[Reposted | Originally published March 2008]
Hideo Kojima has been trying to make a video game for twenty years now. With Metal Gear Solid 3, he very nearly succeeded.
Which isn’t to say Kojima hasn’t overseen the creation of quite a few games in his time — from whimsical penguin racing games to vampiric spaghetti westerns with overtones of Norse legend, he’s had his hand in several greats. But he’s best known for the Metal Gear series, the ongoing saga of a guy named Dave who constantly, reluctantly finds himself as the world’s last resort against utter nuclear armageddon, and all just because he happens to possess an acute genetic disposition to be adept at killing people. (He inherited it from his dad. Whom he killed. Twice. Once with hairspray.)
Over the course of half a dozen games — we’ll disregard the spin-offs and ports, as Kojima handed the directorial reins to his lackeys for those — Konami’s most visible auteur appears to have been struggling to create a game that conforms to his grand inner vision. Granted, it’s a vision that seems to have evolved along with the games; the original Metal Gear, for instance, featured a game design motivated primarily by the noble, artistic desire not to choke the MSX’s hardware by juggling too many sprites at once. (Action was right out, so avoiding action was his solution.) His vision began to coalesce in the sequel, even if he kind of cheated by copying his answers straight from the notes he’d cribbed from Hollywood. Still, the ambition was all there, its realization choked somewhat by occasionally questionable design choices — the conflicted hero, the double-crosses, the brief but intense grief (quickly forgotten) at the death of someone you’d met for the very first time a couple of hours prior. And most of all, the tricksy, innovative use of things, such as guns, cigarettes, cardboard boxes and rubber duckies.
With each subsequent sequel, Kojima has been drawing closer to realizing some platonic ideal of “video games” that exists only in his mind — well, except perhaps for Metal Gear Solid 2, which comes off less as Kojima making the game he’s longed to create and more like Kojima very deliberately not making the game everyone else wanted him to create. Gamers weren’t too amused by MGS2’s ten-hour face-slap and decided that perhaps the series had taken a good running jump over a pool of sharks, meaning that a good deal of gamers missed out on its sequel. And too bad, because with MGS3 Kojima has come closer to creating a game that seems to obey what we can only assume are his criteria for excellence while also falling right in line with what the kids want.
And the truest, clearest picture of the series’ steady evolution can be found in its boss battles. On MSX, they were pretty unimaginative: stand out of the guy’s line of sight, shoot him with guided missiles or toss grenades or whatever. Basic stuff, and rarely challenging. Later, despite the fact that MGS was basically a high-spec remake of Metal Gear 2?, the move to 3D allowed the boss encounters to take on new life: a dynamic fistfight in a crowded office, the violence of your struggle against a stealth-cloaked ninja disturbing papers and destroying computers. A game of cat-and-mouse against a human giant with a deadly accurate minigun. A tense sniper duel, a race against time against both damage and your nerves (which could only be steadied until you ran out of diazepam). Impressive stuff, only slightly overshadowed by the other, more impressive details, like the discovery that dogs would pee on you if you hid in a cardboard box for too long.
MGS2’s bosses took a step back in quality, though apparently everything bad about the game was done quite deliberately. (Honestly, though, at times justifications for MGS2’s slights give the impression of a guy who took a joke seriously and then, embarrassed, haughtily sniffs, “I was just joking, guys, what are you, stupid or something?”) Dead Cell’s warriors focused less on doing new and unexpected thing than on rehashing their predecessors’ legendary fights in order to make a Very Important Point. Yet even then, the fights could still thrill — particularly the final battle, in which the player’s silver-haired Solid Snake Simulation finally took control of his own destiny by killing his own “father”, mimicking Snake’s legacy…but with a sword rather than a makeshift flamethrower.
No, honest, it’s super symbolic.
But Metal Gear Solid 3’s bosses? Now those are some fights. At worst, MGS3 offers slick renditions of the bog-standard video game tropes: find a pattern or weakness, use a certain weapon to exploit it, lay into the boss while he’s stunned, repeat until you’re sick of it. At best, though, the protagonist’s struggles against Cobra Squad make you completely reconsider what a boss fight can actually be. And I’m pretty sure that, in the end, that’s all Kojima really wants: to come up with a game packed with ideas so clever, so counter to the expectations and clichés of the medium, that he’ll forever be regarded as the ultimate genius of game design. Any director who would pull the “HIDEO” trick from the Psycho Mantis fight, interrupting a gimmick battle with a blank screen displaying nothing but his own name, is clearly a man driven by ego. But hell, if that ego results in more boss encounters like The Joy or The End, he’s welcome to hire a team of skywriters to scribble his name from horizon to horizon over Tokyo every morning for all I care.
