May 5, 2000 Written by:
In April of 2000, Konami OSA had developed and released the first portable entry in their world famous Metal Gear Solid franchise called Metal Gear Ghost Babel for the Game Boy Color. In May of that same year, the game was released in the US but was simply renamed “Metal Gear Solid”, probably in an attempt to bank off of the success of the Playstation hit of the same name from two years earlier. Today the best place one could hope to find this buried treasure would probably be in the depths of a gaming store bargain bin and even that could truly take some effort.
This game is somewhat of a portablized version of the original Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation, as it shares many of the same characters, story elements, and game mechanics. At first glance, to many this game might look like little more than a scaled-down version of its famous cousin on the PSX. However, despite being downsized onto Nintendo’s handheld, this entry in the series manages to look and feel very much like its console counterpart.
In Ghost Babel you play as Solid Snake, the legendary former FOXHOUND operative who is being taken out of retirement in order to stop a group of terrorists who have taken the latest version of Metal Gear and are using it to threaten the world from their base at Gindra – the place formerly known as Outer Heaven.
One seriously strange (and yet disappointing) aspect of Ghost Babel is how the storyline does not actually fit into the regular MGS cannon. According to this game’s storyline, it game would take place 1 year after the original PSX game. However, Snake still seems to be coming out of his retirement from FOXHOUND – exactly what he did at the beginning of the original game. In addition, Snake also seems to be meeting some of the characters in the original game (like Mei-Ling) for the first time all over again.
The overall storyline itself is a little bit simplified in that with less deception in this story than in the others, Snake has a pretty clear and definite idea of what’s going on in the mission and what his objectives are throughout most of the game. So it’s really just about finding the bad guys and stopping metal gear, with a few mysteries and plot twists here and there and probably one big one at the end as usual. It’s pretty well written for what’s there but in many ways it’s just a device to bring the player into the gameplay and just isn’t as crazy or as unusual as Metal Gear can sometimes get.
All of the dialogue in Ghost Babel is very well written despite being very long and very text-heavy due to the lack of voices. Most of the game’s distinct characters, many of whom are there simply to fulfill roles that some other characters in the original MGS may have played, still have a back story with some sense of depth to them which is played out through various cutscenes and codec conversations. Characters will still try to give you detailed information on your tools, your environment, and even give you good advice on how to get through certain situations. Mei-Ling will even still provide you with various quotes and proverbs to help you out, though many of them are some of the same ones from the original Metal Gear Solid.
So we know that this was meant to be more of a side game in the series in terms of the plotline, but that fact does not at all keep this game from standing up alongside the rest of the series.
Character and Mechanical designs in this game are all done by Ikuya Nakamura, an artist whose work obviously tries to look somewhat like the artwork of Yoji Shinkawa (the mainstay artist of the MGS games) from the console games and does a fair job of it yet still has its own distinctive look. Although characters’ faces on the codec screen do not animate, there is often some slight animation in the cutscenes. Although this isn’t really detrimental to the game itself, whether or not it’s acceptable is up to the fans that play the game.
The game’s interface is very much the same as in the PSX game and surprisingly still has all the same features and the same clean yet sophisticated style. The soliton radar is here and intact, although maybe a little too small for some eyes and without the enemies’ cone of vision displayed. The alert, evasion, and jamming counters are still just as present as before and weapons and items are all represented adequately.
The visuals during actual gameplay are pretty bare-bones. The environments, though not elaborate, are colorful and have some variety as you’ll sneak through sections of a jungle, an outdoor camp, and the corridors of an underground base. The characters themselves are very small and simplistic in appearance, with many guards often appearing as blocky figures that walk back and forth, which in some ways can compliment the style of the rest of the game. Snake himself animates very smoothly but also looks at least as blocky as everyone else. It’s clear that Konami did what they could with the Game Boy color’s hardware to at least bring players colorful and clean visuals.
The sound in Ghost Babel is very 8-bit in its feel but still manages to get by in a Metal Gear game with a few different music tracks that actually feel very much the same as in the console games. What’s nice is that Konami was actually able to transplant a lot of the same sound effects like the guard alert, alarm, and item use jingles in from the console games and make them sound almost exactly the same on the handheld.
Not only does this game manage to look and sound reasonably similar to what an MGS game should be, it is also able to play almost exactly like the console Metal Gear games, offering its own deep, compelling stealth gameplay.
