Franchise Festival #115: Metal Gear (1987-2005)

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll be [!] learning about Metal Gear. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. For more information on the history of Konami, the studio responsible for Metal Gear, please consult Lily ‘Lovely’ Bones’ Franchise Festival #35: Silent Hill.

Note that there will be some spoilers throughout this article, as it’s impossible to discuss such a narrative-heavy franchise without identifying some key moments in its ongoing plot.

Please also be aware that much of the development information on these series entries is sourced from Third Edition Books’ Metal Gear Solid: Hideo Kojima’s Magnum Opus. Buy it immediately if you’re interested in a full exploration of the series’ history and dense narrative.

Table of Contents

Metal Gear (1987/1988)
Metal Gear 2 (1989/2006)
Metal Gear Solid (1997)
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
Metal Gear 3: Snake Eater (2004)


During his youth in Japan’s Kansai region, Hideo Kojima split his time between outdoor adventures and hours spent in front of the television. These respectively left him with at least one near-death experience, in which he hung off a narrow bridge to avoid being struck by a train, and an abiding love of pop culture. He leveraged both to write a lengthy Battle Royale-style novel called Battle Survival in which teenagers fought one another for survival. While his novel was never published, it gave him the confidence needed to eventually abandon his economics education for a career in the arts.

Metal Gear is arguably the child of The Portopia Serial Murder Case (left) and Super Mario Bros. (right). Source: MobyGames

Kojima’s initial inclinations towards being a film director were subsumed by a drive towards video game development after encountering Xevious (1982/1983), Super Mario Bros. (1985), and The Portopia Serial Murder Case (1983, Japan-only) on Nintendo’s Famicom. Supported by his mother, he applied for a job at Konami – then known for shoot-’em-ups like Gradius (1985) and Twinbee (1985/2011) – because that was the studio with offices closest to his home. Kojima landed the position in 1986 and was immediately assigned to produce titles for the MSX and MSX2 home computer platforms.

Metal Gear (1987/1988)

Though his first project – platformer Lost Warld – was cancelled, Kojima had more success as assistant designer on Konami’s Penguin Adventure (1986, Japan-only). He soon had the opportunity to demonstrate his aptitude for adaptability and cinematic flair with a military action game called Metal Gear. Technical limitations prevented more than three enemies appearing on-screen at once, prompting Kojima to pivot from action to stealth. Radio communications that offer tips alongside flavor text, enhancing character interactions in a genre not generally known for its dialogue, were likewise introduced as a way to mitigate the high level of difficulty. The game’s tense stealth sequences and protagonist were respectively inspired by The Great Escape (1963) and Escape From New York (1981). After a brief development period, Metal Gear launched on the Japan-exclusive MSX2 in July 1987 before making its way overseas by way of a more challenging Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) port in June 1988.

Snake’s debut, rising out of water to infiltrate Outer Heaven. Source: MobyGames

Players take on the role of Solid Snake, a member of the United States’ Special Forces FOXHOUND unit, as he infiltrates the Outer Heaven military complex during an alternate history where the Cold War persisted into the 1990s. His goal is the investigation and destruction of Metal Gear, a bipedal nuclear-armed tank. Commanding officer Big Boss offers radio support while local resistance fighters Schneider and Diane, captured FOXHOUND operative Grey Fox, and double-agent Jennifer aid Snake on the ground once they’re encountered. Big Boss is revealed to be the mastermind behind Outer Heaven during the story’s climax and is defeated by Snake in one-on-one combat as the facility crumbles around them.

Big Boss chats with Snake through the codec radio. Source: MobyGames

The game is mostly played from a top-down perspective similar to earlier stealth games like Castle Wolfenstein (1981), though some sequences shift to a sidescrolling view. Armed guards can be neutralized through hand-to-hand combat or the use of firearms scavenged from the surrounding area. Challenging boss encounters – including Shoot Gunner, Machinegun Kid, Fire Trooper, Coward Duck, Arnold, and Big Boss himself – require the player to make judicious use of the weapons and limited ammunition they’ve scrounged together during exploration of the facility.

