With the debut of Metal Gear Survive, one of gaming’s longest-running franchises closes the book on one era and begins a new one. For nearly three decades, Metal Gear held a unique place among video game sagas. The series debuted in 1987 as the brainchild of a young designer by the name of Hideo Kojima, and — with just a few exceptions — Kojima shepherded each entry through the years. Unfortunately, Kojima underwent a messy divorce from Metal Gear publisher Konami toward the end of development on 2016’s Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, and the two have parted ways.
So as Metal Gear embarks on its post-Kojima journey with a multiplayer survival game that bears little meaningful connection to the long-running tale of Solid Snake, Big Boss and the lumbering nuclear missile robots for which the series is named, I took the opportunity to go back over all 21 official Metal Gear games that Konami has released in America through the years, ranking them from worst to best. I skipped the Metal Gear Online games, as those only ever shipped in the U.S. as bonus modes or discs with other games, and titles that never saw home release, like Metal Gear Arcade.
Which Metal Gear game deserves the code name … Big Boss!?
21: Metal Gear Solid Mobile (Mobile/N-Gage, 2008)
“You know what would make Metal Gear Solid better? Playing it on a numeric keypad!” … said nobody, ever. You do have to give some props to the poor developers assigned to this joyless, thankless project: They actually managed to assemble something resembling the skeleton of a PlayStation 2-era Metal Gear onto mobile phones (and, inexplicably, Nokia’s N-Gage). But this is not a game you’d ever want to play.
20: Metal Gear (NES, 1988)
The Metal Gear series began life on the MSX home computer/console hybrid, a platform with almost zero presence in the U.S. So, for the American market, Konami had the game reworked for the country’s favorite console, the NES. It was a smart business move in and of itself, but Konami went about it poorly. The team responsible for converting the MSX game kept nearly all the same components and mechanics, but completely reshuffled the layout of the Outer Heaven fortress in which the action took place. In doing so, the developers stripped out the fair sense of balance Kojima’s team had so carefully designed into the MSX original.
The result: a broken, unbalanced rendition of a good game. Many people lament the fact that it strips out the final encounter with the imposing Metal Gear weapon itself (instead, you blow up a defenseless computer like the tough guy you are). But the NES game’s greatest failings are more pervasive, and more subtle. Enemy line-of-sight mechanics are broken, and patrols are rerouted within the new level layouts. This makes it a lot more difficult for protagonist Solid Snake to move from screen to screen without triggering an alert on nearly every screen — a hazard the MSX original reserved only for the most difficult sequences toward the end of the quest. On top of that, the radio communication system dispenses clues that the new layouts render inaccurate or irrelevant. It’s a good thing this mess was built from the materials of a truly great and innovative game, or else Metal Gear would have been dead in the water right here. Kojima has said this is his least favorite Metal Gear, and we’re inclined to agree.
19: Metal Gear Solid Touch (iOS, 2009)
In the early days of iOS gaming, every game company on Earth recognized that it needed to get into that market — without having the first clue about what to do or how to make money there. Kojima Productions’ solution was to throw Old Snake into a shooting gallery based loosely on Metal Gear Solid 4. It’s … fine. Insubstantial, pointless, boring. But inoffensive. (Not that it matters, since it doesn’t work on current iOS devices.)
18: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3, 2008)
The Japanese game development industry as a whole struggled to come to terms with the high-definition console generation, which strained the workflow logistics that had locked into place during the PlayStation and PS2 era. Kojima Productions didn’t manage to dodge that bullet. Its first HD creation, Metal Gear Solid 4, arrived delayed, over-budget and lacking many of the features early promotional materials had promised. The dynamic environments and constantly evolving battlefields that would force players to scramble to devise new tactics? The competing factions that Snake could partner with or betray? Nowhere to be seen. Instead, MGS 4 played out with a stifling, linear design packed with underutilized mechanics — a real step backward after the immersive jungles and mountains of Metal Gear Solid 3.
It didn’t help that MGS 4 also had to serve as the finale to the saga of Solid Snake and the Patriots, a loose narrative that Kojima pretty clearly never intended to resolve himself. With each Metal Gear sequel, Kojima painted the storyline into a corner and proclaimed himself done with the franchise … only to step back in once his successors cried out for help. All those intriguing but impossible-to-resolve mysteries had to come to a head here, and much as with the works of Kojima’s hero J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), it all amounted to equal parts disappointment and hand-waving. Did someone say “nanomachines”? All of this led to a finale offering few interesting ideas, just Kojima leaning heavily on your happy memories of the previous games in the series. Snake deserved better.
