At this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, the world's largest videogame industry tradeshow, the title that drew the most headlines was the future PlayStation 2 title, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty. Regardless of not being a playable demo and only shown in the form of movie trailer, the title still drew rave reviews and widely perceived as huge technical accomplishment for its breathtaking visuals and stunning scope of depth. Yet the biggest surprise of the popular Metal Gear franchise isn't the sequel currently in-development; it's actually the recently released title on the Game Boy Color! Indistinguishably titled Metal Gear Solid (it was titled Metal Gear: Ghost Babel in Japan), the Game Boy release is every bit as remarkable and newsworthy of its larger console brethren.
What makes the portable version of Metal Gear Solid (MGS) so remarkable is that the developers have managed to reproduce the same cloak and dagger stealth gaming experience that made the 3-D PlayStation title so popular within the limited confines of the Game Boy Color's hardware. Without a doubt, the first thing that drew my attention was that despite the game being presented in a tiny little screen with 2-D sprites, virtually nothing was lost in the gameplay department. The perspective of the game is now locked down to a three-quarters overhead view (more like the original NES game) without the benefit of any 3-D camera panning or close-ups. Yet the convincing environments are still richly detailed and the graphics tend to be highly inventive when it comes to producing special effects (simulated movement in the elevator shaft will make your jaw drop). Puzzles and mission goals—despite being occasionally frustrating—are still challenging, well designed and worthy of the Metal Gear moniker. Movie-style cut-scenes are also utilized occasionally to flesh out story details.
The player-controlled protagonist, Solid Snake, in MGS may be represented with only scant pixels to his entire body (only one pixel is used for his entire face), but despite his incredibly diminutive scale, not only did Snake animate smoothly and is highly distinguishable with his trademark bandana and combat fatigues, but he was also endowed with all the same stealth skills that he is well known for. For those unfamiliar with the MGS games, those skills include the ability to back into walls, crawl on the floor, create diversionary sounds by knocking against walls and even crawl hidden under a cardboard-box. The only ability that didn't seem to make it over from the PlayStation version was Snake's dragging chokehold. Along with those skills is also a familiar arsenal of weaponry and gadgets that aid Snake in his quest. A few of these items out of the many include a silenced handgun, submachine gun, explosives, guided-missile launcher and night-vision goggles.
Also equal in stature to its larger counterparts in the Game Boy MGS is the storyline that it features. Simply put, no other Game Boy game to date has a story that equals MGS in terms of character depth, epic scale and mature themes. The overall plot involving Snake trying to put an end to yet another nuclear enabled Metal Gear menace is all too familiar and characters tend to drone on in melodramatic monologues as they so often did in the PlayStation title, but it doesn't really detract much when you consider that no other Game Boy title has even come this close to this level of scope in story. In fact, at times the plotline in the Game Boy version even manages to have more conviction then the PlayStation version by directly condemning United States-backed economic and militaristic suppression of third-world nations in order to maintain domination. Though it should be noted by long-time fans of the series who are concerned with the overall mythology of Metal Gear, that no reference to the events that transpired during the MGS game for the PlayStation is mentioned. While not officially stated, that would mean that the MGS for Game Boy (a.k.a. Ghost Babel) storyline is most likely a independent sequel to Snake's original adventures on the NES system or could be thought of as an alternate timeline.
The final thing I'll comment on about MGS is the extra features. Typical of high-quality productions such as MGS for the Game Boy—the game isn't content to just provide a satisfying one-player mode. The developers have gone the distance to include not only all the classic VR Training missions, but they've also included a clever little head-to-head two-player versus mode. The VR Training missions, despite being identical the ones in the PlayStation version, are much improved because the puzzle-like stages and goals are much more suited for on-the-go-style portable gaming and there isn't any of that annoying constant CD loading during restarts and level changes that drove me insane on the PlayStation. The Versus mode—which is a competition that pits two players to recover three data discs and exit the stage first in order to win the round—is not all that involved, but it has some depth in the gameplay that keeps things enjoyable. The mode ultimately serves as an interesting diversion for two friends who each own a Game Boy and a copy of the game.
