Last week we covered the childish wonder of Miyamoto, but now we take a look at a much more controversial figure in gaming. Fans love his philosophical writing, fourth-wall breaks, and zany sci-fi, while critics say his cinematic experiences bend too far away from actual gameplay. Love or hate him, he’s created landmark titles and deserves respect as a game creator and artist. Let’s take a look at Hideo Kojima.
If you’ve played any of Hideo Kojima’s games, it probably won’t surprise you that he originally had aspirations of becoming a filmmaker. He changed his mind near the end of his Economics University Program, deciding that creating video games might satisfy him more. He faced social pressure to avoid the still unproven gaming industry, but luckily for us, he took the risk.
Hideo Kojima’s first gig was with Konami, his home until their messy split during the end of production on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. He worked in the MSX division, a home computer that played games. Kojima was actually disappointed with this first position, as the MSX couldn’t display as many colors as the NES or arcade cabinets.
He dallied with smaller projects, but his lack of programming skills held him back. Luckily, he was given a golden opportunity with the first Metal Gear, birthing the franchise he would direct for the next few decades.
The MSX was not only limited in color palette, but it struggled to display many sprites and bullets on the screen simultaneously. Like many revolutionary ideas, the genius came from working around a limitation.
Kojima worked around the problem by placing a large emphasis on stealth. Instead of facing Contra levels of bullet-storm, the player would focus on staying out of sight, avoiding combat at all costs. His out of the box thinking spawned a monster franchise, expanded a genre, and gave him more control over his next project.
Snatcher was a cyberpunk adventure inspired heavily by Bladerunner. The voice-acting (for CD-ROM versions) and writing raised the bar for how mature and cinematic games could be. Although visual novels were and still are very popular in Japan, this was the first mainstream release in the west, and bombed commercially. Check out my let’s play of the first hour of Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher if you’re interested in more.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake was a massive jump forward, implementing most of the features we would see in Metal Gear Solid. Enemies now patrolled across screens with a wider field of vision, could turn their heads, and even investigate noises. The alarm system saw an evolution to three phases. Snake could kneel and crawl to stay silent in certain terrain or hide underneath objects. And the famous radar made its debut, showing enemy positions.
The codec conversations were fleshed out visually and explored much deeper narrative arcs and themes. It amazed to see how many of Metal Gear Solid‘s mechanics were already fleshed out here.
Policenauts was another visual novel, but this time featured a cop. In space! It evolved the Snatcher formula, adding more point-and-click interface mechanics, and was notable for Kojima’s first use of memory-card reading easter eggs, later made famous by Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid.
Unfortunately, an official english translation was abandoned due to troubles with lip-synching, but a fan version was created in 2009 for the Playstation version, and 2016 for the superior Saturn port.
Tokimeki Memorial Drama Trilogy
In between the super serious Policenauts and Metal Gear Solid, Kojima worked on three titles in the Tokimeki Memorial dating sim series. He served various roles as planner, producer, drama director, and executive director.
Hideo Kojima’s trilogy were adventure games similar to Snatcher and Policenauts with obviously quite different tones. Each game focused on one girl previously seen in Tokimemo 1. The games were noted for their branching paths and voice work.
Metal Gear Solid
1998 – one of the best years in gaming – saw both Metal Gear and The Legend of Zelda make the leap to 3D (Half-Life, Starcraft, RE2, Fallout 2, and more were also released that year).
Both titles translated most of the mechanics from their previous 2D game and used the 3D space to tell a more cinematic and immersive story.
Kojima had been using the CD-ROM format to include voice and cut-scenes for years, but this was his masterpiece (at the time). The cinematography and voice direction raised the bar for what could be done with the medium. Sure the game could be finished in a few hours if you skipped all of the cutscenes but the storytelling experience was just as important as the stealth play.
MGS is still praised as one of the greatest PS1 games of all time and put Kojima on the map as in important game creator.
Zone of the Enders
In North America, this Kojima-produced title came with a demo for the hotly anticipated MGS 2, thus granting a decent sales reception for hungry fans desperate to see what was coming next. The second game did much worse but are still regarded with cult status, and appeared on an HD Collection that unfortunately suffered a few frame-rate issues not present in the original releases.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Metal Gear Solid 1 was criticized for braindead AI that often failed to feel realistic. MGS 2 honed the original’s techniques to a polished shine and expanded them to create truly impressive AI and interactions with the environment.
The enemies worked in squads, called for reinforcements, and swept the area to continue their search. They also used body armor and riot shields to counteract the player.
The story delved deeper into conspiracies and philosophy, turning the idea of a hero inside out and exploring fascinating ideas that I won’t dare spoil here. MGS 1 felt much closer to a popcorn action movie while MGS 2 took a much artier direction.
MGS 3: Snake Eater
Snake Eater felt like a direct response to the backlash against MGS2’s cerebral plot and anti-hero sentiments. Hideo Kojima went full camp, glorifying Snake as a James Bond type, complete with an over the top ’70s theme song.
Gameplay explored realistic elements like hunting for food to restore health and manually adjusting camo to blend in with specific environments.
The story was a prequel to the first Metal Gear, taking place 30 years prior, in 1964. This time, players control the original Snake (Naked/Venom/Punished/Big Boss), on a mission to eliminate his former mentor: The Boss. This original Snake is the hero of MGS3, Portable Ops, Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes, and Phantom Pain. He becomes the villain of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2.