17: Snake’s Revenge (NES, 1990)
Despite its flaws, the NES version of Metal Gear sold so well in the U.S. that Konami commissioned a sequel specifically for America … without Kojima’s input. The result is a strange offshoot that mostly plays like a clumsier take on the original Metal Gear while also trying to combine 2D side-scrolling platform action with stealth mechanics. It’s strange and ugly and messy, though it’s actually not as bad as its reputation would suggest. And it helped prompt the creation of the masterful Metal Gear 2, so that’s something.
16: Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (GameCube, 2004)
This GameCube-exclusive remake of Metal Gear Solid has a lot in common with the NES version of the first Metal Gear: It was put together for a Nintendo platform by people who didn’t seem to pay much regard for the things that made the original work. Eternal Darkness developer Silicon Knights back-ported a number of mechanics from Metal Gear Solid 2 into its predecessor, but in doing so, the studio broke the difficulty balance. It turns out this game is a whole lot easier when you have access to first-person aiming.
And don’t think the storytelling got off scot-free, either. Real, live movie director Ryuhei Kitamura (Godzilla: Final Wars) took a stylized, action-heavy approach to The Twin Snakes’ cutscenes. They looked cool as hell, but they also completely undermined the script’s characterization of Solid Snake. By turning him into a superhero, The Twin Snakes betrayed everything that made Snake so compelling: his world-weary cynicism and his awareness of his own fundamental limitations. Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation may not look as good as The Twin Snakes, but it’s still by far the better game.
15: Metal Gear Acid (PSP, 2005)
When Konami announced a Metal Gear title for the PSP’s launch window … no one could have imagined it would be this. Despite completely defying any existing conception of the series, though, Acid turned out to be pretty interesting in its own right. It threw the tactical stealth action that fans knew and loved out the window, replacing all of that instead with something more like XCOM combined with a customizable card game. Weird, but since it landed in a decade where no one was actually making XCOM games, it worked. And even with the genre change and the move to turn-based combat, it still somehow feels recognizably like Metal Gear. An outlier for the series, but not a bad one.
14: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2, 2001)
The sequel to Metal Gear Solid attempted to do a lot of things all at once: Be a sequel to a beloved masterpiece, serve as a technical showcase for powerful new console hardware and tell one of the medium’s most subversive stories. No faulting Kojima for his ambition with this one; unfortunately, for all that Metal Gear Solid 2 aims to achieve, its goals frequently contradict one another. As a story, it’s a visionary work that brilliantly predicted the impact of global digital communication networks and information (or rather, disinformation) on society. The plotline is basically a primer for everything we’ve seen in Western politics over the past few years. As a game, though? It’s actually kind of a chore to play.
MGS 2’s premise — players take the role of a man who turns out to be little more than a pawn in an attempt to create super soldiers by simulating Snake’s adventure in Metal Gear Solid — is fascinating, but it also means that on many levels this is just a rehash of the previous game … which in itself amounted to a 3D recreation of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Protagonist Raiden’s lack of agency may be thematically brilliant, but in terms of actual moment-to-moment gameplay, it feels incredibly limiting. It also has a tendency to get lost in navel-gazing about bloated — yet ultimately irrelevant — plot points. MGS 2’s biggest problem, really, is that it’s just too darned clever for its own good.
13: Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops/Plus (PSP/Vita, 2006/2007)
Konami’s first attempt to bring the proper 3D Metal Gear experience to handheld systems bumped up against a few critical issues, like the fact that the system it ran on — PlayStation Portable — lacked a right analog stick for convenient camera management. This means, unfortunately, that Portable Ops feels clunky compared to more recent Metal Gear games. Underneath the camera jank, though, Portable Ops introduced a template that nearly all future games in the franchise would adopt: The idea of base-building by rescuing hostages in bite-sized play spaces carried through all the way to the series’ terminus, Metal Gear Solid 5. These ideas and mechanics would be refined by later games, but there’s enough good here that Portable Ops deserves attention … even if its entire storyline did end up being completely dismissed in a single one-liner at the start of Peace Walker.
12: Metal Gear Acid 2 (PSP, 2006)
Revisiting the turn-based collectible card game format of the first Acid, this sequel does exactly what everyone wants in a follow-up: more of the same, but bigger and (this being Metal Gear) a whole lot weirder. Heck, it even included a cardboard screen accessory that created a fake stereoscopic effect half a decade before Nintendo came up with the 3DS. Acid 2 also looks a lot more like its namesake — the “acid” part, that is, with a lurid, surreal color palette and heavy cel-shading.
