By Lewis Packwood
After reading through all 120 pages of the notorious Metal Gear novel from 1990, I can’t decide whether it’s utter tosh or sublimely brilliant.
The book is part of the Worlds of Power series, which by all accounts was enormously popular in the United States (the ten books in the series sold a combined total of one million copies) - but as far as I can ascertain, they were never officially released in the UK. Each of the books was based on a different NES game, and there were entries for classics like Bionic Commando, Castlevania II and Ninja Gaiden, as well as slightly more obscure titles like Infiltrator and Bases Loaded II.
I only found out about the existence of the series very recently. The discovery came about after an eye-opening visit to my local branch of Waterstones in Edinburgh, when I chanced across a sizable section that was completely dedicated to books based on video games. I’d been vaguely aware that there were several books based on Halo and Mass Effect, but I was genuinely surprised at the huge range of video game novels that are now available. It seems that no series worth its salt can be seen without a book tie-in these days - BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, they’re all at it. There’s even a novelisation of Driver: San Francisco (it’s called Driver: Nemesis if you’re interested).
All this got me wondering about where the phenomenon of video-games-to-books got started, and bit of research pointed me towards the Worlds of Power series. These books certainly weren’t the first novels based on games (they’re at least pre-dated by Elite: The Dark Wheel and probably several others), but their huge popularity no doubt lit a fire under the genre. Whether they’re actually any good or not is another matter entirely.
It’s perhaps strange to relate now, but in the days before the Harry Potter juggernaut rolled into town and smashed book-selling records left, right and centre, people were worried that kids weren’t reading enough. Whereas in 2015 the children’s book market is going from strength to strength, back in the early 1990s people were wondering whether kids might stop reading books altogether in favour of watching TV and playing them new-fangled video games.
The story goes that Seth Godin, who at the time was the head of a book packaging company, made the shocking discovery that his ten-year-old nephew had never read a book for fun in his life. Spurred on by this, Godin decided to get kids like his nephew into reading by creating books based on something that ten-year-olds were crazy about at the time - NES games.
So Godin approached Nintendo with the idea, and apparently negotiations progressed quite far before eventually breaking down. However, third-party publishers like Capcom, Konami and Mindscape were more than happy for Godin to use their properties for his books, and the series was given the green light - albeit with “not authorized sponsored, or endorsed by Nintendo” slapped on each of the back covers.
However, in a move that would make modern games marketing managers shake their heads slowly in disbelief, the publishing companies seemingly provided no input whatsoever on how their games and characters would be portrayed - a stark contrast with the jealously guarded franchises of today’s gaming world. Instead, Godin was left to craft a series of video game novels with nothing to go on except what he could glean from the back of the box, the instruction manuals and the games themselves.
The complete Worlds of Power series (Image: credit)
Godin got in touch with a team of writers, and they cobbled together the plots for the books by simply playing through each of the games - all without the aid of online strategy guides or cheat codes. This proved particularly frustrating for Godin, who told 1up that playing video games for long periods “gives him a huge headache”. The fact that a series of video game books is helmed by someone who claims that video games give him a headache is probably a bad sign, but hey ho.
On the one hand, the Worlds of Power series offered a rare chance for unlimited freedom with some of the most popular game franchises of the day - an almost blank slate on which Godin and co. could let their imaginations run wild and truly inspire young readers. But on the other hand, the books were somewhat hamstrung by the necessary adherence to the ‘plots’ of 8-bit games that had little story to speak of - and in Metal Gear’s case, a famously shonky translation from the Japanese (“I feel asleep” being one of the more egregious examples).
Suitably intrigued by the reputation of the Worlds of Power series, I imported the Metal Gear novel from the States. I’m still not sure whether I actually like it or not.
But it’s definitely very odd indeed.
If you were to judge it as a novel in its own right, it’s not that great. But on the other hand, it’s a fascinating time capsule of sensibilities in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when macho action flicks were all the rage. The novel is full of references to Snake’s “muscular body” and “red blood rushing through veins”. At one point he karate punches through a brick wall. It’s all very Jean Claude Van Schwarzenegger, which is a bit odd for a book aimed at ten-year-olds, when you think about it. Then again, back in the eighties there were dozens of toy lines based on 18-rated movies like Robocop and The Terminator, so it’s very much in keeping with the period.
But unlike the testosterone-fuelled movies from which the novel seems to take inspiration, I don’t think a gun is fired in anger for the entire duration. Which is strange when you consider that Snake collects so many guns through the course of the book that he refers to himself as a “walking arsenal”.
The clue to this mystery is on the cover, which depicts Snake apparently attempting to climb an invisible gym rope. Or “making a wanking gesture”, take your pick. The reason for his curious pose is that Godin or the publisher - it’s not clear which - decreed that Snake’s gun be airbrushed out. And similar sanitising is seen within the book, thanks to Godin’s insistence that death be “minimised” throughout the series.
It’s a fair enough point, I suppose - a book aimed at ten-year-olds probably shouldn’t be packed with murder. But on the other hand, you end up with a situation whereby Snake is laden down with a grenade launcher, machine gun, pistol and anti-tank mines, yet resorts to “rabbit punching” his way through the novel. (I had to look up what a rabbit punch is, by the way - apparently it’s a “sharp chop with the edge of the hand to the back of the neck”. Would an American ten-year-old in 1990 know what a rabbit punch is? I have visions of hordes of crazed children frenziedly rabbit punching each other in the playground. Maybe that really happened, I don’t know. I had a sheltered childhood…)
The original Metal Gear cover art, complete with gun (Image: credit)
Trained Killer Scorpions
But it’s not the lack of death that makes the novel so strange - it’s the weird juxtaposition between the book’s slavish adherence to the events of the game, no matter how odd they are, and the author’s own bizarre flights of fancy.
