Metal Gear 2 Retrospective: The World Spins Without Snake

Metal Gear 2 Retrospective: The World Spins Without Snake

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake’s defining attribute is texture. Metal Gear shaped an initial world, and Metal Gear 2 embellishes on that world by adding frictions that complicate the player’s previous relationship with the series. The results are often inconsistent; Metal Gear 2 is a game with a reach that exceeds its grasp but, also, an intoxicating and undeniable confidence.

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake came out in 1990 in Japan on the MSX2 home computer, three years after the original Metal Gear. During those three years, a different sequel called Snake’s Revenge came out in North America. Series designer Hideo Kojima claimed that he was unaware of the game until one of its developers told him about it, and according to him, they said Snake’s Revenge was “not the authentic Snake” and that he should make his own sequel. At that time, Kojima said he had enjoyed Snake’s Revenge, but later, he described it as “crap.” 

Metal Gear Retrospective

This story is part of an ongoing series analysing the Metal Gear games.

Whatever the case, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake proceeded that same year, although it wasn’t released in the States until the 2005 Subsistence edition of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (fan translations of the game did exist earlier than that). Kojima led as the game’s designer, aided by a group of loyal programmers, character designers, composers and mech designers who would all help him reforge the series and rebuild the legacy of Metal Gear’s deadly fortress, Outer Heaven.

Metal Gear’s plot was simple: Outer Heaven was building a deadly walking tank called Metal Gear. Solid Snake needed to destroy it. The corresponding action was a straightforward and uncomplicated stealth gaming gauntlet that concluded with a final twist: the betrayal of Snake by his commander Big Boss. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake repeats the general frame: the fortress nation of Zanzibar Land is stockpiling nuclear weapons and building a new Metal Gear. Snake, with the aid of a radio support team, is once again sent in to eliminate it. But this core conceit is nestled at the center of a new and more complicated framework.

Metal Gear 2 adds more sci-fi lore and political machinations that cast a veneer of maturity over proceedings. The game relays its set up through a lengthy opening cutscene: it is the late 1990’s and national politics are stabilizing, the threat of nuclear war waning. Zanzibar Land’s stockpiling of nukes upsets that international equilibrium. At the same time, oil resources begin to dry up. Czech biologist Dr. Kio Marv creates “OILIX,” a microbe that synthesizes petroleum but he has been kidnapped by Zanzibar Land’s forces before the formula could be revealed to the rest of the world. Snake’s mission is not just to destroy a big bad robot, it is a task meant to maintain a utopian status quo. If he rescues Marv and disables Zanzibar Land’s nuclear stockpile, the world can return to its utopian state.

Overall, this framing is more optimistic than the games to follow in the series, but the devil is in the details. Those details show that, deep down, Metal Gear 2 is a game about invalidating player achievements. The game’s narrative frame lays the groundwork for a proper Metal Gear timeline and introduces the idea that the world has been marching on without Solid Snake (or the player), which plays into Metal Gear 2’s core theme of undermining any sense of success that Snake or the player felt after the end of Metal Gear. Sequels often undo the tidy endings of previous games in a series, and Metal Gear 2 is no exception.

Metal Gear 2 looks back at the player’s conquest of Outer Heaven, posits the peaceful future of that victory, and declares that it is an impossibility. There is always another castle; there is always another villain. This applies both to Snake as a video game protagonist and to the player. How dare they believe they can win anything, when Kojima and his team can still build one more Metal Gear to destroy and one more locale to infiltrate?

To this end, Metal Gear 2 expands on Metal Gear’s stealth gameplay with a variety of flourishes and scenarios that deemphasize player control. Enemies get a greater range of actions, and the environment now boasts even more ways to stymie the player. Stealth in the first Metal Gear was an absolute binary. The moment the player walked into an enemy’s line of sight, an alert would trigger. Metal Gear 2 retains this design choice, but while guards in Metal Gear only ever faced one direction, guards now can turn their heads in an arc in front of them. Consequently, players approaching Metal Gear 2 using the same strategies as in the previous game will find guards can perceive them with greater ease. Stealth remains primarily about blocking line of sight, but because that line of sight has expanded, there’s a greater possibility for failure.

This design decision robs players of power, which fits the game’s overall theme, but also embodies one of Metal Gear 2’s larger problems. These new complexities and textures serve to add a greater verisimilitude to the game world, but they never quite land as intended, due to how vague Metal Gear 2 is about the player’s risk of detection.