Acid 2 tells a story every bit as trippy as its visuals, but underneath it all you’ll still find hours of addictive, turn-based, tactical card-based gameplay, with twice as many cards to collect as in the first Acid and more combat options to go with them.
11: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2, 2004)
After faking out, misleading and generally disappointing fans with MGS 2, Kojima treated its sequel — actually a prequel — as a sort of apology. Where MGS 2 told a dense, meta-textual story, MGS 3 presented a straightforward (though still occasionally twisty) Cold War spy saga. Where MGS 2 limited its action to the sterile, linear corridors of an offshore oil refinery, MGS 3 sprawled across jungles and deserts, through military bases, and up the the sides of mountains. Alas: MGS 3 also used MGS 2’s control interface and fixed camera perspective, which had barely worked in the previous game and proved completely unsuitable for this more open, more immersive and more complex iteration on Metal Gear mechanics. There’s an incredible game here, but it’s kind of hard to love as originally released.
10: Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions (PlayStation, 1999)
People often attack Metal Gear games for getting bogged down in their narratives and dialogue, but you could never accuse VR Missions of that. It takes the bonus training mode of the original Metal Gear Solid and turns it into a full, stand-alone title featuring 300 different virtual reality training programs that force players to master every facet of Snake’s combat repertoire. While somewhat limited as a game experience due to its rigid structure and specific objectives from stage to stage, VR Missions remains the purest and most expansive exploration of Metal Gear play mechanics outside of, arguably, The Phantom Pain.
9: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3/Xbox 360, 2013)
Revengeance barely felt like a Metal Gear game. Players controlled MGS 2 hero Raiden once again, but this time in his indestructible combat cyborg form rather than his wannabe Solid Snake guise. As such, it completely abandons the stealth mechanics that had been Metal Gear’s basis for two and a half decades … but if you’re gonna go for pure action, there’s no better partner to help out than developer PlatinumGames.
Revengeance trades complex stealth in favor of intricate, reactive twitch skills. Its breakneck pace offers zero apologies for expecting players to perform at the peak of their abilities. And even though it ditches the sneaky design of its forebears, it carries forward the Metal Gear legacy of dense narrative and offers the single, solitary glimpse of the series’ post-Snake future we’ll ever see from Kojima himself. Nanomachines, son!
8: Metal Gear Solid / Ghost Babel (Game Boy Color, 2000)
By all rights, this attempt to put cutting-edge PlayStation masterpiece Metal Gear Solid on Game Boy Color should have resulted in unspeakable disaster. Somehow, though, Konami put together one of the finest 8-bit handheld creations ever. Its secret? Rather than trying to “demaster” the PS1 game for GBC, the developers built an entirely new game from the ground up, based around the workings of Metal Gear 2 for MSX. Narratively, MGS for Game Boy (catchily subtitled Metal Gear: Ghost Babel in Japan) appears to exist in some parallel universe where the Zanzibar Land incident of Metal Gear 2 never happened, meaning that this return to Outer Heaven takes place instead of MGS’ Shadow Moses Island conflict. (If you read between the lines, you’ll realize it’s likely this story exists strictly as one of Raiden’s VR training simulations, which makes it even cooler.)
Despite carrying over some narrative beats from the PS1 game — the lady soldier ally, the gormless computer nerd, the codec team betrayal — this adventure quickly goes in its own direction. Snake infiltrates a complex enemy fortress, faces off against an entirely new set of code-named weirdos with equally bizarre powers and saves the world by demolishing yet another Metal Gear mech. It’s remarkable how well the Metal Gear experience scales back down into an 8-bit format, and Ghost Babel simply oozes with detail and cleverness. Even the codec communications give each character’s nonvocal dialogue sound effects a different tone to mimic the pitch of their respective voices. If not for the gimmicky color-coded conveyor belt stage, and the fact that the mission breaks down into stages rather than ranging across an interconnected, nonlinear setting, this would rank up there among the series’ best.
7: Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes (Various, 2014)
Too small to be a full game, but far larger than a mere demo, Ground Zeroes fits into a strange place in the Metal Gear discography. It’s an essential work, though, serving as a bridge between Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain while setting up some narrative threads that would (mostly) be resolved in the fifth and final entry of the series.
Ground Zeroes ultimately served as a proof of concept: a convincing demonstration that Metal Gear could adapt to contemporary game design standards without sacrificing the franchise’s unique essence (something Metal Gear Solid 4 gave us ample cause to doubt). Here was a self-contained prologue to The Phantom Pain that dropped players into a rescue mission in a heavily patrolled military base and basically said, “Solve this problem however you like.” And while you could see the fingerprints of games like Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell all over it, at heart, Ground Zeroes still worked like Metal Gear. Stealth remained king … but this time, you finally had a comfortable interface with which to do it.