Kojima produced this interesting game that used the GBA’s light sensor to fuel various solar weapons. The gun actually required the player to go outside in sunlight to charge the ammo, or be forced to avoid enemies.
The game could be set to the player’s time zone to match the real-life day/night cycle, affecting various elements.
MGS IV: Guns of the Patriots
Kojima intended to step back from the franchise, but in a sad and bizarre story, received death threats influencing him to lead the project.
“We talk today as if it was a joke, but at the time, it was not a joke at all. It was serious.” – Hideo Kojima
He envisioned MGS2 as an experiment that left no room for a sequel, but was also convinced to helm Snake Eater, also intending that to be the end.
“So ultimately we ended up making ‘4’. When work started on it, though, I began to wonder if my message of what we should pass on to future generations had truly gotten through, both to players and my team. After all, I’ve been conscious of the fact that this really is going to be my final Metal Gear, which means the team is going to have to continue the series themselves after I step away.”
Kojima tried and failed again to distance himself from Metal Gear Solid. He relented to take control of Peace Walker when he was unsatisfied with the direction the game was going.
“There was a lot of confusion within the team and it didn’t proceed as I wanted it to. Therefore I thought that I needed to jump in and do Peace Walker”
Despite it’s humble home on the PSP, the Peace Walker development team was just as large as Metal Gear Solid 4‘s and was even originally titled MGS 5: Peace Walker. Many elements paved the way for Phantom Pain.
Kojima spent a good chunk of time working on the Fox Engine to be used in several Konami games. They started after MGS4 and the PES 2014 was the first game released with it.
A core feature was the multi-platform aspect, enabling Konami’s team to develop multiplatform games much quicker.
MGS V: Ground Zeroes, P.T., PES 2015-18, The Phantom Pain, and Metal Gear Survive (2018) all use the engine.
“The concept of the ‘Fox Engine’ is photo-realism. The age of fixating on pictures and sound in games is over. Now the questions are: How free is it? Does it connect to the internet and is the gameplay smooth? Even so, a certain level of realistic atmosphere is required. ” – Twitter Kojima
The most infamous PSN game of all time was released Aug 12, 2014. Designed as a ‘playable teaser’ of Kojima’s upcoming Silent Hills game starring Norman Reedus with creative help from famed director Guillermo Del Toro. It quickly become a sore spot after its cancellation amongst the Kojima/Konami breakup.
Konami removed it from the PSN store and blocked any re-downloading. PS4s with an installed copy on their hard drive became a lot more valuable to collectors.
To see the horror genre receive such an injection of creativity and polish was inspiring and consequently heartbreaking to realize the full game would never see the light of day.
“In the past I’ve mentioned Silent Hill in interviews, and as a result of that the president of Konami rung me up and said he’d like me to make the next Silent Hill. Honestly, I’m kind of a scaredy-cat when it comes to horror movies, so I’m not confident I can do it. At the same time, there’s a certain type of horror that only people who are scared of can create, so maybe it’s something I can do. That said, I think Silent Hill has a certain atmosphere. I think it has to continue, and I’d love to help it continue, and if I can help by supervising or lending the technology of the Fox Engine, then I’d love to participate in that respect.” – Hideo Kojima
The Phantom Pain
After many attempts to make his final Metal Gear, Kojima finally succeeded with The Phantom Pain. Where MGS4 was a gigantic summary paragraph of the 1-3, trading in on nostalgia, The Phantom Pain broke out of the usual conventions. It embraced the open-world concept wholeheartedly, even reducing the amount of non-playable cutscene time to a shockingly small amount considering the previous titles. TPP expanded on Peace Walker in story and gameplay, focusing on base-building and finishing off the Big Boss story in the lead-up to the events of the very first Metal Gear.
Unfortunately, development of the game was hampered by the deteriorating relationship between Hideo Kojima and Konami. Geoff Keighley of the The Game Awards claimed Kojima was locked in a separate room away from his development team, forced to speak through a middle-party. This allegedly lasted for the final six months of production. Rumours suggest the second half of the game was compromised during the tumultuous production. The finished game features an abrupt ‘ending’ 3/4 through and a post-game like situation of repeated missions with variable objectives.
Phantom Pain wasn’t able to execute to its fullest potential but is still a damn fine stealth-action game with compelling base-building. The lack of story may be considered a plus for critics of the previous entries and their hours of non-interactive narrative. It’s currently free on PS Plus this month and I urge anyone to pick it up on sale if it sounds interesting in the slightest.
Kojima made a rockstar return at Sony’s E3 2016 Press Conference to announce his new game Death Stranding. The still unreleased title will feature his former Silent Hills lead Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and the likeness of Guillermo Del Toro. Trailers released so far have been mysterious, focusing on a wide range of imagery and showing no real gameplay. One of Kojima’s few explanations describes traditional weapons as ‘sticks’, but the players of his new game will think in terms of ‘ropes’. I’m sure it’ll all make sense, just like the dead simple Metal Gear timeline.
Hideo Kojima isn’t universally loved, but revolutionary artists rarely are. He’s constantly raised the bar of what video games can do as a medium, even when stuck with the same franchise far beyond his desire. Now that he’s been unleashed, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.