The original Metal Gear is considered a gaming classic by many - most of whom I suspect have never actually played it. Originally released exclusively on the Japanese MSX2 system in 1987 by Konami, the game was first ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System a year later, and then the NES version itself was ported, finally getting the PC some of that sweet stealth action in 1990. For some reason the Nintendo version was a drastic departure from the original Hideo Kojima production; despite a previous European release of the unaltered MSX2 edition, stages and gameplay were inexplicably reworked for the NES Western markets and are generally regarded as being the worse for it. The PC port was yet another step further away from the source material, and, it seems, just another disappointing step in the wrong direction.
No matter the version you play, the first adventure of the phallically-named protagonist Solid Snake was one of the earliest games to utilize stealth as a core gameplay mechanic. Unfortunately, the PC version is filled with issues that cause any innovation to take a back seat to mediocrity. The first screen gives you a perfect introduction to what playing this game is like: "Enter code." Simple enough, right? Wrong. The keys work, but when it comes time to enter a space: Spacebar? No, that's not it. Right arrow key? Nope, that is the equivalent of typing the number 6. Brilliant! I give up.
The story is interesting enough and focuses on the Special Forces unit FOXHOUND, commanded by the appropriately named Big Boss. FOXHOUND sent their top agent, Gray Fox, to infiltrate the isolated South African mercenary stronghold of Outer Heaven, after the Western powers had received intelligence of a weapon of mass destruction being developed within it. (And, as we all know, Western intelligence agencies are always right when it comes to weapons of mass destruction.) After infiltrating the base, Gray Fox disappeared from contact with his final transmission consisting only of two cryptic words: "METAL GEAR..." With the goal of rescuing Gray Fox and uncovering the meaning of the message, rookie operative Solid Snake is sent into Outer Heaven alone - for some strange reason armed only with a pack of cigarettes. Smoking may kill, but I'd rather have a gun.
For a fan of the series, the story provides an interesting backdrop for the later games but is not as relevant to the actual gameplay as it should be. Some sparse fragments of story-related dialogue come from using the transmitter in your inventory to get updates from Big Boss. Even these are easy to miss when fumbling through the amazingly awkward menu controls. Sadly, the storyline can't save the experience, as the gameplay itself is just one long exercise in frustration. While the much-touted stealth aspects are present, they mainly take a back seat to memorization-based gameplay. Repeating stages and remembering how long to wait for an enemy to turn away, and which path to take, are the keys to success in this game. Sometimes what seems like the least logical path to any reasonable person is the only way to go in undetected. This is a game of trial and error - mostly error. When inside any of the various buildings, trap doors may open at any given time, instantly killing you. I don't care how much this mercenary force pays; who wants to work in a facility where at any moment the floor might open up and kill you?
When you're not busy getting killed by cheap trap doors, you're busy getting killed by security guards. While sneaking about, you'll find yourself quickly swarmed by enemies should even one see you and trigger an alert mode. A few alerted enemies on a screen can be avoided and even killed if you're quick, but once a group of four or more is around, you'd better not be spotted. You see, Outer Heaven seems to only hire Olympic sprinters as guards, because in alert mode they're so fast that you'll find yourself overrun in a matter of seconds. These Olympic sprinters thankfully have dreadful short-term memory, however, since the second you leave the screen they forget that you ever existed. Stick close to screen transitions where possible, because if an alert mode is triggered, you can run off-screen and return, resetting the enemies to their original positions. The downside is that enemies re-spawn in a similar fashion. When you return to a screen, get in a truck, enter a building, or blink too slowly, the guys you killed are back at their posts. Mercenary Olympic sprinters with the power of resurrection… swell. Boss fights aside, the stages are filled with the same bland and uninspired enemies. I found some early amusement in seeing Solid Snake running around punching guard dogs in the face, but even that gets old pretty quickly.
The enemies' vision is also inconsistent at times. While the concept seems pretty straightforward (a guard sees you, triggers an alert mode, and you die) it doesn't always work that way: A few times I found myself staring a guy right in the face, and he seemed content to stare right back. Other times, while being careful not to get anywhere near a potential line of sight, that dreaded exclamation mark would pop up for some reason, with instant death to follow.
Even the health-bar, the most basic and holy of gaming components, is flawed in this game. It may as well not even be there, and it seems its only function is to taunt you. It serves more as a "you're not dead yet" indicator than a gauge of your status. The quickness of your enemies means that if you're caught before you get the gun or mistime an attack, you're pretty much as good as instantly dead. "But my health bar was full!" you may find yourself crying out in frustration. Well, too bad, sucker; take your health bar conventions and shove them. The rate that it drains would be hilarious if you didn't find yourself back at the beginning screen each time it ran out. If you're playing on DOSBox I'd almost recommend cycling down the game from its intended speed, but then again that would make this game last longer, so do so at your own peril.
The laughably poor English translation of the NES version has been removed and replaced largely with... nothing. Metal Gear games are always notoriously talky, but this game is eerily lacking in this category. The ever so slight shaking of the screen when you get in one of the many trucks should have some accompanying information to let you know that, yes, the truck is moving and taking you somewhere else. In some instances you may notice a text indicator pop up, but the poor game speed strikes again, and it's gone, way before you can even read two words.
Of all the flaws this game has, the lack of a save feature is the biggest and most glaring drawback. I use the term "feature" liberally here, as even the most basic PC games of the time had this. I mean, come on, it's barely even a feature - it would be like calling sound a feature on a CD. Granted, this is a port of the NES version, a console that had limited data storage options, but considering a team was hired (and presumably paid with currency) to make an adaptation to fit the PC hardware, there really isn't an excuse here. The game is certainly challenging, but the only reward for your perseverance is being sent back to that damned opening screen over and over again. This is yet another example of the game having not been properly adapted for the PC platform.
The graphics are a step down from the previous ports despite coming out two years later. There are both CGA and VGA graphics options, and both are equally unimpressive, even for the time.
The saving grace of this game is the sound design, and while the effects are pretty bland, the wonderful original score sounds as good as ever on the PC. The foreboding Theme of Tara, the poignant Just Another Dead Soldier, and the frantic Alert tune are all little-known classic samples of the 8-bit era, and it was great to hear them again in this game. Just kidding - there is no sound, none at all. I'll choose to believe that this was an artistic decision and not just laziness on the part of the developers, since sneaking around in an almost surreal silence is the perfect complement to the broken and frustrating gameplay experience.
After repeated attempts at getting through this game, it felt more like a chore than a form of entertainment. I recommend this game only to the most avid Metal Gear fans. Would this still be considered a classic had the Metal Gear name not grown into a critically acclaimed franchise? I have my sincere doubts. If you're dying to play the legendary Solid Snake's first adventure, for your health and safety check out the vastly superior MSX2 version. I think this mediocre port clearly rides on the coattails of its great heritage and vastly superior following acts.
A perfect final example of the failure that is this game lies in the fact that the actual Metal Gear, everyone's favorite bipedal tank and the namesake of the entire franchise, isn't actually in the game. This annoying realization is just the icing on the disappointing cake that is Metal Gear for the personal computer.
Two solid snakes out of five.
The game runs fine on Windows XP, but the speed is unnecessarily fast. This was indeed the intended speed of the game as it ran on older systems, so if you're playing on DOSBox, you may find it a less frustrating experience to just adjust the speed.