Metal Gear: Ghost Babel

Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
U.S. Publisher: Konami Corporation
U.S. Release: May 5, 2000
Genre: Tactical Espionage Action
Format: 2-Megabyte Cartridge

Based on: Going home again, prudence in cross-promotion, big things, small packages, and the Imaginary Story.

Games | Game Boy Color | Metal Gear: Ghost Babel

Article by Nicola Nomali | February 22, 2008

Handhelds, as least as far as the hardcore experience goes, have always been at a disadvantage for direct comparison to consoles. After all, one format is casual in appeal and assembled from miniaturized technology, whereas the other exists on the very cutting edge of the medium, redefining the limits of gaming in ways older machines could never have achieved. But this disparity was particularly evident during the late '90s as 3D graphics became the standard for mainstream consoles. Most gamers were content to eulogize 2D visuals as a soon-to-be-forgotten artifact of the gaming past. Handhelds, still running at roughly NES-level power and unable to render anything more than four-color sprites, were largely left in the lurch.

In 1998, Konami released Metal Gear Solid for the Sony PlayStation to thunderous approval from critics and consumers alike. No game had ever before combined polished action-based gameplay with such a genuinely cinematic presentation boasting immersive cutscenes, credible voice acting, and a truly haunting soundtrack. At the same time, Nintendo released the Game Boy Color, freeing its enduring handheld from the shackles of monochromatic visuals and into a brand new spectrum of... Er, well. Aside from some minor memory and speed improvements improvements, the GBC was actually still very much 8-bit technology.

Nonetheless, some starry-eyed individuals at Konami decided to endeavor to do the impossible: reproduce Metal Gear Solid -- in 2D -- on the Game Boy Color. And they called it Metal Gear: Ghost Babel. Except in America, where Konami feared Americans wouldn't be smart enough to make the correlation between two games with "Metal Gear" in the title and just renamed it Metal Gear Solid.

Sorry, Lumber Baron.

While the developers couldn't literally present a game as immersive or cinematic as MGS -- there's no arguing with numbers -- they still pushed the GBC's capabilities and ended up with a creation that was far more attractive than the bulk of the system's catalogue. Eschewing the popular 2D-3D stopgap of pre-rendered graphics, they instead favored a more traditional visual style, minimalist by necessity, a full game world depicted within the confines of the Game Boy's tiny screen. The larger graphical objects offered crisp, interesting detail, but the abstraction necessary to make those tiny sprites happen was given a sheen of elegance through the removal of their outlines and a greater focus on animation.

The mostly-static, hand-drawn cutscenes revive the old conventions of Ninja Gaiden, cleverly employing sprite animation, panning, and split-screen techniques to produce a respectable semblance of cinematography even by modern standards. The in-game character artwork by Ikuya Nakamura even manages to embody a low-res interpretation of designer Yoji Shinkawa's masterful brushwork.

With such consistent production values, Ghost Babel only reminds the player that it's on a Game Boy Color when it's to the game's benefit. Taking full advantage of the system's inherent functionality, it even included a "Link Battle" multiplayer mode for those few fans lucky enough to run into someone else with a copy and a link cable.

Despite the obvious limitations of the platform, Ghost Babel offers a shockingly effective 2D approximation of its console sibling. This was a particularly startling revelation to American gamers, who had been denied the pleasures of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake?, which was as much the template for the GBC adventure as MGS. Even so, one marvels at Konami's efficiency in reducing the console experience in size without sacrificing its essence. Obviously, certain items that could only in 3D are missing -- namely sniper rifles and Stingers -- but the rest of Snake's arsenal is carried over intact. And for those who remain uneasy from the transition, the game provides 180 VR missions (some of which were translated directly from MGS and Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions?) to ease him into the basic workings of 2D tactical espionage action and train his weapon proficiency.

Certain other concessions to the different format are evident. Snake sneaks, shoots, and generally infiltrates just as he did in MGS, but the game is divided into a series of independent stages; after all, an uninterrupted adventure on the scale of the PlayStation game probably wouldn't be best suited to the handheld medium. Each stage ends by assigning the player a rank based on factors such as speed, number of enemies killed, and number of rations consumed. But unlike, say, Mega Man Zero?, this is more of a novelty than a source of sadistic frustration. (In retrospect, Kojima doubtlessly regards this as an opportunity missed.)

The game's fragmented structure, combined with the fact that previous stages can't be revisited, drives the action forward in a linear fashion markedly unlike its predecessors. Even in MGS, you could backtrack from the underground base at the end of the game to the heliport at the very beginning; Ghost Babel is actually a precursor to the more restrictive environments of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 in this respect.

Fortunately, the inability to backtrack is totally justified by the sheer variety of locales and situations offered with each new stage. The scope of the game extends far beyond simple fortress-crawling and series staples like minefields and gas-filled rooms; Ghost Babel also has you dashing between ladders to keep above surges of rainwater sweeping through a sewer, dodging attack hounds in the jungle equivalent of a hedge maze, and employing visual clues to distinguish a safe path through patches of electrified water -- to cite but a few examples. Naturally, this diversity also extends to the franchise's trademark boss battles.

Perhaps in order to soften the backward step represented in the transition from from PlayStation to GBC, Ghost Babel story offers an unusual level of divergence from the series' canon. Ghost Babel takes place in an alternate continuity where Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid never happened. It's based entirely on the original Metal Gear, although certain dramatic aspects of MG2 and MGS are factored into its backstory, appended to the end of Metal Gear 1.