The Amiga and IBM versions were relatively faithful to the MSX original, but the NES version (seen here) is features gameplay changes and heavily revised graphics. Source: MobyGames

Metal Gear was a critical success and sold over one million copies in North America on the NES alone. This unexpected overseas popularity resulted in the development of an NES spinoff, Snake’s Revenge (1990), produced without the involvement of Kojima and released exclusively in North America and Europe. Even so, the game would become difficult to find for nearly twenty years due to a lack of re-releases following Commodore 64 and MS-DOS ports; this was finally remedied in 2006 with the MSX2 version’s inclusion as a bonus feature in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence and in 2020 on the Good Old Games (GOG) digital marketplace.

Note: Cover art sourced from the Metal Gear Wiki

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990/2006)

Kojima had not originally planned to produce a sequel to his pioneering stealth adventure, instead moving on to develop a Portopia-inspired graphic adventure game called Snatcher (1988/1994). This changed when one of the developers of Snake’s Revenge had a chance encounter with Kojima on a Tokyo commuter train, however, where they successfully convinced him to return to the franchise. He arrived at Konami’s offices the next day with a full outline for Metal Gear‘s first canonical sequel.

Thank goodness Snake can crawl – now he can get into vents! Source: MobyGames

In Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, published by Konami for the MSX2 in Japan on July 20, 1990, the title character is pulled out of retirement by new FOXHOUND commander Roy Campbell three years after escaping Outer Heaven. This time he’s aided by military officer George Kasler, wildlife expert Johan Jacobson, CIA operative Holly White, Czech State Security agent Gustava Heffner, and Metal Gear designer Petrovitch Madner in his mission to rescue biologist Kio Marv from Zanzibarland, a rogue state in Central Asia. Marv has apparently bio-engineered a new oil-producing algae that holds the key to resolving a global energy crisis at the turn of the century. This basic premise is eventually overturned in favor of a twisty narrative that brings back erstwhile ally Gray Fox, discovered piloting a mass-produced Metal Gear, and the cybernetically-enhanced Big Boss.

Snake battles Metal Gear D, the game’s final boss. Source: TheInnocentSinful

Gameplay is very similar to the preceding game, though enhancements make it more enjoyable to play three decades later. Snake’s new crawling ability is necessary to overcome noisy surfaces, while an on-screen radar allows the player to have an awareness of off-screen enemies as long as Snake stays out of Alert Mode by avoiding guards. Staying hidden is tougher than ever, however, as enemies can now pursue Snake between screens and are more attuned to environmental sounds. Metal Gear 2 also represents the start of Kojima applying metatextual touches to his work, with Marv hiding his revolutionary formula within an in-game Konami MSX cartridge box and Big Boss’s miraculous recovery attributed to the self-referential Project Snatcher.

Snake’s Mel Gibson-inspired portrait in the original game (left) was replaced with one based on Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel (2000) in the mobile phone version (right). Sources: MobyGames, Metal Gear Wiki

The game was not localized in English due to Konami’s discontinuation of MSX game sales in Europe (the platform having never reached North America). A 2004 Japanese mobile phone port formed the basis of a version included alongside its predecessor as a Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence bonus feature around the world in 2006, with character art updated to reflect the style of later series entries rather than referencing 1980s celebrities. The game’s most recent release at the time of writing in December 2021 is a Japan-exclusive Wii eShop version from 2010, which is noteworthy for being a direct port of the MSX2 original that integrates the 2004 edition’s revised artwork.

