Games time forgot: the Metal Gear Solid demo

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This may be the second weirdest forgotten game I ever talk about. The demo for Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 is not really a game in and of itself, and the full title it demoes is nowhere near forgotten. And who has nostalgia for a demo, anyway? It would seem, for all intents and purposes, that this will be a completely nonsensical article.

I’m not going to necessarily argue that point.

The Metal Gear Solid demo, which I can’t find anymore because I lost the demo collection disc it came on and cannot remember for the life of me what it was called, was a truly remarkable bit of gaming. Apart from being hands-down the best demo I’ve ever played, it somehow managed to be superior to most full retail games. Considering the demo only contained the first five rooms in the game, this was a hell of a feat.

Anyway, hit the jump to find out what the hell I’m talking about.

I’m not gonna do a Story/Gameplay/Why you’re not playing it division for this week, for obvious reasons.

Essentially, the MGS demo began at the very beginning of the game (meaning the first proper cut scene, not the optional animated pre-mission briefings) and ended with the death of the DARPA chief, Donald Anderson. If you’ve ever played MGS in its entirety, you probably understand that we’re not talking about a mindblowing amount of gameplay, here: Snake goes from the watery basement to the outside of Shadow Moses to a ventilation shaft to a tank hangar to an elevator to another ventilation shaft, and that’s it. An experienced player can get through this chunk of gameplay in less than five minutes, not counting cut scenes.

Yet, as someone who had never played the game — heck, who had never played any stealth game before, period — I could literally spend hours with this small slice of the complete title. The MGS demo did everything that a great demo should do. Literally, everything.

It set up the world and the characters (considering how important story is to the MGS series, enticing the player with interesting personalities and situations was an absolute must), it gave you a firm handle on the game’s main mechanics (Mei Ling’s adorably racist “da bwight dot in da middew is you, Snake” radar tutorial is present in its entirety), and it teased you into excitement to find out what happens right after the demo ends.

Most demos end on the same depressingly predictable note: you fight off some bad guys, enter a room, and — gasp! — all of a sudden a gigantic, ferocious-looking boss busts through a wall like the goddamn Kool-Aid Man and howls at you menacingly. As you mentally prepare yourself to kick the crap out of the goon, the screen slowly fades to black and you’re urged to purchase the full game. The “boss fade,” as I call it, is a reliable method of suddenly exciting your player before pulling the rug out and making them yearn for more. It’s really easy, it’s really effective, and it’s really unfair.

The Metal Gear Solid demo was nowhere near as manipulative. Without having to plop a gigantic boss fight in front of the player (who, of course, looks way more menacing and difficult in the demo than he ever is in the full game), the demo’s climax left me in incredible suspense simply by ending the demo after a really, really great cut scene.

Try to imagine the cinematic on its own, without thinking about the ultimate reasoning behind the events: after finally sneaking into Donald Anderson’s cell (thus completing the first stated objective of your mission), you get some solid answers regarding your mission to foil the terrorists: you’ll need a PAL key (“That card key…,” the woman in the next cell mutters to herself), some ID cards that work with your body’s own electric (though I distinctly remember the subtitles mistakenly said “electronic”) field, and so on and so forth. As Donald explains things to Snake, we see a redheaded woman doing sit-ups in the next cell. She begins to eavesdrop on the conversation. Suddenly, Donald makes reference to a nuke-equipped walking battle tank. “Metal Gear?!?,” Snake asks in his inimitable voice, mixed with equal parts badassity and total confusion. We see very grainy, blurry shots of what seems to be a really big mech of sorts. We can’t quite perfectly make out what we’re looking at, but we know that it’s dangerous, and frightening. Then, after a few uncharacteristically inquisitive statements, Donald suddenly has a heart attack! The controller rumbles as he lurches toward Snake, yelling, “WHYYY?!”

He finally drops to the floor, dead.

Snake kneels and calls the Colonel on codec.

The demo ends.

I came.

I mean, honestly, I can’t think of a better way to end a demo: we’ve met or heard reference to nearly all the main players in the plot, we’ve assumedly accomplished the first objective in our mission, and all of a sudden the hostage dies and though we’ve received the answer to a fair many questions, even more numerous and interesting ones have been raised. When the demo first ended, my sister and I literally wanted to rush out and buy a copy of the game as quickly as possible…but not QUITE as much as we wanted to immediately replay the demo and explore a bit more.

Beyond its incredible narrative tautness, the demo included more nonlinear gameplay, hidden secrets, and just plain awesome stuff than I could find in roughly 80% of the PS1 games I had access to back in 1999. On a second playthrough, I found out how to get on Shadow Moses’ outside balcony. It took me several tries to find all the hidden rations and items. I spent hours perfecting my technique, to get through the entire demo without alerting a single guard. I played through the demo three times until I realized there was a Socom hidden in the back of the truck outside Shadow Moses, which I then gleefully used on every guard in sight.

It’s easy for MGS veterans to talk about how Hideo Kojima has a borderline insane attention to detail, but back in 1999, I — an average gamer with no previous knowledge of the series — simply had no way of knowing: I presumed that I was to play a pretty standard Mission-Based War Game With A Badass Protagonist, and was nowhere near ready for the nonlinear, secret-filled awesomeness I received. I could go through the demo a dozen different times and, while I still had to use the same doors and shafts, I could get there a different way each time. I eventually derived more hours of gameplay from that meager demo than I did from all the full games I actually owned. After about a month of just playing the demo, Ash and I rented, then bought the full game, thus kicking off our joint crush on David Hayter.

It’s obviously not worth playing the demo now — much better to get the Essential Collection and play all three games in one fell swoop — but I have many unreasonably fond memories of the simple, brilliant demo of a game that would literally stick with me for the rest of my life.

In my segment of Destructoid’s Metal Gear Solid 4 review, I mentioned that my adoration from the game was borne out of the fact that I had been involved with the franchise since elementary school. I’ve had a personal relationship with the Metal Gear Solid series, for better or for worse, for around half of my life.

The MGS demo was the beginning of that relationship.

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Anthony Burch
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