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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Retro Review: Metal Gear Solid Gameboy/Metal Gear Ghost Babel


Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation remains one of the most popular titles of all time, giving birth to the Metal Gear Solid series of games which remain legendary for their excellent gameplay, captivating storylines and impeccable voice acting. People know all of this already, but what some may not know is that Konami also produced a Metal Gear game on Nintendo's Gameboy Color, nearly two years after the release of Solid. In Japan it was known as Metal Gear: Ghost Babel, but renamed to Metal Gear Solid in North America, presumably to take advantage of the success of its Playstation predecessor.

    Fans who may have seen the GBC version of Metal Gear Solid laying beneath the glass of the display case in video game shops may have dismissed it as a crappy, 8-bit version of a game they love for the small screen. Those people, however, would be dramatically incorrect in their assessment. Featuring a brand-new story, surprisingly solid (no pun intended) graphics, and effective, familiar gameplay, Metal Gear Solid on the Gameboy color stands as one of the most impressive Gameboy titles of all time. There are many modes of play in this game, but for this review, we'll focus on the main game as well as the VR Missions.

    This non-canon story follows Solid Snake seven years after his mission at Outer Heaven. Recruited by Colonel Cambell to defuse another potential world disaster, Snake finds himself back in Galuade to confront the demons of the past as well as the demons of today. This time the terrorist struggle is spearheaded by a renegade group of elite soldiers known collectively as Black Chamber, each member boasting a dangerous special ability. Heading this group is Black Art Viper, a vindictive near-insane warrior specializing in tricks and traps.Snake must stop the terrorists from utilizing a new model of Metal Gear to launch a nuclear weapon.


An inauspicious start to the mission.
Graphics:   Graphically, Metal Gear Solid on the Gameboy Color is artistically average during regular gameplay but excels at details and movement. Solid Snake is drawn from 8 different angles, meaning that he will turn to face any direction in which he is running. The same is true for the enemy characters. Metal Gear's use of 8 angles is a subtle detail that goes a long way in improving overall presentation, although the character sprites are too small to show any facial features during the normal gameplay. Environments are rendered colorfully and clearly, and are successful in basically depicting that which they are meant to be, although the overall design of various indoor stages can tend to be a bit homogenous to each other. The game features several cutscenes in between chapters which feature the characters rendered in greater detail amidst generally generic backgrounds. These cutscenes are static much of the time with occasional, simple animations such as a turning head, shaking fist, or the graceful fluttering of Snake's trademark bandana. The Codec screen is designed very similarly to the one in Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation, even with some fun little screen noise effects and static on the images of the speaking characters. On this screen, character's faces are drawn in better detail, but aside from the screen noise effects they remain completely unanimated, even during exclamatory outbursts.

  Sound:  The game's sound effects are about par for the Gameboy Color era, but there are plenty of them, be they entirely different or recycled variants to at least retain some variety. Expect various forms of beeps, buzzes, and thuds. There are multiple explosion sound effects which sound pretty good for what they're working with. Like most Gameboy Color games there is no spoken dialogue, only captions.

And are you related to Sephiroth?
  Music: The music ranges from somewhat boring to excellent. Some of the music is original to the game while other tracks are based on their Playstation counterparts or even harken back to the original Metal Gear game of the 80's. Although none of the music is repetitive to the point of torture, some tracks can start to get old if you're stuck in any one area for enough time, especially since the music for many of the indoor areas is the same. The music really shines during boss encounters, boasting the kind of epic 8-bit boss music Konami is known for. While the boss music in the Playstation version tries for a more "epic" vibe, the music within this game is more of a heavy-metal, action-oriented sound to get the blood pumping for ass kicking. The best piece of music in the game is easily the music which plays during the final battle, returning to the series' epic-style roots and successfully conveying a sense of finality to the battle at hand.

Main Game

    The gameplay of Metal Gear Solid on the GBC is the most impressive part of the game. Controls are responsive and movement is fluid and easy to handle. Despite the simplified design, the game incorporates many of the themes seen in the Playstation release. Stealth is a premium in this game, and the player is able to utilize many techniques to achieve it, including wall-hugging, tapping a wall to lure an enemy, crawling on the ground or into a crawl space, as well as in tall grass or under water to remain unseen. The player can also travel through the air ducts either to remain unseen or to gain access to an otherwise unreachable area. Controlling Snake is easy to learn with few detracting quirks.