Metal Gear Solid (1998)

Kojima returned to the world of point-and-click graphical adventures after Metal Gear 2 with a science fiction title for the PC-9821 called Policenauts (1994, Japan-only). The arrival of the Sony PlayStation and its capacity for fully polygonal games in the mid-’90s, though, gave him the urge to return to the Metal Gear franchise. Once his proposal was greenlit by Konami in 1995, he pulled together a team that included artist Yoji Shinkawa and writer Tomokazu Fukushima. 

Metal Gear Solid represents the debut of Yoji Shinkawa’s iconic character designs, as in this concept art of cybernetic ninja Grey Fox. Source: Metal Gear Wiki

While the complexity of 3D graphics and a fully-voiced script necessitated a more collaborative working process than had been used for previous games, Kojima’s reputation for being a driven auteur would be burnished by his idiosyncratic leadership on the series’ third core entry. Staff were expected to attend local movie screenings so they could keep up with their director’s cinematic reference points. Military veteran Motosada Mori was likewise brought into the team as a consultant to ensure the accuracy of enemy behavior. Finally, Kojima and his crew built every in-game environment using Lego blocks before rendering them on a computer so they could explore how security cameras and guard patrols might naturally intersect in a 3D environment. This extensive prep-work proved worthwhile when the game launched to rave reviews on the PlayStation in Japan on September 3, 1998; equally-popular North American and European localizations were respectively published in October 1998 and February 1999.

Snake can get an eye on the hallway beyond him if he leans against cover. Source: MobyGames

The story’s inciting incident is the seizure of Shadow Moses, an isolated Alaskan weapons research facility, by special forces unit FOXHOUND. Solid Snake (voiced by David Hayter) swims solo into the facility and discovers a tangled web of international intrigue, culminating in the destruction of a new Metal Gear codenamed REX. Along the way, he’s supported via codec radio by Metal Gear 2‘s Colonel Campbell, doctor Naomi Hunter, weapon expert Nastasha Romanenko, former instructor Master Miller, and inventor Mei Ling. Metal Gear Solid also introduces two on-the-ground allies who would go on to have major roles in future series entries: rookie soldier Meryl Silverburgh and nervous scientist Hal Emmerich, better known by the codename Otacon.

While its most striking images are presented from cinematic angles, much of Metal Gear Solid is played from a top-down angle. Source: MobyGames

The player’s overhead perspective obscures enemy and camera placement during gameplay, encouraging the use of a togglable first-person view and radar for situational awareness. Snake’s inability to shoot in first-person, except when using specific weapons, emphasizes stealth as the primary mode of play. Numerous tools are acquired to give Snake added opportunities to avoid or distract guards, including an iconic oversized cardboard box and adult magazines.

The on-screen identification of voice actors indicates their importance to the overall presentation. Source: MobyGames

Lengthy in-engine cutscenes allow non-player characters (NPCs) and bosses to come alive like never before. Among these are Vulcan Raven, a machine gun-toting Native American mystic; Western pastiche Revolver Ocelot; Sniper Wolf, whose brief relationship with Otacon leads him to famously wonder whether love can bloom on the battlefield; a telepath named Psycho Mantis who can move the player’s controller, seemingly crash the game, or read and comment on the player’s memory card; the mysterious cyborg Ninja; and Liquid Snake, Solid Snake’s heretofore-unknown brother. A late-game double-cross reveals that Liquid Snake and Solid Snake are both clones of Metal Gear‘s Big Boss and have been infected with the genetically-targeted disease Foxdie by Naomi Hunter. Snake succeeds in his mission, but is left with a grim prognosis.

Snake can hide in a box even when creeping through virtual reality environments. Source: MobyGames

Metal Gear Solid was celebrated by contemporary critics as one of the best games of the decade and ushered in an era of highly cinematic experiences on home consoles. Its commercial success led to a PlayStation re-release under the name Metal Gear Solid: Integral (1999) that includes gameplay tweaks, bonus character costumes, and 300 bite-sized virtual reality (VR) missions disconnected from the main story. The latter were subsequently published as a standalone spinoff called VR Missions in North America and Europe in Fall 1999. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, a 2004 GameCube remake co-developed by Konami and Silicon Knights using the Metal Gear Solid 2 game engine, dramatically reinterprets cutscenes and introduces the controversial ability to shoot in first-person.