Zanzibar Land is replete with patrolling guards; these guards can now end up on structures with varying degrees of verticality. This can be seen the first floor of Building 1. The center of the room stands upon raised platforms, with a small pathway around the perimeter. While there are no guards patrolling the lower path, there are several on the higher platform. The player can guide Snake through the lower level nook without detection, but in various places—such as the guarded platform at the very top of the map—an enemy can turn their head to look down from their position and see Snake, triggering an alert. This is apparently because Snake’s height on the map still matches the guards on the platform but even this is unclear. In this space, the rules are not entirely consistent. Sometimes those above you cannot see you; in other cases, they will. Guard head turns are subtle, making it hard to know if you’re on the edge of their sight or about to be seen. This can make the initial infiltration of Zanzibar Land far more difficult than Outer Heaven, as the player is required to learn the unique peculiarities of each map screen and cannot rely on consistently enforced rules for the game’s topology.

Metal Gear 2 also introduces an iconic tool that, in theory, would help the player out: the radar. This 3×3 grid sits at the top of the screen, showing adjacent locations and marking enemies as blinking white dots. Its purpose is to allow players a chance to contend with the game’s tricky layout and enhanced guard behaviour. In practice, this does not always happen. The radar has a major flaw: it does not show what direction a guard is looking, neither the cardinal direction nor the position of their gaze. This limits the radar’s practicality, making it into a tool for knowing guard patrol paths only. Metal Gear 2 is a step towards granting the player extra information for stealth navigation purposes, but it’s an imperfect step.

Later games improved on this by adding a small cone of vision to the enemy dots on the radar grid, letting the player know the range of detection and a guard’s vision. Metal Gear 2’s radar was an early example of the franchise adding tactical tools, but its minimalist nature is in accordance with the game’s impulse to undercut the player. Still, even this incomplete resource adds more colour to the spectrum of player decisions and expands the canvas of potential tactics. If you know a guard’s patrol, you can reliably set up mines in their path. If you know they are approaching from behind you, you can crawl into a vent and hide.

The game’s tactical depth is further broadened by the addition of environmental factors that can affect detection. Zanzibar Land features a much higher amount of floor types that can generate noise, which draws guard attention. There are now deep sewers with forceful currents, as well as cold, sneeze-inducing temperatures that can also pull guards’ focus, dark rooms in which turning on a light switch will wake sleeping guards, and more. Metal Gear’s pure binary stealth has been dismissed in favour of a much more complicated world that, forces the player to rely on tools and gadgets more often than before. After all, you don’t need to turn on that light switch if you have a handy pair of night-vision goggles.

Unlike Metal Gear, none of these ideas is completely integrated into a larger whole. Metal Gear 2 is a series of individual areas and rarely repeating scenarios. This is a world now, not merely a game dungeon. This is not Snake’s playground or Kojima’s fortress so much as it is a series of areas belonging to the guards. Each new hazard is a test of player mettle, but also a means of de-emphasising their importance. The world pushes back, not simply with the guards’ watchful eyes, but also in its spatial design. All of this combines to create a game that is rich, tangible, and also frustrating.

The swamp in the jungle between Buildings One and Two, for example, must be traversed in order to find the prison where Dr. Madnar, the designer of the latest Metal Gear, is being held. Navigation through this swamp depends on following a highly specific and invisible multi-screen spanning path. To find the correct areas to stand on, the player must poke and prod through the swamp. Wandering off the path for too long means instant death.

The swamp is both wonderful and agonizing to traverse. On the one hand, the game’s mechanics capture a sense of uncertainty, engagement, and reckoning with the world. On the other, the game offers no real hints about where to go, and the process of figuring that out is tedious. This encapsulates Metal Gear 2: it’s rich and soupy with interaction but precarious and prone to sending the player into unexpected disaster.

Once Snake finds the building Dr. Madnar is supposed to be in, he finds nothing in sight. The room is empty except for an odd tapping noise. The solution, as relayed by a radio support character, is for the player to do, not Snake. They must refer to the game’s manual and decode the taps using a cipher. This will reveal Madnar’s radio frequency, which the player can then call to progress in the game. While it is possible to have a radio character complete the task for you, this particular puzzle is Metal Gear 2’s boldest attempt to introduce texture to the game. It is also a step towards separating Snake from the player, which Metal Gear Solid will eventually build on. It points to the world outside of the game, the extra-text, forcing players to engage with physical materials and in-game sounds, thereby becoming hyper-aware of the game as a world they are viewing but also one they can touch and hear. In isolation, this segment of Metal Gear 2 successfully expresses its commitment to complication, texture, and derailing the player. But this is just one piece in a larger puzzle.

