Metal Gear Solid 3 is the genesis title for any of series creator Hideo Kojima’s future chapters, and still stands head and saluting arm above the rest.
There aren’t too many examples of gaming love letters sent to creatures of another medium that turn out all that well. Uncharted and Tomb Raider are fine winks to the Indiana Jones series, then Traveler’s Tales and Telltale Games that have basically made their livings off of other properties, but one-off successes seem Holy Grail rare. Snake Eater is that Grail in so many ways. It’s time to tie that special bandanna tight and see what makes Snake Eater the pre-eminent Metal Gear game.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
Kojima, being a self-proclaimed movie buff, filled this title with references and homages. The opening song and video could’ve come from a James Bond movie directly and still feels like one of the most elaborate and catchiest openings to a video game ever. You’ll find pieces of Rambo, The Great Escape, The Fugitive and even a David Bowie song reference woven into this package without many feeling intrusive, besides a few in optional Codec conversations.
Those references and more put some reviewers back in the day into the mindset that this was nothing more than flash and style atop little gameplay. Looking back on Metal Gear Solid 3 now over a decade later, that is an almost laughable position to take. The core gameplay is certainly on par with Sons of Liberty with shooting and movement mostly fluid with Naked Snake allowing some seams to show between animations. What’s added are layers atop that pace of the original game and its sequel, making you deal with survival for the first time in the series.
Hunger, cold, sickness, fatigue and injury all have to be accounted for with an entire jungle full of feeding and healing possibilities. Having to set your broken bones or dig out a transmitter with a knife through a menu may not seem like tons of fun, but it invests you into Naked Snake and recovers your health at the same time in the form of a simple system. Camouflage index was also introduced here as a way to offer players the chance to plan based on their environments and enemy movement. Collecting the various outfits remains one of the best, worthwhile side missions in the series.
Speaking of outfits, you could make the argument that this game features three of the top ten boss fights in gaming history. The Cobras and their leader The Boss (more on her in a moment) bring their emotions into battle often with furious and raging results, testing Snake in various physical and emotional ways. There are some fights that seem mediocre or formulaic – The Pain comes to mind – but that’s just in comparison to their in-game brethren’s all-time greatness. The Fear and his early optic camouflage test Snake’s ability to watch all of his surroundings at once while The End tests his wits and patience in a fight that can last for hours and days. The Boss’ battle with her former student is a perfect boxing of circumstance that brings you into their close relationship and pits everything you’ve learned in the game against her and a running clock.
The story in Metal Gear Solid 3 is probably the best of the series thanks in no small part to The Boss herself. Her and Naked Snake’s tentative approach to the very edge of their relationship on and off the battlefield feels like a monumental highlight in each of their scenes together. You can feel her emotional walls waver with every slight hesitation and feel Jack slowly give up on finding her intentions in favor of the mission’s successful end. Colonel Volgin, Eva and other side characters keep pace well enough but The Boss’ character is in control when she enters a room, and she’s so often locked into Snake that tearing them apart seems impossible before that perfect, revealing end.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, as with any other Gear, starts with the final shot of this game. Major Zero, who is your commanding officer during Operation Snake Eater, is just as touched by The Boss’ sacrifice as Big Boss, leading them both down the line that leads to The Patriots. Disagreement over her actual message is what tears them apart, but we see Big Boss still thoroughly affected by her memory in Peace Walker to the point where he eventually has to lie to himself to leave her behind. In that sense, Metal Gear Solid 3 relates to every entry of this celebrated series. The Phantom Pain, however, will probably see this fissure in a more crystallized, perhaps flash-back fashion.
This is the tops of this legendary series for me and is always near my mind when considering the best games ever made. Age has given no further fault to Snake Eater, but the passing of time has given perspective to certain pieces and sections that still go unmatched today. No one has even attempted a boss fight on the open-ended scale of The End or matched the style of this game’s opening. Even Kojima seemed to move away from these tropes for Guns of the Patriots and Peace Walker, not to mention series sidesteps like Ac!d. This is a one-of-a-kind entry in a similarly original series, standing alone with or without the various series events that followed.
Next week, we move on from Metal Gear Solid 3 into the latest numbered entry in the series, Guns of the Patriots. If you thought Metal Gear Solid 2 was divisive, just you wait buster.