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Aging hero's mission: Rescue Sony's PS3

Metal Gear Solid 4 could narrow the gap with Wii and Xbox.

June 12, 2008|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

What do Indiana Jones, John Rambo and Solid Snake have in common?

They all look like they would qualify for membership in AARP.

Indiana Jones, played by the 65-year-old Harrison Ford, nurses his joints as he swings through South American jungles in his latest film, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Earlier this year, Rambo was roused from his weary retirement in Southeast Asia at the ripe age of 61. The tag line: "Heroes never die . . . They just reload."

The latest aging entertainment icon is Solid Snake, the stealthy operative at the center of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a video game that hit store shelves Wednesday. The game, exclusively for Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3, is one of the electronic giant's best hopes for catching up in the video game console race.

Technically, Solid Snake is only 43 years old in the game, and the qualifying age for AARP is 50. But in the final episode of this decade-old franchise, he suffers from a rapid-aging disorder that wreaks havoc on his complexion and adds years to his rugged features. There's a conspiracy behind this aging business, and Solid Snake races against time -- and a bad back -- to thwart the evildoers.

"It just seems funny to see Solid Snake running around a battlefield with his gray hairs and wrinkles," said Geoff Keighley, editor of Gameslice, a website with video game news and reviews. "But he seems to be as agile as ever."

Solid Snake is in good company. Mario, Nintendo's plucky mascot plumber, made his debut in 1981 in the original arcade version of Donkey Kong. Assuming he was an adult then, Mario is at least in his mid-40s today.

"There's just something wonderful about looking at Mario and saying, 'I knew him when he was just eight pixels!' " said Julian Dibbell, 45, author of "Play Money" and other books about games, culture and technology. "Video games as a medium has managed to be ours in a way that rock 'n' roll was to a slightly older generation."

The average age of gamers is 35, according to the Entertainment Software Assn. That's why audiences -- many of them aging video game enthusiasts and baby boomers -- are tolerant of the geriatric trend in pop culture.

They reward the creators with blockbuster sales -- so long as those heroes can still crack the whip, gut terrorists and take on rogue paramilitary armies.

"Crystal Skull" snatched $585.1 million at the box office worldwide from Memorial Day weekend to Tuesday, according to BoxOfficeMojo. "Rambo" has racked up $111.5 million since its release in January.

Solid Snake is the creation of Japanese developer Hideo Kojima, 44. Unlike Grand Theft Auto and other top game franchises that rode the PlayStation train to riches, Metal Gear Solid hasn't messed around with the other next-generation consoles.

The franchise has sold more than 22 million copies for various versions of the PlayStation over the last decade, and its final episode is not available for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 or Nintendo Co.'s Wii.

"If you look at the Metal Gear Solid franchise, the PlayStation is where it has its roots," said Anthony Crouts, vice president of marketing of Konami Digital Entertainment Inc., the game's Japanese publisher. "Sony has always been a good strategic partner for us."

Sony is hoping the title can energize sales of the console, which is currently running third in the multibillion-dollar race. Consumers worldwide have bought 24 million Wiis and 19 million Xbox 360s but only 13 million PS3s.

"For Sony, this game is really its best shot at closing the gap with Xbox," Keighley said.

Peter Dille, senior vice president of marketing for Sony's PlayStation business in the U.S., said the title could very well give the 48 million owners of the PS2, which came out in 2000, a reason to upgrade to a PS3.

"For us, Metal Gear is arguably one of the most compelling and valuable exclusive titles we have," Dille said. "It's one of those games people wait for years to play. It has never disappointed."

In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Solid Snake foils enemy plans for world domination. We'll see whether the aging hero can help Sony do the same.

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alex.pham@latimes.com

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