I got it into my head last night that I ought to give the original Metal Gear a try. Not the PS2 re-release with its optional "Easy" mode and unlockable "infinite bandana" providing unlimited ammo. No. And not the NES port that Kojima famously described as "complete garbage." Not that one either.
No, I loaded up the full-leaded original MSX2 version of Metal Gear - the English version released for the European market with most of the radio messages missing, including Big Boss' descriptions of all the items and weapons. The one, according to a fan-translation project, with only 56% of the original Japanese text translated into English. Yeah. That one.
It's been 20 years since I first played Metal Gear, but I've been a fairly devoted fan of the series, so I didn't expect any problems getting back up to speed. Right. I loaded up the game and died almost immediately. Then died again. Then, before even reaching the first elevator...dead again. So I wandered around for awhile trying to remember where I needed to go, and just for fun I died some more.
It was then I began to remember just how little the game helps you, or guides you, or even encourages you. Big boss tells you to infiltrate a building and warns you not to get caught. That's basically it. You have no weapons, no map, and no real clue where you're supposed to go. Good luck, buddy!
Various characters give you frequency numbers you'll need for your radio. Will the game remember these for you? No. You must write them down. Often you must retrace your steps to specific locations, sometimes on different floors of the building. Looking for a map? It's on that grid paper sitting next to you - the one you drew with your own pencil. Forgot to write down the frequencies or make a map? You're going to get real familiar with that elevator, because that's where you re-spawn after you die. A lot.
Of course, there's always GameFAQs...but would Snake choose such a cowardly shortcut? After about an hour, I decided he most definitely would.
I'm hardly the first to observe it, but games used to be hard, folks. Never was this more clear to me than when I assigned my students the Infocom text adventure Planetfall a few years ago. Ten minutes into the game, nearly all of them were stuck on the ship scrubbing floors with no clue how to go anywhere or do anything. They had similar problems with arcade classics like Robotron and Defender (which is one of the hardest games of all time), the Ultima series, and even the early Super Mario games.
For me, I think it's mostly about conditioning. I'm definitely rusty with games I once breezed through (at least, that's how I remember it), and it's probably not coincidental that prior to jumping into Metal Gear I was spending most of my time re-playing Beyond Good & Evil - a game I dearly love, but also a game that holds your hand in a myriad of ways and punishes you in very few. Does that mean BG&E is a game for the weak and MG for the strong? Of course not, and I'm not terribly interested in the hardcore/casual delineations, which seem to me arbitrary at best.
But I do find myself wondering if I will ever find games like Metal Gear truly fun again. When I finally knocked the rust off last night, I did move forward in the game and enjoyed the clever, stealthy challenges. It (and its superior sequel) are still terrific games, but I'm inclined to add "for their time" to the end of that sentence. After a couple of hours, I stopped playing and felt satisfied with the experience - with no real desire to continue. I'm ready for MGS4, which was really the whole point anyway.
One final note sure to destroy any of my remaining hardcore street cred: after an hour of frustration controlling Snake with my keyboard, I hooked up a gamepad, remapped the controls, and was a much happier and more comfortable gamer. Jelly donut? Maybe, but I can live with it. :-)