Metal Gear, Hideo Kojima’s prized franchise. He will eventually weave a story full of twists, betrayal, & infinite retcons that would turn out to be pretty awesome in the future. In this article, however, right now it is the year 1987 and we see a younger Kojima tasked with leading a project for the MSX2 gaming computer system. Originally, the project was supposed to be for an action game. Due to hardware constraints, the number of enemies and projectiles able to be shown on screen was limited. They hit a wall. Borrowing inspiration from a game for the ZX Spectrum called The Great Escape, Kojima had the developers rework the game into a sneaking game. This led to the game that would start a franchise that has sold over 33 million units.

Metal Gear Image Collage

The journey does not end there. Konami wanted the game to be released worldwide, but the MSX2 had an even smaller following in North America than it did in Europe. So, the game was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Konami gave the source code to a new development team without the original’s consent or supervision. This new division was given three months to complete the game and was told to make it as different as possible.  The resulting game, while selling over a million units and spawning its own sequel independent of the MSX2 sequel, was seen as a failure by Hideo Kojima who is quoted as saying “That title has only soiled my reputation. The NES version of Metal Gear is plagued with many problems, poor design choices, and an awful translation.

This review is based on my experience with the NES version, which I beat in one sitting with limited use of a guide after the half-way point. This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

Metal Gear NES | Story

The story of NES Metal Gear is completely different from the MSX2 version. On the MSX2, the west has discovered that a “Legendary Mercenary” has created a military state called Outer Heaven, which is located 200km north of Galzburg, South Africa. A military black ops group called FOXHOUND has sent their best agent, Grey Fox, to infiltrate the enemy fortress in order to discover and neutralize the weapons of mass destruction rumored to be constructed there. After several days of radio silence, it is assumed that Grey Fox is captured. FOXHOUND ultimately decides to send in a rookie agent by the name of Solid Snake to rescue Grey Fox and continue the mission. His only clue was contained within Grey Fox’s final message “METAL GEAR…”

Metal Gear MSX2 Opening

The North American release of the game suffered a schism. The game itself contained a story very similar to the MSX2 version, but the manual held a different introduction altogether:

“Colonel Vermon CaTaffy, a once tranquil shepherd boy, who grew up on the remote banks of the Sam Sam River in Outer Mongolia with his 27 sisters, turned to terrorism at an early age. Now, after years of pillaging innocent people, he has taken control of Outer Heaven, a small nation on the outskirts of South Africa. Here he is the sole tyrant and radical dictator. He rules with bullets and combs, and in only a few months he has outlawed democracy and turned harmless villagers into mercenaries for the global terrorist network. But his biggest threat has yet to come. For, as an obsessed madman, he has created the Ultimate Super Weapon. It’s CaTaffy’s greatest dream and the world’s most hideous nightmare. It’s called Metal Gear. And it must be destroyed before the crazed Colonel unleashes his violence across the globe.”

Metal Gear NES Opening

The NES version’s story is so bizarre and different from the original that Kojima has stated that it and its sequel, Metal Gear 2: Snake’s Revenge are not canon. Regardless of what’s written in the manual, nothing of CaTaffy is mentioned in the game. The dialogue is shortened and the game has less radio transmissions than the original. Combined with a poor translation, this leads to a recipe for confusing and mostly irrelevant dialogue. It does have some memorable and funny engrish such as I feel asleep!!and “… Try contacting resistance fighter “Jennifer” on waveband 12048. Jennifer can give you direct support. But be careful. She’s a snob. She probably won’t answer you unless you are pretty classy!” This means she won’t respond on the radio unless your rank, or ‘class,’ is maxed out by rescuing enough hostages.

Metal Gear I Feel Asleep

Metal Gear NES | Game Play

Metal Gear created an entire genre with its innovative game play. Rather than be a trigger happy, bullet-spewing, and unstoppable hero, Snake is relatively weak. You start the game with very low health and no equipment, requiring that you learn the basics of sneaking and melee combat quickly in order to survive. As the game progresses, you acquire several different weapons and a large amount of equipment that will help you advance. Some are optional, like the infrared goggles, which allow you to see hidden alarms, while others are required, such as the compass that allows you to pass through a desert full of scorpions.

While Snake is alone in Outer Heaven, he is backed up by a team of operatives that he can call via his transceiver radio. Unfortunately, the dialogue is so mistranslated or erroneously triggered that much of it is useless for figuring out what to do. Occasionally contacting a certain person is required to spawn items that are necessary to complete the game. It does have a few good points though. The engrish is sometimes funny and by the end of the game, Big Boss, who turns out to be the evil “Legendary Mercenary” the whole time, will intentionally lie to you in order to trap, kill, or trick you into warping back to an earlier point in the game which results in minutes of backtracking to get back to where you were.

