A legacy of virtuous missions
2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the Metal Gear series; a sprawling web of military operations, government conspiracies, bipedal nuclear battlemechs, and tactical espionage action. From its humble beginnings on the now-ancient Japanese MSX2 computer following a young, lone-wolf US soldier Solid Snake as he infiltrates the secret military base Outer Heaven, Metal Gear has blossomed into a empire of its own, its story spanning generations of supersoldiers and over a century of modern American history and politics across nearly two dozen games. And of course, not all Metal Gears are created equal.
While Metal Gear will forever be synonymous with its creator and lead architect Hideo Kojima, it's also much bigger than one man; a series that has spiraled out over 30 years into countless spin-offs and side-entries, each one forming a piece of a much larger story. Some of them are far more important to the overall canon - or simply more fun - than the others, though, so we've assembled our crew of Metal Gear obsessives to rank the best Metal Gear games that made it to the West. If you're looking to see how your favorite entry stacks up, or are simply looking for a good place to start your mission to take down the Patriots, look no further.
Honorable Mention: Metal Gear Online
Metal Gear Online isn't technically a stand-alone game (at least outside of Japan, anyway), but it deserves special mention here for taking the series' stealth mechanics and expertly placing them in a multiplayer context. Beginning as an additional mode in the Subsistence update to Snake Eater, MGO has evolved over the years, taking cues from MGS3, MGS4 and, eventually, MGS5 to create one of the strangest competitive modes ever devised.
Players square off against each other in rounds of team-based deathmatches, using a variety of stealthy gear and high-powered weapons to face off against one another. MGO2 - found in MGS4 - expanded on the basics by integrating the story's Sons of the Patriots network of nanomachines, allowing you to hack into other players to keep track of them on the field. MGO3 - tucked inside The Phantom Pain - allows players to gain points by attaching Fulton balloons to their foes. They're only captured when the balloon rockets into the sky, though, so players with quick reflexes can save them by shooting them down. Support for these modes are fleeting, each one only lasting a few years before Konami inevitably shuts the servers down - so enjoy MGO3's brazen weirdness now while you can. David Roberts
20. Metal Gear Solid Touch
Release date: March 18, 2009 (NA/EU)
There are ways to convert popular console franchises to mobile devices without sacrificing what makes those games so special, but everything about Metal Gear Solid Touch screams soulless cash grab. Loosely following the plot of MGS4, Touch takes the series' trademark open-ended stealth action and converts it into a bland, uninspired shooting gallery. Enemy soldiers appear on each stage, and you swipe your finger on the screen to aim and tap to fire. Occasionally you have to zoom in to shoot a distant enemy or switch to your rocket launcher to take out a lumbering Gekko. That's about it.
Everything about MGS Touch feels cheap - characters and environments look like they've been poorly Photoshopped out of MGS4, enemies fall down in three jarring frames of animation when shot, and the gameplay is far too basic to be engaging. Unless you're so desperate that you absolutely have to have a Metal Gear fix available at all times, it's best to pretend MGS Touch doesn't exist.
Best bit: Deleting this garbage app from your phone David Roberts
19. Snake's Revenge
Release date: April 1990 (NA) / March 26, 1992 (EU)
Snake's Revenge isn't low on this list because it's a bad game. As a follow-up to the NES version of Metal Gear, it's actually surprisingly decent, providing more of the same stealth gameplay with an all new story. It even has a few interesting gameplay twists of its own, as you can actually interrogate enemy commanders for information by hitting them with a canister of truth gas.
But Snake's Revenge isn't really a Metal Gear game. It was made specifically for North America and Europe because of the popularity of the first game, and series creator Hideo Kojima had no knowledge that it was even being worked on until well into its development. Kojima began work on a true sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which released exclusively in Japan six months after Snake's Revenge. Kojima's game went on to become series canon, while Snake's Revenge became apocrypha - an interesting curiosity, but nothing more.
