The things we love are not always good for us. Observe the success of cupcakes, Michael Bay, and reality shows about cupcakes. We were all young once, or if you’re still young, you were once younger, believe it or not. And that younger version of you was dumber. More inexperienced, more easily wowed by flash over substance. Sometimes we can’t trust that younger version of our self, because they were a goddam dirty no-goodnik teenager.
In a world where our own memories can betray us, there is “Nostalgia Free Reviews.” Today, I take on that most hallowed of gaming’s sacred cows and one of my favorite video games of all time, “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.”
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
I just finished a replay of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater,” a game originally released in 2004 for the PS2. We’re looking down the supressor-covered barrel of the game’s tenth anniversary, so I thought it would be fitting I give one of my favorite games another older, slightly-less-acute eyeball.
Metal Gear Solid 3 (hereafter MGS3) had a tough job to do when it first came out: it had to clean the stink off the franchise that “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” had sprayed all over it like a skunk in heat. As a solution, Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear games, decided to juke away from the series infamously convoluted plotline and tell a (relatively) straight-forward spy story, a prequel that would require zero knowledge of the series.
At its core, MGS3 is a Cold War spy movie pastiche about a CIA agent infiltrating a Soviet weapons lab. The story gets twistier and turnier as it goes along, transforming into a heartbreaking story of loyalty and honor between enemies.
The Kid Review
MGS3 came out just after I’d graduated high school, and despite the relative crapness of it’s predecessor, the 19-year-old me snatched that puppy up the second it became available for money-purchasing. I had enjoyed parts of MGS2, and MGS1 had engraved a memory of excellence into my bones so deeply that it lingers to this day. Add to that the Bond-movie stylings and Soviet spy shenannigans, and I was hooked like a heroin-addicted fish on the first day of fishing season. I mean, if the fisherman were using some kind of opiate as a bait. Or something. Analogies.
Anyway, MGS3 completely blew me away like a Davy Crockett mini-nuke launched into a Soviet research base. From the awesomely ridiculous Bond-movie theme song to the return of Snake(sort of) to the spy-vs-spy storyline, I was IN. Absorbed, subsumed even by Kojima’s nutterbutters take on post-WWII global wankery.
My 19-year-old’s thoughts on the game:
1) This is a movie. I am playing a movie. This is the most cinematic game of all time. It’s literally everything I’ve ever wanted out of playing video games AND watching movies. The boss fight with the End? I get to participate in an extended sniper duel over acres of in-game forest? WHAT?!
2) The music takes my brain carefully out of my skull, inserts an RGD-5 Soviet fragmention grenade into my hollow brain-hole, gently slips my gushy brain back inside, THEN BLOWS MY FUCKING MIND. TO PIECES. I get my very own Bond theme song that plays during the credits and during choice parts of the story that ratchet up excitement to Yoda-fight-scene levels of squee. When I hear the bombastic opening slip into soft jazzy chords and the sensual lips of a sensual singer whisper “What a thrill . . . ” I am James Bond. Actually, I’m better than James Bond, because I get to kill a guy made out of bees. You know what James Bond never did? Bee fight. That’s what.
3) The voice acting is incredible. David Hayter as Naked Snake (yes that’s his name) is the perfect demonstration of a master at the top of his game. Everyone’s great. It’s all great. Fuck yeah, forever, amen.
4) This story is the business. The never-ending cutscenes of MGS2 are used sparingly, and the story is straightforward and simple. The tale of your mentor’s defection from the government, double-agent EVAs soured romance, Ocelot’s naivete revealed as theater for being a TRIPLE AGENT, the Boss’s final fate and Snake’s “reward” for a mission accomplished. Heart-crunching.
