquid's forces, including an armless Raiden valiantly taking on a host of elite soldiers. It's almost a let down when you learn in the game's epilogue that things are less grim than you've been led to believe, but by this point the damage has been done by one of the most profoundly upsetting incidents in game history. Good work, Koj.
When Geoff Keighley talked to a Fox Engine render – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Was Moby Dick Studios' fictitious CEO Joakim Mogren just a Fox Engine render? A lot of internet conspiracy theorists think so, adding more fuel to the raging fire of The Phantom Pain's public perception. In any case, Geoff Keighley allegedly interviewed him (or someone, or something), and whether the man was real or not is immaterial. Instead, focus on how crazy it is that Kojima could extend MGSV's influence beyond the game with a campaign carefully choreographed to twist fans' perception and expectations (see also: P.T.) until they were sure that everything was connected and had its own purpose.
Why was Mogren made with the Fox Engine? What was the meaning of the bandaged man mask seen in The Phantom Pain's hospital demo (and worn by Kojima)? Why would he conspire with a mad-scientist-like head transplant doctor? When would David Hayter reappear, letting you play as Snake? It's all been fodder for a grander conspiracy with unknown ends. Not even the split with Konami has been above suspicion by some.
None of this is strictly part of any game, and that's the point: any discussion of Metal Gear without considering the kind of fourth-wall bleed-through Kojima delights in is only getting half the story. For as insane as Metal Gear is within its own boundaries, it's much more than the sum of its parts, and Kojima has an established history of duping his fans, namely by capitalizing on the long-held expectation that games can only be products. In truth, the unspooling mystery behind MGSV is just the latest in a long line of puppet mastery that stretches back to the lead-up for MGS2.
After the first MGS, the rabid anticipation for the inevitable sequel was insurmountable—a notion that Kojima used to play right into gamers' hands. Rather than giving fans the follow-up they so desperately wanted, a new action-packed chapter in the heroic shoes of Solid Snake (on the mind-blowing PS2, no less), Kojima deliberately altered pre-release material to completely hide the existence of Raiden, MGS2's actual protagonist: a brash, wet-behind-the-ears rookie who was the polar opposite of Snake in every conceivable way.
Of course, that this was who you'd be controlling was an absolute outrage. Fans had been promised more Snake—Konami had gone as far as showing videos of him heroically battling Dead Cell in the Big Shell chapter, which takes up the majority of the game. By misleading the public, Kojima played the ultimate game to prove the effectiveness of misinformation, coinciding with MGS2's primary theme. In forcing players to control a novice, VR-trained soldier that they instantly hated—someone not so very far removed from a gamer sitting on the couch with a controller—he made a game about playing video games. Anyone that felt MGS2 was simply supposed to be a product wasn't looking carefully enough.
Meta-narrative aside (it's nothing short of a miracle that Kojima was able to pull MGS2's long con off), you can trace that through-line all the way to The Phantom Pain. As of right now it's anyone's guess what Kojima is hoping to say with MGSV—it's just as likely something as evidently blatant as a Quiet figure with squeezable boobs could actually be Kojima's way of telling us to maybe think a little bit harder.
The End – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
With his constant napping, parrot, and bulging eye (for better aim, one assumes) the Cobra unit's The End is a notably bizarre character. Kojima actually envisioned Snake's battle with this 100-plus-year-old legendary sniper lasting up to two weeks of game time, with players finally defeating him through sheer attrition (an idea that was scrapped after MGS3's testing team informed Kojima it would be impossible). Furthering stacking the odds against you, and because this is MGS, where nothing can ever be normal, The End could also photosynthesize and "talk to the forest," ensuring the duel ahead would be as drawn-out as it was weird.
Normally, meetings with strong opponents like these give the OK signal to stand out in the open because your enemy has been alerted to your presence; but for the first time, being exposed for any significant amount of time meant you'd probably die. It didn't help that The End could be hiding anywhere across three dense, forested maps. It could take hours of using every trick in the book, from inching across the length of the forest canopy straining with your directional mic to spotting the glint of your enemy's rifle in the sun to discover where he was hiding. It was a fight that broke all the rules.
You could break the rules too, oddly enough, so that your engagement with The End never occurs. Hours before he blocks your passage to Groznyj Grad, you're given a (very tricky) one-time chance to kill him in his sleep as he rests in his wheelchair on an open dock. Similarly, you could let the passage of time take him by saving in the middle of the mission and waiting a week to touch the game again, which would result in a very puzzled Snake discovering his lifeless body. A proper encounter was best, though, if only to see him fumble his dying soliloquy by way of a slow-motion shot of false teeth flying toward the screen just before his body detonates in an explosion of leaves.
