That Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is great isn't subject to much debate. As the third modern Metal Gear title, this Cold War era stealth/action adventure was well-received upon its release, and even improved with a refined version a year later. Outside of the original Metal Gear Solid, this is about as good as it gets for Hideo Kojima's revered saga. In other words, it's a fine choice to re-release 8 years later. The only questions are whether this port is a good one, and whether it suits its target platform. Renamed Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D, this 3DS game in many ways improves upon its source material. That it takes advantage of the portable's abilities is commendable, though it still suffers from some problems both familiar and new.
Serving as the earliest story in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, Snake Eater stars a CIA operative known as 'Naked Snake'. This rugged, inexperienced warrior will eventually become 'Big Boss', who serves as the genetic source material for the iconic hero Solid Snake. Origin stories can be powerful if told well, and this is no exception. MGS 3 works almost as well as the first entry in the series because it keeps its focus and rarely meanders into some of the tortuous musings that have crippled some of the other Metal Gear games.
It helps that this cast of characters is excellent, from Snake himself to his mentor The Boss, and a fantastic array of memorable, super-powered soldiers that round out the villainous unit known as Cobra. The storyline is packed with references that even those relatively new to the MGS franchise will appreciate, and the frequent nods to real life history gives this game a grounded feel that some of its counterparts lack. True to all Metal Gear games, the characters have a tendency to babble endlessly, offering their thoughts on everything that comes to their minds. Skipping some of this chatter is almost an unfortunate necessity if you care about having a little gameplay with your dialogue. Don't expect the 40-minute marathons found in MGS 4, but brace for folks facing an end-of-the-world scenario to be unusually chatty.
Snake Eater's story clearly stands the test of time, but everything around it isn't necessarily so fortunate. Graphics, design and control can age, exposing a game's weaknesses when compared to modern counterparts. That this Metal Gear title still holds up amongst other 3DS titles speaks to its pedigree. Visually the game is still great, keeping up with all but the best that Nintendo's relatively young portable has to offer. The addition of the second screen also keeps the game's HUD out of the action, resulting in an incredibly crisp, clear presentation of the game (albeit on a small screen). This won't look as stunning as Resident Evil Revelations, but it's also a decade old and built for a different platform experience. Oddly enough, while Konami's implementation of 3D is quite excellent, it didn't manage to fix any frame rate issues. In fact at times Snake looks like he's running in slow motion.
Control is a curious situation with Snake Eater 3D. Technically this port features a superior configuration compared to its previous iterations. Aiming and shooting is now done with the shoulder buttons, players can raise their weapons and move while crouching, and the touch screen allows for rapid access to medical supplies, food and weapons. However without the Circle Pad Pro, this game can be frustrating, featuring an awkward layout and a camera controlled with the portable's four primary face buttons. That an extra accessory is practically a necessity exposes the system's inherent flaws, and unfortunately damages the game in the process.
MGS 3 shows its age, albeit minimally, in elements of design, movement and control, particularly when compared to many modern action games. Snake's mobility often seems limited. Expect to struggle greatly with crawling and camera issues, which rear their heads at the most inopportune times. Environments also suffer from arbitrary limitations that will certainly prove frustrating. That Snake only seems willing to climb some ledges and boxes grows increasingly tiresome, particularly when your well-laid, well-scouted strategies prove impossible. Likewise, once you realize much of the game's 'stealth' is simply based on a 'camouflage percentage' in the upper corner of your screen, the game loses some of its tension.
Yet the game's core gameplay is still fantastic, and what worked eight years ago remains addicting now. Creeping through grass and slowly advancing upon your unsuspecting prey is a timeless thrill. The boss fights in Snake Eater are also incredible, ranking as some of the best the franchise (or gaming) has ever seen. It's unlikely you've ever seen a Sniper fight quite like The End or tracked a nimble, tree-dwelling creature similar to The Fear. The lack of realism with weaponry is a bit annoying however. Guards seem bullet-proof at times, taking some of the joy out of an ambush.
Aside from sneaking, Snake Eater's mechanics are built around practicing field-based medicine, the aforementioned adaptive camouflage and working with the environment to give Snake stamina. Working to blend Snake into his surroundings is by far the most pervasive of these ideas, as outfits must be adjusted and swapped frequently to ensure stealth is preserved. The 3DS version cleverly allows players to use the system's camera to capture textures that can then be used as new patterns. Though rarely better than the game's defaults, some experimentation can result in superior evasion capabilities.
Healing Snake is also much more nuanced than in other MGS games. Receiving different types of damage can prevent healing, reduce stamina and even limit Snake's movement. In the wrong hands a concept like this would be cumbersome, dragging down the entire game. That's not the case here. Stamina is similar in that it requires players to address Snake's basic needs (in this case hunger). Nothing feels excessive, and as a result it all works seamlessly to create a deeper, more intricate experience.
Despite some added and existing flaws, one issue looms over Snake Eater - it is a great console game. Every aspect of this adventure is designed to be enjoyed from a couch for an extended period of time. A game that doesn't allow for incremental saves, instead starting you at the beginning of a location, is not meant for brief play sessions. A game that allows characters to have 15-minute conversations is not aware that your bus ride might only be 10 minutes, or that your battery is about to die. A game this vast, requiring a great deal of patience and thought to play expertly, is not meant to be digested in small amounts. Plus there's the simple fact that the 3DS's screen is relatively small. Attempting to differentiate between a shrub and a guard can be more challenging than it ought to be.
The argument about Snake Eater's console of choice would be rather moot if it was an original game built for the 3DS, but seeing the game take advantage of many of the system's functions only reinforces that it doesn't play like a portable game - something titles like Resident Evil Revelations and Super Mario 3D Land embraced. Furthermore, MGS 3 is available in HD on the PlayStation 3 in a recently-released collection, and of course the original PS2 version is in ample supply. In other words, it's very easy to play this game in a better setting, if you're willing to surrender the 3D effect, touch screen and improved controls - no small sacrifice.