I have so many issues with Snake Eater that I probably should hate it. Instead, I have a deep affection for Kojima’s bizarre, talky Cold War saga. I’m certain that I shouldn’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for a game that made me roll my eyes so often and had me cursing at the screen on an hourly basis, but after the credits of MGS3 rolled, all that I seemed to remember were the highlights.
Kojima lost me with Sons of Liberty. I’m not alone in this regard. It wasn’t the bait-and-switch that had us playing for 80% of the game as Raiden–I thought that was a bold move, and I have a soft spot for Quinton Flynn (who once voiced Jonny Quest, and would later go on to be Reno in Advent Children and Axel in Kingdom Hearts–who are, let’s face it, pretty much the same character). It wasn’t the fact that the villains went from over-the-top to over-the-over-the-top. (I rather liked Fortune, though I found Vamp less than compelling. I mean, a real vampire? That’s just–Ugh, never mind. Kojima.) It wasn’t even the end of the game, where all semblance of proportion and balance are tossed to the side and you are forced to fight wave after wave of Metal Gear Rays.
Okay, maybe it was a little bit of all those things. Mostly it was the La Li Lu Le Lo.
I really enjoyed my time with Sons of Liberty. I may even have played through it twice; I can’t recall. When compared with the original Metal Gear Solid, however, which delivered a mostly coherent (though admittedly melodramatic) narrative, the plot of MGS2 was a nightmare labyrinth of absurdity and incoherence.
Consequently, when Snake Eater was announced a couple of years later, I was no longer as invested in tactical stealth espionage action, and felt I could give the game a pass. Even when some friends of mine played it and declared it the best in the series, I didn’t feel obliged to give it a go.
It was probably a couple of years ago, when I embarked upon my quest to fill in the gaps in my gaming history and become “well played,” that I finally picked up a copy of Snake Eater, and even then it sat on my shelf for a long time. Finally, in a bid to clear out some of the titles in my backlog, I loaded the game up and sat down to play it in earnest.
There’s a lot about the game that’s hard to swallow. Perhaps the most vexing element is how vague and wishy-washy the stealth is–there’s been some talk in the gaming community about how stealth is a difficult thing to pull off in a game because of the challenge of presenting complex systems while still clearly communicating information to the player in a way that makes play feel “fair.” Klei’s Mark of the Ninja, in particular, which I haven’t played outside of the demo, has been recently put forward as an example of how well this can be done–though part of what allows Mark of the Ninja to succeed in this regard is a restriction of perspective: in two dimensions, it’s a lot easier to communicate everything that surrounds your player.
Snake Eater, on the other hand, feels more akin to another recent offering: Assassin’s Creed III. Though I’ve been effusive in my love for Ubisoft’s latest entry into its series of historical murder simulators, I’ll be the first to admit that the game often asks you to do things without being seen and then proceeds to deny you critical, need-to-know information. The result is that you are often seen by bad guys and immediately forced to murder dozens of men.
This happens a lot in Snake Eater.
Kojima’s team at Konami made the decision to remove the radar that served, in the first two MGS titles, as your best means of evaluating which actions would result in you being discovered. Instead, you’re given a handful of other tools that provide you with incomplete information–the locations of moving enemies (but not their field of view), the location of all living organisms (in a way that gives away your position), your relative proximity to bad guys (but not their location)–and the result is that sneaking involves an absurd amount of guesswork.
This is mitigated by the inclusion of the camouflage system, which allows you to change your clothes and receive bonuses to your stealth–but even this system doesn’t give you discrete information on which you can act. Sure, I know that being 50% camouflaged is better than being 35% camouflaged, but what am I supposed to DO with that info? Not once in the game did my camouflage allow me to change my strategy and act with confidence and certitude. Instead, I had to make do with vague assurance that I was in a better position for having hopped into the menu and changed my equipment. Maybe.
Did that guy see me? Damn! I thought I was 80% camouflaged! How close can I GET to a guy who can see 20% of me without alerting him?
I did a lot less sneaking in MGS3 than I did in either of its predecessors. I did a lot more judo.
I’ll happily admit that using the Close Quarters Combat system feels delightful. Throwing a guy to the floor is immensely satisfying. It was a little weird that the most viable strategy often seemed to be charging a guard who was filling me with AK47 rounds and knocking him out with kung fu.