Metal Gear 2’s impulse to complicate and diminish player power is also evident in its inclusion of a more fully realised story. Metal Gear had a basic plot and some twists, such as the betrayal of Snake’s commander, Big Boss, but it had few actual cutscenes and little development of character relationships. Metal Gear 2 includes more narrative cutscenes, the ability to call numerous radio support teammates for world building purposes, and a story that places its action into a wider political and emotional context, one that undermines both Solid Snake and the player.

The diminishment of Snake’s success can been felt in the aftermath of the first boss fight against Black Ninja. Black Ninja is revealed to be Kyle Schneider, a member of the Outer Heaven resistance movement from the first game. After the events of Metal Gear, he was captured by NATO and experimented on by NASA; those experiments turned him into dangerous fighter (somehow). He is the first of many characters who assume a techno-ninja mantle within the series; variations of this plot point repeat throughout the setting’s fictional history. In Metal Gear 2, Schneider’s appearance complicates the player and Snake’s relationship to the status quo. Yes, Snake (and the player) stopped Big Boss, and Metal Gear was destroyed, but the world within the game kept turning after the MSX console was turned off. Allies suffered. World powers tormented the weak. Not everyone was saved. In an early era of video game plots, the reveal of Schneider’s identity was a radical subversion of the “beat the boss, save the world” promise.

Metal Gear 2 tells a story of criss-crossing motivations and goals. The game’s drive to strip Snake of his control—something later games would continue with even more viciousness—necessarily requires a string of betrayals and loss. You get to play the role of a hero in the Metal Gear series, but starting from Metal Gear 2 onward, this is not meant to be a power fantasy (although players tend to ignore this.) Snake is becoming a tragic hero, and that arc will continue for the rest of the series. The crux of this sentiment is found in the fate of two characters: Grey Fox and Gustava Heffner.

Grey Fox was one of the hostages rescued in Metal Gear, an elite comrade and one of Solid Snake’s only friends. In the first game, Grey Fox did little more than offer a hint once rescued. Here, he plays a larger role in the game’s events, having allied with the forces of Zanzibar Land and their mysterious commander. Kojima and his team seem to delight in role reversal and subversion, with Metal Gear games often recontextualizing or deconstructing character relationships between games. Grey Fox is a prime example.

His motivations to shift to villainy are largely unknown at first, as we do not get to see his side of the story, but this reveal stresses the series’ commitment to an ever-moving political landscape. The world kept going after the player turned off Metal Gear, and Grey Fox went from ally to enemy. Many of the bosses Snake faces in the game get introduced and dispatched with little fanfare. But Fox’s arrival into the plot around half-way through the game marks the moment when Metal Gear 2 narratively breaks from the simple sneak-mission setup of Metal Gear into something with more personal stakes.

Those same personal stakes also come up in another plot point, one that that became an unfortunate trend in Metal Gear games to follow: the death of a woman. In this game, it’s Snake’s ally Gustava Heffner.

Gustava, first introduced in Metal Gear 2, is a Czech State Security operative who allies with Snake to destroy Metal Gear. She is one of two women in the game, the other being the undercover CIA agent Holly White. The game also gives her a complicated backstory. Before becoming a security operative, Gustava was an Olympic ice skater. She also was in a relationship with Grey Fox before the events of this game. Their breakup, as well as Gustava’s subsequent failure to find asylum in the West, was part of what led her to go from skater to spy.

In Metal Gear 2, Snake first rendezvouses with Gustava in a woman’s restroom—a scenario later repeated with Metal Gear Solid’s Meryl Silverburgh. From there, the duo rescues Dr. Madnar and approaches a bridge. There, Grey Fox enters in the newly constructed Metal Gear D. He fires a missile at the party and captures Madnar, leaving Gustava to die.