6: Metal Gear (MSX, 1987)
The game that kicked off the entire series — the real first Metal Gear on MSX, not NES — holds up shockingly well more than 30 years later. It definitely suffers from its share of unfriendly 8-bit design quirks, including some profoundly mean-spirited one-way warps and a few really oblique critical items late in the quest. For the most part, though, Kojima and his team got so much right in their first attempt at tactical stealth action that many of the ideas that debuted here remain intrinsic parts of the series. Players sneak around, dodging enemy lines of sight and avoiding the use of noisy weapons. They receive objectives and clues alike from their support team via radio. They fight oddball bosses with goofy code names. And, of course, they go toe-to-toe with the eponymous walking nuclear tank at the very end before dealing with the final plot twist. It’s an 8-bit military combat game that works more like an action RPG such as The Legend of Zelda, and you can still find a great adventure underneath those dated visuals.
5: Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP, 2010)
Metal Gear seemed to lose its way after Metal Gear Solid 3, and there was no reason to expect this unnumbered offshoot would fare any better. But no: Peace Walker took many of the promising-yet-clumsy elements that appeared in MGS 4 and Portable Ops, and polished them to brilliance.
Kojima Productions unabashedly took inspiration from Monster Hunter with Peace Walker, integrating four-player cooperative mechanics into the Metal Gear universe. These became nearly mandatory when battling the gigantic mechanical bosses … not to mention the bonus missions that actually crossed over with Monster Hunter itself. The interface ended up being far friendlier than a 3D action game had any right to be on PSP, and it plays even better on PlayStation Vita or in its HD console remake incarnations.
Peace Walker even managed to find a way to incorporate all the elaborate storytelling the series is known for, without it being intrusive. For the first time in Metal Gear, most of the plot exists in the form of optional supplemental materials that you can (but don’t have to) listen to on your own time. Of course, the story itself is ludicrous as ever, so it’s not like Metal Gear lost its essential goofiness here. But Peace Walker served as a critical step toward both The Phantom Pain and the engrossing base-building of Metal Gear Online, and it feels wonderfully rewarding from start to finish. Beyond the finish, really. There’s as much to the game after the credits roll as there is before.
4: Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (MSX, 1990)
If the original Metal Gear offered a convincing case for the potential of stealth-oriented game design right out of the gate, this sequel made the argument ironclad. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake took all the elements of the first game, from silenced pistols to hiding in cardboard boxes, and expanded them into one of the most complex and sophisticated games of its era.
At the same time, the game matched its mechanical improvements to a far more involved storyline. No longer limited to terse radio transmissions, Metal Gear 2’s plot played a much larger role in shaping the flow of the action, and turned Solid Snake and his peers into legitimate characters rather than mere pixel avatars. Despite running on a platform that was well on its way to obsolescence by 1990, Metal Gear 2 incorporated advanced concepts like crawling, luring enemies into traps with audible sound, a huge arsenal of weaponry and even — in the final showdown — an adventure game-like sensibility, as Snake was forced to improvise a weapon on the spot. It might well be the single most sophisticated 8-bit game ever designed, and Kojima barely had to update its tools and mechanics when bringing the series into 3D for Metal Gear Solid; he basically just remade Metal Gear 2 with polygons.
3: Metal Gear Solid (PlayStation, 1998)
A landmark work for the medium, even if it was just a thinly veiled retread of Metal Gear 2. That didn’t matter, though, because Metal Gear Solid offered an enormous leap forward in terms of what a story-driven action game could be. Much of its impact resulted from the way it seamlessly wove together action and cutscenes. That’s something we take for granted now, but 20 years ago, no one had managed to pull off the difficult trick of telling a story through elaborate, in-engine movie segments that could blend invisibly into player-controlled game sequences. Metal Gear Solid eschewed pre-rendered CGI in favor of real-time visuals paired to the most convincing voice acting to have appeared in a video game to that point. It was jaw-dropping … even if the characters did have a bad habit of jabbering on for far too long via “codec” radio about philosophical tangents.
Presentation was only part of the story, though. Metal Gear Solid and all its comic book drama helped propel a rock-solid action game that, like its predecessors, heavily emphasized stealth and avoidance. The shift to from 8-bit sprites to 32-bit polygons went a long way toward building immersion: Snake could (and often had to) shift into first-person mode to fire missiles or crawl through narrow ducts. Polygons had a liberating effect on the game’s memorable boss encounters, too. Snake had battled combat helicopters and Metal Gear mechs before, but never with such intensity.