Good thing snake isn't claustrophobic.
    As with the Metal Gear Solid we know and love, the player will try to find their way through various areas while picking up weapons, ammo, health-restoring rations and keycards for locked doors. Familiar facets of your mission also include having to blast your way through thin walls with plastic explosives, using remote controlled missiles to reach targets that Snake himself cannot, and utilizing night vision and thermal goggles see in the dark and/or detect infrared lasers. Including these themes into the game help to keep the gameplay from becoming a simple run-around in a series of glorified labyrinths.

 The in-game arsenal offered to the player is a bit smaller, including a Pistol, Assault rifle, C4 explosives, Landmines, Grenades, Chaff Grenades, Stun Grenades, and Nikita Missiles. It's enough to keep things more interesting although as with most Metal Gear games, most of your time is reasonably spent with just the pistol or the assault rifle in the case of large fights. Items such as body armor, a gas mask, and a landmine detector make their return as well. The "Fogger" device, which emits smoke to allow the player to see invisible laser beams, is likely the result of censoring, as the device looks suspiciously like Snake's trademark cigarettes and is already in the player's possession at the start of the game. The inclusion of these gadgets help bring the game further into familiar territory and add to its complexity.

  And of course, when out of other options, the player can slip into the trusty box.

I wish I were that relaxed.
  The enemies of the game aren't particularly smart but certainly aren't ineffectual. While knocking them out doesn't seem to convince them that something is amiss, they're fairly accurate with their gunfire and annoyingly effective with their gun-whipping. Enemy soldiers can become suspicious if the player taps on the wall or walks over some kind of noise-making floor, and will become alerted at the sound of any weapons discharging, save for the suppressed pistol. Once alerted to the player's presence, enemies quickly spawn from seemingly nowhere to surround Snake. Reasonably aware players will be able to evade or eliminate the enemies without much challenge but doing so while staying in the same area can be frustratingly difficult with the respawning. In many cases the player can take advantage of a little quirk by changing screens from one area to other in quick succession in order to eat away at the ALERT counter, as it takes a little while for enemies to spawn in the new area if one isn't already assigned there. It can also be annoyingly hard to regain the upper hand on an enemy after being knocked to the ground from a gun-whip, as Snake often won't be able rise and put enough distance between himself and an enemy to evade another knock-down. Snake's inability to quickly turn and attack an enemy in one swift motion can also lead to frustration. The standard battle system is simplistic but it's enough to motivate the player to remain unseen.

A surveillance camera!?
    Other enemies/obstacles remain such as surveillance cameras, gun-cameras, dogs, landmines, and trap-door floors in order to change up where your challenge comes from. Cameras can be temporarily snuffed out with a chaff grenade while mines can be detected with, yes, a mine detector.

There's a reason Claude always lets Jacques go first
 The game's replay value is increased with the varying difficulty levels. Your enemies' attack power and hit points varies with the chosen difficulty level, along with whether or not they can be killed by hand. On Hard or higher, only weapons will kill an enemy soldier which will greatly change your overall strategy experience.

It's on like Donkey Kong other fine Konami® games.
The boss encounters are adequate in providing a climax to each chapter of the game, even if they're not the kind of profound confrontations we've come to eagerly await in the Playstation release. The bosses are generally pretty simple to take down although on harder difficulty levels some of them are extremely frustrating, especially Marionette Owl whom you must fight in the dark and punishes you for striking the wrong target. Appropriately, the most challenging boss fight in the game tends to be showdown between Snake and Metal Gear itself, which is something that pretty much none of the console releases can say. The battle with the iron giant may not feel as epic as the fight in Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation, but it is enough to provide a suitable climax for the game to build to. And for what's it's worth, the design on Metal Gear is pretty darn good.

    The implementation of the Radar is passable but not stellar. It helps give a general idea of where nearby enemies are but it's not great for much else. Unlike Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation, there is no differentiation between dangerous enemies or objects. Soldiers, cameras, dogs, incoming missiles and landmines all appear as a redish dot. It's especially annoying when in a mine field that also happens to contain enemies (although that tends to happen more often in VR Training). There is also no more representation of an enemy's field of vision, so you'll be unable to see which way an enemy is face, and how close is too close.

