All Your History: Metal Gear Part 1 – Infiltration
In Nineteen Eighty-Six, a twenty-three-year-old named Hideo Kojima decided to go into the video game industry, against the advice of his college advisor. The economics student had been an avid — some would say obsessive — film buff his entire life, and always figured he’d go into a creative profession. But while in college, he’d discovered gaming, and saw an untapped potential in that medium. So it was that Kojima joined Konami, a Tokyo-based developer and publisher. And he quickly established himself as… terrible. Since he didn’t know how to program, he was considered useless by most of his colleagues. This was, after all, a time at which everyone working on a game did a little of everything. All Kojima seemed able to do was come up with ideas. So he was put onto low-priority titles, like Penguin Adventure, while his own projects, like the platformer Lost Warld, were cancelled. Kojima was starting to look like a failure. But his bosses gave him one more chance, asking the idea-man to make them a war game. And while the company’s least-valued employee would once again deliver something they didn’t expect, the result would forever reshape the creative boundaries of gaming, and prove that sometimes having a great idea is the most important thing in the world.
At the time, Kojima was tasked with making games for the popular MSX line of Japanese home computers. Unfortunately, MSX machines weren’t particularly powerful. Famously, it could only represent four characters onscreen at once. That made it a poor platform for a war game; games like Konami’s own Contra thrived off of having many enemies onscreen. So what was Kojima to do? How could he make an awesome action game without tons of enemies to shoot?
Ever the film buff, Kojima looked to Hollywood for inspiration. He thought of great action-thrillers like The Great Escape and Escape from New York. It gave him an idea: to make a game based on the white-knuckle tension of sneaking past guards, as opposed to the adrenalin-soaked action of Contra. Still, Kojima figured that simply escaping from a prison wasn’t exciting enough. So he flipped it: the player would have to sneak into an enemy base. Once there, the main character would not be a muscle-bound commando with infinite ammo. Rather, he would start with nothing but a pack of cigarettes, having to scrounge for weapons and ammo wherever he could while avoiding detection. This idea that gameplay could be centered on stealth and planning rather than action and twitch-reactions had never been seen before.
And was almost never seen at all. Konami’s executives didn’t like the idea; they wanted something more recognizable, like Contra. In their eyes, their problem employee was just acting up again. Fed up with the red tape and the apparent lack of any will to innovate, Kojima nearly quit the company altogether. Fortunately, he went to one of his bosses first, who encouraged Kojima to stick it out and remain true to his vision. He gave the young developer some advice on talking to executives, and armed with this, Kojima went back to his superiors and managed to secure a greenlight. The world’s first stealth game was ago.
Kojima’s love of film and endless stream of ideas soon resulted in a deep and involved storyline — or at least, one that was deep and involved for Eighties action games. Lots of dialogue and well-thought characters were written into the game. Kojima felt this was necessary to give players a sense of context in the world, and to justify why they were sneaking into this base in the first place. So it was that our hero, Solid Snake — named after Snake Plissken from Escape from New York — must follow in the footsteps of another commando whose last message only read: “Metal Gear.” What followed were a series of twists and turns that ended with the hunt for the Metal Gear itself, a weapon of mass destruction that lent its name to the game.
Metal Gear released in Nineteen Eighty-Seven for the MSX2. The box art revealed Kojima’s love of Hollywood yet again: Solid Snake’s portrait was just a still of Michael Biehn from the first Terminator movie. Metal Gear later got a port for the Nintendo Entertainment System as well. Both versions, to Konami’s relief, sold well. Players loved the more tactical approach of the stealth game. Kojima had created a unique atmosphere for his game; the tension that infused every frame of the experience pulled gamers in and never let them go.
And then, Kojima let it go. He’d finally proven his value to the company and released a game, and he’d done it without compromising on his artistic principles. That done, he was ready to move on to the next game. In his mind, Metal Gear was finished. As it turned out, the artist forgot that he was working for a business. And the business liked how Metal Gear had sold, and ordered another. So it was that, without any advice from Kojima, without even telling Kojima they were doing it, another team at Konami made a sequel.
Nineteen Ninety’s Snake’s Revenge was designed specifically for Western markets, after the Nintendo port of the original had done well there. However, since none of this team had worked on the the first game, they didn’t get what made it special. So the game they cranked out was a fairly bland, me-too action game. It had nothing particularly to do with the storyline, or the gameplay, or anything else, other than the general idea of breaking into a base with a guy named Snake. In retrospect, the game is largely ignored by fans and is not considered canon.
That said, the team lead on the sequel was actually himself a big fan of the original Metal Gear. And one day, he happened to hop on a train with Hideo Kojima. He told Kojima what he was doing, but confessed that he’d rather see Kojima making a sequel himself. He encouraged him to do just that.
So it was that Nineteen Ninety saw another Metal Gear sequel — Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. This game was made by Kojima, who chose to continue on from the story and gameplay of his original while paying no heed to Snake’s Revenge. And at that, it succeeded brilliantly. The stealth mechanics were more involved, the inventory was much larger, and the storyline more intricate. Metal Gear 2 dove deep into its plot and its characters, something few to no action games ever did. Story was traditionally for role-playing or adventure games. Kojima simply ignored the established wisdom and made the game he wanted to.
Combined with the pitch-perfect tone and nail-biting tension, and Metal Gear 2 was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of eight-bit gaming by all who played. There was only one problem: not that many people played it. Unlike Snake’s Revenge, which was on the NES, Metal Gear 2 was only ever released for the MSX2, and was therefore never seen by Western audiences. On top of this, Metal Gear 2 was an eight-bit game in a sixteen-bit era. Japanese audiences, the only people who could actually play the game, had already moved on to newer and better machines. As such, Metal Gear 2 was one of those sad games whose excellence was never appreciated.
So once again, Kojima stepped away from Metal Gear and moved on to other things. The years ticked by, and Kojima worked on games like Policenauts and Snatcher. Then in December Nineteen Ninety-Four, Sony released the PlayStation, and changed the face of the industry. With incredible horsepower and an aggressively more mature slant than Nintendo, Sony had invented the future. And Konami wanted to be in on it, asking all their teams to start creating games for this new platform.
So Kojima figured, maybe it was time to take a 2D classic into three dimensions.
Tune in next time to see gold made solid.