Finally, Hideo Kojima’s famous attention to detail helped push the game over the edge into true classic status. From papers flying and computers sparking as Snake battled an invisible ninja robot in a series of office cubicles to the fact that you could sneak safely past a lair of wolves by hiding inside a cardboard box they’d peed on, Metal Gear Solid rewarded players who experimented with and explored the extremes of its innovative sandbox.
2: Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (Various, 2015)
Speaking strictly in terms of gameplay, Metal Gear Solid 5 should top this list. Even more so than Ground Zeroes, it perfectly marries the series’ core principles of stealth and experimentation to a modern, open-world, quest-marker sandbox. The game’s structure allows players to shift smoothly from covering vast tracts of land in a hurry to tense, hide-and-seek scenarios in which every move counts and getting the drop on an enemy patrol can mean the difference between success or failure. Furthermore, The Phantom Pain builds on the base-building concept introduced by Portable Ops and Peace Walker, creating the sensation that you’re setting up an army that constantly has your back. Each excursion you undertake presents you with a huge palette of tactical and combat options, such as silent melee takedowns and relying on sniper companion Quiet to gun down enemy patrols before they even realize you’re there. It’s a game that you can easily play for a few dozen hours … or a few hundred.
Unfortunately, play mechanics only account for half the appeal of Metal Gear, and The Phantom Pain drops the ball with the other half of the game: the story. Not since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 has a game reeked so potently of corporate suits saying “ship it!” without actually stopping to see if it was in fact in a shippable state. The Phantom Pain leaves a great deal unresolved, and many of the plot points it does wrap up — including basically everything to do with primary antagonist Skull Face — end abruptly and without any real satisfaction. It doesn’t help that what little dialogue main character Big Boss (or rather, “Big Boss”) utters is read by new voice actor Kiefer Sutherland with all the enthusiasm of a man doing a decade’s worth of income taxes in a single afternoon.
Normally, these narrative shortcomings might not be critical. In this day and age, such issues can be resolved in a patch, downloadable content or a sequel. In this particular case, though, the game represents the series creator’s final word on his three-decade life’s work. Sadly, that word amounts not to a definitive exclamation point but rather to a half-shrug and a trailing, uncertain ellipsis. You’d like a little more finality, you know? The Phantom Pain plays beautifully, but its muted, inconclusive resolution (such as it is) keeps it from achieving its full potential.
1: Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (PS2, 2006)
After a warm critical reception and disappointing sales, Konami went back to the well with Metal Gear Solid 3 and reworked the original Snake Eater release into the far more satisfying Subsistence. This revamped version included an asymmetrical competitive mode (the original Metal Gear Online), along with tons of bonus material that included a goofy crossover with Sony’s Ape Escape franchise and the first official English-language releases of the series’ formative MSX releases.
As for Metal Gear Solid 3 itself, Subsistence didn’t change that much. But what it tweaked counted for a lot, modernizing the camera and controls in a way that helped make the game far more appealing. Suddenly, its emphasis on camouflage and wilderness survival became engrossing rather than punitive. Subsistence’s improvements allowed the quality of the underlying game to shine through at last — and what a brilliant game it was.
MGS 3 turned its predecessor’s design upside down, giving players a series of large, complex environments to navigate and a vast array of tools with which to conquer them. Although some of those systems were never more than superfluous (especially the need to perform self-surgery after every minor combat injury), the others worked together in harmony. Mechanics like camouflage, close-quarters combat and nonlethal takedowns allowed each player to approach a given scenario from the angle that best suited their personality. Meanwhile, the prequel nature of the game set the action in the ’60s, which gave Kojima and company license to rethink some of the standard tools in Snake’s arsenal. This resulted in greater immersion and enhanced challenge by throwing out gameplay crutches of previous games like the Soliton radar system, forcing players to more thoughtfully interact with the world and the enemy soldiers that populated it.
And then there were the boss battles — the glorious, inventive boss battles. Each one introduced its own rules and objectives, yet all of them built on the same core mechanics that Snake (and players) had to work with. That meant you could exploit the workings of the game to develop boss tactics besides “shoot them until they die.” For example, The Fear’s stamina-depleting power forced him to pause every once in a while to restore his strength by eating food … so you could trick him into eating spoiled food to poison him and block his stamina recovery. The duel with The End could play out in a matter of moments or across the space of hours. And the final showdown with The Boss, Snake’s mentor, managed to encompass both a mechanical and emotional climax to the game. While future Metal Gear titles would improve on or refine Subsistence’s intricate collection of systems, no other game in the franchise has combined design brilliance with raw human emotion like MGS 3. It’s truly the standout moment in a series defined by greatness.
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