Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Battle with Psycho Mantis

This is part of an ongoing series about my favorite memories from video games. You can find the original list and table of contents in an earlier post or by clicking here. Please be aware that these posts are going to be full of spoilers which may ruin the impact of these events on anyone who wishes to experience them on their own in the future.

#9 - Battle with Psycho Mantis (Metal Gear Solid)

When I was trying to put to paper a list of the 10 most memorable moments scripted into video games, Psycho Mantis was quick to pop up. He hails from one of the most critically acclaimed games of its time, Metal Gear Solid, though he is neither the main character nor the main villain of the game. He is simply one major obstacle for the protagonist, Solid Snake, to overcome during his objective to liberate the island base “Shadow Moses” from a renegade, Special Forces unit called FOXHOUND. Psycho Mantis, as his codename might imply, is the psychic member of FOXHOUND who vexes Snake by conquering the minds of others around him and thus distorting reality. When Snake finally confronts him face to face, Psycho Mantis has quite a demonstration prepared to unnerve not only the main character, but also the game’s player by breaking the fourth wall by having knowledge of events outside the game. 

Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998 and I remember hearing how great it is from almost every video game player I crossed paths with at high school and on the internet. Everyone was talking about it at the time, but I was sure it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea because it wasn’t a role-playing game. I had plenty of those to keep me busy at the time and I didn’t really feel like branching out into what I thought was primarily a shooter-style game. No one ever told me that the main focus of the gameplay was stealth. No one ever sat me down and said “If you love Tenchu (and I do) and plot twists (do I ever), you will absolutely love Metal Gear Solid.” Had someone said that, I may have picked it up sooner, but I went on in blissful ignorance for quite some time – until I saw a copy at the local Blockbuster for a mere $9. I’m not sure when exactly that was, but it’s safe to say I was way behind the curve on playing Metal Gear Solid.

I was pulled  into this game immediately. From the very start I realized there was a deep underlying story about to unfurl. I love a good story. Then when I was thrust onto “Shadow Moses” island without a weapon and told to make my way into the heavily guarded facility, I was completely sold. The entire experience caught me off guard and I wondered for days why I hadn’t bothered to look for this game before then. Since playing Metal Gear Solid, the entire franchise has come to be synonymous with mind blowing revelations in the form of plot twists. When I play any subsequent “Metal Gear Solid” game I am already expecting everything I am told to be completely false or at the very least a partial truth. I’ve come to expect it and so I look for it, but back then on my original foray into the unknown I was completely surprised to find such a complex story. That alone is memorable, but when I stop to ask myself what happened in this game that really stands out in my mind it’s easily fine-tuned to a single encounter, the battle with Psycho Mantis.

Psycho Mantis’s fight begins before you even realize what’s happening. Your companion, Meryl, begins to act extremely unusual because she is covertly being controlled by Mantis’s telepathic powers. Once it’s clear she is not your true enemy, Snake disables her and confronts the puppet-master. At this point Psycho Mantis materializes and attempts to shake things up by talking about things outside the game itself. Notably he is able to use saves on your Playstation memory card to discuss how much you like playing certain games. For me it was Azure Dreams, one of my guilty pleasures of the era. I didn't realize what he was doing at first. Obviously a video game character didn't know how much I liked another game, but as he began telling me how long I'd been playing the Azure Dreams and how many times I'd saved it, it became clear he was accessing my memory card. What a great scene! He totally caught me off guard with this clever use of the Playstation's capabilities.

Actually, I didn't pick up Symphony of the Night until nearly a decade later!
Psycho Mantis moves on to displays of telekinesis and asks the player to place the controller on the floor so he can move it around via the rumble feature. I did not comply, so he vigorously shook my hands. He also simulates changing the channel of your television by producing a screen (programmed into the game) that prompts you to reconnect your video/audio wires. I vaguely recall this actually tricked me into thinking my game had crashed. Within the context of this display of mental prowess, though, I was not fooled for long and the game returned to the screen soon. What a devious ploy they play at. I almost reset the game! Curse you, Psycho Mantis!

After this psychological warfare, the actual fight begins and it doesn’t go well. Psycho Mantis is able to read all your intended moves (presumably) with his telepathy and is able to dodge all your attempts to harm him. This was obnoxiously frustrating. I've long accused programmed adversaries of knowing the button I press and using it to their advantage to thwart my efforts to defeat them, but this was the actual intended result of Psycho Mantis. There was no attempt to hide it. I probably died a handful of times to my increasing rage. The limited clues to solving this puzzle were all there. though. Mantis shows he can think outside the (Playstation) box and challenges you to do the same. You ultimately can shut down his precognition of your actions simply by switching your controller from Player 1 port to Player 2. He then falls easily into your attacks and is quickly defeated.

"Unfortunately, killing is just one of those things that gets easier the more you do it." - Solid Snake
Reading about this in text might sound a bit cheesy, but what better way for a fictional character to display his psychic powers than speaking directly to the game's player and manipulating the data available on the gaming system to breech the confines of the programming and interact with the real world. When I play games, like many gamers, I become very absorbed by the story, the characters and the scenery. Like many other activities that require focus and stimulate my senses, the outside world tends to tune out. So when Psycho Mantis comes along and speaks to you personally, when he tells you what games you like and how you're doing in them, it's a bit shocking. It snaps you out of the video game and thrusts a bit of reality back into your face. Although it was easy to understand how the game was programmed to interact with me on a personal level, knowing how doesn't exactly stop it from being distracting and downright creepy when you experience it, especially for that first time. Because of that, the confrontation with Psycho Mantis really stands out in my memory. It is the most unexpected and interesting boss battle I’ve ever played. Whether you are a fan of the “Metal Gear” series overall or not, it is a truly unforgettable moment.


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