Best bit: Actually getting to fight a Metal Gear in an NES game David Roberts
18. Metal Gear Acid
Release date: March 22, 2005 (NA) / September 1, 2005 (EU)
If you follow a franchise long enough, you're bound to see strange spin-offs into completely new genres. While we haven't had a Metal Gear Soccer game (yet), Konami converted the classic stealth series into a turn-based strategy/collectable card game called Metal Gear Acid for the launch of the PSP. The most surprising thing? Despite its flaws, it actually works.
Acid takes the sneaking, shooting, and cardboard-box wearing action found in the core titles, and puts them all into the most bizarre board game you've ever played. Actions and items are relegated to cards that you can earn while you play, and Metal Gear Acid is as much about building your deck for each level as it is about figuring out the opportune moment to play your cards. Its pacing isn't for everyone, its story isn't canon, and many of its biggest issues end up getting fixed in the sequel, but Metal Gear Acid is still an interesting experiment.
Best bit: A pair of murderous twin marionettes who hijack an airliner with an important political figure onboard, and their twisted, depraved dialog David Roberts
17. Metal Gear Acid 2
Release date: March 21, 2006 (NA) / May 19, 2006 (EU)
Metal Gear Acid 2 takes the unique card-battling board game introduced in the first game, and makes everything better. The controls are more refined, turns are faster-paced, and your turn no longer ends when you open doors - a huge improvement from the first game. There are also way more cards to collect, with over 500 this time around, each one representing a different weapon, item, or moment from the storied franchise.
The additions don't stop there, though. An arena mode lets you fight against iconic bosses like Liquid Snake with Acid's unique turn-based system, allowing you to earn points outside of the story to buy new cards. And improved tutorials and guides explain and inform you of Acid's various systems, and are available for perusal at any moment.
Best bit: Playing the game with the included Solid Eye, a cardboard contraption you can affix to your PSP for playing the game in 3D David Roberts
16. Metal Gear (NES)
Release date: June 1988 (NA) / 1989 (EU)
Metal Gear on the NES is ostensibly supposed to be the same game as Metal Gear on MSX2. It is not. The game opens in some kind of bizarre jungle sequence divorced from the rest of the game with Snake parachuting in with a bunch of other people who are never seen or heard from again. Enemies endlessly respawn making it all but impossible to hide from many of them when you re-enter a screen you’ve already explored. The sound effects are grating on Nintendo’s otherwise excellent machine, there’s no ability to save, the English script is cryptic at best. Metal Gear, the titular superweapon, doesn’t even appear in the freaking game.
Under its mountain of flaws, though, the inherent fun of the Metal Gear series still shines. Even in this mauled state, hiding from enemies and amassing an increasingly versatile armory of infiltration gear is still a damn good time. NES Metal Gear isn’t much fun all these years later, but it’s an important historical artifact in the series’ thorny history.
Best bit: When you inevitably play Metal Gear for MSX2 after playing this and say to yourself, “Ohhhhhh, now I get what this was supposed to feel like.” Anthony John Agnello
15. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Plus & 14. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
Release date: Portable Ops: December 5, 2006 (NA) / May 25, 2007 (EU); Portable Ops Plus: November 13, 2007 (NA) / May 20, 2008 (EU)
The first game developed by the now dissolved Kojima Productions, Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops marks the very first time a canonical entry has appeared on a handheld - kind of. Set six years after the events of Snake Eater, Portable Ops follows the exploits of Big Boss and his attempts to build the beginnings of a soldier's paradise. Since Kojima was only a producer on Portable Ops, though, its importance to the overall storyline is debatable.
Portable Ops does, however, introduce the neat ability to find and recruit soldiers in the field - an idea expanded on by Peace Walker and more fully fleshed out in The Phantom Pain. The controls aren't great (curse the PSP's lack of a second analog stick), but it does a decent job of taking the modern 3D Metal Gear style and making it playable on the go. Just be careful: if you want the story, get Portable Ops, as PO Plus is a stand-alone expansion that rips out the story entirely.
Best bit: Slowly building a cadre of loyal soldiers by stuffing them in the back of a truck. David Roberts
13. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
Release Date: July 20, 1990 (Japan)
The true, canonical sequel to Metal Gear makes the unofficial Snake's Revenge look primitive by comparison. The music is better, the animations are more fluid, and the story is deeper and more complex - which makes it all the more surprising that the game wouldn't officially leave its native Japan for nearly 16 years. Thankfully, the Western release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence finally gave us a chance to experience this lost chapter in the series' history.
