Nintendo entered the home console market amidst the Video Game Crash of 1983. Two years later, they found themselves dominating the market with their Nintendo Entertainment System. Feeling justifiably cautious at the time, quality control was a cornerstone of Nintendo’s business strategy. They didn’t want another flood of mediocre games to overwhelm the market. To guarantee that, Nintendo insisted that third-party companies only release five games for the NES per year in the United States.
Game publisher Konami was not happy with this strict guideline. In 1988, they established a subsidiary called Ultra Games so they could publish five more games per year.
The first title published under Ultra Games was Metal Gear.
For gamers in North America, Metal Gear for the Nintendo Entertainment System is the first entry in the ongoing Metal Gear series.
But, the NES version of Metal Gear was not the original game in the series. In fact, it was a hastily-created port programmed in only three months.
Metal Gear (MSX2)
The original Metal Gear was designed for the MSX2, the second generation of a home computer platform developed by Microsoft Japan.
When game planner Hideo Kojima was put on the early stages of a “military action game” project, he had the novel idea of making the game about stealth instead of combat.
Metal Gear sends players on an infiltration mission through a fortress full of mercenaries to disable “Metal Gear”—a walking tank that can launch nuclear missiles. While the main character, Solid Snake, has guns, explosives, and a variety of gadgets, they are most helpful for solving puzzles or defeating bosses. Otherwise, they will likely alert guards that patrol most of the game’s areas. The player is incentivized to sneak from screen to screen, using their equipment wisely.
Metal Gear would be released in July 1987 in Japan, Europe, and various other markets. An English version of the game was produced, but only for the United Kingdom.
Re-Releases of the MSX2 Version
The MSX2 version of Metal Gear would not see any official release in North America until 2006, almost twenty years after its original release in Japan and Europe.
Here, it was included on the second disc of the PlayStation 2 title Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. However, when Subsistence was later packaged with Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection in 2008, the second disc of the game was omitted and thus the original Metal Gear was not available. This mistake was rectified in later releases of Metal Gear Solid 3 in 2011 and 2013.
Look for the green box (pictured left) if you want to get the PS2 version.
As of this writing, you can get the original Metal Gear three other ways. You could purchase the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection or Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection. Or, you could purchase a digital copy of Metal Gear Solid 3: HD Edition.
Both Japan and North America received a mobile phone release of Metal Gear back in 2008. Yes, mobile phone. Needless to say, you’d have a heck of time accessing it these days.
Emulation aside, there is no convenient way to get an English translation of Metal Gear by itself unless you feel like importing an old MSX2 cartridge from the UK.
Japan, meanwhile, got another stand-alone release of the game for the Wii Virtual Console. Since that service is now defunct, Japanese gamers seem to be stuck with anthologies like we are.
But what about the NES version?
Metal Gear (NES)
In Japan, the original MSX2 release of Metal Gear was followed by the release of the NES version only five months later—in December 1987. The decision to make this version was pretty sudden on Konami’s part.
Masahiro Ueno, a programmer with Konami Japan at the time, was a 22-year-old just out of college ordered to convert a game made for a home computer to the NES.
Ueno’s bosses at Konami not only wanted Metal Gear done in three months. They wanted it to be different from the MSX2 version. According to an interview with Ueno, the NES’s technical limitations prevented his team from simply re-using the graphics and programming of the MSX2 version. Though this created a lot of difficulties, Ueno’s bosses wanted the game to be different from its predecessor anyway.
Hideo Kojima, the planner for the original game, was not involved in the development of the NES version.
Ueno’s team finished their build of the game in the short amount time they were given and so it was released on the Famicom the following December. Half a year later, in June 1988, Konami’s Ultra Games would publish Metal Gear in North America for the NES. It sold over a million copies in North America alone.
In spite of the NES version’s success, Hideo Kojima has been vocal about his distaste for it. In various interviews, Kojima has slammed the NES release as a “pitiful title” that is “too difficult” compared to his original design.
He has also expressed disappointment about the fact that “Metal Gear” doesn’t actually appear in the NES game. Instead, it is replaced by a supercomputer. Ueno chalked up this up to “technical limitations.”
Re-Releases of the NES Version
Slight variations of the NES game would later be released on the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS in 1990.
Fourteen years later, Metal Gear would be included on a bonus disc that came with the premium edition of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for the Nintendo GameCube. However, this premium edition was released exclusively in Japan. The Metal Gear that North American gamers were introduced to has not been digitally released anywhere and it has not been included with any compilations or anthologies. Aside from emulating it, the only way to play the classic title is by getting a physical copy for NES, Commodore 64, or MS-DOS.
Despite Kojima’s grumbling about the NES version, its massive success in North America helped him tremendously in the long run.
After the sales numbers came in, Konami got together a development team to work on a sequel aimed specifically at western audiences. The result was the 1990 NES release Snake’s Revenge.
Hideo Kojima had zero involvement with the game and did not hear about it until he bumped into one of its programmers during a train ride to Tokyo. At the time, Snake’s Revenge was still in development, but the programmer told Kojima about the project.
As their conversation went on, the programmer suggested that Kojima make a “true sequel” to the original Metal Gear.
Before the train ride was even over, Kojima had concocted a storyline for his sequel and it was approved by Konami not long after. It would be an MSX2 title, like the original game, and it would ignore all the changes made in the NES version and Snake’s Revenge.
Kojima’s sequel was also released in 1990, under the name Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.
Unfortunately, Metal Gear 2 was released exclusively in Japan. Kojima’s programming team considered the game one last hoorah for the aging MSX hardware. By then, computer gaming had moved on to newer consoles.
As a result of the game’s Japanese exclusivity, gamers in North America and Europe were left with two distinct versions of Metal Gear and Snake’s Revenge.
Re-Releases of the Sequels
Snake’s Revenge has never been re-released anywhere. An original NES copy is the only official way to play it. Overall, it has ended up the black sheep of the franchise—its sequel position being superseded by Kojima’s Metal Gear 2. As far as series canon is concerned, this was further solidified (no pun intended) in Metal Gear Solid, which recaps the events of the original MSX2 games and ignores any elements from the NES titles.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake ended up sharing Metal Gear’s spotty release history. It was not officially available in North America or Europe until 2006 and these days can be played if you purchase any of the collections I’ve mentioned above.
Unfairly, in my opinion, the NES games have been left behind. This is a shame, as they were critical in establishing the Metal Gear series and the career of its creator.
Preservation of these two titles has likely already been undertaken by independent parties. If that is the case, I hope future generations will be able to experience these pieces of gaming history.
Thank you for reading.
Great piece, and I agree, the NES games are unfairly overlooked given how much they contributed to the franchise and to Kojima’s own career, as you say.
I think I’ve still got both of mine, which were my introduction to Metal Gear and why I gave Metal Gear Solid a look at all years later. Even so, I’d love to see a collection that brings together these versions along with their MXX2 counterparts… and maybe throw in Ghost Babel, for good measure, as I never got to play that one (and I don’t think it was re-released, either). =)
Oh, and thanks for the tip on Metal Gear Solid 3: HD Edition! I didn’t know it was being sold by itself, and it’s even on sale as of this writing!