The Metal Gear Solid series walks a thin line between joyous absurdity and convoluted nothingness. Later entries become bogged down with information. Sometimes, the best option is to just go with it without asking questions. Metal Gear Solid 3 stands as the best because this excess weight is lifted off its shoulders by being the first chronologically, allowing it to tell a story which could easily stand alone.
The narrative of Metal Gear Solid 3 finds the series at its most emotionally mature. This is not to say it takes itself too seriously – there’s still a bad guy squad with absurd powers. In fact, they might be the most absurd team in the series, from a man who controls bees to a flaming cosmonaut. This is the exact B-movie magic which made the original so oddly compelling.
But something much more complex is buried beneath the surface. The story of Naked Snake and The Boss is simultaneously mind-boggling and gut-wrenching. This is a game which has made several people cry, and not by pulling out a cheap shot by killing off a character unexpectedly. The entire game is building toward a phenomenal payoff, remarking on the nature of betrayal, duty, and inevitability.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of those rare games where an updated version is actually essential. Snake Eater pushes the map sizes to an extreme degree, yet the original release stuck to the same limited camera system as the first two games. A year later, they released Subsistence, which brings the camera closer to Snake and gives the player control over its movement. Much like Resident Evil 4, the controls remain the same, proving just how essential a proper camera can be to our perception of movement. Metal Gear Solid 3 immediately jumped from archaic to modern.
Though classified under the stealth genre, the success of Metal Gear Solid in general is better understood through the lens of a set-piece style action-adventure game. In fact, despite this being one of my favorite games, I don’t think I actually like the basic idea of stealth gameplay – the hits I have encountered in the genre all go above and beyond. The strong narrative and excellent boss battles are a perfect reward for the stress of sneaking through such a busy environment.
The most striking moments in MGS3 are the boss fights. Revolver Ocelot’s younger self makes a classic entrance. He gives a high-pitched mew to summon his allies (before telling them to leave ten seconds later), does this weird gesture with his hands, and then begins twirling and juggling his revolvers around for literally thirty seconds. The battle itself is a simple duel, but it’s hard to forget Ocelot’s awkward turn as an eccentric young man.
If controlling bees wasn’t enough, The Pain will get his little allies to form weapons by simply shouting out commands. It’s hard to forget a man shouting “Tommy gun” and then shooting literal bees at you. The Fear has a neat feature where you can trick him into poisoning himself. The End is an epic sniper battle. But he’s also a fragile old man, and there’s a brief window earlier in the game when Snake can simply snipe him. Alternatively, you can set the system clock ahead a week and he’ll die of old age. It’s these odd little touches that give these already excellent fights the Kojima charm.
Though not a traditional boss fight in the slightest, The Sorrow deserves special mention. During this sequence, Naked Snake is forced to walk down a narrow river as the ghosts of those he has killed throughout the story stumble along. The game doesn’t just keep track of the number killed but also the method. If the player has been successfully stealthy or relied on non-lethal means, this will be a quick walk. Meanwhile, if Snake has gone on a killing spree, you will have to dodge wave after wave of angry spirits. It’s a surprisingly effective way to reflect on player actions.
One non-boss moment I adore simply has Snake climb a ladder which seems to go on literally forever. A few feet up, an a cappella version of the theme song starts playing, and the ladder is just long enough for the whole thing to play out. There’s no reason for this to actually exist, but it’s fun to play in a space created purely for Kojima’s own audacious enjoyment. It takes a special skill to make something as innocuous as climbing a ladder stand out in a game full of intrigue and inexplicable powers.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is a game which reaches for new narrative heights while fully engaging with the more outlandish concepts the medium was built upon. Kojima understands emotional resonance does not necessitate an appeal toward absolute realism. The audience can engage with both the absurdity of The Fury and the tragedy of The Boss. And while it may rely a bit heavily on cutscenes, MGS3 makes sure the player is the one to pull the trigger at key moments.