Metal Gear 2 didn't just improve the enemy AI or give Snake a radar and the ability to crawl into tight spots; it's also the first entry that forces the player to break the fourth wall and scan their instruction manual for tap codes and other clues to find new codec frequencies. If not for some unfortunate backtracking, Metal Gear 2 would be the perfect 2D entry in the series.
Best bit: Improvising a flamethrower out of a lighter and aerosol can to fight Big Boss at the end David Roberts
12. Metal Gear
Release date: July 13, 1987 (Japan)
Metal Gear, in its pure form on the MSX2 computer, had a tortured road to release. Originally only available in Japan and Europe, it finally got a global release in 2005 as part of the Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence special edition and later as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection. It’s this version of the game, with its loading times smoothed out, a fresh script edit, and an Easy mode to help with the burden of the original’s punishing difficulty, that best preserves Hideo Kojima’s original vision for a video game that’s equal parts freaky B-movie and stealth exercise.
The action is rudimentary - even simple maneuvers like crawling wouldn’t be introduced until Metal Gear 2 - but the basics and theatricality were already in place. Crazy bosses, frenemies like Grey Fox, and the tortured relationship between Solid Snake and Big Boss all started here in a taxing, unusual adventure.
Best bit: Surviving long enough to get your first security card and feel like you’re starting to figure out how this weirdo game is supposed to actually play. Anthony John Agnello
11. Metal Gear Solid GBC (aka Metal Gear: Ghost Babel)
Release date: April 24, 2000 (NA) / May 5, 2000 (EU)
Platform: Game Boy Color
It doesn't matter that the Game Boy Color version of Metal Gear Solid (known as Ghost Babel in Japan) isn't canon, taking place on an alternate timeline seven years after the events of the original Metal Gear. It doesn't matter that the Game Boy Color isn't that much more powerful than the NES and sports as many buttons. Somehow, Metal Gear Solid on the Game Boy Color manages to blend the retro stylings of the MSX2 entries with the modern improvements made by the classic PlayStation entry, culminating in the greatest 2D Metal Gear game ever made.
Despite its small stature, Metal Gear Solid on the Game Boy Color packs in a deep, mature storyline (while still being rated 'E', no less), following Snake as he battles a separatist force in Central Africa and listens to (or reads, in this case) reams of codec dialog. It's still amazing what the developers were able to pack into such a small cartridge, how nothing was sacrificed to make a seemingly simple-looking game with all the complexity of its bigger console brothers. Don't write it off just because it's on a Game Boy - this Metal Gear is one of the best.
Best bit: Realizing the 'Fogger' is actually Snake's trademark cigarettes given the ol' Nintendo sanitation treatment David Roberts
10. Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes
Release date: March 18, 2014 (NA) / March 20, 2014 (EU)
Platform: PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One/PC
In 2001, Metal Gear Solid 2 delivered a stark warning about the internet’s lack of context and echo chamber of opinion. 13 years later, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes highlighted digital media at its most reactive. ‘MGS Ground Zeroes can be finished in an hour’ chorused the headlines, assuming outrage on behalf of the audience – while largely missing the point. In fact, MGS: Ground Zeroes can be finished in four minutes by its world-record speed runner but the main campaign earns you a mere 9% completion rating. Set in one location, the compact and oppressive Camp Omega encourages you to explore the game’s renewed, trench-deep, mechanics, which might get lost in a wider canvas. Ground Zeroes streamlined the series’ trademark cut-scenes, ditched the comedic incongruity and embraced open-world stealth. Snake could tag foes with binoculars (like Far Cry 3), drive vehicles, shoot while side-rolling, and evade alerts using the last-chance Reflex Mode.
