Tuesday, December 15, 2015

As Solid as Ever

There is a pantheon of franchises in the world of video games that can only be considered iconic. In a world of popular culture where we are seemingly obsessed with series1, consumers are always looking forward to the next entry in the set. With video games, players are always eager to try the new Mario or Zelda or Final Fantasy or Halo. The consistency for these games have endeared them in video game history.

In any type of popular media, franchises are significant, and they deserve to be. There is a reason a series becomes popular and remains relevant. Part of what make game franchises important is that they are somewhat genre-defining. They initially popularize the genre, and then tweak and improve it with each iteration. The two-dimensional, side-scrolling platformer does not exist as it is today without the first Super Mario Bros. StarCraft shaped the way we know real-time strategies. Together, Metroid and Castlevania literally named a certain style of games, “metroidvania.” Basically any genre of video game can be traced to one or two franchises that are still pervasive today. Such games may not have invented the genre, but they propelled them into popularity enough that they can continue making games in the series today. This is what Metal Gear Solid did for the stealth game.

To tell the truth, before this fall, I had never really played through any stealth game properly, much less a Metal Gear game. I couldn’t play Thief, and I barely made it out of the training level of Splinter Cell. I even had issues with some parts of Dishonored, a stealth-lite game. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I’m not patient enough to plan out events and bide my time in a video game, and when something goes wrong, I don’t like to painstakingly retrace my steps to get back to the same point. Needless to say, I thought I was in for more of the same when I bought the complete collection of Metal Gear Solid games.

Why did I make such a purchase if I was fairly certain that I would not enjoy myself? The long answer is that the newest entry to the series (The Phantom Pain2) had just come out and was receiving rave reviews for being more accessible than previous games as well as just being incredibly bizarre. There was also the possibility of this being the final game in the series. This, coupled with the long time between releases in the series, meant that the zeitgeist for Metal Gear games was palpable. I wanted to experience the fascinating series that people seem to either love or hate, and I wanted to start at the beginning. The short answer is I’m just not smart with money.

In any case, I purchased the collection knowing full well that I might just hate it. I figured I would turn it on, not be able to make it out of the first zone and never try it again. Then a few years later, I would try one of the later games to see if that was any better. And that’s okay, I still had to see what the game was like. I wanted to see what all the buzz was about and be able to tell myself that at least I tried it, and I had at least a passing, academic understanding of it. I could never have guessed how wrong I would be.

I downloaded 1998’s Metal Gear Solid and sat down to play, essentially going in blind. I knew some characters’ names, but that was really about it. Immediately, the opening cutscenes began to draw me in. It’s difficult to explain, but the opening sequence seems both ludicrous and believable at the same time. It’s done with a level of self-seriousness that is really hard not to like. It’s hard to be so stupid and so deep at the same time. This is not supposed to sound like criticism; the opening sequence (and any of the ensuing cutscenes) is highly amusing. The game’s not dumb, just extremely ridiculous.

I expected to have some issues with the controls. The game is old, so the movements are a bit unrefined. It was definitely jarring at first to use the directional pad for movement3 and to press Circle to start4. But it did not take me long at all to grow accustomed to the obscure movements. It got to the point that when I used a thumbstick to play another game, it felt strange.

To some extent, I also expected to be stymied by the game’s puzzles. With older games, there is commonly a less-is-more approach to instruction as to what to do or where to go. And I have the unfortunate tendency to get easily frustrated when I cannot figure out the next step. For whatever reason, though, I had no issues. The game provides references to call that provide numerous helpful hints. In this way, it is impossible to be stuck for too long in one area. Longer fights against major enemies also provided enough of a challenge without being impossible.

Finally, I fully accepted the gimmicks of the game that I could only characterize as ‘zany,’ even if I was already somewhat aware of them. The best examples of these comes in one longer sequence against a certain character (I’ll speak delicately, even though you must know the tricks by now). Without giving too much away, in the scene, a character reads the player’s thoughts, the TV screen goes black, and the controller moves of its own accord. I was all in.

It’s weird to speak so highly about a game that was released so long ago. I have come to learn what many other players already knew:  Metal Gear Solid is a sublime game. Beyond appreciating the significance as one of the most popular games on the original Playstation, I legitimately enjoyed every minute I spent with it. There are only a handful of times I can recall feeling better about a game throughout the entirety of it. I can’t wait to move on with the rest of the series.5

1 Of the top ten grossing films of 2015, seven are parts of a multi-film franchise and one is a remake.
2 Interestingly, this pushes Star Wars: Episode One further down the list of things that begin with “The Phantom…” behind The Phantom Tollbooth and every form of the The Phantom of the Opera.
3 You may have known, the original Playstation controller did not have thumbsticks.
4 You may have known, traditionally Japanese games use Circle instead of the Cross or “X” that we’re used to.
5 Upon finishing the first game, I immediately played through the short prologue to the newest game, 2014’s Ground Zeroes. I liked it, and I noticed some of the elements derivative of the first game, but it did not capture me in the same way the original did. Not enough to discourage me from the whole series, though.