Speaking in the December issue of gamesTM, translator Jeremy Blaustein has nothing good to say about Hideo Kojima: “He simply doesn’t understand the nature of game translations and the need to make adjustments for cross-culture reasons.” After working on the English localisation of Metal Gear Solid, Blaustein was ultimately fired for making too many changes. His replacement on Metal Gear Solid 2 was native Japanese speaker, and Ivy League graduate Agness Kaku, who also suffered under the watchful eye of Kojima: “You couldn’t even take out redundancies in the dialogue to save character count. You had to see a one-to-one correspondence on a micro scale…that’s something I’ve only ever come across in science translations, and legal.”
A notorious auteur, Kojima has always struggled with the Metal Gear series. His blend of military realism, Hollywood melodrama and cartoonish fantasy often strays too far in one direction, leading to protracted monologues, dull exposition and bisexual vampires. Listen to Kaku and Blaustein, or sit through one of Metal Gear Solid 4’s sixty-minute cutscenes and it becomes abundantly clear that Kojima needs to have more faith in editors and less pretensions about his own daydreams. At its worst, Metal Gear is Kojima’s spoilt brain-child; a bloated mish-mash of half thought out plot twists and indulgent romantic sub-plots. As Kaku says, “he wouldn’t last a morning in a network TV writer’s room.”
Playing through the original Metal Gear Solid, it’s hard to disagree. Though leaner than any of its successors, the original MGS still suffers from hammy one-liners, cardboard bad guys and ludicrous, half-baked conspiracy theories. There’s some effort to save the game from complete irrelevance; superficial references are made to the Human Genome Project, which was nearing completion around Metal Gear Solid’s release. Genetics and gene therapy are recurrent themes in Metal Gear Solid, reflecting a timeliness that was uncommon in other games of the late nineties. But despite his laudable engagement with the broader world, Kojima’s script still feels like the recessive half of Metal Gear Solid – the inbred result of refuting outside influences.
The other half is a perfect mixture of smart mechanics and unique set pieces, which has since lent its pedigree to countless spiritual successors. His territorial approach to writing notwithstanding, Kojima is a master of variety; stock up on grenades and FAMAS ammo and it’s very possible to shoot your way through Metal Gear Solid. Of course, stealth is the preferred M.O. but fighting guards is just as viable as avoiding them. Your endgame rewards say as much; gun-loving players can take the infinite ammo bandana, whereas the more subtle can opt for an invisibility cloak. Then there’s Shadow Moses itself: a sprawling military base built around the jagged rocks of an Alaskan island, it’s the perfect playground for hide and seek. Will you risk sneaking past security cameras to reach the upstairs vent? Or get your hands dirty and snap a guard’s neck to creep in via the ground floor? You can hide behind pillars, rocks, corners and crevices just waiting for the bad guys to split off in the right directions before making a tense dash to your next hiding place. Alternatively, draw your SOCOM and let rip; it’s down to you. Each room and hangar is a self-contained puzzle with different paths and multiple solutions. With a little stealth here and a little gunplay there, you’ve got a similarly eclectic mix of play types to Crysis 2, or Deus Ex.
Metal Gear Solid was way ahead of its time. Though Guns of the Patriots would end up stealing Resident Evil 4’s over-the-shoulder camera, the blueprints for Capcom’s action-horror rollercoaster can be found in MGS 1. Like Resident Evil 4, Metal Gear Solid moves from set piece to set piece, padding out a succession of money shots with plodding stealth and combat. You never know what to expect; one moment you’re dodging a grid of alarm-triggering laser beams, the next you’re scrapping with an M1 tank in the middle of a minefield. A high pressure sneak through a warehouse of spent fuel rods leads into that iconic electrified floor puzzle, which then gives way to a fist fight with a robotic ninja. Just in the way that Resi 4 leads you from village to lake to cabin to castle, MGS glides from one set piece to another. Other than sneak and shoot, you’re rarely asked to do the same thing twice; a sniper duel, a torture sequence and a battle with a Hind helicopter all take place in rapid succession, and though his cutscenes might bang the same drum, Kojima’s gameplay never lets up on the ideas.