In closing my review, I'll put it simply—MGS for the Game Boy Color is a masterpiece. It is a remarkable achievement in sprite-based graphics and it is an unprecedented achievement in portable gaming. Industry buzz words like "must-haves" are flaunted around too loosely, but on rare occasion, titles like The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, Final Fantasy VIII and Soul Calibur, actually deserve the distinction. MGS for the Game Boy Color is another one of those rare occasions and if you take my word for it, it should be added to your list of "must haves."
I agree with Chi's statement that Metal Gear Solid is a technical achievement for Game Boy. Konami did an excellent job porting an elaborate 32-bit 3-D game down to an 8-bit portable system. With that said, I felt the game was far less compelling than Chi did. I would find myself putting the game down after a game session and later having to force myself to pick it up, only because I wanted to get my money's worth.
It's not because the game was not enjoyable. The Game Boy Color version actually extends the already sophisticated sneaking system to include hiding places in the environment, such as wheat fields and mud. The levels are more challenging due to more effective enemy placement and walking patterns. In this way the game surpasses the original Metal Gear Solid and introduces a number of new gameplay elements. The main fault of the game is the lack of an effective reward system. Sneaking is hard work, and if I was effectively stealthy, I should have had a great payoff for my effort.
In the PlayStation version, the boss fights were my favorite rewards. They were exciting points in the game that combined excellent cinematic storytelling and great gameplay. Due to technical limitations, the face-offs in the Game Boy version could not be as visually engaging as the previous version, but I found the boss battles to be rather boring, often playing like other 2-D bosses found in NES games. While each boss was somewhat developed through dialogue before (and especially after) their death blow, the showdown was often more anti-climactic than rewarding.
One of the most effective rewards of any narrative game is reaching the next plot point, where the player discovers what happens next in the story. Metal Gear Solid delivers a far too familiar plot to engage fans of the series. The giant nuclear enabled robot, the love interest that disguises herself in the enemy base, and the geeky scientist rescue continually remind us that we've seen it all before. While some of the names and faces are different, the story feels like a big "been there, done that" throughout the proceedings.
Weapons and items are often great ways to keep people engaged—people love toys to play with in games. Metal Gear Solid acts as if weapons and ammo are great rewards, when really they're one of the most boring things about the game. The weapons are plain and uninteresting, and don't mesh well with the hidden in the darkness style of play (compared to the highly integrated weapons in a game like Thief). They feel like afterthoughts—included in the game so you can shoot the final bad guys with something. The items are worse. Most of them work like magic amulets that allow Snake to walk through a dangerous place without getting harmed. With the exception of the cardboard box, none of them directly assist Snake in sneaking around the enemy camp. They're boring because the game continually gave me ammo and weapons I didn't want or need, and items that didn't make the journey any more interesting.
Even though I had a difficult time playing through the game, it's hard to dislike Metal Gear Solid. Konami put a lot of effort and time in bringing the game to a handheld system, and threw in plenty of options to try to keep us from being bored. To be fair, while this game falls far below the heights that its predecessor achieved, it stands among the greatest games for the Game Boy.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Violence
Parents should take special note. There isn't any reason to be overly alarmed by the content in MGS, but I was rather surprised that the game was rated "E" for everyone. Though not visually graphic, there are a number of very dramatic moments (one enemy boss character sets himself ablaze and another mercenary reflects about how he killed his own brother in combat, and their mother committed suicide afterward). There is also no gratuitous profanity, but the script has many dark overtones about the effects of war, and there are some obviously mature themes.
Fans of the Metal Gear series are going to be in shock at how much the Game Boy Color version manages to capture the feel and the gameplay of the PlayStation one. In some ways, the portable version even surpasses its larger counterpart with tighter controls and extra modes like the two-player versus mode.
For any Game Boy owner who wants an instant classic, MGS is practically a sure bet.