Dedicated players could easily clock 20-40 hours+ with the game, drilling deeper into the focused sub-missions to learn new approaches to stealth or all-out gunplay. Tonally, this is the darkest MGS game, skirting real world themes of rendition (with contentious results) in an analogue to Guantanamo Bay. Sure, Ground Zeroes was likely a cash grab to offset the spiraling development costs of MGS5, but this doesn’t belie its worth. MGS: GZ set precedents for AAA game delivery (as a prologue and a digital release), mid-tier pricing, open-world stealth and big budget gaming’s reluctance to tackle ‘taboo’ issues. Ground zeroes, indeed.
Best bit: When the PS4-exclusive Deja Vu mission asked you to erase XOF logos in a spooky mirror of real world events to come. Dan Dawkins
9. Metal Gear Solid: VR missions
Release date: September 23, 1999 (NA) / October 29, 1999 (EU, as Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions)
VR Missions isn't quite a full game, as there's no campaign or story to speak of, but that doesn't mean it's short on content. Instead, think of VR Missions as a stand-alone expansion to one of the greatest stealth games of all time, taking its core concepts and devising a wide array of sneaking time trials and puzzles to go with them.
Featuring over 300 bite-sized stages, VR Missions runs the gamut, from weapon-based challenges to pure stealth gauntlets. VR Missions isn't afraid to explore the weird side of Metal Gear Solid either, letting you solve murder mysteries, take on Godzilla-sized genome soldiers, or even play as the coolest cyborg ninja ever. If Metal Gear Solid is the main course, then VR Missions is one hell of a dessert.
Best bit: Solving a series of increasingly difficult whodunits by examining the environment, following a trail of snowy footprints, and more David Roberts
8. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes
Release date: March 9, 2004 (NA) / March 26, 2004 (EU)
Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes is the glorious result of the unlikeliest of partnerships. Helmed by Eternal Darkness developer Silicon Knights, produced by Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto, and featuring new cutscenes by Japanese action flick director Ryuhei Kitamura, The Twin Snakes takes the classic Metal Gear Solid experience and completely overhauls it for the GameCube, featuring updated graphics and controls found in Metal Gear Solid 2, as well as a re-translated and re-recorded script.
So if Twin Snakes is such an improvement over the original, why does it end up ranking lower? Well, for one, the changes to the gameplay actually make Metal Gear Solid way easier, as the level design and boss encounters weren't originally meant to be tackled with first-person shooting, tranquilizer darts, or by hanging from ledges. Plus, Twin Snakes' cut-scenes are perhaps a bit too over-the-top, often performing feats of anime ridiculousness as easily as one would boil a pot of water. Twin Snakes is still one hell of a trip, even if some of the magic gets lost in the transition.
Best bit: Doing a backflip off a speeding rocket, then launching your own missile at a Hind D helicopter David Roberts
7. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
Release date: February 19, 2013 (NA) / February 21, 2013 (EU)
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3/PC
While the Metal Gear series constantly waffles between melodrama and goofiness, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is pure fan-service, taking Metal Gear's themes and slicing them all up into tiny pieces. It even turns the series' most reviled character into an unstoppable badass. It follows the events of MGS4, as Raiden investigates the fallout caused by the sudden implosion of corporate militarization. His hyper-violent journey leads him right to the doorstep of the war-profiteering Senator Armstrong.
In Revengeance stealth is secondary, a way to thin the field a bit before you inevitably get spotted. But, honestly, who needs to sneak around when you have a sword capable of severing limbs like a hot knife cuts through butter? With a strategic series of cuts, you can remove arms or legs to cripple your foes, or simply rend them in half to reveal their juicy, life-replenishing innards. Don't question it - just go along for the highly entertaining, ridiculously satisfying ride.
Best bit: A speech from Senator Armstrong that feels perhaps a bit too relevant in today's political climate David Roberts
6. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Release date: June 12, 2008 (WW)
Metal Gear Solid 4 is a glorious disaster, a patchwork of disparate levels and play styles with the most indulgent cut-scenes in the series’ history – and still one of the best games of its generation. Imagine Led Zeppelin being given $70bn to stage history’s biggest rock concert and spending it all on Kanye West. Few games feel so over-produced yet so embellished by its auteur’s eccentricities. Notionally, it’s about an ageing Solid Snake coming to terms with his own mortality – an obvious cipher for what Kojima (falsely) claimed was his last MGS game – and a vainglorious attempt to tie up the series’ themes of information control, genetic legacy and the relativity of virtue (plus Jonny Sasaki’s irritable bowels).