Though Blaustein and Kaku were met with stubbornness and a refusal to compromise, Hideo Kojima evidently draws from a plethora of outside sources when it comes to level design. Like FOXHOUND’s Decoy Octopus, Metal Gear Solid is constantly changing shape, from stealth-‘em-up, to third person shooter, to survival horror. The dock, the heliport and the tank hangar are perfect sneaking puzzles: CCTV cameras and noisy floor panels complicate your movement, but nooks, crannies, stacked up boxes and vent shafts provide cover and respite. Later, in the armoury and the first basement of the warhead storage building, you’re given more breathing space. The combination of plentiful C4 and guards using the urinals is the ideal recipe for some macabre thrills; steering your Nikita into the unsuspecting backside of some helpless sentry is the perfect start to a long gunfight in the labyrinthine corridors.
But it’s the comms tower, the snowfield and the underground base that add the most interesting flavour. The well-lit, action-orientated beginnings of Metal Gear Solid steadily dissolve into a dark, oppressive and lonely second act. The eerie music and jammed radar are enough to unnerve any MGS player, especially those expecting a straight-faced sneaking game: Metal Gear Solid is far from a genre piece. As you creep through the abandoned radio tower, Kojima’s wider influences are plain to see. Although Silent Hill wouldn’t release until the following year, it’s safe to assume that Konami’s MGS team got a sneak peek at an early version; the same isolation and claustrophobia that would go on to define Silent Hill are equally present in Metal Gear Solid’s middle section.
It’s an overstatement to call MGS a horror game, but the mechanics are there; like Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, Snake is glued to the spot once he opens fire. The top-down camera has echoes of early Resi – selective angles which keep you guessing what might be ahead. There are no monsters or zombies in Metal Gear Solid (those wouldn’t arrive until later) but the sense of aloneness and vulnerability, the constant dwindling of your hard-earned supplies and the occasionally creepy backdrops are enough to illustrate Kojima’s willingness to diversify. Where writers like Kaku and Blaustein find him interminable, Kojima must be a level designer’s dream.
Just look at Metal Gear Solid 2: contrary to the oppressive conditions Kaku was forced to work under, Konami headquarters was a hotbed of shared ideas. Kojima issued a notebook and felt pens to each of the MGS 2 development team and encouraged them to outline, describe and illustrate any ideas they wished to contribute. Some of them made it into the game, too; the idea of Raiden defusing bombs with a freezing spray came courtesy of the magic notebooks, as did his ability to peek around corners to get a better look at patrolling guards. Like Metal Gear Solid’s mixed bag of genres, MGS 2 is an exhibition of ideas and mechanics, brought together by Kojima’s openness to collaboration.
It’s a pity the same can’t be said for his dialogue. Occasionally tricky controls and gameplay to cutscene ratio aside, most criticism of the MGS series has been levelled at its narrative tangents and disparate arcs. Undeniably, Kojima has been the guiding influence behind the series; every MGS game reeks of his signature metaphysical humour. But his departure is likely a blessing in disguise. Rising: Revengeance, with its third-person action/stealth/beat-‘em up/hack ‘n’ slash gameplay, has no doubt inherited Kojima’s propensity for remixing genres, but without his name in the credits, we’ll hopefully see less of the B-grade writing. Without a doubt, Kaku and Blaustein are right to be angry, but from Metal Gear Solid onwards, Kojima has demonstrated a healthy relationship with a world beyond his own ideas. Like Snake locked in his cell, calling Otacon for backup, Hideo Kojima knows exactly where to go when he needs help. His games have always been a medley of set-pieces, locations and mediums, to the point where Kaku’s claims are surprising. It’s difficult to explain how an alchemist like Kojima could be so reticent to her and Blaustein’s improvements; it would be interesting to hear their reactions to Metal Gear Solid 4’s falsely extended conclusion. Nevertheless, Hideo Kojima distinguishes his work by refusing to classify it with a single label. In a world of first-person shooters, RPGs and platformers, Metal Gear Solid stands out as a little bit of everything. It’s by no means perfect, but like its creator, MGS is utterly unique.