Following two earlier “Metal Gear” titles for the MSX2 in the late 1980s to early ‘90s, 1998’s Metal Gear Solid is one of the world’s best known and best selling franchises.
Spanning three decades and numerous console generations, with many sequels, prequels and spin-offs, the Metal Gear Solid series is typically true to its “Tactical Espionage Action” tagline. Yes, even the “espionage” part, despite the frequent inclusion of rocket launchers, gunships and nuclear-equipped walking battle tanks…
Now-legendary creator Hideo Kojima has become almost as well-known as his creation, parting ways with Konami following some apparent “bad blood” at Metal Gear’s life-long publisher. Kojima-san has since established Kojima Productions, currently known for Death Stranding, which further demonstrated his penchant for complex storylines and unusual gameplay mechanics, both staples of the MGS series.
This list seeks to rank the mainline entries, from 1998’s Metal Gear Solid to 2015’s The Phantom Pain and includes the PSP’s Peace Walker. Beyond these titles, the series becomes so diverse and polarising, it would be nearly impossible to put them side-by-side, but who knows, perhaps we’ll keep you waiting, huh?
7. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Essentially a technical demo for the full-fat follow-up the next year, 2014’s Ground Zeroes went some way to satiating fans who were frustrated by the seven-year wait for a true follow-up to Metal Gear Solid 4. Primarily though, it was released to try to reign in the ballooning costs of MGSV‘s overall development.
To its credit, however, despite its small size, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a tightly-packed and well thought out game, giving players a finite space to explore and experiment with. It hands players an island, Camp Omega, with several area types, including interior and exterior spaces as well as drivable vehicles and several new mechanics to test out. These include a switch from the traditional soliton radar, established in MGS1, to a MGS3-style scope-and-marking approach.
Overall, the game is a solid experience (excuse the pun) and upon release, it really highlighted the technical bump from PS3 to PS4, with incredible lighting and weather effects. Cynics could easily complete the main mission within an hour, but spend a little more time in Camp Omega and there are several more missions, collectables and Easter eggs to be found. The PlayStation timed exclusive “Déjà Vu” mission in particular is a real highlight for nostalgic types.
6. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
Showing support for Sony’s first foray into the handheld market, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was a PSP exclusive, earning its inclusion on this list as it adds plenty of context to games which came later both canonically and physically. Its inclusion in the eventual HD Collection demonstrates its importance in the Metal Gear Solid series and the quality of the game itself – and, ultimately, a home console remains the best way to experience the game.
Taking place shortly before Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, Peace Walker made incredible use of the PSP hardware. This was no doubt due to its late arrival in the handheld’s life cycle, with games such as Portable Ops and Metal Gear Acid arriving several years before it.
Playing as Big Boss, players are given a chance to build a Mother Base – a mechanic itself built upon in MGSV, though one which was first introduced in its PSP predecessor, Portable Ops. Your Mother Base allows Snake to capture enemies and equipment while on missions, and later put these resources to work in areas like R&D and a sick bay. Its construction, made up of large, hexagonal “struts”, is very reminiscent of the Big Shell seen in MGS2.
Peace Walker’s story and gameplay are easily on a par with earlier entries in the series, but ultimately, it just isn’t as ground-breaking as other Metal Gear Solid games.
5. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
The first fully open-world entry in the series is also the most recent, with 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It launched at the peak of hostilities between Hideo Kojima and his long-term employer, Konami which, unfortunately, is clearly reflected in the game. Following several delays, The Phantom Pain failed to unite fans with a satisfying ending. Instead, the game begins a second phase which itself feels unfinished, should you continue to plough on beyond the credits.
Metal Gear Solid V may not have ended up as the magnum opus that Kojima’s fans presumed it would be, but putting the confusing and unfinished story aside, the game remains to be an incredible technical achievement. An enormous open world, engaging combat encounters and opportunities for stealth in multiple forms in every situation, The Phantom Pain really makes the most of the PS4 and Xbox One’s power. The graphical fidelity seen in Ground Zeroes is even more impressive on this greater scale and missions are more varied than ever; the player now able to choose their next missions for themselves, rather than being guided through corridors and on-rails sections as determined by narrative cutscenes like in previous games.
The Phantom Pain showed fantastic promise, and what we got was a superb game which scored high reviews across the board. Yet despite this, the nagging feeling that it could have – nay, should have – been so much better, means The Phantom Pain simply isn’t among the highest-ranking Metal Gear Solid games.
4. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Building on what had come before it, Metal Gear Solid 4 was able to craft a uniquely Metal Gear story, whilst remaining grounded in the real world. “War never changes,” Snake claims at the start, as he enters what appears to be, for him at least, yet another beleaguered battleground. But very soon, players find the opposite to be true, with Snake later proclaiming, “war has changed”. There’s not enough time to go into it here, but Metal Gear Solid 4 is arguably the series’ philosophical peak.