Unfortunately, the result of the loosey-goosey stealth in the game is that a lot of the environments either feel too full or too empty. One of the final areas, a giant warehouse in which you must plant a number of explosives on fuel tanks, felt so empty that it wasn’t a challenge. In areas with lots of enemies, it’s impossible to make your way through without being noticed and being forced to kill a bunch of dudes. In areas without many enemies, one doesn’t feel as though much is being asked of them. I kept wishing, throughout the game, that there would be areas chock full of baddies that I was able to navigate without ever sounding the alarm. I don’t think that ever happened.
Part of my frustration stems from the combination of overheard perspective and first-person shooting. Jumping back to a nearly ten-year-old game from an era of over-the-shoulder shooters, I found being forced to move in one camera position and shoot in another (a system which felt liberating and empowering when it was first introduced in Sons of Liberty!) jarring and uncomfortable. Likewise, gathering information about your environment in the first person and then popping back to the overhead camera in order to move is a very disorienting business.
And those are just gameplay elements. The narrative, well… The narrative is just as absurd as a story told by Hideo Kojima has always been. There’s some gratuitous sexuality, fetishization of weaponry, and plenty of long, (theoretically) meaningful glances between characters in which not much is really communicated. The plot doesn’t run completely off the rails in the same way as the plot of Sons of Liberty, but there are still a dozen times when characters improbably monologue about Cold War politics and half-baked philosophy for the benefit(?) of the player and not the other characters.
One doesn’t expect a narrative about a walking, nuclear-capable supertank to be particularly grounded, but come on.
And yet–and yet. I forgive it. I acknowledge the weaknesses, the absurdities, the broken elements, and I set them aside and love the game anyway. Why? Why, when a game has frustrated me and made me roll my eyes, when I am frequently kicked out of the narrative by the producer’s bizarre predilections, do I still think of my time with it fondly?
I think, probably, it’s because of how clearly Kojima loves what he’s doing, and how clearly it shows in every aspect of the game. The dude loves the characters he’s created, and he wants us to love them too. He loves dramatic showdowns, and he packs his game full of absurd, awesome boss fights. He loves pop culture and a good laugh, and so there are dozens and dozens of conversations Snake can have over the codec that are patently absurd. Kojima loves self-reference, and breaks the fourth wall often to wink at his audience and remind us that we should be having fun; after all, it’s just a game.
So what did I take away from Snake Eater? I remember the first time I did kung fu on a guy. I remember each time I ate a python and Snake’s comments about how delicious they were. I remember the sniper duel with The End. I remember eating glowing mushrooms to restore my batteries. I remember Snake revealing to Para-Medic that he was terrified of vampires, and Major Zero’s indignation upon learning that Snake wasn’t a fan of James Bond. I remember how many times we got to laugh at how much of a dork Revolver Ocelot is, and how he turned out to be pretty cool when all was said and done.
I remember the fight with The Boss.
So, nine years out from its release, is it worth it to go back and revisit Metal Gear Solid 3? It depends, in large part, on your ability to forgive a game for its faults. There are parts of Snake Eater that feel old and creaky as it approaches its tenth anniversary, and Kojima’s rambly melodrama has always been an acquired taste. But the game is a labor of love, and if you can pick up a controller and feel that love, well… it’s hard to step into the shoes of Naked Snake and not feel like a badass, even when the game conspires in so many ways to undermine it. And when you get to that final showdown in the field of flowers, it’s a hardened gamer indeed that won’t be thrilled.
St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and you know what that means: It’s time to beat up on some snakes!
“But Nate,” some of you might say, “aren’t you forgetting about the REAL point of St. Patty’s Day–the drinking?”
Your collective point is well taken, but I am a traditionalist, and (at least if I’m reading my Wikipedia correctly) the most important part of St. Patrick’s legacy is that he was a reptile-rouster, a herpetological herder, a real asp-kicker.Yes, like our friend Samuel L. Jackson, St. Patrick had had it with those monkey-fighting snakes on that Monday-to-Friday plane island.
And so I propose that in the spirit of the holiday, we march forward, controllers in hand, and do a little python-pummeling of our own. Allow me to humbly suggest some select serpents to squash.
1. Midgar Zolom, Final Fantasy VII.
The “Midgar Zolom” is the obnoxious creature that will chase, slay, and devour you with nary a second thought if you venture out into the swamps near the Mythril Mine–at least, unless you’re astride a chocobo. When you first encounter it, it’s about ten levels higher than you, and you pretty much don’t stand a chance against its absurd, nuclear-explosion-causing magic. To top things off, on the other side of the swamps, you run into one of the creatures impaled upon a tree–the handiwork of your quarry, Sephiroth. Talk about intimidating!