Ocelot steals Metal Gear RAY – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Kojima loves to use heavy handed, theatrical speech to say in 15 minutes what could easily be explained in two, and with that in mind Ocelot's first major appearance in MGS2 is among the finest in series history. Appearing on Metal Gear RAY's loading platform just as Commandant Scott Dolph has finished his speech on the RAY and US Marines' new age of anti-Metal Gear deterrence, Snake's old adversary addresses the military assembly with some rhetoric of his own.
It's a trick, of course, meant to draw the marines' (and the player's) attention away from the reality of the situation. With Snake hidden across the room and all eyes on the enigmatic, duster-clad gunslinger, Ocelot's partner Colonel Gurlukovich is able to sneak up behind Dolph and quickly get him at gunpoint.
The expert direction here puts Ocelot in total control: Patric Zimmerman's performance takes on a freshly menacing tone as Ocelot assumes a more commanding poise, stepping in front of Dolph's security detail. He raises a hand above his head holding a detonator, revealing that the tanker has been wired with plastic explosives. The Marines in a bind, Gurlukovich's unit rappels down to detach RAY from its docked position—but Ocelot isn't through yet.
In typical Metal Gear fashion, Gurlukovich goes on to briefly denounce the political realities of democratic foreign relations during the Cold War before Ocelot double-crosses him, disclosing his allegiance to the Patriots. I love the melodramatic shootout that follows—Ocelot goads his old comrade into an open provocation with Dolph in the crossfire, killing Gurlukovich, his unit and the Commandant in an instant while effortlessly tossing off his duster in one improbably stylish move.
There's a greater importance hinted here, too, in Dolph's alarmed reaction to the mention of the Patriots. It's the first inkling that players may not be getting the whole truth and almost as if confirming that notion, Liquid's consciousness then takes over Ocelot through his arm graft, showing that little in MGS2 (or with Kojima) is what it appears.
Time paradoxes – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
When MGS3 brought the series back to the Cold War, it gave Kojima the perfect excuse to play with the idea of time itself. Should Snake finds himself in an early grave in the game, the letters spelling out "Snake Is Dead" slowly flip over to say "Time Paradox," since his death in 1964 means you've changed history, erasing Big Boss and everything that comes after and effectively destroying the series timeline.
Other story-specific characters—Eva, Sokolov and Ocelot—can be killed with similar results, though instead of just getting the same screen, not hitting start for a few minutes causes Colonel Campbell to reach through time and yell at you for mucking around. (So, MGS3 takes place in VR?)
Despite how inconsequential this is, that Kojima put time paradoxes in just as a joke says a lot of Metal Gear's willingness as a series to acknowledge the player—another series trademark, and something games are loathe to do in an era where bullets are typically programmed to just pass harmlessly through most non-player characters. And, frankly, MGS3's time paradoxes are just really funny. Which brings us to...
Naked Raiden – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
You knew it was coming. Raiden's adventure au natural through the bowels of Arsenal Gear might be my favorite part of the entire MGS series (not that you should count this list as appearing in any particular numbered order). It's rare that you get to see games fold in on themselves as spectacularly as MGS2 does in this surreal tableau, as a Skull Suit-less Raiden sneaks through an unfamiliar facility crawling with ninja-styled spec ops while he comically holds his unmentionables.
The game's sense of sanity is breaking down here in multiple ways. Colonel Campbell, actually an AI program that's been manipulating Raiden's every move throughout the mission, incessantly calls your Codec to spout increasingly erratic gibberish at you, even telling Raiden to turn off the game console (itself a nod to Big Boss in the original Metal Gear). Arsenal Gear's chilly sterility adds to effects with its otherworldly, anatomically inspired room descriptions like "stomach" and "ascending colon" a far cry from the Big Shell's mundane sediment pools and filtration chambers.
That's just it, though; the convergence of this stuff is designed to have an effect, just as Raiden's bare-bottomed escape through Arsenal Gear is the perfect encapsulation of Kojima's personality. It's silly, feverish, and nonsensical, yet deliberate and intricately constructed with the utmost care. At a time when MGS2's plot is about to take a nosedive off a cliff (hitting every gotcha moment and red herring imaginable on the way down, all part of Kojima's plan to demonstrate the power of misinformation), letting players feel that breakdown in the very marrow of MGS2's design as they're playing is an ingenious move. The fake-outs do become more intrusive (who can forget the Fission Mailed screen?) once Raiden gets his gear back and is at last properly joined by Snake—but if MGS2 is Kojima's grandest joke at our expense, there's no better way to measure it than by literally pranking our pants off. If that's not Metal Gear, probably nothing is.
Snake reflects on the cardboard box – MGS3
Raiden and Solidus' sword fight – MGS2
Senator Armstrong's speech – Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
Vamp kills the Navy Seals – MGS2
Raiden's return – MGS4
Déjà vu mission – Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Johnny Sasaki – various
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