Metal Gear Solid sure is a strange duck. Writer/designer Hideo Kojima’s signature work isn’t just one of the most famous series of games ever made. It also has the unique honor of being one of the saddest and wackiest as well, a pile of games willing to tackle the ramifications of gamifying the military and to ask what it means to leave behind a meaningful legacy…while making scat jokes and letting you use peepholes in Porky’s-like fashion. There is perhaps no better series that manages to chart the ambitious highs and juvenile lows of videogames. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, supposedly the last one, is just around the corner so let’s take a look back and settle once and for all which Metal Gear Solid game is the best.
(This ranking does not include non-canonical games like Metal Gear Acid and Metal Gear: Ghost Babel.)
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.
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8. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (2006): Portable Ops was the first canonicalMetal Gear Solid developed for the PSP. And now, nearly 10 years later, it's hard to look at it as anything other than a rough draft for its far superior predecessor, Peace Walker. Its most laudable achievement, besides fitting the barebones sneaking Solid experience on a portable device, was the comrade system, which stressed the importance of Snake recruiting and gathering allies to help carry out missions—a mechanic seen in both Peace Walker and the upcoming Phantom Pain. Everything else is a bit of a wash. Defining Moment: The animated comic book panel cut-scenes, later carried over to Peace Walker, were pretty neat to see for the first time. Beyond that? Nothing really. Almost completely forgettable, this game.
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7. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (2014): It's hard to judge Ground Zeroes, a standalone game that's been billed as a prologue to Metal Gear Solid V. We have just enough time to figure out what's old and what's new in this installment before the main mission is over. The shooting is tighter. The gameplay is more forgiving for players who are bad at stealth. The story is dark and nasty, but we only have hints, a suggestion of what's in store for Snake and company with the full game. Certainly impressive on a technical level (that rain! that mud!) but it ultimately leaves us wanting much more, which was its job in the first place, to be fair. Defining Moment: The shocking final segment of the game, showing what appears to be Paz's death.
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5. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008) is not a bad game. Far from it. It's just one that's mostly concerned with tying up a long story that's played out for over ten years. Your enjoyment depends on just how invested you are in the series' twisty, convoluted story, to the point that a lot of the time we're not even playing as much as we're watching cut-scenes seemingly designed to explain why Kojima had to go back in time with Metal Gear Solid 3 and make that game a prequel. Shoddy storytelling, then? Perhaps. It's hard to deny the game's sublime moments, like Snake reconnecting with Meryl, unseen since the first game, or the fanservicey segment when we finally get the chance to pilot a metal gear. It isn't the apex of the series but it's still a strong note for Solid Snake's story to go out on. Defining Moment: Snake's torturous crawl through a microwave hallway that cooks him alive, his suit bursting into pieces as he struggles to save his friends from destruction.
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4. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (2010): That Peace Walker is a portable title is a bit astonishing—it's so big! The game plays like the best parts of Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots put together…with a lot of grinding thrown in to pad out playtime. In Peace Walker not only are you trying to prevent another nuclear catastrophe, you're also building up a base of mercenaries, kidnapping and turning them to your side, and researching new weapons to use on the battlefield. That means having to replay missions constantly to fetch new recruits and wait for new tech to finish developing, which often makes the game a chore when it should be exciting. Still, the story is strong and the control scheme, often one of the series' pitfalls, is a huge improvement over earlier installments. Defining Moment: When you first get to customize Mother Base. This is where the game reveals its impressive ambitions.
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3. Metal Gear Solid (1998): A 1998 sequel to a series that hadn't had a game since 1990, Metal Gear Solid is one of the most influential games ever made thanks to its attempt to tell a complicated and relatively mature story while forcing the player to use their wits over brute strength. Stepping into the shoes of Solid Snake as he infiltrates an Alaskan compound to stop a devious terrorist cell was unlike anything anyone had ever played before. Unfortunately, like Metal Gear, it also hasn't aged particularly well, with crude graphics and a hideous control scheme serving as formidable obstacles to any newcomer wishing to play the classic for the first time. There is a Gamecube remake created within the Sons of Liberty engine that makes things easier to look at and control, but copies don't come cheap. Defining Moment: The fight with Psycho Mantis, where you have to plug your controller into the second port in order to block his ability to predict your movements.
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2. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001): Easily the most controversial Metal Gear Solid game, Sons of Liberty was praised for its technological innovations upon release but also heavily criticized for the fact that you played not as Solid Snake but a new character that, well, let's just say he didn't earn the love of the fanbase and leave it at that, yeah? Nevertheless, Sons of Liberty is easily the boldest, most experimental game of them all, with a metagame that has kept critics fascinated for over a decade about what Kojima and company were trying to saying about Metal Gear and the cultural role of videogames in general. Defining Moment: When Raiden's mission was revealed for what the orchestrated sham it truly was.
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1. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2003): Sons of Liberty is the most ambitious but also the messiest, demanding that players are intimately familiar with the first game to understand an inch of its depths. Snake Eater is different. As a prequel it's accessible to new players while giving a few nods to Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty that will amuse those who have played them. The obsession with philosophy and meaning of life that's always been at the heart of the series remains but the game trades away most of its showy tricks and exhibitionist cleverness for heartfelt romanticism and tragedy. This game hurts deeply, tracking the heartbreaking dissolution of one of the most fascinating relationships in fiction over the course of 20 hours. (continued)
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Snake Eater simply feels like a complete journey unto itself. We meet characters, watch them interact and see how those interactions shape them, ultimately bearing witness to the survivors' transformations before the credits roll. If Metal Gear Solid is a microcosm of videogames at their best and worst, a mishmash of engaging thought fodder and shit jokes, then Snake Eater earns its place as one of the best games ever made, almost always firing on all cylinders and soaring high above the weak emotional manipulations of nearly every narrative-focused game that's lurched forth in its wake. Defining Moment: It's hard to choose from so many superb scenes. Snake's descent from a cargo plane at the beginning, his climb of the never-ending ladder while the game's 007-inspired theme song plays, his journey down The Sorrow's river, the fight with The End, the classic showdown with The Boss: the list goes on. It's just a cascade of classic moments from beginning to end.
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6. Metal Gear (1987) and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990): While these two aren't officially part of the Solid series, let there be no mistake: this is where it all started. The framework of the first game, having the player avoid enemies instead of combatting them, was innovative for its time and has secured Metal Gear's place as one of the most important games in the stealth genre as well as providing a sturdy foundation for the rest of the series to be built upon. Solid Snake was more of the same but it did set up the events of Metal Gear Solid. Unfortunately both games are hard to revisit (or play for the first time) simply because they haven't aged that well. However, if curiosity gets the better of you, both of them are available to play in the HD Collection version of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Defining Moment: Seeing the exclamation point appear over an enemy's head when they spot you, something that would become a staple of the series.