MGS4’s first two acts are sublime, as you use OctoCamo to evade – and engage – Gekko beasts in chaotic war zones. Act 2’s final 30 minutes are basically a cover version of MGS3’s breathless, varied, conclusion, yet no less effective. In Act 3’s eastern Europe, however, the wheels explode off the bus, with a dull tribute to The Third Man, before Act 4’s genuinely affecting nostalgia and… well, whatever Act 5 is, on the few occasions it lets you play. For all MGS4’s mega-budget indulgence, execrable dialogue and incoherence, you’ll forgive it everything when Liquid and Solid Snake duke it out, stripped to the waist, to an acoustic version of MGS3’s theme at sunset. Even a ‘bad’ Kojima game is still an unforgettable, once-in-a-generation, highlight.
Best bit: Solid Snake’s surprising and highly affecting reunion with a series’ stalwart is perhaps Kojima’s most personal scene yet, inviting parallels with the MGS creator’s loss of his father at a young age. Dan Dawkins
5. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
Release date: June 8, 2010 (NA) / June 18, 2010 (EU)
Platform: PSP/HD versions on PS3, Xbox 360, Vita
Some people complain that Metal Gear games have way too many cutscenes and not enough gameplay, and for some entries it's a valid concern (see: Metal Gear Solid 4). But Peace Walker takes those complaints and jettisons them into the ocean, making this portable title one of the biggest, most expansive Metal Gear outings ever.
Taking place a few years after Portable Ops, Peace Walker sees Big Boss continuing to build his mercenary army - only this time, you'll have a full-on outpost called Mother Base to grow. Big Boss undertakes a wide variety of missions set during the backdrop of the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1970s, recruiting new soldiers, researching gear upgrades, and even developing a Metal Gear of his own. The sweeping story is still here, but between building out Mother Base and fighting actual monsters from Monster Hunter, there's enough gameplay to fill up a dozen Metal Gear titles. The HD release greatly improves the controls and adds online multiplayer, making it the definitive version.
Best bit: Finding a giant robot that hums a disturbingly haunting and robotic version of The Carpenters' classic 'Sing' David Roberts
4. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Release date: September 1, 2015 (WW)
Platform: PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One/PC
Is Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain an unfinished game? The argument still rages among MGS fans, between those who believe that Kojima’s final Metal Gear game was deliberately left ambiguous, and those who swear the veteran developer’s fallout with Konami forced him to release the game unfinished, removing the fabled third chapter and padding the second act with non-contextual repeated missions. Let’s fulton extract that debate for now, and celebrate MGS5’s sublime open-world mechanics: an endlessly replayable stealth toybox with a russian doll of interrelated systems that drive a compulsive loop of investment and reward. Every mission earns cash, which unlocks new items, which transform the way you play – look at the 30 minute E3 demo with four wildly disparate strategies for infiltrating an enemy base, or your ability to ambush an enemy jeep by exploiting their patrol route and tactical horse manure.
Whatever your views, Kojima ran a genius two-year marketing campaign, establishing MGS5 as an analogue to literary classic Moby Dick: a tale of revenge that defied the printed medium’s conventions, that was originally released ‘unfinished’. It’s entirely plausible that MGS5 was compromised by Kojima’s acrimonious departure from Konami, but MGS5’s ambiguity feels like a fitting conclusion for a series that raised weighty, human, questions – about surveillance society, the nature of self and digital culture – a decade ahead of time.