Throughout the game, you’ll acquire many different card keys while allow access to the game’s many locked doors. This is not alien to video games of the time, but unfortunately, the higher level cards you get later in the game do not work on lower card level doors and the card required for most doors is seemingly random. This forces you to continually access the menu while sitting in front of the door, trying each of the game’s eight card keys until you find the required one. Sometimes this happens in rooms filled with poisonous gas or with invincible enemies, requiring you to take damage as you shuffle about your menus trying to pick the right card. This is absolutely the most frustrating part of the entire game, bar none.

Metal Gear NES Equipment Screen

Speaking of taking damage, Metal Gear has no checkpoints. Upon death you can continue with all of your acquired items, but back at a predetermined point decided by your rank. Deaths usually amount to up to ten minutes of backtracking, depending on where you’re going.  Ranking up is done by saving hostages and there are four ranks in total. Each rank increases the amount of each item you can carry, increases the amount of ammo you can have, and the max rank is required in order to contact Jennifer, who will grant access to the compass and rocket launcher, two items required to complete the game. Not only can you go up in rank, but you can go down as well. Shooting a hostage will demote you by one rank. The final and probably most important part about your rank is that the final boss requires 16 Plastic Explosives to kill. You can only have more than 15 in your inventory at rank 4. If you reach the final boss at less than max rank and there are no more hostages to save you will have to start the game over entirely.

Metal Gear Starting Point Continue Area

Metal Gear | Graphics

You’d think between the horrible dialogue, the lack of information, and save-destroying game play problems that there couldn’t be anything else, right? Wrong. While the graphics are pretty nice for an early NES game, several problems plague even this area of Metal Gear. Most are minor, such as sprites being overlayed above dialogue boxes, but one in particular ruins the game out of principle. The game is called Metal Gear and the TX-55: Metal Gear can be seen on the cover, but the machine doesn’t even exist within the game. The programmers had trouble rendering the sprite properly so they scrapped it and a supercomputer takes its place as the “final boss.” The main character’s singular motivation throughout the game is to stop Metal Gear but you never even get to see it.

Metal Gear | Music

Metal Gear’s music is actually one of the few consistently good parts about the game. The NES and MSX2 versions have almost completely different soundtracks, but I actually find both enjoyable. Later games in the series would borrow and remix music from the MSX2 version, but the NES tracks should not simply be swept under the rug. Give both a listen and decide for yourself which is better.

Metal Gear for NES Soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoBt-v_qeFE

Metal Gear for MSX2 Soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C99cdxsUa0Y

Metal Gear | NES vs MSX2

Metal Gear NES MSX2 Final Boss Comparison

In addition to all the changes broken down above, there are even more differences between NES Metal Gear and MSX2 Metal Gear. For instance, The NES version’s opening has Snake parachuting into a jungle area with three other men that are never mentioned anywhere else in the game. This jungle area was added in the NES game to make things more different from the original. The basement sections of Buildings #1 and #2 are sanctioned off as two separate buildings (#4 and #5). Buildings #4 and #5 are accessed by traversing a forest maze whose solution is never revealed in the game at all (west, southwest, northwest, southwest, and southwest).

Because of the map changes, many enemies had their placements altered. Of note, guard dogs which don’t appear until at least a third of the game is complete are present before building #1 and at least one of the bosses was moved do a different area. In addition to Metal Gear itself, a boss fight against a Hind D helicopter is replaced with a pair of turrets called Twin Shot.

Metal Gear NES Twin Shot

The difficulty of each game is offset by their differences in game play. In the MSX version, defeating an enemy while in sneaking mode causes them to sometimes drop rations and ammo. This is not present at all in the NES version. While not intentionally to offset this, NES Metal Gear is made easier by the flying enemies on the rooftops of building #1 and #2 no longer able to do so, Snake can sneak directly under security cameras without being detected, and “High Alert” mode was completely disabled. In High Alert mode you could not change screens to disable the alert. You must stay on one screen and kill enemies until it was over. Also, for unknown reasons, Snake’s invulnerability time after taking damage was severely shortened. Because of this an enemy standing on top of you will cause your health to drain almost continually.

Metal Gear | Breakdown

The Good:

  • The start of what would eventually become a great series.
  • Memorable music.
  • Genre-inventing stealth game play.

The Bad

  • Less than useful engrish dialogue.
  • Underwhelming final boss.
  • CARD KEYS !!
  • MSX2’s save function replaced with password system.
  • Game progression disrupted by poor level design.
  • A continue system that will frustrate players until they become competent at avoiding enemy fire.
  • Short invulnerability times will cause many ordinarily avoidable deaths.

Metal Gear | Rating

1.75/5

The MSX2 version is more widely available nowadays thanks to MGS3: Subsistence and the various HD collections that contain it. Without the MSX2 version to compare it to, I believe this game would deserve a 2.5 (I typically won’t give a game I’m entertained enough to beat a rating lower than that). However, the NES version is plagued by so many problems that simply don’t exist in the original and they must be taken into account. If you can find it in yourself to look past some of the more poignant errors made by the developers you might even be able to enjoy it.