Snake Eater tells the story not of the birth of a hero, but of his death. Set over 40 years before the events of the first two Metal Gear Solid games – and before the series’ iconic hero Solid Snake was even born – Metal Gear Solid 3 places us in the boots of a young soldier named Naked Snake, a man who would later go on to become the tyrannical Big Boss, the commanding officer who famously betrays Solid Snake at the end of the original (NES) Metal Gear. And with Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain getting closer, now's the time to revisit this classic.
Using the Cold War as both backdrop and subtext, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater chronicles the events that kickstart Naked Snake’s downward spiral. A simpler, more focused tale than other entries in the series, it tells the story of his betrayal at the hand of his mentor, The Boss, and his next mission: to hunt down and kill her.
The mission is codenamed Operation Snake Eater, and it’s remarkably appropriate – the notion of the student killing the teacher evokes the ancient Greek symbolism of ouroboros – a serpent devouring its own tail. But also, after he kills his mentor, and solemnly collects his medals, we can see that guilt is eating Snake from within.
There’s not a lot of cheer to be found in Naked Snake’s tale – he arrives at his self-realisation via torture, heartbreak, amputation, and a finger-blistering climb up The World’s Longest Ladder. But yet Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, for all of its thematic bleakness and belligerent controls, is a delightful world to play around in. The decision to rip the stealth-action out of grimy industrial complexes and into the brightly-lit Russian jungle brought out the best in director Hideo Kojima – famous for his ability to offset brooding narratives with silly gameplay flourishes.
And Snake Eater sees Kojima at his most playful. The example that always sticks in my mind is the crocodile cap. It’s found relatively early on in the game – a craggy rock high above Chyornyj Prud – but it’s hidden well enough that I didn’t discover it until my third playthrough. It is as advertised: a comically oversized piece of headwear shaped like a crocodile’s head that protrudes high into the sky. In most normal circumstances it’s completely impractical and even draws derision from your foes.
But as ever with Metal Gear Solid, thinking outside the (cardboard) box reaps big rewards. With croco-cap equipped, you’ll soon discover that guard dogs – who usually sniff you out like you’re made of sausage – give you a wide berth. Fooling human guards requires a little more guile. Hide behind a pile of rocks, get down on your belly and gingerly poke the crocodile snout out of cover – do it right and patrols will flee in terror, allowing you to sneak on unhindered.
The crocodile cap isn’t a lone island of madness in a sea of sensibility. It’s more like an archipelago of the asinine, as Kojima and his designers’ mischievous minds run riot. Captured animals can be unleashed on patrol runs, causing havoc. Rationed food that has been left to rot isn’t necessarily destined for the bin – drop it in the middle of a particular boss fight and you can trick him into scoffing it, causing him to vom all over the forest floor. Another boss battle, with a 102-year-old sniper, can be skipped entirely, either by taking him out from afar following an early cutscene or, ingeniously, simply by waiting a week – next time you boot up the game, you’ll find that he’s succumbed to old age.
Not that you’d want to skip it in any case. The tense sniper duel with The End isn’t just one of the best boss battles of all time – it’s the greatest realisation of what Kojima wanted Metal Gear Solid 3’s outdoorsy setting to achieve. It’s a more organic, open-ended brand of stealth, which gives just as much room to let the players’ creative sides run free, as it did the developers’.
By taking Big Boss’ next adventure open-world, Metal Gear Solid V aims to expand on this philosophy – but without Kojima’s input (or so it seems), it remains to be seen whether it will retain the impish humour and experimentation that cushioned the impact of the first flight of steps in Big Boss’ descent.