The game engine is beautiful but the ability to shoot in first person more or less breaks Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Source: MobyGames

The original game has since been ported several times, most notably to the PC in 2000 – finally made available for modern operating systems via the GOG digital storefront in 2020 – and on the digital PlayStation Store in 2008/2009. The latter is accessible on the PlayStation Portable (PSP), PlayStation Vita, and PlayStation 3. It is not otherwise available to play on contemporary hardware outside of 2018’s much-maligned PlayStation Classic miniature console.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)

The development of Metal Gear Solid 2 began with a lengthy storyboarding process by Kojima and Shinkawa in 1998. The original plan, which was scrapped due to sensitivities surrounding the real-world bombing of Iraq by the United States and United Kingdom, saw Snake infiltrating an aircraft carrier bearing an Iraqi Metal Gear. A revised narrative next moved the plot to New York City and briefly renamed the project Metal Gear Solid III in a reference to the city’s three tallest skyscrapers; though much of this version was axed during pre-production, its planned offshore oil platform sequence would be expanded into the primary set for much of the final product.

Promotional material, like this E3 2000 trailer, either depicted the opening tanker chapter or substituted Snake’s model for Raiden’s during later portions of gameplay. Source: Metal Gear Wiki

A preview for the game at E3 2000 was met with rapturous audience applause and justified the expansion of Kojima’s team from thirty to forty employees. The project took a radical turn, however, after a Konami survey with women who self-identified as not frequently buying games revealed that the grizzled Snake was unpopular among this demographic. Kojima and Shinkawa responded by focusing the bulk of their story on a handsome young protagonist named Raiden, though this was kept secret from the press. Numerous other cuts were made during 2001, including a pivotal choice between saving the President or Otacon’s sister Emma, a set-piece featuring extensive destruction in downtown New York City, and an experimental system that would have locked the player’s game copy following a single Game Over. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty launched on the PlayStation 2 in Japan and North America in November 2001.

Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 both make use of archival film footage, which led to their temporary removal from digital storefronts in 2021 when Konami lost the license to this material. Source: MobyGames

Players initially control Snake on-board an oil tanker moving through the New York City harbor in 2007. The tanker, which contains the United States military’s cutting-edge Metal Gear RAY, is overtaken by Russian terrorists aided by Metal Gear Solid‘s Revolver Ocelot. Snake is apparently killed when Ocelot steals RAY and sinks the tanker, forcing the United States government to build an offshore facility called Big Shell to clean up the resulting environmental disaster. The story then moves two years into the future, where Liberian Civil War veteran Raiden infiltrates Big Shell to save United States President James Johnson from a group of kidnappers known as Dead Cell.

Colonel Campbell gets a bit unhinged towards the end of the story. Source: MobyGames

Aided by a team of mysterious allies – including Snake (in disguise as Iroquois Plissken), explosive expert Peter Stillman, and an increasingly unhinged Colonel Campbell – Raiden discovers his mission is not what it seems. Big Shell actually serves as cover for Arsenal Gear, a massive fortress housing an artificial intelligence run by the Patriots. This secretive shadow government is trying to keep society from being torn apart by access to the vast array of information made available by the internet. On a metatextual level, the game’s structure interrogates the role of sequels and how fan expectations can trap creators in a cycle of wish-fulfillment. 

Metal Gear Solid 2 offers Snake and Raiden (seen here) the ability to hang off ledges and hide in lockers to evade guards. Source: MobyGames

Gameplay represents the most successful implementation of Metal Gear‘s stealth systems so far. Much of the world is simulated in real time, allowing the destruction of environmental objects and a realistic rainstorm during the introductory tanker chapter. Guards can be distracted by any number of new techniques, while Snake and Raiden are now able to shimmy along ledges as they avoid pursuers. Combat is dramatically enhanced with the ability to aim and fire in first person.