This leads to slightly farcical situations like Solid Snake being sent on a dangerous infiltration mission with no weapons whatsoever, because that’s what happens in the game:
‘“We want you to go in alone,” continued Commander South, “armed with nothing more than a compass. If you try to break in fully armed, you’ll be slowed down”’
(Come on guv, a handgun doesn’t weigh that much.)
Then there’s the time when Snake is almost crushed by a giant steel rolling pin which pointlessly rolls back and forth across a room. Because that’s what happens in the game.
Oh, and then there’s the bit where where Snake has to cross a desert situated inexplicably right in the centre of a jungle, all while fending off attacks from giant trained killer scorpions. Why? Because that’s what happens in the game.
Admittedly, the “trained killer” bit was added by the US instruction manual for the game (they’re just regular old untrained scorpions in the Japanese version). And speaking of bizarre things introduced by the US instruction manual, the evil leader of Outer Heaven in this version is no longer [SPOILER WARNING FOR 25-YEAR-OLD GAME] Big Boss (surprise!) [END SPOILER WARNING], it’s some random terrorist called “Colonel Vermon CaTaffy”. The cringe-worthy similarity of the name to Libya’s (ex-)Colonel Gadaffi is, one presumes, entirely intended.
But even stranger are the bits that the author (Alexander Frost) just makes up. A bit of artistic licence is clearly necessary when attempting to flesh out the wafer-thin plot of an 8-bit game - and in fact, you could argue that it might have been better if Frost had abandoned the confines of the game for the sake of crafting a more well-rounded covert ops story.
But what actually happens is that we get all the game stuff - whereby Snake beats up scorpions and finds numbered key cards just randomly scattered about the high-security compound (“Why were the keys just lying about?” he ponders at one point) - but you also have stuff added by Frost that’s just weird. Like when Snake smells panther musk on nearby leaves and then proceeds to get down and dirty in it.
“Rubbing himself against the jungle plants, Halley let the heavy, musky cat smell seep into the suit of his ‘camos’.”
And that brings me on to another thing - apparently Solid Snake’s real name is Justin Halley. Yes, you read that right, Snake has been Justin all along. Who knew? Even better, he’s the leader of the “Snake Men”. Now is it just me, or does that sound like a troupe of male strippers from Saffron Walden?
Then there’s the part where somehow Snake magically manages to “throw his voice” across a room to distract a guard. I remember characters throwing their voice about the place all the time in comics like The Beano, but it’s intensely odd to find a covert operative doing it during a terrorist infiltration. Is this a legitimate black ops skill? Are FOXHOUND agents kitted out with ventriloquist dummies as standard?
“You’ll die on the heat panels”
I doubt Hideo Kojima would approve of all this. Although having said that, I can almost see panther musk making it into one of the games at some point. After all, we’ve had men’s cologne as a recovery item before.
But speaking of Kojima’s absurdities, I’m surprised that the infamous cardboard box doesn’t make an appearance at all in the novel. I suspect that Frost/Godin simply never found it during their playthrough. And I also suspect that they completely screwed up another bit of the game, which would explain a very strange part of the book indeed.
When Snake… sorry, Justin, frees a “Snake Man” hostage who goes by the name of Chuck Robinson, he’s warned of the deadly “heat panels” ahead. Snake is told that he needs to have plenty of rations prepared, and that he has to eat to “raise his body temperature” in order to get across the scorching heat panels. And sure enough, that’s exactly what Sna… Justin does later on, however improbable that may sound.
Now, rations are recovery items in the game, and I’m guessing the “heat panels” are the electrified grids you find at one point. To get past them in the game, you have to find a rocket launcher and guide a remote-controlled missile to the junction box, thus destroying it and turning off the grid. But perhaps Frost/Godin never found the rocket launcher and instead thought you had to run across the grid while eating all of your rations to prevent Snake from dying? It’s a plausible explanation as to why such a bizarre passage has ended up in the book - and why there’s no mention of remote-controlled missiles anywhere.
“Huh, where did Snake go? And who left this cardboard box lying around?” Unfortunately, there’s none of this in the novel (Image: credit)
All in all, the book is a bit of a mess. But it’s a fascinating mess, and it just about edges into “so bad it’s good” territory. On reading the first few chapters, I felt very cynical of the whole thing. Yes, Godin’s stated intention may have been to create a series that might get young kids into reading more - but the cynic in me translated this to “it’s better for kids to read any old rubbish than nothing at all, and let’s make some money while we’re doing it.”
But by the time I got to the last page, my viewpoint changed. Just after Colonel CaTaffy escapes the clutches of the Snake Men, leaving Justin to vow vengeance, the final page begins with an implored plea...
“Dear Reader, I hope you liked reading Metal Gear. Here is a list of some other books that I thought you might like.”
...below which is a selection of literature that includes All Quiet on the Western Front and The Great Escape. It made me realise that Godin and his troupe of authors really did approach the project with the best intentions at heart. Yes, Metal Gear the novel may be a bit clunky and strange, and it might veer off into bizarre territory thanks to some mistranslations and wayward game playing, but these guys were trying to do something new. And thinking about it, attempting to wring a novel out of video game with nothing to go on but what you can glean from the game itself must have been pretty hard. Especially if you’re not even a video game player.
Now I wonder - how many kids got into reading after following the sanitised and often bizarre adventures of Justin Halley?
Lewis Packwood is a freelance writer and co-author of A Most Agreeable Pastime