Granted, not every boss in the game is created equal. The Pain is a laughably weak start, a guy who shoots bees at you. Yes, he’s a single barking dog away from being a Simpsons punchline. Likewise, The Fury is just a more annoying rendition of MGS’s Vulcan Raven battle. AndVolgin…god, Volgin. One fight would have been fine. One fight followed by a decisive Shagohod encounter would have been great. But a two-round fight followed by a chase and an interminable sequence of Shagohod battles culminating in being chased around by a shirtless guy driving a malfunctioning tank in comical circles while chasing a girl on a motorcycle? It’s annoying gameplay-wise and completely deflates the drama of what should be a climactic showdown. But not intentionally, like most of MGS2’s subversions (supposedly). It’s just silly while trying to be cool. Good thing the last hour of the game is so brilliant, or else MGS3 would be a fantastic game that leaves a foul, lingering taste in your mouth from an unpleasant last bite that turned out to be mostly gristle and bone.
Look beyond these weak moments and what you have is a game that elevates the boss fight to an art form. The parts in between are pretty good, too — the need for stealth combined with the limited technology of the ’60s adds new tension to the series’ mechanics, and the addition of camouflage indexing creates a new form of challenge: hiding in plain sight and responding to enemy actions rather than watching dots move around the radar screen and memorizing patterns. All of those things are promptly thrown out the window, of course, when a boss encounter kicks off. Well, in most cases, anyway.
For instance, the “battle” with The Sorrow has nothing whatsoever to do with the traditional concept of bosses, since you can’t really do anything to affect The Sorrow himself. Instead, you’re confronted with a parade of the soldiers you’ve killed throughout the course of your mission, all maimed in accordance to how they actually died at your hands. Broke a guy’s neck? He’ll stagger toward you, his head flopping around. Stabbed him? He’ll be soaked in blood. Shot him in the groin? He’ll be clutching his man parts and lamenting his uselessness. But they all demand karmic comeuppance for your acts of violence. To win the battle, you need to kill yourself, joining the ranks of the departed… except not really, because it’s just a fake death pill, albeit one convincing enough to trick the afterlife. And, in wholly keeping with the series’ favorite gimmicks, it’s all derived from your game’s meta-data — Psycho Mantis’ “mind reading” trickery writ large.
The Ocelot standoff isn’t quite so innovative, but it nevertheless manages to be a classic example of Kojima doing what he does best, i.e. being incredibly self-referential while actually developing a character or theme in the process. The young Ocelot is in many ways a different person than his older self, and this fight has little in common with MGS’s explosive setpiece battle, but one thing remains consistent: he’s still a puffed-up little bastard. Put away your M1911A1 and draw instead a cool revolver and start showing off and Ocelot’s ego will compel him to out-showboat you — an opportunity for a free hit that’s completely justified, in-game, by the character’s utter cockiness.
Still, it’s not until the second Cobra Unit battle, a frantic 3D skirmish in a forest glade against the animalistic The Fear, that the boss fights truly begin to tread new ground. At first glance, facing off The Fear seems pretty much like your typical gimmick fight: he spends a great deal of time invisible, and Snake’s mobility is severely limited by a number of tripwire traps strung about the environment. The gimmick solution, of course, is to equip your infrared goggles, which reveal both The Fear and his tripwires.
But there’s more to the encounter than an application of the right tool at the right time. While it’s certainly possible to simply blow up The Fear by brute force, he’s far more notable for being the series’ first boss to do something interesting with the Stamina meter. Introduced in MGS2, Stamina is an extra option for taking down bosses, a way to stop them non-lethally with stun darts (or CQC, in MGS3). It’s mainly for show, a small bragging point that lets you boast about how you beat the game without killing anyone… although really it doesn’t make a difference either way since bosses tend to explode spectacularly even if you win via knockout. With The Fear, though, stamina factors into the battle in that his high-level camouflage rapidly tires him. (In a rare instance of player/computer equality, this stamina drain carries over to the player-equippable version as well… although if it were really equal it would make you invisible rather than simply bumping your camo index to a global 80% regardless of setting.) At some point in the battle, The Fear is forced to descend from the trees in order to grab some food and replenish his strength.
At this point, you can employ some of the game’s most devious optional tactics against him. Yeah, you can try to pop him in the head a few times when he comes down to the ground, although he’s just as likely to knock you flat in his mad dash for sustenance. But you can determine what he’ll eat, too — if you toss food to the ground, he’ll forego sniping the fresh fruit hanging around the grove and simply take what he sees. And should the food you toss out there happen to be rotten or toxic… well, he doesn’t really notice in the heat of battle. He’ll end up poisoned, suffering from a rapidly-dwindling Stamina meter without the medicine to cure it.
You can, in theory, defeat The Fear without firing a shot, creating an unexpected but wholly logical application of the innate decay that affects Snake’s inventory. This is not a special tactic that breaks the inherent rules of the game, but rather normal game mechanics applied to do something besides impeding the player — something that seems more befitting a roguelike than a chatty action game.
And of course the game’s centerpiece battle, the sniper duel versus elderly marksman The End, takes mechanics-as-tactics even further, perhaps to its ultimate end. Spanning several massive areas, The End’s battlefield is literally a field, and a stream, and a series of rock outcroppings, and a cliff. All of which feature raised vantage points to accommodate a sniper, creating a duel of wits. Unlike MGS’s pair of long-distance face-offs versus Sniper Wolf, this is a true sniper’s duel, a test of stamina, concentration, patience and split-second decisions.
