Metal Gear on the NES seems to have suffered the strange fate of a tarnished reputation. It was once unquestionably considered a classic, and while to some it still is, it’s simply not held up in the same light. This may be due to the growing awareness that the NES version of Metal Gear is a port of a game that was originally released only in Japan on the MSX2, which is widely considered to be superior. Metal Gear’s creator, Hideo Kojima (who wasn’t involved in this port), even disowned this particular version of the game, claiming that it wasn’t up to his own standards. Not to mention the fact that gaming mantras were developed from the game’s many translation issues.
Unlike, say, Zelda II or Castlevania 2, games which generally have a poor reputation but a loyal following, I’ve encountered few apologists for the console progenitor of the venerable Metal Gear series. Rather, there’s an awkward silence around it, perhaps because, with the re-release and localization of the MSX2 games, North American gamers are no longer shackled to what is perceived as an inferior version of the game. I don’t know what possessed me to play it anyway, but here we go.
I FEEL ASLEEP
Beginning with a paradrop into the jungle (if that’s what that green and brown mess of pixels is actually supposed to be), the game follows the exploits of a soldier with the unfortunate call sign of “Solid Snake” as he attempts to infiltrate a military base and destroy a secret weapon being developed there. Within the confines of the game, the leader of the base is kept a mystery until the end, but the instruction manual tells a completely made up and hilariously inaccurate story. Don’t read the manual.
Metal Gear attempts to distinguish itself from other military action games by having a focus on stealth. Guards only become hostile if you pass in front of their field of vision, giving you a chance to sneak up on them. To emphasize this, you start the game off without a gun and have to reach the base with nothing but your wits and your fists. By attempting this route, Metal Gear achieves an adventure that feels less like an assault and more like an infiltration, which was a pretty novel approach at the time. It largely works, giving a feeling of spy fiction without sacrificing the fun and simplicity of the era’s action games.
Gameplay-wise, it plays out in a fairly non-linear format that has you collecting specific items to allow further exploration of the base; a format that seems to have grown in popularity around ’87 following the release of Metroid. Along the way you keep in contact with supporting characters over radio, and they’ll sometimes drop hints and give you direction if you call in at the right time and the right frequency. The radio is, unfortunately, not as well utilized as it was in the MSX2 version, which leads to some downright cryptic moments. You also receive hints from prisoners that you rescue, and you’d do well to pay attention to what they say, as they tend to be more helpful than the radio.
In truth, Metal Gear sucked me in and kept me entertained from start to finish, which is something I wasn’t expecting. Yet the game is far from a flawless experience, rather my enjoyment was largely in spite of an plethora of absolutely horrendous design choices. Its blemishes are so widely distributed that it’s difficult to decide what to focus on.
What it does well is a bit more easy to explain. It’s extremely well paced, giving you ample time to get acquainted with the stealth mechanics during the stretch of jungle at that prefaces the NES version. Items are then provided at a steady pace, giving the constant feeling of forward momentum as you wander the base. There are the aforementioned obtuse sections that result in wandering in circles, something that seems unavoidable for this particular sub-genre, but I found these moments easy to overcome if I stepped back and thought about it for a moment. Often the solution was to simply double-back to some door to some door that was previously inaccessible when I didn’t have the proper key.
A WHOLE PALETTE OF UGLY
Metal Gear is one hell of an ugly game. The sprite-work, by itself, isn’t bad, but too much detail was attempted on each individual character, and the game’s palette and the NES’s restrictive hardware just isn’t up to the task of showing it effectively. Enemies look like walking clouds of pixels, and I couldn’t even tell what a few of them were supposed to be doing. On top of that, everything animates so awkwardly that I almost laughed when I first saw a particular enemy that appears to be working on its ballet as it kicks its way across the floor. The worst part of the visuals is the abysmal pallet used. There’s so much oppressive grey everywhere. Most of the enemies are grey, the interiors are grey, and a lot of the items are grey. If it’s not grey, it’s green or brown; it’s very monotonous.
From a gameplay standpoint, everything is incredibly slapdash. The placement of enemies is entirely without thought. Depending on where you enter a new screen, there’s a chance that either a guard or a camera will be looking directly at you, immediately triggering an alarm. Before you get the pistol, sneaking up behind guards is a necessary strategy, but once you have the pistol, stealth can basically be thrown out the window. The pistol kills most enemies in a single shot without requiring you to get close, and while ammo isn’t exactly plentiful, you’re capable of carrying an ever increasing amount of it and can completely load up whenever you come across some. Any consumable resource, such as ammunition or rations, will reappear if you leave the screen and come back, which allows unlimited use of the weaponry and limitless health. After a certain point, none of my deaths were related to damage from enemies, but often due to the game’s annoying traps that spring on you without much warning and kill instantly.
The boss battles featured in the game are, with a few exceptions, extremely mediocre. It’s not just the fact that they’re poorly designed, though some certainly are. Many of them can only be hurt with a significant amount of damaged taken from one particular weapon, but they show no indication of taking damage, making it impossible to tell whether the weapon you’re using is having any effect. Is it too much to ask for them to flash when they’re hurt like they do in other games? Even when they’re not cryptic, they’re usually underwhelming. None of the bosses will modify their tactics if the one they’re using isn’t working, so the general strategy of standing where you can’t be hit and firing shots in their direction usually works.
Lastly, what is the point of having so many keys? Doors are all identical and there’s no way to tell what key opens what door. It’s not consistent, either, so key #1 opens doors all throughout the game, regardless of their location. That means every time you come to a locked door, you need to go through your keys, one by one, humping the door until one of them finally opens it. Once you’ve got several keys in your pocket, it becomes incredibly aggravating. It would help if the keys and doors were some other colour than grey. At least the inventory is sorted, unlike the MSX2 version which arranges them in the order you pick them up.
I FEEL ASLEEP
In a lot of ways, Metal Gear is a bit of a mess, but it never got under my skin enough to ruin my fun. That’s pretty key; if the game had been less forgiving and demanded more precision and finesse, the many ways that the game cheats you would be far past aggravating. It is incredibly cryptic in a few places and there are many opportunities for a cheap, undeserved death, but I’ve survived worse in a game. So even though I have a lot to complain about, I still think Metal Gear is an okay game. Its core design is still fun and compelling, and because it’s paced so well and rewards come so frequently, I found it difficult to put down. I definitely recommend it if you’re willing to put up with a bit of rickety gameplay.
Note that this review only applies to the NES version. I played the MSX2 version immediately after completing the NES port, and as for how they compare; I definitely think the NES version is worse, but not significantly. The MSX2 version feels a lot tighter in comparison to the NES, but many of the problems that I had with the NES version were present there first. The biggest letdown is that the actual Metal Gear itself isn’t a boss within the NES version, and what’s in its place is an extremely poor substitute. The whole thing feels like a rushed port forced to fit on the NES’s less capable hardware, but even then, with enough work, a more faithful transition should have been possible. Still, I’d argue that everything that made Metal Gear worth playing survived on the NES, and a few cut corners is no reason to disown the game.
This review was conducted on an original NES with a cartridge copy of the game. The author paid for it out of pocket. Portions of this review were originally posted on mobygames.com.