Hideo Kojima wanted to be a screenwriter. Somewhere along the way, he got involved in games, and became one of the most recognizable names in the industry. Today, after four Metal Gear Solid numbered titles and a spinoff PSP title, Kojima’s name is synonymous with sprawling, ambitious narratives that push the limits of what games can accomplish on a storytelling front. Massive analyses have been written about some of these games, dissecting them from all angles and digging into some of the deep thematic trends. There is no series more renowned for its ambition and execution than Metal Gear Solid.
But among them, there is a clear winner. While the likes of the original game, its postmodernist sequel, and the cinematic and affecting most recent entry are all fantastic games that could easily be argued for a place on this list, it is the more humble, leaner Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater that lands a spot so high on this list. Snake Eater is a James Bond film stuffed into a game: a stealth action game with a Cold War-era espionage story that manages to be thrilling and poignant in equal measure. It takes a character previously known as the “big bad” of the franchise and turns him into a tragic figure, an erstwhile hero fallen.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Metal Gear Solid game with the most modest ambition is the best of the bunch. When you get into the lofty goals of games like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and its labyrinthine plot and postmodern themes and structure, it can seem inaccessible and rather like a cluster of ideas instead of a cohesive story. Snake Eater manages to avoid all of that by dressing down all the postmodernism and instead delivering a story about Cold War tensions, detente, the role of espionage, and patriotism. It serves as an effective origin story for the entire franchise, starring Naked Snake, later known as Big Boss, of whom later series protagonist Solid Snake is a clone.
This game earns its spot with its terrific story and unmatched boss design. The game really looks, feels, and unfolds like a James Bond film, from a trippy opening sequence with a killer soundtrack to tense stealth based segments. The basic story outline plays as a Bond film as well. Snake screws up during the Virtuous Mission, and has to try and fix his mistakes in Operation Snake Eater, fighting his way through former allies turned traitors in order to stop a massive nuclear threat in the form of the Shagohod, now in the possession of the psychopathic Volgin, who used stolen weaponry to destroy an Eastern European village. All the elements are here: double agents, a Bond villain with a Bond villain name and Bond villain quirk (he is basically Electro), an agent with something to prove, a Bond girl that is on the inside of the villain’s operation… Naked Snake is more Bond than Bond was in the 70s.
But inside the Bond film trappings of the game lies a startlingly emotional story. Buried inside all the series mythology of the Patriots (here known as the Philosophers) is a personal story of Snake’s relationship with his mentor, The Boss, and the ultimate sacrifice she is forced to make for her country, with only Snake fully understanding the depth of that sacrifice. That she dies a villain in the eyes of most is a true tragedy, and Snake faces it with a cold stoicism. It’s an absolutely moving ending, all the way up until the final salute of the Boss’s grave as the last shot of the game.
The path there is riddled with some of the most inspired boss design in gaming. From tense battles with The Fear, who hides in the treetops and forces players to listen for his sounds in order to find him, to an endurance sniper duel with The End, an old man who will actually die of a heart attack if you save your game and return a week later, all of the bosses are memorable and exciting. The Pain’s bee swarm is aptly named, and is the bane of many new players to the series. The Fury’s iconic strategy of random flamethrowing down long corridors remains one of the most widely loved boss battles, something imitated frequently in the short-lived Metal Gear Online.
Then, of course, the culmination of gameplay and story in the final climactic battle with The Boss, an emotionally draining duel on a field of white roses. It’s a difficult fight, both because it carries more emotional weight than almost any other boss fight I’ve ever played, and because it’s simply a brutally challenging encounter. It’s the perfect culmination of everything in the game, and one of the best moments I’ve had in a long history of gaming.