It’s a truly holistic experience, at once both beautifully true to the medium’s concept of boss battles and a brilliant inversion. Typically, “boss battle” means an intense, pattern-based, one-on-one conflict in which the general mechanics of a game are temporarily set aside for a very specific application of a very limited set of abilities and tactics. This is precisely the opposite, a wide-open game of cat-and-mouse that invites the player to employ practically every trick and tool in his possession. Yet it’s definitely a boss battle; if the enemy health gauge in the upper corner doesn’t settle that question, the fact that you can’t advance until you win goes the extra mile.
With a bit of luck, it’s actually possible to take a standard action approach to the battle, to track The End as he runs from perch to perch and shoot the crap out of him while he’s trying to shake you off his tail. But that’s a risky tactic and feels a bit like winning a chess game by throwing your opponent’s Queen out the window. Ultimately, the surest approach is to stalk The End slowly and steadily, using your full bag of tricks while laying low. The infrared goggles can help, since you might be lucky enough to catch his IR signature across a ravine — or then again, it could just be a goat. You can pinpoint his general location with the sound amplifier, zeroing in on the sound of his raspy breathing (and occasional snores) while staying out of sight in the tall grass. You can test your luck in shooting him from across the field, or try and sneak up behind him. Or you can simply sit and wait for him to show up at one of his perches and get the jump on him. This is fraught with risk, though, since he can get the jump on you if you’re not paying attention.
And, of course, you can also kill him like a chump by blowing him up hours before the actual battle.
The sum total of the fight with The End is an experience that could only be had within the confines of Metal Gear Solid 3. The game’s very specific mechanics — stamina, camo, creative tool application — are the underpinnings of the showdown. Fighting Sniper Wolf was much simpler than this simply because that was all the original MGS could offer. Nowhere is the maturation of the series more evident in this single, protracted engagement… and, ultimately, one other.
The game’s final battle might in fact surpass even The End in terms of sheer, game-specific effectiveness. Snake’s decisive conflict with The Joy — that is, his mentor The Boss — is both the emotional climax of the game and the ultimate expression of its core, mechanical innovations. Where besting The Fear was about lateral thinking and The End was about fully understanding the breadth of your possibilities, The Joy strips away everything but MGS3’s heart: camouflage indexing and close-quarters combat.
For all that people complain about the excesses of Kojima’s directorial style and love of non-interactive storytelling, the secret to defeating The Joy is to understand the tactics she’s demonstrated throughout the game’s cinematics. All across the course of the story, she repeatedly humbles Snake, winning easily every time despite holding back from applying her full lethal force against her pupil; she’s a woman whom even the main villain fears and respects. As a boss, she translates those cinematic skills into action, but without the compassionate restraint that causes her to break Snake’s arm rather than his neck. She’s the antithesis of Ryuhei Kitamura’s work inMetal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes: his cutscenes gave Solid Snake and company capabilities far beyond what was actually possible in-game, but in The Joy you have Kojima creating a character who is absolutely as powerful in-game as in her story sequences. And yet in terms of how she actually fights, she’s also the single most believable opponent ever faced in any Metal Gear game. She excels at in-close skirmishes and can field-strip a weapon in seconds. Her power comes not from mystical skills or bizarre mutations but rather from pure, focused combat efficiency; not from her choice of weapons but from her innate competence.
And of course, in the end the most effective way to defeat her is to best her in CQC, to prove that the student has exceeded the master. This requires laying low and waiting for an opening, since she easily overpowers Snake in a face-to-face fight. CQC alone isn’t enough for victory; effective camouflage is also of the essence. Since it transpires in a field of white flowers and Snake retains his in-game facepaint for much of the forty minutes of cinemas that follow, this can lead to the very bizarre side effect of him dealing with the game’s aftermath (even doing some heavy petting with Eva) while made up like a kabuki actor.
Oh, and there’s a strict time limit on the fight, too. Fortunately, no matter how long you take to win the deadline pauses during The Joy’s stirring death speech. No, really, it is stirring — in addition to dropping a final, heart-wrenching plot twist, The Joy’s defeat means that Snake has triumphed by merging her creation, CQC, with his own genius for camouflage, rising to the station of world’s deadliest warrior at a terrible personal cost.
No, MGS3 isn’t perfect. Its gameplay can be rough in spots, its story sometimes borders on complete corniness, and the final series of battles and chases drags on far too long. Yet its best moments are true genius, demonstrating brilliant attention to detail, a willingness to allow gamers to find their own solutions, and admirable consistency between narrative and gameplay.
So here’s hoping that in Metal Gear Solid 4, Mr. Kojima finally creates that game he’s been struggling to design all these years. But not because it would be nice for him, mind you. No, it’s just that I want to play a game that leaves MGS3’s best moments in the dust.