In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)
Metal Gear Solid games always have large casts of colorful characters. You have the player character, his radio support, a squad of elite soldiers for boss fights, a scientist or two what needs rescuing, an NPC helper buddy who usually needs babysitting, a character or two of ambiguous allegiance with mysterious hidden agendas, the big bad, the real big bad behind who you thought was the big bad, a shadowy figure from the US government who is only mentioned in passing, and then a sprinkling of cameos and references to characters elsewhere in the series.
With such a huge population of folks and only so much spotlight to go around, you’d think there’d be no room for characters who don’t pull their weight in the story. You’d think that. Alas, you’d be wrong.
Strictly speaking, Johnny isn’t a new character. In the first two Metal Gear Solid games he’s a generic soldier with unforunate stomach problems who has bad luck with the ladies, and in Metal Gear Solid 3 he’s that guy’s grandfather. As a fun little easter egg, the character is fine. He offers a sorely-needed humanizing element to the generic soldiers Snake spends so much time teabagging and/or shoving into lockers. We all wanted him back in Metal Gear Solid 4, but… just not like this.
We first meet Johnny as part of Rat Patrol 01, Meryl Silverburgh’s PMC oversight unit. This already stretches disbelief rather thin. I’ll buy one of the Shadow Moses terrorists falling in with the Gurlukovich mercenaries, considering the tenuous connection through Ocelot and the fact that he’s presented as a silly offscreen cameo in MGS2. But Meryl’s group is an official arm of the US military. Didn’t anyone do a background check? Doesn’t Meryl recognize him?
Anyway, the character is played for laughs for a couple of acts, which I originally took as just another example of MGS4 overdoing itself a bit. But no, in the final act it turns out we’re supposed to take the character totally seriously, as he’s one of the three soldiers hand-picked to be launched into the heart of Liquid’s base. Even more ridiculous, we discover that Meryl takes him seriously, and I honestly thought she had more sense than that.
Don’t get me wrong, combining a massive violent shootout with a romantic marriage proposal between a woman who insists she has no interest in men and a dude whose only defining trait for ten years has been “he poops himself” is hilarious and wonderful. But it’s such a stark, comedic contrast to the overly-serious tone of the rest of the endgame that all I can do is roll my eyes at it.
#5: Major Raikov
Lots of MGS fans spent the years between Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 hating Raiden, the anime prettyboy who replaced Solid Snake as the player character. So when MGS3 begins and Naked Snake has a Raiden mask in his inventory, everyone just thought it was one of Kojima’s little meta-pokes at his own canon. If that’s all it had been, we could have just chuckled at it and gone on with our lives, but no. It turns out there happens to be an enemy officer who looks exactly like Raiden, and you just happen to have your face in his inventory, and using said mask to disguise yourself as said officer is an actual gameplay objective.
Well, okay, now that there’s a lampshade on it we have to stand up and take note. Is there an in-universe reason why this Russian officer just happens to look exactly like an albino Liberian assassin who won’t be born for another twenty years? Did the Russians have their own version of Les Enfants Terribles ten years before the Americans thought of it? Who decided an American CIA agent needed a mask of this officer on what was supposed to be a two-hour extraction mission?
There’s a lot of fun stuff you can do with the Raikov disguise, once you have it. But man, the game has to do some pretty crazy gymnastics to justify what otherwise is just a quick visual gag. I’ll admit it’s ultimately worth it, though, to hear The Boss call Raiden a fairy.
#4: “Mr. X”
Metal Gear 2 has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. So, of course, Metal Gear Solid also has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. And since MGS2 was written as a subversive version of MGS1 it, too, has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden, only this time it doesn’t turn out to be Grey Fox. Whoa!
This time, the player’s shadowy benefactor turns out to be Olga Gurlukovich, the leader of the Russian mercenary group patrolling the Big Shell. And I’m certainly not arguing that Olga is at all unnecessary, or that her agenda of secretly helping Raiden from behind the scenes is a worthless plot element. Just the contrary! Olga’s plot is one of the high points of the series, and her reasons for aiding Raiden ring particularly true amongst a cast where everyone is backstabbing everyone else.
What I don’t get, though, is why she needed to literally dress like Grey Fox to accomplish her role in the story. Yes, the Patriots were attempting to re-create Shadow Moses as closely as possible, but that didn’t translate literally in most other parts of the exercise, so why just this one thing? The real reason is because Kojima wanted us to have a “wait, Grey Fox is back!?” moment, and a scene where Ocelot almost loses his arm again, and a reason for Raiden to use a sword in the final act. But it still feels flimsy, and cheapens the role of an otherwise great character.
#3: Nastasha Romanenko
In a game about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons, Nastasha Romanenko’s job is to repeatedly inform Snake about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons. Campbell initially informs Snake that Nastasha can provide him information on the weapons and hardware he comes across in his mission, but nine times out of ten she instead serves up dire and possibly dubious factoids about nuclear stockpiles around the globe. These conversations are never useful in the context of Snake’s exploits in Shadow Moses. In fact, it’s entirely possible to complete Metal Gear Solid without ever adding her to your codec screen.
Nastasha does serve a quasi-important role in the plot, at least inadvertantly. Much of the back half of the story involves a game of Spot the Spy, where Snake has reason to suspect there’s a spy amongst his support team. In that sense Nastasha is a bit of a red herring, a warm body in Snake’s phone book for the real traitor to hide behind. Maybe some players spent a good portion of the game suspecting her…?
Still, it’s a pretty flimsy justification. Nastasha herself is so unimportant that she’s the only living character from the first two MGS games not to come back for Metal Gear Solid 4. Heck, even a few of the dead ones miraculously made an apperance!
In Peace Walker, Snake doesn’t have a support team, per se. Instead, characters will chime in on the radio at various points in the mission to offer advice or encouragement. Cassette tapes that unlock between missions offer a bit of background and development, but Cécile’s tapes come across like… well, like a birdwatcher with a bad French accent taking up space in a Cold War story.
As far as I can tell, Cécile serves three minor purposes in the plot of Peace Walker: 1) to mimic bird calls for one mission where Snake has to identify the song of a particular jungle bird, 2) to dwell a little too much on how Dr. Strangelove likes the ladies, and 3) to provide a “girl time” entry in Paz’s diary. Other than that, it seems incredibly forced that a birdwatcher from Paris would want to hang out with a scruffy military organization after escaping with her life from a mad scientist.
Actually, there is one more thing. In one really bizarre conversation, Kaz Miller points out that Cécile’s full name sounds a bit like “Kojima is God” in Japanese. That’s probably just a coincidence. After all, just how self-absorbed would you have to be to invent a character for the sole purpose of a juvenile power trip?
#1: Hideo Kojima
OH COME ON.
I probably have to come clean at this point: I really am a huge fan of the MGS games. I tease them because I love them, but also because as great as the games are, they’re far from perfect. It’s just more fun to complain than to praise. Tomorrow, let’s complain about some features missing from these otherwise highly detailed and feature-rich games! Thanks for reading.