Best bit: The implausible intensity of the penultimate mission, as you fight alongside Quiet, which pushes all your skills and equipment beyond reasonable limits. Dan Dawkins
3. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Release date: November 12, 2001 (NA) / March 8, 2002 (EU)
Platform: PS2/Xbox/PC/HD versions on PS3, Xbox 360, Vita
Kojima’s thoughtful, divisive, blockbuster was arguably decades ahead of its time, asking deep questions of the player’s role in video-games and the nature of sequels – yet allowed you to perform nude cartwheels, explode melons and teach parrots to talk. Technically, it’s astonishing, from the destruction physics, to the pinpoint targeting (you could lose hours decorating guard’s heads with darts then dragging them to obscure hiding places), and *those* raindrops on the screen. Metal Gear Solid 2 sparked legendary scenes at the world’s biggest games show, with its E3 2000 debut trailer drawing crowds of hundreds with every showing.
Kojima’s sequel is both outrageously out-of-sync with player’s desires – forcing you to play as whiny nobody Raiden, not fan favorite Solid Snake, and endure 20 minute cut-scenes berating the player’s lack of awareness – while empowering you like no game before. MGS2 lets you torment guards in inventive ways (a cruel trouser punch, perhaps), shortcut bosses and unearth Easter eggs in even the most unlikely Codec conversations (like Rose expressing her love of Godzilla movies). It’s the most Metal Gear of Metal Gears: a joy of contrasts; an anti-war game that fetishes conflict, a game that empowers the player while mocking them for a lack of control. MGS2 took years to be understood by its fans, and – wild as it sounds – bears comparison to literary, post-modern, classics like James Joyce’ Ulysses. It also lets you run down a corridor with a sword dicing up foes like carrots while fighting alongside the greatest soldier in history. Difficult, obtuse and layered – MGS2 is one of the most deservingly-analysed, and acclaimed, games of all time.
Best bit: The fourth-wall breaking curtain drop when Colonel Campbell implores you to turn off your PS2, before offering a critique of internet culture a decade ahead of its time about digital tribes and echo chambers of opinion that are, sadly, all too relevant today. Dan Dawkins
2. Metal Gear Solid
Release date: October 21, 1998 (NA) / February 22, 1999 (EU)
The original PlayStation hit Metal Gear Solid is still one of the best, as almost every single one of its sequels and spin-offs ends up living in the shadow of this classic. Its story deals in a heady mix of nuclear proliferation, illegal cloning, double-crosses, and paranormal activity, and it moves at a rapid-fire pace for the duration of its 10-hour campaign. It was a revelation at the time, wearing its Hollywood aspirations on its sleeve while never forgetting that it's still a video game at heart.
Few games can boast the sheer amount of amazing twists in Metal Gear Solid. The mysterious death of the DARPA Chief; finding Meryl's Codec frequency on the back of the game's actual CD case; the fourth wall-breaking battle against Psycho Mantis; Snake's capture and escape from prison; and so many more that I could fill this entire slide and still not have enough space to gush about everything cool that happens. Even with its rudimentary 3D graphics, Metal Gear Solid remains a masterpiece.
Best bit: The lead-up to the Psycho Mantis fight (along with the fight itself) is one of the greatest moments in video game history David Roberts
1. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Release date: November 17, 2004 (NA) / March 4, 2005 (EU)
Platforms: PS2/3DS/HD versions on PS3, Xbox 360, Vita
Metal Gear's hard left turn into the Cold War era remains its best, taking everything fans love about the series' narrative and gameplay and executing on them to near-perfection. Metal Gear Solid 3's story is the tightest and most thrilling of the bunch, using a pastiche of 1960s spy movies to tell the origin of just about every single narrative thread in the series. Plus, it just feels so much more human than the rest, dropping a convoluted web of nanomachines and artificial intelligence to focus on Naked Snake and his subsequent fall from grace as he discovers the truth behind the betrayal of his mentor and friend, The Boss.
The jungles of Russia change up Metal Gear's stealth gameplay for the better, forcing Snake to utilize a wide variety of camouflage to tip-toe through Snake Eater's various locales without getting spotted. But it's not enough just to sneak - Snake has to survive, foraging for food among the flora and fauna of the untamed wilds and tending to wounds he receives on the battlefield. It's hard to top a classic such as Metal Gear Solid, but Snake Eater manages to surpass its predecessors with dozens of memorable moments of its own and gameplay that has yet to be matched - and if you're new to the series, it's the best place to start.
Best bit: Climbing the ladder. You know the one. David Roberts