In spite of the name this floor isn't entirely made of plastic explosives.
    Interestingly and unlike other Metal Gear games, while the overall gameplay remains similar to what we classically know as Metal Gear, the game is laid out in stages/levels, rating your performance after you complete each one (don't feel bad if your rating is almost always "terrible" it seems unavoidable the first time through...and for much of the subsequent play-throughs). It's easy to forget, however, that this format is in place, as there is usually decent time in between "chapters" while you're trying to figure out just exactly what to do to move on. The good thing about the stage format is that since you are unfortunately unable to save more than a single game at a time, you can at least go back to any stage you've cleared if you want to play that chapter over again. However, you will only be equipped with the items that are absolutely necessary for completion, so even if you had, say, body armor, an assault rifle, and a pistol suppressor during your initial play-through, those items will all be absent in Stage Select mode.

    Dying will either send you back to the beginning of the level you're in, or to the last significant item you picked up which, depending on where it was, could either be very convenient or extremely irritating. This is especially true for boss fights as dying there can mean a decent schlep ahead of you in order to get back to the fight. Certain items picked up between collecting the "checkpoint" item and whenever you died will have to be collected again, making death exceedingly annoying and paramount to avoid.

    As progress through the game is made, you'll see that the game's story is not nearly as riveting as the console releases, but it's enough to pique your interest as to what is going to happen next. Snake's inner struggle with his own haunted past is as present as it ever was, and annoyingly, so is his subtle fascination with a female, fellow soldier. As the plot progresses you'll see the government conspiracies that made the series famous as well as the usual, (though not as jarring) twists, unexpected pathos for your fallen enemies, and even a moment of tragedy (well it tries to be but the character at focus is a little too irritating for you to care that much). And of course, the whole stopping-the-nuke thing.

Snake considers himself more of a Bishop.
For the most part, the story is sound all the way through although it does fall short in hyping the eventual confrontation with the 'General' whom pilots Metal Gear in the game's most climactic battle. While the fight itself is good, Snake has had literally zero contact with the character up until this point, as he's only seen sporadically throughout the game, broadcasting threatening messages to the US government.

 VR Training

The evil polygons will pay for what they've done.
    Although the main game itself would be more than enough to be a called a complete handheld title, the game generously offers a plethora of VR Training missions for the player to train on or just have something fun to do after completing the main part of the game. The VR missions are essentially a series of mini-missions requiring the player to eliminate a certain number of targets, reach the goal undetected, or complete one of those tasks in a limited amount of time. Interestingly, there are more VR missions featured in this gameboy release than there are in the Playstation version of Metal Gear Solid. The VR missions include Sneaking Mode, Weapons mode, and an Advanced mode allowing the player to dispatch live targets, offering a total 75 unique stages and 180 challenges to complete, an amazing amount of content considering that some Gameboy Games of the time boast less content than what is featured in the VR missions alone.

Trouble brewing
    As expected, the VR missions take place in a virtual-reality world, basically an 8-bit version of the environment featured in the Playstation version. Some of the levels are even essentially identical to their Playstation counterparts. The mini-missions within allow for unique combat opportunities that don't necessarily appear in the main game, giving the player more opportunities to play with their favorite weapons. VR mode isn't necessarily the most thrilling part of the game, but to have so much bonus content in addition to a full game is a big plus. The incentive to complete the mode comes in the form of an unlockable Sound Test (remember way back when that was considered a reward in a game?).


 As one of the most complete gaming experiences to be licensed for the Gameboy Color, this fun alternative to Metal Gear Solid is indeed a must-have for any fan of the Metal Gear series or just for those who love quality handheld gaming. With a mountain of pros and very little cons, the game is sure to be enjoyable from start to finish, and one that will have players coming back for more soon after completion. Even among today's highly advanced handheld titles, Metal Gear Solid is certain to be among your favorites once you've make the highly recommended decision to make it a part of your handheld collection. Overall a 4.5 out 5 cephalapoint rating.


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