It’s worth it to circle back and seek your revenge once you’re equal in power to the creature, though–you can learn that handy nuclear-explodey-spell for yourself, and besides, you’re not going to let a giant snake get the better of you, are you? On St. Patty’s Day, All Snakes Must Die.
2. Snake Man, Mega Man 3
By the third Mega Man game, it seems that Dr. Wily had already begun to reach toward the bottom of the robot barrel for ideas. One can understand the usefulness of a robot who is very quick, for instance, or one who throws bombs. One can even imagine the utility of a robot who… has guts. But what plans did Wily have for a robot whose head is a snake, and who also shoots snakes? Was he going to open a reptile farm and finance his evil robot empire that way? Did he anticipate being attacked by Indiana Jones, perhaps?
Regardless, Snake Man deserves to die.
3. Killer Snake, Dark Cloud
Dark Cloud is a game that seems to have fallen off a lot of people’s radar, which is a shame–it, and to a larger degree its much-improved sequel, offered some pretty compelling dungeon-crawler/town-building gameplay. The second one even let you travel in time! I don’t think it let you beat up a giant snake, though, and so the original is the one that earns a spot on this list. Of snake enemies. That you can beat up.
Fun fact! If memory serves, this snake boss requires you to pass a loathsome Quick Time Event in order to slay it for good. So it totally deserves to die.
4. Two-Headed Snake Boss, Suikoden II.
Two for the price of one! Suikoden II offers you this unsettling monstrosity, which can be a real pain in the butt to fight if you don’t know it’s coming. You’ve got to kill it, though–you must–if for no other reason than the fact that… can you see? Look really closely. At its mouths.
That’s right. This snake has human-like teeth. If that by itself ain’t enough to give you nightmares, then you’re a braver man than I. I bet St. Patty and his whole army of leprechauns would’ve had a hard time with this sucker. Did St. Patrick have an army of leprechauns? My research for this article was cursory at best.
5. Matango Snake, Secret of Mana.
Secret of Mana is a game with a lot of delightful bosses, but this snake! This is a pretty sorry snake, if you ask me. Why, it’s just a bunch of orbs that move in tandem! This faux-slitherer is an embarrassment to all of its herpetological brethren. If it were to unhinge its jaw (if it even can, the phony), how would its gruesome meal pass through its digestive tract? Its head isn’t connected to its body, and I find the biological implications of such an anatomy highly suspect. I would rate this snake two out of five, at best. You should probably put it out of its improbably-configured misery.
6. Liquid Snake, Metal Gear Solid.
I hope that’s a good list to get you started. Let’s all work together to ensure that come St. Patrick’s Day, there are no more snakes left in all of gaming!
I’ve been out of college for five years now, and contrary to my mother’s constant predictions throughout my youth, I’ve yet to “grow out of” gaming. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, the medium has grown up, too, and each year brings new and fascinating explorations of player agency and interactive storytelling.
As I’ve matured, however, so have my tastes in games–and as I come to see myself more and more as a critical and academic appreciator of the medium as a whole, I’ve made a conscious effort to try games that, once upon a time, would have been outside of my wheelhouse. Part of this endeavor has meant going back to play the classic games that passed me by as a youth, but part of it has simply been pushing myself to play games that I might otherwise have overlooked because of genre preferences.
This process may have begun as early as the late nineties, when I came home from the mall with a game which was way outside the aesthetic that I usually preferred: Metal Gear Solid.
I had read an article in the latest issue of the now-defunct gaming mag “Next Generation” about how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was unquestionably the “game of the century,” which was immediately followed by a review for MGS which stated that if you were one of the unfortunates who happened not to have an N64, then this new Hideo Kojima joint was probably the best that you could hope for. (Of course, even at the tender age of fourteen, I could tell with reasonable certainty that I had already played the greatest game of all time, and it was definitely a PlayStation exclusive.)
As you may recall, I was one of those unfortunates who had picked the PSX over the N64, and I was determined to play this “last, greatest PSX title.”
The only problem was: Metal Gear was scary as hell. You had to sneak around, and your weapons were exceptionally limited, and there was a very loud alarm sound every time someone detected you! The visual aesthetic and tone of the game were realistic, somber, and dramatic–even to someone whose favorite series was a certain anime-flavored, melodramatic epic, the stakes were raised considerably.