It goes like this: In 1995, after destroying Metal Gear TX-55, Solid Snake killed Big Boss at Outer Heaven. His mission completed, he then disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness. The year is now 2002, and Snake is dragged out of retirement to defuse a situation of global proportions. In the southern African nation of Gindra, a militarized ethnic minority led by one Augustine Eguabon have captured a new model of Metal Gear developed in secret by the United States. They demand the removal of American troops from the region and official recognition as a sovereign state. In order to defend from retaliation by angry superpowers, they've sealed themselves up in the nigh-impregnable fortress city of Galuade.

Even with a group of soldiers standing in his doorway training laser sights on his forehead, Snake is more than a little reluctant to get back into the sneaking business. But his old comrade Roy Campbell has a certain piece of information that's sure to entice him: Galuade was built upon the ruins of Outer Heaven, the very site of the incident that caused him to retreat from the world stage.

Snake, of course, wants to resolve his lingering issues with the past, which means he finds himself with no choice but to tie on his bandana and see to it that history repeats itself. But this time, he'll find he's no match for his near-mythic reputation, which developed during his seven-year absence. And neither are things nearly as simple this time as "Save the scientist, explode Metal Gear, kill the megalomaniac."

Besides the usual advice from Campbell, Snake is supported over Codec by Weasel, a renowned mercenary and combat expert; Brian McBride, a CIA official familiar with this region of Africa; and Mei Ling, whose abilities to quote proverbs and save data apparently span the universes themselves. Snake's only friend within Galuade is Chris Jenner, the sole survivor of a Delta Force team was wiped out prior to Snake's conscription.

The perpetrators of said massacre are Black Chamber, a group of mercenaries in Eguabon's employ -- and, of course, Snake's recurring adversaries throughout the game. Their ranks include Slasher Hawk, an Australian aborigine who wields a pair of aerodynamically impossible two-meter steel boomerangs; Marionette Owl, a former serial killer who possesses perfect night vision thanks to a fluke of genetics; Pyro Bison, an obsessive pyromaniac who blends his own flamethrower fuel; and their leader, Black Arts Viper, a skilled saboteur whose traps are so imperceptible that his craft is feared as black magic on the battlefield.

As the game begins to unfold, you may find McBride's crash course on the weather in southern Africa suspiciously reminiscent of Miller's tips on Alaskan living, or Black Chamber a transparent substitute for FOXHOUND. But don't be lulled into thinking that the game is simply resting on its laurels, content to be a pale imitation of its console counterpart. Sure, the fallout from the duel with Slasher Hawk, who recounts his sordid past in the very same tone and meter as a Psycho Mantis or a Sniper Wolf, may inspire the impression of "Metal Gear Solid Lite." But as the game progresses, almost every character is developed substantially with human motivations -- yes, even the guy called "Weasel." And aside from Hawk, Black Chamber's members dying words are far from sob stories, instead gradually providing the pieces of a tragic betrayal and crusade for revenge that encompasses the fate of the entire unit.

Over the course of Snake's mission, he must overcome the guilt of patricide, come to terms with the the title "Legendary Hero," and discover the truth behind a series of conspiracies that span all the way back to the birth of Outer Heaven. And while he's busy with that, no less than four distinct factions seek to exploit the latest model of Metal Gear, GANDER, and the secrets housed within the walls of Galuade -- including the CIA and United States Army. If there's one area where Ghost Babel can stand on perfectly equal footing with MGS, it's the high standard of serious (if convoluted) storytelling.

Chiefly written by Tomokazu Fukushima (who co-wrote Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 3 with Hideo Kojima himself), the script also casts new light on facets of the Metal Gear saga already close to fans' hearts, including Big Boss's legacy and the true purpose of Outer Heaven. The revelations are as shocking as they are audacious, reflecting a story that could only have been told in its own continuity. It's as if one of the "Snake Tales" in Metal Gear Solid 2 had been allowed to flourish and grow into its own game.

Speaking of MGS2, Ghost Babel was one of the projects to be released between it and MGS1, and like VR Missions contains a teaser for the highly-anticipated sequel -- a bonus available only to players who have explored the utmost depths the game. In VR Missions, completing all 300 missions unlocked a diagram of Metal Gear RAY; here, the prize was a storyline clue. Beating the game once unlocks a series of Special missions that put the player through each of the game's stages with a number of unusual conditions. At their most rudimentary, these involve completing a stage within a time limit, without being spotted, or without taking damage; at their most insane, they involve hunting ghosts and reenacting Donkey Kong.

The conditions are dictated by a disembodied voice known only as "No. 4," and as the trials advance, No. 4 occasionally addresses an unknown, unseen character, making vague allusions to the nature of these simulations. Finally, when all the objectives have been completed, he mentions his subject's name: Jack. That is, Raiden. Players who came across this cliffhanger probably couldn't have known what it meant prior to MGS2's release, but it at least prepared them for the premise of a VR soldier trained to exceed and replace Solid Snake, which is a central theme tying to MGS2's underlying psychology.

But that's another article.

Today, handhelds can produce 3D graphics like it's no big deal, and indeed have more in common with consoles than they have since the Game Boy debuted in 1989. Even so, more recent handheld Metal Gear titles have all revolved around anomalous gameplay concepts like turn-based card battles? and managing teams of soldiers? in an effort to distance themselves from the console installments. Independent of whether or not they're fun, they seem persistent in trying to convince gamers they can offer something weird and unique from their big brothers, again distancing themselves from the direct comparison. Perhaps the difference between 2D and 3D was really just the buffer needed to engender that kind of courage in Kojima's staff, once upon a time in the year 2000. But now that portables can do 3D, and Metal Gear is expected to push against the cutting edge of technology, it seems the legacy of 2D Metal Gear has been inherited by Boktai?.

Which makes Ghost Babel a symbol of a time long gone, of a glory that can never be reattained... Man, that's the worst kind of nostalgia. I'm starting to get misty-eyed just thinking about it. Help -- help me out, here, Mei Ling.