Every so often a game comes along that makes you appreciate just how clever it is, a feat that creator Hideo Kojima pulls off every time he steps up to direct an entry in his Metal Gear Solid series. From fourth-wall-shattering boss battles to hiding key information in plain sight, they tend to raise the question of why don’t more games sit down and have a good think about what they do and why they do it.
Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D carries that line of thought in its adaptation from PlayStation 2 to 3DS, not by merely adding stereoscopic visuals and calling it a day but by taking a good, long look at where other developers have faltered in the process and doing one better. A faithful but possibly not the definitive version of a stone-cold console classic, Snake Eater is one of the best uses of Nintendo’s young handheld hardware to date.
As the chronological starting point of Metal Gear’s often convoluted timeline, Snake Eater marks a great entry point for the series as it requires no prior knowledge, establishing many of the characters, themes and technology that pop up down the line. Taking many cues from Cold War-themed spy movies like the James Bond flicks, Snake Eater’s story is filled with questions of morality and loyalty, betrayal and duplicity as it tells of how a CIA operative goes from codename Naked Snake to Big Boss.
Coming off the post-modern insanity of Metal Gear Solid 2, Snake Eater’s story is pared back in comparison and, while still full of twists, turns and elements of the supernatural, comes off a bit more straightforward – it does, after all, have the privilege of a fresh start, and the Cold War setting befits the cloak and dagger twists. There's certainly no need to know anything about Metal Gear to enjoy the plot, although those familiar with the overarching story will get a kick out of seeing young versions of key characters.
The Cobra Unit that makes up the rogues gallery has, on the whole, arguably the most memorable foes that any Snake has come up against, with tense fights and multiple ways to tackle each. One Cobra confrontation involves no combat at all, and another Cobra can be taken out hours beforehand in a separate location to avoid the battle altogether. Each encounter could easily stand as the individual highlight of separate games, so to have them all in one is a true accomplishment.
Challenging series convention, Snake Eater mostly trades tight military corridors for a jungle filled with wild animals and foliage and opens the game up for camouflage. An index based on how you are equipped and positioned tells you how visible Snake is, affecting the risk of being spotted by enemies. Certain camos work better in particular areas, and for maximum sneaky you’ll want to cycle through your options whenever you enter a new area. On PS2 this meant a lot of fiddling with menus, but thanks to the touch screen this is considerably easier, as is applying medical treatments and switching weapons. New for 3DS is the ability to create your own camo from photos – a novel proposal but not always the most useful.
While realistically your path through the jungle isn’t as extensive and open as it may suggest, there is something to be said for being able to swim, climb trees, hide in tall grass and look up at the sky. Snake Eater takes full advantage of its outdoor environments, especially with the 3D screen volume cranked up. In fact, Snake Eater makes gorgeous and deliberate use of stereoscopic 3D, providing a sense of place and atmosphere that the technology has always strived for but seldom reached. Pop in some headphones and the jungle becomes almost a living place. The world feels refreshed with the extra dimension, a sensation seemingly not lost on Konami as the huge number of cinematics are tweaked to best use the new space — everything is very aware of its perspective, playfully so at times.
In addition to being very pretty, 3D is technically well implemented to boot. Not once will a gimmicky “in-your-face” object stick too far out of the screen and cause double-vision. Objects feel very rounded, as if they inhabit an actual space, as opposed to looking like cutouts in the fore- and background. A minor but extremely convenient touch occurs when the limited gyro controls come in to play, almost invisibly flattening out the 3D effect for when you're expected to move the handheld only to slowly flesh out the environment when you're clear. It's such an obviously brilliant solution to an annoying, seemingly inevitable problem that we're surprised it's taken someone so long to figure it out in this basic way.
Less than stellar is the frame rate; while the visuals are on par and sometimes improved over the PS2 original, the average frame rate has more stutter than we would like and busy sequences take a much more noticeable hit. It's never unplayable, but it keeps Snake Eater from making the most of itself.
Purists may scoff at the idea of playing Snake Eater with only one Circle Pad, and for them the Circle Pad Pro offers a more traditional take. In truth, the game controls just as well without the accessory, using the same scheme as the one-nubbed Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on PSP. It takes a few moments to get accustomed to the new layout (or no time at all if you’re down with Peace Walker), and once you do it’s hardly noticeable.
Those who do plump for the Circle Pad Pro will find the second analogue input and shoulder buttons to be welcome additions; camera control is noticeably easier with the extra slider, and having access to two extra shoulder buttons makes close-quarters combat and gunfire more satisfying, Double analogue addicts will find it a nice facsimile of traditional controllers; those accustomed to making do with one will manage fine without Circle Pad Pro.
As evidenced by its copious amounts of cinematics and general runtime they can span, Snake Eater is noticeably handheld-hostile. It’s not the kind of game you can always pop in for, say, your morning commute and reliably spend half an hour in the jungle sneaking around – unless you know they’re coming based on repeat play, you play a Russian Roulette of extended codec conversations and cinematics that could go on for days. And considering how pretty the 3D effect is at full blast, the most reliable way to play Snake Eater 3D is plunked next to an outlet, doubly so if you opt to use the Circle Pad Pro.
Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D may not be the definitive version of Snake’s Cold War escapades but that doesn’t stop it from being a clever, well thought-out and simply great game — frame rate hiccups aside, the impressive and intelligent use of stereoscopic 3D makes the game an absolute joy to look at as well. It's not often that games as dense and exciting as Snake Eater see the light of day on any platform, which makes the 3DS version all the more worthwhile whether it's your first romp through the jungle or just to see an old friend in a new perspective.