Metal Gear is a game that was way ahead of its time. Most NES games where the main character used a gun were action games, but Metal Gear is an exception. In terms of gameplay, Metal Gear is closer to the Legend of Zelda than Contra. Your primary goal is to explore several heavily guarded military bases, collecting key cards, weapons, and other items that allow you to progress in your mission. That mission: to save a captured ally and destroy the titular Metal Gear weapon.
You are told by your commanding officer that the mission is infiltration, and while this is true, it’s not precisely the kind of gameplay one would expect based on modern stealth games (including later games in this series). You’d be hard-pressed to get through many areas without killing guards at all. Rather, you’ll often find yourself taking out whatever enemies are in your way while leaving the rest unaware of your presence.
Combat is not the core of Metal Gear, and as a result the game suffers due to its action-heavy introductory sequence. You’re dropped in a jungle with no weapons at all, and have to sneak past many armed guards and attack dogs with very little room for error. You’re even guaranteed to be noticed if you pick up one utility item along the way. Once you obtain some weapons and an increase in rank (which comes with an increase in health), incidental combat becomes a secondary danger. Indeed, the first 10 minutes of the game may be the hardest in terms of action, which is a problem.
You’ll discover a wide variety of equipment during your mission, though many items serve to get you past one particular roadblock and are never used again. The most noteworthy items are 8 key cards. Any given door may be locked with any one of these, and you’ll need to manually try each (going to your inventory subscreen each time) to open new doors. This can get tedious, especially since you need to stop using other items, such as a health-protecting gas mask, while trying cards. Still, having to manually use cards does help you appreciate the progress you make, and I’m not sure the game would actually be very well-served by having all cards used automatically.
While you can find seven different weapon types in Metal Gear, outside of boss battles there’s rarely a good reason to use anything but your standard pistol. This is especially true once you rank up, allowing you to hold more ammunition, and get a silencer. Every normal enemy goes down from one bullet, so why use something like a rocket launcher? The only other weapon that is often tactically useful is the remote controlled missile, but they are too limited and can only be restocked in one area, making this impractical. Of course, when you do fight one of the game’s bosses, you’ll appreciate the other weapons, though you’re often shoehorned into using one in particular based on the boss. Still, as useless as land mines generally are, it’s undeniably cool to use them to take out a tank by yourself.
The game treats limited resources, specifically ammunition and healing items, somewhat oddly. If you find a drop of either kind, you can always leave and re-enter the screen where you found them to fill up your inventory completely. Once you have a good stock of healing rations, it’s tough to die from normal combat unless you’re not paying attention. At higher ranks, damage is more of an annoyance than an actual danger.
As good as Metal Gear’s core gameplay is, the game has a number of significant flaws. There are several puzzles you have to figure out with few or no hints at the solution, or in the case of the maze areas, that there’s necessarily even a puzzle to solve. The game is actually very generous with tips if you make good use of your transceiver, but if you’re paying enough attention to do so, you probably don’t need the tips as much. The beginning player is basically left to guess at what they should be doing at several points in the game.
Worse than puzzles with no hints are the no-win scenarios present in the game. The game uses a password system, but a password is only given upon game over. This is a major problem if you accidentally kill one of the hostages you’re supposed to save: you lose rank if you do so, and you must be at maximum rank to complete the game. If you accidentally press the confirm button when listening to a hostage one too many times and shoot them, too bad, you need to go back to your last password. You are also put into a boss fight at one point where you may be low on ammo coming in, and there’s no opportunity to get more. (In this case you can actually just slip by the boss, but it still seems like a silly design.)
On the whole, Metal Gear is a very interesting game that seems out of place on the NES. For that matter, it would seem out of place in the 16-bit era as well. But while it makes great strides in gameplay innovation, there is a lot of fat that could be trimmed. Indeed, much of that was actually added to the NES version compared to the original MSX version, which wasn’t originally released in the U.S. If you want the optimal Metal Gear experience, try to track that down, but you can certainly do worse than the NES classic.