Solid Snake is a fantastic action hero: He looks like he was born with six-pack abs and a cigarette in his mouth. He’s got a gravelly voice, a steely stare and an extremely good aim.
But for as perfect as the first Metal Gear Solid is — and in large part because of Snake’s unshakeable bravado — he has nothing on his successor, Metal Gear Solid 2’s Raiden.
Yep: Raiden is better than Snake. At least in this game.
Whoa — you can’t actually believe that, right?
It’s important that I clarify what I mean by “better.” It has nothing to do with strength, stealth abilities, or tactical knowledge. Snake surely has Raiden beat in those areas, with room to spare.
But when it comes to what defines the legacy of Metal Gear Solid, the introduction of Raiden to the series is crucial. It was a shocking, polarizing choice that seemed to press reset on all those years that players spent embodying a perfect action hero. To replace Solid Snake with the game-obsessed and whiny Raiden was risky.
It was a risk that paid off. Metal Gear Solid 2 begins as an updated yet familiar follow-up to the first game; we know who Snake is, what he’s capable of and to whom he reports. Mere hours into the game, though, Snake ... loses. As far as we know, he died in a failed mission, and there’s nothing we could have done to save him.
The game picks up two years later. Snake is replaced by a different, talented super-soldier. But this one is blond kid who confuses the word “node” for “nerd” and has never been out in the field.
Thanks to his training, Raiden’s a huge VR fan, which is funny and way more plausible now than it probably was back in 2009, when the game takes place. The world has caught up to the fiction.
There is almost nothing inspiring about Raiden when we meet him. It’s easy to write him off as a plot device, who only exists to screw around with anyone expecting more Snake.
I was one of those people at first, myself — Raiden is very pretty, but he’s no Snake, the man’s man who is a near-perfect power fantasy. Raiden is more like your chatty kid brother, insisting that he knows more than he actually does.
Yet the replacement of Snake with Raiden sets the stage for Metal Gear Solid 2 — and the games that follow — to be daring. It’s a twist, and a surprising one; fans were understandably steamed when Raiden took over for Snake just a few hours into the game, especially after all the marketing suggested this was another Snake story. The first level with Raiden is almost a perfect recreation of the beginning of Metal Gear Solid, right down to the dialogue. It’s not immediately obvious, until it becomes impossible to ignore.
Putting Raiden through the same paces we went through with Snake is meaningful as a mission statement in two ways: Metal Gear Solid 2 is not what you’re expecting, and it’s not the same big, spectacular action movie as the first game was. That area of the game doesn’t become something you know the character can handle; it becomes a significant obstacle Raiden needs to fight to overcome. And unlike gruff Snake, Raiden pelts his superiors with combative questions, indicative of his unease with the same things Solid Snake does without a second thought.
Where Metal Gear Solid is the story of a self-assured superhero, Metal Gear Solid 2 is a coming-of-age story, one more relatable on a personal level than the wish fulfillment of Snake’s storylines. Raiden must mature over the course of his mission, and he does by relying on the help of his commanders and girlfriend. Snake never needed to do that; he was born ready. Raiden, meanwhile, is the definition of “fake it ’til you make it,” and that he does. He’s a playable version of imposter syndrome.
Your character doesn’t have to be a hero who can do anything, they can also be an untested individual who has to grow up. This makes the player themselves switch roles; instead of feeling like Snake could do all of this without you bungling the controls, you get the sense that Raiden needs you to guide him through these initial challenges. He’s new to this line of work, whereas you’ve done this all before. In a way, this switch allows you to become Snake in a more meaningful way than just controlling him.
I don’t mean to downplay the achievements of Metal Gear Solid, a game I truly love. It got weird as all get-out, too; fighting Psycho Mantis is unforgettably odd. The unpredictability of turns like these are what makes the series stand out, and has defined both director Kojima and the franchise itself over the years.
Raiden taking over for Solid Snake was a true psyche out that showed just how weird and fascinating and inscrutable Metal Gear Solid was willing to get on all levels. Having a less capable character take over in the lead role made the game relatable and in some ways powerful.
The series would only get more weird and, yes, inscrutable as the years rolled on and the lore expanded. But Snake getting the bump so Raiden could take the stage was a beautiful and unexpected step into the future for this series.