Metal Gear is one of the most recognizable franchises in videogames. The series is still wildly popular after more than 33 years since the launch of the very first title, and out of all the boss fights and various antagonists Hideo Kojima has cooked up over the years, Solid Snake’s confrontation with Psycho Mantis is the most memorable. In fact, many believe it to be one of the best boss fights in videogame history.
Since many gamers might have (understandably) missed out on the first few installments of the Metal Gear series, they may be wondering why I’m here now talking about a 22-year-old boss fight! In order to understand the significance of this encounter, we must first have a glimpse of the story for context.
In 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, protagonist Solid Snake is infiltrating a terrorist base in order to prevent a nuclear attack. He is soon united with an allied operative named Meryl, and the two are on their way to find the terrorist leader.
MGS tries to create an emotional and sexual bond between Meryl and Snake. Meryl is a well-trained femme fatale, and as such, she’s a great match for Snake’s tactical espionage skills. As emotions build up, our characters reach a part of the campaign where they should confront Psycho Mantis –an elite soldier from the terrorist group.
As one might guess from the name, Psycho Mantis has supernatural powers such as psychokinesis and telepathy. He can read people’s minds and even control them like puppets.
At the start of the adventure, Snake is briefed about the terrorists, including Mantis. Later, Snake experiences Mantis-induced hallucinations and the players get glimpses of Mantis hovering above and around Meryl at some points. Kojima is clearly trying to establish and build a sense of power and mystery around Psycho Mantis. It’s strong setup.
The second phase of this enemy-establishing scenario starts when Snake finally arrives at the room where Mantis is waiting for him.
This is an emotional encounter, as Mantis takes control of Meryl, forcing her to both seduce and shoot at Snake. Considering the emotional bond that players have likely built with Meryl up to this point, it ends up being a difficult sequence. The proper resolution is to knock Meryl out and incapacitate her, but this action serves to greatly reduce morale before the real fight begins and further reinforces the image of Mantis as a powerful adversary.
The final part of the Psycho Mantis scenario is the most innovative. After Meryl is out of the picture, Mantis finally faces Snake. While hovering in the air, he claims to be the best practitioner of psychokinesis and telepathy in the world. This isn’t just a bold claim — he actually reads Snake’s mind, and Kojima’s implementation of these powers represents one of the most memorable instances of fourth-wall breaking in game history.
In this sequence, Mantis talks about Snake’s past and his characteristics, but in order to show how deeply he can penetrate Snake’s mind, he recalls the frequency at which the player saved the game and even goes so far as to point out other videogames the player has experienced!
The big trick here was that Kojima gave MGS the ability to read the PlayStation’s memory card, and if there was any data from other Konami titles of that era like Castlevania: SOTN or Suikoden, Mantis would comment on them and their genre. (Licensing issues prevented MGS from reading non-Konami titles.) This programming trick was instrumental in making Mantis seem like a powerful being able to reach outside the confines of the game, directly challenging the player themselves with his telepathic powers!
The show didn’t end there, though. As Mantis continues to demonstrate his abilities, he orders the player to physically put down their controller so he can “move it” with his power! MGS then uses the vibration mechanism of the DualShock controllers to make the unit rumble on the ground — yet another outside-the-box implementation of design and hardware.
The actual boss fight that occurs afterwards is no easy task. By the time the cutscenes finish and Mantis starts mentally throwing blunt objects at Snake, the player soon realizes that it’s actually impossible to hit him with bullets since he dodges each and every one. Of course, the greatest telepath in the world can read Snake’s every move! This is where the player might start to feel despair — after all, it seems Mantis’ words were more than the usual antagonist trash talk. However, just as the situation seems impossible, Snake receives a call that turns the tide of the battle.
At this point, the player is instructed to physically unplug the controller (in the PlayStation’s slot 1) and plug it into controller slot 2. This relocation of the controller cable ‘disrupts’ Mantis’ hold on the player and he’s no longer able to read Snake’s mind. As Mantis has broken the fourth wall and used real-world elements against the player, it makes total (and mindblowing) sense that in order to defeat him, the player must find a solution in the real world as well.
This Psycho Mantis fight is masterfully crafted and not only uses previously-unheard-of technical tricks, it also contains the full dramatic structure of a complete story — the bond between Snake and Meryl (exposition), the confrontation with Meryl and Mantis (rising action), the antagonist directly challenging the player (climax), and the final two phases (falling and denouement) are realized when Snake defeats Mantis and sympathizes with his foe during the exposition that comes afterwards.
From any perspective, it’s clear to see that Kojima used every artistic and technical elements possible to turn the Psycho Mantis fight into a master class of design and storytelling, and anyone who’s been lucky enough to play through it will certainly walk away impressed, both mentally and emotionally.
— Ali Arkani