Hideo Kojima has been responsible for a number of fun, engrossing games during his two decades with Konami. Should a Video Game Hall of Fame ever be created, I feel that there are two in particular that should be fast-tracked to entry due to importance to the medium. The first is his 1987 adventure Snatcher, later remade in a stellar port on the Sega CD. The second, of course, is the original Playstation release of Metal Gear Solid.
There are very specific reasons why, but there are also very specific reasons why not - and sometimes these seem to get confused. So, in an attempt to sort everything out ...
WHAT MGS SHOULD BE REMEMBERED FOR
* Being the first game to successfully fuse cinematic storytelling technique into the medium
Polygonal 3D had a certain gimmicky "Wow" factor to this point, and certain games had incorporated real-life footage, but no game prior to this had taken established cinematic technique and used it *really well* to tell a story in a 3D world.
And yes, I know the peanut gallery is going to respond immediately to this with "LOL CUTSCENES ARE TOO LONG IS THIS A GAME OR A BOOK SRSLY". And yes, there are those meandering Codec conversations that are basically 100% raw exposition with zero other technique to keep you awake. Some editing could have been stood there, most certainly, as well as in certain cutscenes that serve only as lectures on the dangers of nuclear proliferation and wanton genetic experimentation. The pacing certainly had room for improvement.
Let's not miss the forest for the more clunky and knobby trees, however. First of all, for a decade-old Playstation game, when viewed on a high-res monitor the game still looks pretty damn nice. Small detail and camera angles frequently make the difference here; Kojima's "fourth wall breaking" is also used tactfully and to good effect. Tension is more palpable and real here, at least on the first playthrough, than it is in most horror games. Many of the scenes are downright memorable; if you've played the game through you'll likely never forget the boss battles. The game has basically become the template for how to tell a cinematic story in a game.
* Establishing the "stealth" genre
Yeah, "stealth" mechanics can be found going all the way back to the 8-bit era; even in Kojima's own Metal Gear games for the MSX and NES. To this point, however, "stealth" in a game simply meant giving an enemy a field of vision of some sort, and asking the player to stay away from it lest something really bad happen.
Then there is Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, which predates MGS by a few months. The thing about Tenchu, however, is that the "stealth" component is really just a mechanism by which to inject "fatalities" into a 3D action game; the game emphasizes snapping necks rather than avoiding fights, and gives you little to no opportunity to hide short of jumping onto a rooftop here and there. There also isn't a huge amount of point to avoiding fights with guards in most cases; they only call what backup happens to already be nearby, and you usually totally outclass them in swordsmanship anyway.
MGS, on the other hand, is really the first major commercial game to reward non-action (in the sense of "non-killing") on the part of the player. A top score at the end consists of killing the absolute mandatory minimum of enemies, which entails avoiding combat except when absolutely forced into it by the narrative. And while the game drives you from point A to B to C in a mostly linear fashion, it gives you a toolbox of "stealth" mechanics that were original for the time and have since becomes staples of the genre. There's the ubiquitous cardboard box, the chaff grenades that temporarily disable cameras, the flash-bangs that temporarily disable guards, there's walls to press up against and nooks to crawl into, even noise-making floors and footprints and infrared beams have to be accounted for.
Not to make the claim that the game promotes pacifism; there's plenty of killing, a good portion of it mandatory, and the game talks out of both sides of its mouth in decrying the horrors of war and yet glorifying soldiering and combat via a "badass" main character. It is unique, however, and an almost extraordinary show of faith in the player, to reward them for waiting patiently for full minutes in hiding by having a guard who was patrolling a hard-to-sneak-through area suddenly develop the urge to piss and run off to the restroom.
* Taking on more mature subject matter in a more nuanced and subtle way
Home console gaming really got off the ground in the mid-1980s with the NES, which was a tremendous technological leap from the only previous console to be popular on a massive scale (the Atari 2600). At first, the NES was really considered to be a "toy" and the chief marketing demographic was children; those kids who Nintendo hooked in the mid-80s gradually grew up, went to high school, and were graduating and going out into college/reality on their own by the mid-90s. Most of them were no less gamers than they were a decade before, however, so the challenge to the console gaming market was to retain those customers by adapting to their shifting tastes as they matured.
Most of the gaming business world responded in a heavy-handed, lowest-common-denominator sort of way, simply adopting the Hollywood/TV formula of cheap ultra-sexualization and violence (Mortal Kombat being the major quantum leap into this sort of thing as a market force versus the focus on cute cuddliness seen before). While Metal Gear Solid certainly brings the violence, it also has a creator and a team of writers whose prior gaming experience lay mostly in the Japanese personal computer market, a market more open and demanding of intelligent, compelling storytelling.
There is a lot to criticize in the writing and dialogue of Metal Gear Solid; it is certainly a far cry from Nobel literature material. Aside from the personal indulgences of the author re: exposition and pacing, it also rigs things up so that it appears to have much more depth than it actually does. The game has a pervasive anti-human, almost misanthropic tone, seemingly informed by Kojima's surface-level reading of sociobiology and the "nature v.s. nurture" debates in the natural sciences (my guess is that he didn't go much beyond Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", published some two decades prior to the release of MGS and heavily criticized from a number of angles since then). Similarly, all other themes introduced in the game really don't get beyond the introductory levels of community college courses.