5) The gameplay is mostly great, having embraced the best part of the game that came before. The top-down view is still kind of annoying, especially in sprawling jungle environs, but otherwise top-notch. The boss fights are incredible, and force you to think sideways if you want to get out alive. The Pain? Yeah, you can use grenade explosions to splash water on him. The Fear? Yeah, you can poison his food. The End? You can shoot him at the end of a cutscene if you’re quick, and then don’t have to fight him later. The Fury? You can shoot water pipes to put out his flames. The Sorrow? Well, shit, that whole fight is a brain-bang of Psycho Mantis proportions. You have to DIE to LIVE for shits sake. The last battle with the Boss is the most thrilling, grueling, and emotional boss battle in the history of button-smashing.
The Adult Review
Now I’m a real boy, grown and all that, separated by ten years from that thin nineteen-year-old. I’m married, I’ve played the entire Mass Effect trilogy, I’ve had a book published then unpublished then published again. I’ve been in a bunch of weird jobs, from janitor all the way up to department head. I’m not just trying to slip a biography into this sumbitch, I just want to explain that I’m not the same guy I was ten years ago. Not better, not worse, but certainly more. Higher level – I think I start getting Ranger spells next level, so that’s nice.
I snatched up a copy of the HD rerelease of Metal Gear Solid 3 (and MGS2, and Peacewalker) for PS3 and decided it was time to test my resolve. Was MGS3 one of the greatest games of all time, or was I just looking backward through rose-colored thermal goggles?
Well, I’m happy to stay that the game actually is . . . drumroll . . . still good. Would I still consider it one of the greatest games of all time? I’m not so sure. The pacing is difficult – what I thought was cinematic ten years ago now feels like a wet slog through dry sand. The dialogue is sometimes painful – leave it to creator Hideo Kojima to use six paragraphs where one sentence will do. This is the formula for every piece of dialogue, from cutscene to codec conversation:
“Snake, on the battlefield, there are no names. The battlefield is where names don’t exist. A soldier on the battlefield doesn’t have a name. You don’t have a name. I don’t have a name. Names don’t mean anything on the battlefield. If you had a name, as soon as you came on the battlefield, it would be gone. I don’t remember my name. I don’t remember your name. Snake, you don’t have a name. Not anymore. Not here, on the battlefield.”
That’s not even a joke. This might be a Japanese story convention – from what I’ve seen of anime, that certainly seems to be the case. I’m perfectly willing to admit there may be a cultural issue at play here, but to my Western ear, it sounds repetitive. And unsubtle, ham-fisted even. You’ve heard the phrase “show don’t tell,” but I think that might not be as popular a phrase in Japan. “Tell, then tell, then tell again just to be sure” might be carved into the archway in kanji at Eastern Writer University.
How do my old beliefs stack up?
1) The game still is pretty damn cinematic. Kojima knows how to keep the player from feeling lonely – there are frequent codec conversations with your team back at base (many of which are optional, allowing you to trigger them whenever you feel like you haven’t chatted in awhile). The cutscenes aren’t as long or as frequent as MGS2, but there’s mostly well-placed. The patented “Metal Gear Solid” powerpoint exposition scenes are much worse than I remember – having my wife on the couch during them highlighted how ridiculous they were. I even got to the point where I could predict them, and I would put my controller on the coffee table before they even started. My wife would stare at me, look at the screen, and then laugh: “Oh my God, are they doing another powerpoint?”
I’d like to give credit where credit is due: MGS3 was fucking revolutionary at the time. The motorcycle / Shagohod chase in the middle of the enemy base still works. A giant mech/tank smashing buildings apart and flinging tanks in REAL TIME as you tried to shoot it from EVA’s motorcycle was like nothing I’d ever seen. None of it was a cutscene, and yet the camera angles changed, the music highlighted what was happening, and you were the one shooting and ducking and flinging grenades. That’s all too commonplace now, but Metal Gear Solid is the first game series that ever tried (and succeeded) at putting the player into the body of a movie action hero.