The controls have been mapped excellently to the Game Boy setup, making as much use of it as possible in order to allow the player to perform just about any of the moves they could in the PSX game. Movement with the CONTROL PAD is tight and responsive, allowing you to hug walls. A is used for a melee attack and for knocking on walls to distract guards. B is used to either fire a weapon, use an item, or scroll the screen while hugging a wall in order to take a look at what’s ahead, which nicely emulates the action of peeking around a corner in one of the console games. The START button is used to crouch. The SELECT button is used to pause the game and access a menu from which you can switch items and weapons with the CONTROL PAD as well as access the codec with the START button. During some of the more frantic moments of the game the menu interface might become a little confusing as it is easy to mix things up when trying to think fast, but it generally isn’t much of a problem. All of the controls and abilities of the PSX game (with the exception of neck-breaking, which is sort of substituted by simply punching enemies from behind) are mapped adequately onto a control pad, two action buttons, and a START and SELECT button.
The camera in Ghost Babel is the classic top-down view which is the main thing that helps this edition of Metal Gear Solid feel just like the others. It allows players to control Snake and make him sneak around guards just the same as on the Playstation. This is what makes Ghost Babel so close to its console brethren. However, it’s kind of hard to say whether or not this is due to how well made this game is or how the console games have constantly clinged to over-the-top camera angles. Either way, adjusting to playing Metal Gear on a handheld takes almost no time at all, and good thing too because for the most part the stealth gameplay in this game gets seriously challenging.
Just like in any Metal Gear game, to get through Ghost Babel, players will have to stay out of sight and out of danger and will have to do it by sneaking through corridors, running past lasers and cameras, and getting around various other obstacles that keep plenty of variety in the game. Snake’s methods in the game mostly involve things like keeping walls and objects between him and the enemy, crawling into walls, vents, or under tables, distracting guards and just plain staying out of sight, which is just as challenging in this game as it would be in any other Metal Gear.
As long as you stay out of sight, enemy AI in Ghost Babel isn’t all that fearsome. Guards will mostly patrol set areas that players watch and learn in order to sneak by. Guards may perform some other actions like pausing to stretch or taking short naps but nothing much more than that. They can all actually be taken down pretty easily in most circumstances if you know what you’re doing. If guards do spot you however, it’s almost useless to fight them head on and the game becomes about running away and finding a hiding place where they won’t find you again until the alarm and evasion counters are gone, which in itself can become an ordeal.
Sneaking past enemies, using stealth, and even running when found in this game can actually become a pretty tense experience, but can also give off a satisfying sense of accomplishment. The simple fact that this game is able to give off that kind of feeling to players by itself validates it as a proper Metal Gear Title.
The weapons and equipment you have in Ghost Babel are fairly varied. Although you have almost no non-lethal weapons you are still able to find a pistol, machinegun, and a Nikita rocket launcher (which actually kinda gets the most use) as your main weapons. The rest of the equipment is mostly just all the same stuff snake uses in the console Metal Gear titles like thermal vision, the gas mask, stun and chaff grenades, good ol’ rations, cardboard boxes, and of course the cigarette… which has been renamed the “fogger” in an attempt to keep tobacco references out of the game. Most of the time equipment is used at pre-set points in the game’s plot, which keeps it from becoming useless. But other than for those points, truly stealthy players probably have little use for it.
The game itself is actually split into separate levels, which is not the case in any other Metal Gear title. Seeing the “Stage Complete” screen every few minutes during gameplay is kind of a strange experience given the nature of Metal Gear games each being all one big mission, but it doesn’t really intrude on that fluidity in the game very much. At the end of each level you are rated based on stats like time, kills, and alarms and in my experience the grading scale has been pretty harsh.
As in almost any Metal Gear title, Ghost Babel has its own set of crazy boss characters whom Snake has to fight. There are only 4 of them in this game but each fight one provides some challenge that varies from fight to fight. And of course each one has some kind of crazy backstory that they have to explain to Snake right before they die, but at least a couple of them are genuinely interesting, and the last two or three boss fights in the game were truly difficult in my experience.
After completing all 13 levels, players can actually go back and start at the beginning of any stage they want, which is certainly nice if there is a particular part of the game you like going through. In addition to the main game, there are also over 150 VR missions designed to walk players through the different methods and strategies needed to get through the main game. The single player game isn’t the end either. Ghost Babel also includes a two-player versus mode that was definitely not just thrown together. In it each player must collect disks in a VR map and fight the other player with weapons they find. With the main game, level select, VR missions, and versus mode put together, Ghost Babel will last a lot longer than just one playthrough.Closing Comments
Metal Gear Solid Ghost Babel is basically just a portable version of the original Metal Gear Solid, in terms of presentation, gameplay, and in some cases even storyline. However, through a lot of intense care and attention to detail in with both the game’s presentation and in it’s design, Konami has been able to take the stealth gameplay as well as the feel of the game they had on the Playstation and transfer it to the handheld almost perfectly, giving this game both the sophistication depth that is often associated with Metal Gear (yet it still has an E rating!) and the same engaging and tense stealth gameplay. Not only is Ghost Babel an astounding example of how much you can pull off with a control pad and two buttons, but also quite simply a shining example of how a portable game should be made.9.7/
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