It is important to remember, however, that this was all directed at an audience with likely no prior exposure to anything intellectually deeper than Super Mario Bros., and as such represented both a tremendous risk, and a shaky step forward for gaming as a storytelling medium and as a "serious" companion to literature and cinema as a mode of human artistic expression. Bless Kojima's heart, he does make an honest effort, and he does a lot of things right along the way. His strength is really not so much in the overall narrative; he's at his best at the beginning when you know nothing about what is going on, and gradually gets worse as he actually has to come up with coherent explanations for events in his story (similar to Snatcher and pretty much every other game he's written.) His strength is in all the peripheral details, particularly the characters; I believe this is due to his "pastiche" style as a writer and creator, where he isn't really much for coming up with a cohesive overall vision on his own, but instead lifts elements here and there from all his primary influences and then arranges them into an overall compelling experience.
Let's take the characters as an example, as I feel they are the primary strength of the work as a whole. As with most Japanese games of the 1980s-1990s, most of them have their skeletons and visual design outright pirated from Hollywood movies. Yet, who would argue that Snake Plissken is a better or more compelling character than Solid Snake at this point? Or, hell, that even that guy from Rambo (whose name I can't even remember) is a better character than Roy Campbell? Kojima has a knack for taking other people's ideas and modifying them to be more interesting than the original. Over time this would be a detriment to the series, as you can't sustain a really long and in-depth story this way (which I don't think Kojima ever intended to ... I think since Metal Gear Solid 2 he wanted to move on but felt compelled to keep coming back due solely to massive fan demand), but at this initial point it worked out pretty well.
Nuclear proliferation is an easy target - nobody likes the idea of suddenly being blowed up. However, wading into genetics and the "nature v.s. nurture" debate, even if on the mostly debunked side of "nature" and done in a rather clumsy and underinformed way, is light years beyond what console gaming had been up to at this point. Fusing social commentary and discussion on what it means to be human with a fun and compellingly presented/polished game was a major step for gaming and the value of it should really not be underestimated.
* The little things
Particularly, what could be called the No Fourth Wall trope pervasive in this (and pretty much all Kojima games.) This is a very difficult thing to pull off in something otherwise trying hard to be Serious Business. And yet, it works so well here - who would ever forget the entirety of the Psycho Mantis fight, for example?
* The soundtrack
This can, and has, and will be debated, but Kojima's change in musical direction after the release of this first game to Harry Gregson-Williams (and his generic ambient techno that sounds like every single one of the lame '90s action movies he ever scored) really did a disservice to the series. Not only was it the last connection that the series had to the legendary Konami Kukeiha Club, but Tappy's score for this original release was also really just pitch-perfect to the mood and setting of the game and enhanced the experience considerably. I'd go so far to say it was a slap in the face to re-score the game for the Twin Snakes re-release with moar of Gregson-Williams' boringness, when the original soundtrack was really one of the best in gaming history.
WHAT WE'D PROBABLY BE BETTER OFF FORGETTING
* The Padding
Trucking back through half the base to get a sniper rifle while a comrade lies bleeding to death in the snow? Going an almost similar distance several times to "heat" and "freeze" a keycard? Seriously, with all the other greatness on display here, this was the best that they could come up with to extend playtime?
* The Indulgent Melodrama
Most of this is confined to the Codec conversations, which are skippable by mashing the X or Square buttons, so this isn't a tremendous weight on the game in and of itself. This is another problem with Kojima's writing, however, evident in games even earlier than this one, and continuing to recur all the way up through the recently released MGS4, and I guess it happens simply because he sells so many damn games that no one at the company dares criticize or question him, and he so egocentrically believes he is a genius that he refuses to even listen to anyone outside of Konami.
Some of the melodrama is fun, like "Jimmy Flinders" entire over-the-top performance as Liquid, where the lines are so bad and delivered with such corny zeal that they become classics. Some of it is just "hurry the shit up" bad though, like the inevitable meandering death speeches by the bosses recounting their tragic childhood (and which become a cliche due to happening nearly every single time).
* The Lack Of Playtime
The game has about seven to eight hours of gameplay on your first playthrough. But there's only really four seperate buildings in the game, which constitute the main areas of gameplay, and none of them is all that big. I would estimate at least two hours of that seven or eight is wholly consumed by non-interactive cutscenes, Codec conversations and the ending. Add in the previously mentioned padding, clocking in at maybe another cumulative hour, and you are looking at five hours tops of actual moving-the-controls gameplay.
Granted, now, that's per run, and the game is good for multiple runs due to tossing you bonus items at the end such as the bandanna, stealth camo and camera. Still, though, the criticisms of the game as being more than a movie than a game certainly have plenty of merit.
* The Voice Acting
This is probably the most contentious point here - the voice acting for this game has become beloved, and even though of as among the better examples of gaming, but that is seriously due more to hammy balls-out campiness than true quality. I never much minded Mei Ling and Natasha's accents, for example, even found them kind of cute ... until I played the game again for the purpose of this review. Man, those are cringe-worthy. Cam Clarke is still in balls-out Ninja Turtle mode, and it only comes off simply because he is so relentlessly over the top with it that it becomes unintentionally hilarious ("I'M YOUR SHADOW!!!"). At first I didn't understand why they wanted to re-do all the voice acting with the same actors for the Twin Snakes remake ... now I do ... though I'm not sure it made all that much of a difference.
* The Often Slidey Controls
Seriously, Snake often manages to do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time ... try to slide around a corner and fail miserably, mash X to get out of one of the long-ass cutscenes and start out some boss battle under heavy fire by kneeling and laying down all painstakingly, etc. The limited camera view makes aiming guns at any enemy who isn't already in your face a nightmare (fortunately, if you are sneaking, this doesn't happen often.)
* Crazy save game for ePSXe - gets you past the disc-switching problem with a save at the start of Disc 2, but it is all weirdly hacked. Usable in a pinch though.
* Gameplay Video