Picture the scene: It's the dawn of a new century, E3 2000 is in full swing, and the one game stealing all of the attention at that event is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. A direct sequel to the landmark game that debuted on the PS1 in 1998, game director Hideo Kojima and publisher Konami's follow-up was announced with a trailer that had everyone talking.
It was nine minutes of next-gen PS2 gameplay and impressive cinematics, a showcase of Sony's upcoming console that featured Solid Snake performing his trademark tactical espionage actions while he was being hunted by mercenaries across a rain-soaked freighter ship. Hype was building up, fans dialed up their expectations for the return of Solid Snake to 11, and a demo of the game that came with Hideo Kojima's mechnificent Zone of the Enders saw Metal Gear Solid 2 mania reach critical mass.
And then, once in people's hands, the game pulled the rug out from under players, putting them in the combat boots of an entirely new character within hours of starting. This was Kojima's talent for misdirection at its finest, tricking players into believing that Solid Snake's fight against the Patriots and Solidus Snake would span the entirety of the DVD disc that the game was encoded into. Instead, Solid Snake's playable mission ended with MGS1 villain Revolver Ocelot hijacking a Metal Gear Ray prototype and sinking the tanker that he'd had infiltrated. The legendary soldier seemed to go down with the ship, but there was no way that Kojima was going to kill the star of the Metal Gear franchise…right?
The events of MGS2 took place a few years later, and players found themselves in control of a new operative: Raiden. Even when the bait-and-switch finally revealed Raiden's face to players, some players may have believed that it was only a temporary change. A few missions as the fresh-faced rookie and it wouldn't be long before Snake, who was posing as a random soldier called Iroquois Pliskin, would shed his disguise, strap on his trademark headband, and show Raiden how to take down a Metal Gear unit running amok. That was never realized though as Snake stayed in the sidekick spot. While this was undoubtedly a shock to the system for many, Raiden's starring role in Metal Gear Solid 2 arguably made for a better game overall.
Raiden proved to be divisive amongst fans, and even the development team had some reservations about Solid Snake taking a backseat during the Big Shell campaign. According to the design document for Metal Gear Solid 2, Raiden was developed as a character who could draw in people who never played the original Metal Gear Solid, while also being developed to draw in female gamers by being the exact opposite of Solid Snake in almost every way possible.
"We will have the player control a different character from Snake, so that they can enjoy the game's story even if they have not played the previous game," the design document read. "They will be able to empathize with this character regardless of the fact they are new to the series. With Raiden (someone appealing to women), instead of Snake, as the main character, we will have a character in which women can more easily empathize. He is the antithesis of the older, hard-boiled image of Snake."
During Geoff Keighley's The Final Hours of Metal Gear Solid 2 documentary, he learned how the issue of likes and dislikes was a major topic of discussion among the core team and even the game's assistant director Yoshikazu Matsuhana had some reservations.
"I wasn't sure this weak-looking guy was going to be well received by the fans," Matsuhana said at the time. "But we all trust Mr. Kojima because he has so many hits under his belt. He is basically allowed to do what he wants."
One interesting inspiration for Kojima's sleight of hand protagonist trick was Terminator 2, with the game director explaining that Arnold Schwarzenegger's role-reversal in the blockbuster sequel led to him constructing a plot device that would let him surprise players in much the same way with Raiden's introduction.
"I really love the movie Terminator 2," Kojima explained. "That movie was so great because you never knew that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the good cyborg when the movie started. When he appears at the beginning you assume he is bad like the first movie. But then it turns out he is good. I remember being so surprised by that turn of events. When they reached the Plant chapter of the game I wanted them to wonder what was going on. And then they will meet this interesting character named Pliskin who looks and sounds like Snake. But is he Snake?"
Ultimately, Kojima's goal was to play with the expectations of his fans and surprise them with some clever deception. "In a sequel you have to meet people's expectations, but you also sort of have to go against them and deceive them I think," Kojima explained. "This is my Metal Gear, and I can destroy it if I want to."
Two decades later, fans are still talking about Metal Gear Solid 2's various themes and ideas, prescient plot, and surprisingly accurate predictions of how an online world would shape society. Metal Gear Solid 2 is an exploration of mind control, an overabundance of information, a glut of trivial knowledge without any context to guide it before knee-jerk reactions are unleashed. Raiden's story even follows a similar path to that of Solid Snake's 1998 adventure, and in doing so it provides incredibly insightful commentary while also occasionally breaking the fourth wall, all done with surgical precision.
Raiden's career in the series since then has had its ups and downs. In the prequel, Metal Gear Solid 3, the character of Ivan Raidenovitch Raikov bears more than a passing resemblance to Raiden and serves as something of a joke in response to fan backlash of Metal Gear Solid 2. By Metal Gear Solid 4 though, Raiden had been transformed into a more tragic character after his capture by the Patriots and use as a test subject for experiments, which transformed him into a cyborg.
A starring role in the criminally-overlooked Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance would put Raiden back in the spotlight, allowing him to save the day once more from a rogue US senator, cyborg mercenaries, and even find some closure when he reunited with the love of his life, Rose.
Raiden's legacy is intrinsically tied to Metal Gear Solid 2 though, as the plot twist of Solid Snake allowing new blood to take over is one that likely wouldn't have had the same impact today that it did back in 2001. In an age of social media, broken embargoes, and 24/7 livestreams, Metal Gear Solid 2's big reveal would likely have been spoiled within minutes of the game hitting the streets.
20 years later though, Kojima's unexpected move to grow the Metal Gear Solid fandom still stands as a masterclass in misdirection.