The Making Of Metal Gear: part one
Metal Gear celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To celebrate games™ goes behind the scenes of each game in the series. In part one: the original Metal Gear, of course.
The Making Of: Metal Gear
Like a tiny serpent hatching from an egg, the Metal Gear series had humble origins. Although hoping to join a Famicom team, Hideo Kojima was assigned to Konami’s MSX division. As he explained to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, originally the project was not even his: “The company asked me to create a combat game. Actually, a senior associate had been in charge of it, but he was stuck, and I was asked to do it. You could not have more than four bullets with MSX, and you can’t make a combat game with that. So I came up with a game like The Great Escape, where a war prisoner had to escape.”
Wanting an extra perspective, we interviewed Tomonori Otsuka, programmer on the original, who explains the rivalry between Famicom and MSX: “I’m very pleased if my memory helps you. Most of the memories on developing videogames are going to be lost, so I hope your work plays the role of recording history. Konami had development teams for several platforms at that time, such as coin-op, Nintendo, MSX. The Famicom was launched after the MSX, and the MSX team had already released many titles. Famicom was the brand new platform and it was not determined successful yet. MSX also had a bigger market than the Famicom.”
Metal Gear was highly original, even down to the South African setting for the story. Though as Otsuka reveals, this came secondary to design: “I really didn’t know the game takes place in South Africa. It might be written in the [manual]. The story and character design were by Kojima-san. I didn’t deal with that kind of work. I don’t think Kojima-san likes South Africa especially. He was excited by the idea that soldiers have to hide from observation. The story was decided to emphasise the unique gameplay.”
Otsuka describes life at the time: “We developed two or three titles a year and the teams next door were rivals, because the number of companies that developed for the MSX2 was very small. We were very busy every day and didn’t think about the story of the games. I was a programmer and the work was to write the code [following the design] directions. I don’t remember how long the programming took; the work did not go as scheduled. However, the program was reused on several stages and creatures to save time.”
“I think the highlight of Metal Gear,” adds Otsuka, explaining the technical challenges involved, “is hiding from the view of cameras and enemy soldiers. The game screen is [viewed top-down from above] and users can see the position of the player and cameras. If there are some obstacles between the player and cameras, he must not be found and will succeed in hiding. It was very difficult to determine if the player is viewed by someone or not.”
As for Kojima, completing his first game came as a relief: “As the expectations for it were pretty low, I was just happy to finish the work. I had this pressure from my fellow workers, as I had been with the company for about a year, yet had not completed anything. People would tell me: ‘Hey, at least make something before you leave the company!’ I remember people started looking at me differently after finishing it.”
Metal Gear goes west
Although the MSX2 original was officially released in the UK, the real success in the West, and especially America, was the 1987 Famicom/NES port. We spoke to Masahiro Ueno, formerly of Konami Japan, who took on this daunting task when he was just 22 years old. “I was a fresh graduate when I worked on Metal Gear. I actually worked on an educational game for Famicom Disk System first, but it was cancelled. So Metal Gear was my second project, but the first shipped game. Muraoka-san, who has been the sound director for the Metal Gear franchise, worked with me on the NES project.”
Speaking with Ueno is a little melancholy, since he is reluctant to accept praise for something so important. “As you probably know, Kojima-san does not like the NES version. My team was asked to port the original MSX2 version to NES in three months, and we had to make some changes for management and due to the hardware limitations. Since Kojima-san was not involved and he does not like the changes we made, he does not think the NES version is an authentic Metal Gear. What I did was port the game as management asked, so I don’t deserve credit.”
Although Kojima has publicly criticised the NES version, this is unfair. Apart from the phenomenal achievement of programming a NES title in three months, it’s still a fun game despite the changes – like an easier remix. Significantly, it was Ueno’s version – and not Kojima’s – which created an American fan base and ultimately led to Kojima continuing the series.
We ask Ueno about the jungle area that was introduced: “Management wanted to differentiate the Famicom version a bit since the MSX2 version had already shipped. Having a different intro was the easiest and most efficient way for us to do so, since we only had three months.”
The other big change was the replacement of Metal Gear as a final boss: “This was simply due to the hardware limitations. It’s probably possible to implement the robot if we had used a better [mapper] chip such as the VRC4, but it was not available for us back then.” Although Kojima tried to disown the NES port, we now know better. It’s not as good as the MSX2 original, but it’s still very enjoyable and important to the long-term life of the series.
C64, PC and Amiga?
The NES port of the MSX2 original proved popular enough to be ported to the C64 and DOS. On the back of the IBM box were screenshots for an unreleased Amiga version. Charles Ernst explained the DOS port and unreleased Amiga edition: “I worked for a company called Banana Development. We ported a bunch of arcade titles for companies like Taito and Konami back in the 1980s. I was offered the gig porting the Famicom game Metal Gear. The initial version came on a floppy disk-like device and was in Japanese.”
“Typically, we ripped as much graphics off the ROM as possible, but in this case we weren’t able to. We also couldn’t get a debug version of the game so I had to play to the end – needless to say I videotaped everything. Overall it took about seven months to produce. Konami America was a great company to work for. Their input was:
‘Make it look and play as much like the original as possible.’
“There were plans to create an Amiga version but it was shelved after most publishers dropped the Amiga due to piracy. Our company was supposed to port the Amiga version and we did the [PC box] mockups to encourage Konami. Another brilliant programmer, Dave Kurensky, was the Amiga guru in our studio and would have been the one to port it. I am 99 per cent sure there is not an Amiga version floating around.”