A PS3 exclusive, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots makes the most of the console’s much-maligned Cell processor, showing exactly what could be achieved if you could crack that nut. Metal Gear Solid 4 has a variety of environments, with incredible versatility in each one and many different routes through them all. The areas are far larger and with far more enemies than had been seen before, making each section well worth scouting out with the Metal Gear Mk.II. There’s also the addition of the Octo-Camouflage which allows Snake to transfer the texture of his surroundings onto his sneaking suit for near-total stealth. This revolutionised Metal Gear Solid 3‘s camo system, which required you to pause the action every time you wanted to change your equipment.
The story continues down the rabbit holes set up in Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, with many callbacks to previous games which deftly walk the line of fan service versus functionality. It also sees Metal Gear Solid 2’s Raiden take the mantle of the series’ cyborg-ninja, finding his own redemption, eventually being spun-off into his own, well-received, yet totally different, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
3. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
We’re now in top three Metal Gear Solid games territory, with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Following an act as strong as Metal Gear Solid was surely no easy task, but fortunately Sons of Liberty delivered with gusto. Metal Gear Solid had established a strong universe of its own; self-contained, sure, but also ripe for expansion and exploration. So where would Solid Snake end up next?
An early demo for Metal Gear Solid 2 found Snake on the Hudson river, hot on the trail of a new type of Metal Gear. This demo also showcased the power of the new PS2 and got players hyped for the eventual release, with enemies able to see shadows or hear Snake sneeze if he spent too long in the rain. Those same raindrops could be seen landing on the scenery and even on Snake himself, while the wind blew his iconic bandana as it flowed smoothly behind him as he moved. An early boss battle with Olga Gurlukovic let players shoot out spotlights to see better, or shoot loose a tarpaulin to remove cover for Olga. It was incredible stuff, far above anything else produced at the time.
Complaints about protagonists aside, Metal Gear Solid 2 was tremendously well-received; not only in its own right, but also for the added depth it gave to the Metal Gear Solid universe. That’s especially true when it comes to the thematic areas of genetics and legacies, which continued to become more prevalent in the series as it went on.
Both the Tanker and Big Shell sections also demonstrated how well the series could utilise the PS2’s processing power. With larger, more open areas, greater character detail and a ridiculous number of secrets and Easter eggs – from melting ice cubes to training parrots with a directional microphone – Hideo Kojima was now free to unleash his full creativity on the world.
2. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
In the first mainline prequel, players were now to control Naked Snake, aka Big Boss; the genetic father to the “terrible children”, Solid and Liquid Snake. Allowing players a glimpse into the life of a character thus far only hinted at, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater both answers and raises questions in equal measure. To an extent, the origins of Revolver Ocelot and the Emmerich bloodline are revealed here, too, but with ambiguity around characters’ motivations and allegiances; after all, Big Boss’ loyalty is tested by his own mentor, The Boss.
Metal Gear Solid 3‘s gameplay itself is also more complicated, introducing a primitive version of Metal Gear Solid 4’s camouflage system. With it, players are given their first chance to ambush enemies and make every area a playground for experimentation. Following on from Metal Gear Solid 2 which let you, among other things, shoot soldiers’ radios to prevent them calling for backup, you could now destroy whole armouries or food stores. As a result, enemies would be more conservative with their bullets and less accurate and persistent through hunger.
Metal Gear Solid 3 revolutionised the series’ gameplay and set important groundwork for its successors. It also introduced the idea of Snake’s well-being (beyond getting a cold, as seen in the first two games), particularly with regards to the stamina bar, which played a larger role in Metal Gear Solid 4, where it would affect Snake’s performance in battle.
1. Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid isn’t quite where it all began, with 1987’s Metal Gear forming the true origin of the series, but it’s undoubtedly a seminal title in video game history. It became an instant classic thanks to its revolutionary graphics and a story showing just how far video games could go.
Metal Gear Solid not only has memorable and interesting characters akin to any Hollywood movie, but also an engaging story about real-world events like the Cold War, nuclear proliferation and genetics. It showed that games could tackle this serious subject matter and then some – even if there was the odd, errant codec call about the ladies’ bathroom…
Those characters, too, as wacky as they may seem, had their stories to tell. Psycho Mantis, for instance, speaks of the inevitability of mankind bringing each other pain and misery. Or Sniper Wolf who, while coughing up blood, explains that she was raised on the battlefield, waking up each morning to find more family or friends dead beside her. Super Mario 64 this is not.
To say Metal Gear Solid has not been surpassed in technicality would clearly be incorrect, but it seems fitting, given the series’ ideologies and subject matter, that its legacy is one that lasts to this day. It has influenced countless games, stories and characters since its release in 1998, and undoubtedly will continue to do so for for years to come. It may have aged, but for its time, Metal Gear Solid was technically advanced beyond almost anything at the time. That reason alone is enough to warrant the original as still the best of all the Metal Gear Solid games.
More Metal Gear
- How the Metal Gear Solid Series Proves That Kojima is the Right Man for a Horror Game
- 7 Best Video Game Remakes of All Time (featuring Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes)
- Games That Changed Our Lives: The Metal Gear Series