Eventually, of course, I grew accustomed to Metal Gear’s high-tension thrills, and I’ll be among the first to champion it as one of the greatest games of all time. I am certainly among the ranks of those who got a little shiver at hearing Psycho Mantis describe their love of Castlevania.
So–my aesthetic horizons as a gamer had been broadened, and I was better for it.
Several years later, I embarked on a campaign to familiarize myself with a new genre–one with which I had extremely limited experience–the first-person shooter. How was it that I made it through fifteen-plus years of gaming without seriously investing time in an FPS? Well, my family had never had a PC capable of running top-of-the-line games, and as a result I stuck mostly to consoles. Glance quickly at my console ownership history, and… well. Name an FPS worth playing on the Genesis or the PSX.
Yeah? That’s what I thought.
So, when my buddies and I gathered at our esteemed colleague’s house for a night of Halo, I was that guy. We couldn’t play 2-on-2 matches, because someone would have to get stuck with me. People hunted me down in deathmatch because I was an easy kill, like a tiny flightless bird in a very small pen. I excused myself from the challenges in Perfect Dark because, well, I wanted them to have a chance at victory.
Eventually, just after graduating from college, I decided that I’d had quite enough of that and embarked on a quest to play through the campaigns of the entire Halo trilogy in an attempt to hone my skills. My good friend Sebastian and I teamed up to do it cooperatively, and we became so wrapped up in the challenge that by the time we got to Halo 3, we decided we’d invite some of our other buddies in to join us, and maybe crank the difficulty up to Legendary. You know, for funsies.
Afterwards, I noticed that whenever we played multiplayer, I was no longer at the bottom of the standings! I wasn’t exactly dominating, of course, but I was holding my own. I had expanded my horizons as a gamer yet again–this time, into a genre I’d not been comfortable with. If I hadn’t pressed myself to engage with first-person shooters, I never would have played the first Call of Duty–or Bioshock–or Borderlands! There are so many superb shooters in the medium, and I would have missed them if I hadn’t stepped outside my comfort zone as a gamer.
Over the last couple of weeks, however, I realized that there may well be limits to how far and how fast we can push ourselves as gamers. As part of my continual effort to engage with classic games of all genres, I picked up a copy of the original Gran Turismo at a flea market. I was immediately impressed with the depth of the customization system, the wealth of authentic cars, and the RPG-like progression that fueled the “simulation mode.” And that’s not mentioning its graphics! It may not look like much these days, but it’s obvious even now that Gran Turismo pushes the PSX hardware pretty heavily.
As I fooled around with it, however, I realized that despite all of its positive features, it just wasn’t getting its hooks in me. I could appreciate it thoroughly as an excellent game, but I wasn’t invested. I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I could eagerly memorize half of the Final Fantasy Tactics Battle Mechanics Guide but couldn’t be bothered to look up which cars I should put money into in this “driving simulator.” Was it the fact that there was a huge time investment needed, and I am now a busy adult with (ugh) responsibilities? Was it the fact that I was reluctant to dive down a rabbit hole which was fourteen years old?
Or, I thought with dread, was it simply the fact that I was not into racing games?
Now, hold on, I reassured myself. You played Ridge Racer Revolution and Jet Moto when you were a kid. None of your friends will play you in Mario Kart: Double Dash because they think it’s a foregone conclusion. You’ve beaten every Grand Theft Auto– aren’t those sort of racing games?
I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that just because I liked arcade racers and gangster crime sagas, I didn’t have any real experience with the genre to which Gran Turismo belongs. It bills itself as a “racing simulator,” and though it certainly has an arcade mode, the real meat of the experience is in building a career as a racer, customizing your car, earning licenses, and pimping your ride. The pull of the game is in winning races to earn CarBux to buy sweeter wheels, so you can win more races and earn more CarBux.
And I just wasn’t into it. I doubt that I would be into it if I were to pick up 2 Gran 2 Turismo, or Gran Turismo 5: This Time It’s Personal.
So I’m going to put GT back on the shelf and let it stew for a while. Perhaps it’s simply too far, too fast. Maybe if I were to bridge that gap more gradually, maybe play some Burnout or Need for Speed, I could come to appreciate the greater complexities of the “driving simulator” series. I feel a certain obligation to– as a gamer, as a gaming scholar, as someone who strives to be “well played.” Because I know what wonderful things can come when you step outside your gaming comfort zone–and I hope that as long as I game, I never stop cultivating my tastes.