2) Music? Same. Still brilliant. The Bondian theme song “Snake-Eater” only suffers one glaring flaw, which is the inclusion of this unfortunate and kooky line: “Some day you’ll feed on a tree frog.” It’s not cute, Kojima-san. It’s fucking irritating, and draws me out of every awesome moment the song plays in, even if for just a moment. All the other music is Alan Silvestri-level and great.
3) Voice acting? Magnificent as ever, and still has the bulging neck muscles to support the crown of “finest voice cast totes ever.” The only problem the voice actors have is the script, and even then it’s still good in many places. Again, the game suffers from that horrifying tendency to grind the whole show to a stop to deliver exposition where everyone navel-gazes about their hopes and dreams and the real meaning of an enemy on the battlefield and Christmas, but that ain’t the actors’ fault.
4) The story is . . . meh. This is the part of my replay that let me down the most. I remember thinking how simple and straightforward the story was, how heartbreaking, how well-told, but that was the terrible opinion of that younger, dumber version of myself we talked about earlier. Actually, let me backtrack – the story is good. If I were to condense the story and summarize it for you over a beer, you’d say, “Holy shit, that sounds amazing!” Unfortunately, the game does a fairly poor job of actually communicating the story to you.
Most of the story is dolled out in those pockets of exposition – we know “The Boss” is Snake’s beloved mentor because that’s what we’re told. A lot. There aren’t really any scenes to back that up. We know “The Boss” praises loyalty above all else because . . . we were told. A lot. We know that Volgin is after the Philosopher’s Legacy because we were told. A lot. Sense a pattern? Every single plot point is explained over radio or slideshow, in excruciating detail, with no attempt to dramatize any of these events. Even the final reveal that the Boss was a hero all along and was taking a fall for the US in order to help the US save face in the Cold War is told to you in a 25 minute voiceover. The final betrayal by EVA, the spy who you thought was in love with you but was playing you the whole time? You find that out from that same recording that plays over most of the epilogue scenes.
The entire plot is literally transmitted to you over radio, and its extremely frustrating.
5) The gameplay is a little harder to judge, because the updated HD version removes the top-down camera in favor of the standard third-person “behind the back.” It does wonders for the immersion level of the game, and being able to SEE IN FRONT OF YOU is, who’d of thunk it, helpful. The gameplay, for the most part, holds up. Metal Gear Solid games have an unparalleled level of player choice on how to proceed forward. You can still play the entire game without killing a single person (well, actually, just one person). You can use guns, you can only stick to fisticuffs, or some combination. You can sneak and crawl and hide, or you can tranq-dart soldiers or lead them away with porno mags. Or, if you’re extra sadistic, you can place porno mags OVER hidden claymores and really bring the wrath of the Lord down on sinful soldiers. There are a million ways to proceed through any level, and the gameplay offers a level of choice and strategy still not rivaled in modern games.
So, What’s the Final Say?
Video games, and classics in particular, are difficult to judge as time goes on. Everyone copies what was revolutionary about a pioneer and perfects it, so that the original somehow seems like a copy. The graphics age, even something an HD version can only put a band-aid on. The medium itself changes – Japanese games, once the reigning and undisputed kings, have been supplanted by Western games and Western styles of storytelling. A focus on cinematic storytelling is no longer the exception – games like the Uncharted and Mass Effect series have kicked the doors in, delivering experiences that far surpass what movies are capable of.
And so, recognizing the irony of calling out the game on being long-winded whilst writing a Godzilla-sized essay, I shall wrap it up. The game is still a classic, and still a pioneer – that can never be taken away from it. 19-year-old me gives it a 10 based on the standards of the era he played it in, my current self gives it a 7 in the standards of the current era.
However, like Jules Winfield said, “you can’t judge shit like that based off merit.” Is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake-Eater still one of the best games of all time? I doubt it. Is it one of my favorites? Most definitely. Will it be forgotten anytime soon? Not a chance.
So, MGS3, even without the nostalgia-goggles, I offer the highest of Metal Gear complements (courtesy of Revolver Ocelot’s own words):