Ghost Babel illustrates a very interesting divide between the world in which games are created and the one in which they are played.
The game was created, as nearly all commercial games are, as a profit-making venture. Specifically, it was intended to cash in on the rampant popularity of Metal Gear Solid in the late 1990s. Porting a tremendously successful game is usually a quick way to generate some pretty significant cash flow, but the trouble at the time was that no system other than the PlayStation could really handle the graphical load of the game (exception of the PC, which did in fact get a direct port). Out of all the commercially viable systems that were left at the time, Konami settled on the humble Game Boy for a new release in the franchise. Of course, a direct port was not possible to this hardware, so they instead took the route of "re-imagining" the game.
So as not to mess with the canon of Kojima's grandiose storyline, they played the old "parallel universe/it was all a dream" canard with Ghost Babel's setting and story. From a marketing perspective (which is ultimately the only perspective that matters at major game publishing houses), it makes complete and total sense and is easily understood. This, of course, did not stop gamers from going ahead and complicating the issue for themselves. Poor souls, who take the goings-on of the pixelized world perhaps just a shade too seriously, set about diligently scouring the entirety of this game and all the other Solid games trying to fabricate connections in an "official timeline", trying to suss out the little clues they imagine Kojima has personally left in there to wrap it all up into one neat little package. Of course, he didn't do anything like that, and probably had little hand in directing (and almost no hand in writing) this outing of the game, which was likely handed off to one of Konami's "B" squads to handle. But don't tell certain Metal Gear maniacs that - the internet is serious business to them, and so is their fantasy world.
Provided you're not one of those unbalanced individuals, Ghost Babel is most easily described as being similar to Marvel's "What If....?" comics (to give credit where it is due I saw this comparison made in another review somewhere, but for the life of me I don't remember which or where). In this case, the setting is - What If Shadow Moses (the events of Metal Gear Solid) never happened, there was no Liquid Snake with his Jimmy Flinders voice screaming about it NOT BEING OVER YET!!!, and instead Metal Gear was hijacked (along with some nuclear warheads) during transport by an African terrorist organization called Gindra? This is the setting of Ghost Babel, seeing Snake called out of his peaceful Alaskan hermitage by Colonel Campbell for an assault on an African fortress held by this ethnic minority separatist group who are using the threat of nuclear strikes to demand their independence.
"They say you like to crawl around in
ventilation shafts and peep at women!"
The game is obviously not so much a unique story as an altered version of Metal Gear Solid, scaled back story-wise to accommodate the limitations of the Game Boy Color. Instead of storming a large enemy compound in the Alaskan wilderness, you're storming a large enemy compound in the jungle. Instead of Liquid and Foxhound, you get "Black Arts Viper" and the Black Chamber group - Slasher Hawk, Marionette Owl and Pyro Bison, all conveniently separated and waiting in some random room for you to fight it out with them. You get a Codec team, Mei Ling included, amongst whom one is a traitor. There's a plucky girl soldier who serves as an ally/love interest. There's an engineering whiz who worked on Metal Gear and must now be rescued to find out how to stop it. There's the obligatory "guide the Nikita missile over the electric floors and past gun cameras" sequence. You get the idea, I'm sure. It's not the most original game.
What's nice about it, though, is how surprisingly smooth and close to the PlayStation version the gameplay is. Snake doesn't have all the moves he has at his disposal in the more powerful outings, but the Game Boy's limited powers and buttons have been utilized creatively to give you a good range of techniques. Snake still crawls under tables and into ventilation shafts and presses up against walls. He can knock on a wall to attract the attention of a guard, and there's even a sort of "peeking around the corner" mechanic implemented where you can scroll the screen over a little ways in the direction that your back is facing when up against a wall.
Movement is in eight directions, and surprisingly fluid by Gameboy standards. Snake doesn't choke or drag foes, but a series of punches can still be administered to knock them out temporarily, and most of the weapons of the first Solid game make an appearance here. You also have the Soliton radar, though the guards do not have a "cone of vision" in this one - you have to just sort of guesstimate how far ahead they can see. The guard AI is no great shakes in this game, but they do have varied patrol routes and will turn their heads while standing still to look in different directions - it's definitely a step up from the previous 2D incarnations of the Metal Gear series. What you wind up with is the game that you wish the 8-bit versions of this game had been, at least in terms of core gameplay.
Snake's main Sneaking Mission this time out is divided up into thirteen stages. Stages will often criss-cross and return to territory you've covered before, so it's more of a way of bounding you to certain areas at certain times, with certain specific objectives to complete. Each stage usually begins with a set of orders from Campbell, but due to the twistings and turnings of the plot this may change, and you're never really certain when each stage will end until it ends. You get ranked on each stage based on how fast you complete it, how few enemies you kill, rations you use and times you are spotted. Once you've been through each stage, you can replay that stage separately to try to improve your scores. The ratings definitely seem on the harsh and demanding side, but it really doesn't matter since they don't unlock anything anyway. The main bulk of the game, replays aside, offers up maybe three or so hours of gameplay. There's a pretty substantial amount of VR missions as well, a set of Special Missions that take place in the regular stages (once you've finished the game), and an interesting two-player mode that puts two Snakes in a head to head battle in the VR stages.
"You're no dingo ... you're a proud
The story is the usual Kojima pattern, but seems more like it was written by a decent fanfic writer. Not a great one, just a fairly capable one. It follows the usual Kojima pattern of having some high-handed moral message that gets completely lost behind all the stylized violence and overwrought melodrama. That said, I think forcing the removal of long cutscenes actually does a little something for the game. The characters aren't as well developed or memorable as those of Solid, but the tradeoff is that you spend a whole lot more time playing the game than you do watching it.
What's fantastic by Gameboy standards may be merely pretty good by higher standards, but I still think Ghost Babel is a decent game overall and worth checking out.