Metal Gear 2’s narrative, like the previous game’s scenario design, builds further on the images and encounters that repeat throughout the series. Schneider’s role as Black Ninja gets echoed in Grey Fox’s turn as the Cyborg Ninja in Metal Gear Solid and Raiden’s later techno-ninja status in Guns of the Patriots. A sequence in this game where Snake must tail a guard captain through the jungle gets remixed later on in Guns of the Patriots, where he follows a resistance member through foggy European streets. Grey Fox’s betrayal on the bridge in Metal Gear 2 is incorporated into the Boss’ defection in the first part of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater when Naked Snake attempts to rescue the Russian scientist Sokolov. The setup here is again familiar: Naked Snake is also betrayed on a bridge by a close ally while escorting a scientist.

Viewing the Metal Gear series holistically means perceiving these patterns, the remixes, and their implications. Gustava’s death marks the start of a different pattern: disposal of women for the sake of adding depth to male character’s pain. Gustava is not even in the game for very long. In my Twitch playthrough, she survived for thirteen minutes out of the eight hours it took me to complete the game.

Analysing Metal Gear means acknowledging a truth, one which Gustava’s death heralds: this series has a bad habit of short-changing its female characters. Gustava, capable as she is in Metal Gear 2, ultimately exists as an accessory to Snake and Grey Fox’s personal vendetta. She is the first in a line of female victims that extends all the way into Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain.

Metal Gear 2’s narrative embellishments are implemented as frustratingly and inconsistently as its gameplay innovations. The world is broadened thanks to characters like Schneider and Grey Fox, but it is tainted by Gustava’s death. Metal Gear 2’s plot has a richness to it. But for every question Metal Gear 2 poses about changing times, government injustice, or political allegiances, there is a corresponding stumbling block. Gustava’s death is one such crucible. In the context of Metal Gear 2, her demise is a plot point that only lasts for a few frustrating minutes. But placed into the context of the broader series, it is an ill portent.

The final third of the game is dedicated to ripping down whatever Snake has left. That starts with Madnar’s betrayal. When Snake finds Madnar and Doctor Marv, the latter has already been killed. Holly contacts Snake and reveals Madnar was responsible for Marv’s kidnapping and death. After a boss fight, Madnar tells Snake how to destroy Metal Gear: attack the legs. Soon, Snake finds himself face to face with Grey Fox and Metal Gear. Destroying the mech leads to a hand-to-hand encounter with Fox (another set piece that will repeat in a future game: Metal Gear Solid’s fight against Liquid Snake). It is not enough for Snake to destroy Metal Gear, he must kill his friend. Even after that, Metal Gear 2 has a greater reveal: Zanzibar Land’s leader is Big Boss, who survived the first game.

In my analysis of Metal Gear, I explicitly correlated Big Boss with series creator Hideo Kojima. Just as Big Boss imagines a world of soldiers and builds his fortress nations, Kojima builds his games and attempts to stymie the player’s incursions with traps and hazards. Metal Gear 2’s final boss fight between Snake and Big Boss—during which an unarmed Snake must assemble a weapon to defeat Big Boss—embodies the continued struggle between Kojima and the player. Big Boss is Snake’s genetic father and commander. Snake has grown under his watch and forged himself through trials of Big Boss’ creation. Although Kojima is not literally the player’s father (which would be an incredible twist), he nonetheless serves as the creator behind the trials the player has undergone. In the stripping on Snake’s allies, the removal of his gear, and invalidation of his victory in Metal Gear, this game illustrates another violent confrontation between creator and player. Metal Gear 2 has extra texture and context, but it all boils down to a similar conclusion: the success of the player continues to run counter to the creator’s desire for an authored and resistant space.

The tragedy of Metal Gear 2 rests in the apparent inability for creator and player to coexist without a power struggle. For all of the gameplay innovation, broader story contexts, and the creation of a richer and more tangible space, the series is in stasis. The true Snake experience, the alternative to Snake’s triumphant Revenge, is to be stripped of everything, brought face to face with your father, and be forced to kill him. It is an experience that will play out over and over again throughout the franchise. Raiden will kill Solidus in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Big Boss will kill the Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Metal Gear 2 is a remarkable step forward in the series’ design and tone, both it is genuine innovation and its missteps. But its lasting effect will be the shadowy echos players will replay throughout the series. Metal Gear 2 is the Metal Gear game that fans would replay in one form or another for the next 18 years. Its repetitions will reverberate outward and set the stage for both Metal Gear Solid’s remarkable reconstruction and Sons of Liberty’s gleeful eviscerations.

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