Metal. Gear. Solid. Three words that, when combined, would mean complete gibberish, if it weren’t for the existence of one of gaming’s greatest franchises.
Instead, utter the title of Konami’s iconic stealth series in certain company and you’re likely to be beset by tales of switching the controller port in order to defeat MGS1 boss Psycho Mantis, spending hours stalking aged sniper The End in MGS3 and confusing cries of ‘I need scissors, 61′ from particularly dedicated MGS2 fans.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a member of the games industry unacquainted with the first Metal Gear Solid, which crept onto PlayStation in 1999 (one year earlier in Japan). Although, according to series creator Hideo Kojima, sales expectations for the title were low, it shot to the top of the UK charts, sold six million copies globally and has frequented ‘Best of’ lists ever since.
What you may not know is that Metal Gear Solid did not kick off the franchise. It was actually itself a sequel to a pair of games: Metal Gear for the MSX (which later came to the NES) and Metal Gear 2 for the MSX2, the latter of which never made it to the UK.
Play the original MSX Metal Gear now and what’s amazing is how many of Kojima’s ideas were there,” recalls Rich Stanton, games journalist and author of A Brief History of Videogames.
It took another decade before Metal Gear became Solid with the move to 3D, and invented a new genre of high-concept blockbuster.”
But it was MGS that brought the series to a mainstream audience outside of Japan, and laid the foundation for a franchise that has sold over 39 million units worldwide.
"Metal Gear Solid invented a new genre of high-concept blockbuster."
SNAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
So, how is it that a moderately successful stealth game from Japan managed to become one of gaming’s biggest brands?
Where to start,” muses Pete Stone, Konami’s current branch director for Northern Europe, ANZ and South Africa, who served as UK GM from 1992 to 2013.
These are games that constantly up the ante. They have forced others to up their game on every level, and their influence can be seen in many a title.”
Many of MGS’ reigning achievements were technical: rarely before had games imitated the full voice-acting and cinematic style of movies. But the game also introduced elements completely unique to the virtual world, including a boss that reads the player’s Memory Card and forces them to change controller port to win.
Michael Cooper, store manager of Games Centre Ayr, recollects: Metal Gear decided quite early on that it wasn’t a game. It was an experience. Snake, Kojima and Konami didn’t just peek behind the fourth wall; they practically walked into your living room.”
Jon Sloan, MD of An.x Agency, which has worked on marketing for the franchise since the first game, adds: For me, it’s a singular vision that helped MGS stand out. Yes, there’s a huge team that contributes greatly to the creation and marketing of the game but there’s always been one person driving that. Kojima-san’s vision of what stealth-action should be has played a huge part in getting the series to where it is today.”
Fish In A Bottle’s Dave Coxwas the European product manager in charge of MGS for more than a decade and helped the Japanese team localise and bring the game to the European market.
Metal Gear is what is best in games developed out of Japan," he recounts. "It has a unique quirkiness and a great sense of fun no one in the West could replicate. Mr Kojima and his teams have always pushed the limits of what is possible in games – not just from a technical standpoint, but in terms of narrative, too.”
Richard Jones, European brand manager at Konami, summarises: It can sometimes be a slog through the long cut scenes, cheesy dialogue and confused politics.
"But when everything aligns, it’s grand, pompous, overblown, thought-provoking, heart-breaking, cute, clever, daft and never anything less than utterly entertaining. There aren’t many games you can say that about.”
SNAKE FOR LAUNCH
Metal Gear Solid’s twisting narrative and dedication to messing with players’ perception wasn’t solely restricted to the games themselves.
The franchise has become known for its cryptic marketing. Most notoriously, 2002 sequel MGS2: Sons of Liberty was demonstrated at E3 and shown in trailers with MGS1 protagonist Solid Snake. Players who picked up the game were shocked to find that, other than a short introduction segment starring Snake, the entire game is spent playing as a completely new and unannounced character: Raiden.
MGS2 was bona-fide blockbuster before it was released,” Jones recalls.
Everyone was so excited to play as their hero, Solid Snake, again. Then came the famous bait and switch. To this day, it’s a stand-out moment of cunning misdirection and subversion of expectation in games.”
Fan reaction was mixed, with some outraged at the lack of Snake. Despite this, MGS2 went on to shift over seven million units and become the fourth-highest-rated title of all time on Metacritic.
A similarly mysterious rug-pull took place ahead of the launch of MGSV. A new developer, Moby Dick Studios, announced a title called ‘The Phantom Pain’ at the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards. The CEO, who was interviewed while his face was concealed by bandages, was called Joakim Mogren – Joakim was quickly rumbled as an anagram of ‘Kojima’ and the title outed as the next MGS instalment.
That reveal meant thinking on your feet to amplify these stunts that delight the hardcore fans, while trying to speak to the triple-A gamers through more traditional methods,” Jones says of the ploy.
These are but two of the MGS PR campaigns, which have often proved as memorable as the games.
Stone reminisces: We projected the tanker from MGS2 on a building in Docklands and ate bugs and snake meat for MGS3 in London.”
"We ate bugs and snake meat for MGS3 in London."
Pete Stone, Konami
The games’ complex narrative, which plays out over the course of five decades, combined with the frenzied reveal of each new core entry, has spawned a culture of obsession around the franchise.
We have been responsible for upsetting a number of London retailers with the queues to see Mr Kojima and his team,” says Stone.
I remember the first Uniqlo signing, where they were queuing round the block to get stuff signed. I foolishly went out to take some pictures to see the length of the line. People rumbled I worked for Konami and I almost got beaten up from disgruntled people waiting.”
Voltage PR owner Steve Merrett has worked on the brand since MGS2.
People have got very attached to the franchise and the advent of social media has seen a level of scrutiny that goes beyond anything you’d expect,” he observes.
We’ve had articles produced about whether the tweets