Raiden skateboards on Big Shell in a bonus mode included as part of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance. Source: cron78

The Western reception to Metal Gear Solid 2 was initially mixed due to the protagonist bait-and-switch, but its wildly ambitious plot and tight stealth action would vindicate Kojima’s bold vision over time. Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, an expanded edition that adds 350 challenge missions and five story chapters depicting Snake’s adventure aboard Big Shell, was published for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 in November 2002. This version was then ported to the PC in 2003 and has since been published in high-definition format as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (2011) on the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, and Xbox 360 digital marketplaces and the PlayStation 3-exclusive Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection (2013).

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)

Much like Shinji Mikami after the Resident Evil REmake (2002), Hideo Kojima planned to take a step back from his creation and hand the series off to a new generation of developers following Metal Gear Solid 2; just like Mikami, he found himself pulled back in when nobody stepped forward to pick up the torch. Happily, the design process for Metal Gear Solid 3 was relatively painless since Konami’s team of Metal Gear Solid 2 alumni already had extensive experience with the PlayStation 2 hardware. Few changes were made during development, as Kojima decided on a 1960s jungle setting very early in pre-production and the engine more or less reproduced the mechanics of the preceding title with a handful of enhancements. Konami respectively published Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for the PlayStation 2 in North America, Japan, and Europe on November 17, 2004, December 16, 2004, and March 4, 2005.

The player has to blend Snake’s camouflage with individual backgrounds to avoid detection. Source: MobyGames

The plot depicts the exploits of Metal Gear villain Big Boss – known here as Naked Snake – long before he founded his Outer Heaven compound. He is inserted into a rather inexplicable patch of USSR jungle in 1964 and tasked with eliminating Colonel Volgin, a Soviet general attempting to overthrow Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Snake is likewise opposed by The Boss, his erstwhile mentor, and her eccentric Cobra Unit. The mission grows significantly more dangerous when Volgin detonates a nuclear bomb and takes control of an experimental proto-Metal Gear called The Shagohod, prompting fears of nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR.

It’s eat or be eaten out here. Source: Longplay Archive (HD Version)

Metal Gear Solid 3‘s biggest gameplay changes are the removal of the series’ traditional radar – justified by its historical setting – and the addition of survival elements, as Snake acquires various camouflage outfits used to blend in with natural and man-made environments while also being obligated to eat local wildlife to keep his stamina up. The latter is the source of the game’s name and the subject matter of a James Bond-esque theme song performed by Cynthia Harrell. Snake’s melee abilities are likewise improved through the addition of Close-Quarters Combat (CQC), a martial arts technique aimed at quickly dispatching foes through grabs, punches, and throws.

The Boss and Snake confront each another in one of the series’ most wrenching scenes. Source: Longplay Archive (HD Version)

If Metal Gear Solid 3 lacked the avant-garde social commentary of its direct predecessor, it made up for it with the franchise’s strongest emotional beats; its climactic chase sequence and gut-punch of a final boss battle are among the best showpieces for the PlayStation 2 hardware. An expanded edition called Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (2005/2006) introduced online multiplayer, the first worldwide release of the MSX2’s Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, and player camera control, while a port to the 3DS in 2012 made up for framerate issues with platform-specific gyroscope controls and improved character models. A high-definition remaster of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence was also packaged alongside preceding titles in the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (2011) and Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection (2013).

What do you think about this period of Metal Gear? Which is your favorite series entry? Favorite boss? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons make it possible to keep producing great content!

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #115: Metal Gear (2008-2018 and Spinoffs) – January 28
  • #116: Dragon Age – February 11
  • #117: Time Crisis – February 25
  • #118: Kentucky Route Zero – March 11
  • #119: Drakengard/Nier – March 25