Today is the 30th anniversary of the original Japanese release of Metal Gear for the MSX2. So, resident Metal Gear superfan Seth had to look back at this seminal series.
I adore Metal Gear. Of all the brands and franchises I’ve loved throughout my life, almost nothing has stuck with me more than this brilliant, unparalleled creation of Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima. The Metal Gear series entered my life at a time in my adolescence when I was just starting to look at the world more critically, yet still retained a certain level of wonder from my childhood. In that way, it makes sense that Metal Gear Solid impacted me as much as it did when I played it in 1998, with its marrying of grounded espionage and history with elevated, fantastical science fiction.
When I first experienced the series, I was struck by how they were more fun and harrowing than any I had played before, and simultaneously more tense and awe-inspiring to watch than any movie I had seen before. The characters had more of an impact on me than any other aspect of the games though. These complex heroes and tragic villains, with their own many experiences, made me look up in wonder as to how dynamic, courageous, and thought-provoking a fictional character’s own struggles can be. I hadn’t yet known any real heroes in my own life, but I found a personal hero in Solid Snake.
Hideo Kojima is not only an innovative game designer and an artist, but also a passionate lover of movies. Kojima, time and again with this series, was able to combine cinematic influences, unique gameplay design, quirky humor, thrilling action and socio-political commentary into an incredibly polished final product. Ranking this series is difficult, as it’s tough for me not to see every mainline, Kojima-directed entry in the series as a masterwork. Each subsequent game was what my world revolved around whenever they were released, so each one is ingrained with a particular time in my life. But being able to look back on this beloved series is always a privilege, so I’ll now present my personal ranking of the main, canon entries in the Metal Gear saga.
Non-Canon Honorable Mentions:
Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions (1999)
Originally released in Japan as part of an expanded edition of MGS called Metal Gear Solid: Integral, VR Missions built upon the five sample VR levels present in the original game and turned it into a 300-level gauntlet of challenging and creative test courses for Solid Snake to run through. That is, of course, except for the small group of levels where Grey Fox, the Cyborg Ninja from MGS is playable. These levels were my absolute favorite when I was a kid. The controls were fun and allowed you to do just about everything this endearing boss character did in the original game.
Besides all that, this game was a great expansion to the original MGS experience, giving more depth to the gameplay, and also allowing the developers more room for some fun experimentation with the tone and setting of the game. Also, completing the game gave a brief, cryptic teaser for the design of the mech for the long-off mainline sequel, Sons of Liberty.
Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel (2000)
While the world eagerly anticipated Metal Gear Solid 2, this game arrived on the Game Boy Color. An earlier example of a non-canon adventure in the series, and also one not directed by Kojima, Ghost Babel was a fantastic side adventure that harkens back to the top-down gameplay of the original two games in the series before it jumped to 3D on PlayStation.
Metal Gear Acid 1 & 2 (2004 – 2005)
As the series went on, there continued to be creative divergences from the main series. One of the most creative and interesting were the two Metal Gear Acid games. A very non-canon story goes along with very non-traditional MGS gameplay, as these entries are turn-based card games. But as they are a branch-out for the series, they also pay tribute to many of the settings and characters from the main series. If you love turn-based strategy, or love Metal Gear and are in the mood for something different, give these PSP games a shot.
Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (2006)
Portable Ops is a game whose place inside or outside of official MGS canon was always somewhat vague, although now it’s generally considered separate from the main series. The first Metal Gear game on PSP, and one produced by Hideo Kojima instead of directed by him, this is the first game to continue the adventures of Big Boss following his formative adventures in Snake Eater. Featuring a new Metal Gear mech (the first chronological bi-pedal one) and an interesting story that reveals the first inspiration for what Big Boss would do years later with Outer Heaven, this is a game that deserves more attention than it gets.
The gameplay incorporates the wi-fi capabilities of the PSP for an early, unrefined version of the base-building that would be greatly evolved in Peace Walker. The general controls are also less refined, basically taking the controls of the Subsistence version of MGS3 and putting them onto the PSP. But it’s worth playing at least for the story, characters, and fantastic vocal theme “Calling to the Night”.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
Yes, I consider Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance to be non-canon. It’s wonderful and looked upon with pride by Kojima himself, but its development apart from Kojima and its story that takes us past the incredibly definitive conclusion of Metal Gear Solid 4 keeps me from ever considering this as an official chapter in the series.
Originally developed within Konami to be a game that bridges the gap with what happened to Raiden between MGS2 and 4, Platinum Games took over when the original vision for the game wasn’t coming together. The result is over-the-top even by Metal Gear standards, but it’s super fun and creates its own unique spin on the Metal Gear world.
9 – Metal Gear (1987)
This is the game that started it all, and the game whose 30th birthday it is on the day of this article being published.
Technical limitations on the MSX2 caused young developer Hideo Kojima to develop a gameplay formula that would excuse why this military action game could only have a few characters on-screen at any one time. Inspired by the film The Great Escape, he came up with having to navigate the hero through the game by avoiding conflict rather than diving into it, which was a very innovative idea for the time.
Other cinematic influences could be seen in this game, such as Solid Snake himself, openly inspired by Snake Plissken by Escape from New York. Fun and challenging gameplay and a twisting story set the groundwork for a great future to come for this series.
Geek bit: The original title for the game was “Intruder”, but “Metal Gear” was chosen in the end because of a common custom in game development for the time of naming the game after the final enemy.
8 – Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990)
Spurred on by learning of an unofficial North American sequel to the NES port of the original Metal Gear, Hideo Kojima decided to expand upon what he achieved three years earlier in what he intended as a true sequel to the original adventure.
Released on the MSX2, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake refined and added to everything the player could do in Metal Gear. Character abilities were expanded, environments were more elaborate and varied, and the story was evolved as well, serving as a great setup for the new canon chapter in the series that would take gaming to new heights 8 years later.
Geek bit: Before revising the character designs for recent re-releases of the game, the images of Solid Snake were based on a young Mel Gibson.
7 – Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
After the exhausting development of Metal Gear Solid 4, Kojima needed a bit of a reset. Peace Walker was in development, but without Kojima’s direction, and as a smaller project. But as time went on, Kojima’s involvement grew and the project grew to become more ambitious.
The game ended up being a major chapter in the story. Starting 10 years after Snake Eater, and without officially acknowledging the events of Portable Ops, this game shows how Big Boss’s time forming a small, independent military outfit in Columbia evolves into him running a full army once they become involved in a massive military conflict involving a new Metal Gear in Costa Rica.
This game is a major step in Big Boss’s journey from hero to eventual warmonger, and introduces great new base-building and RPG mechanics as Big Boss’s “Mother Base” grows throughout the story, in what is clearly a kind of prototype for what will become Outer Heaven in the following years. Largely inspired by story and themes from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, this game is a fantastic new chapter that evolves Metal Gear’s themes of nuclear war, and changes the concept of what a great Metal Gear game can be.
Geek bit: The project had grown to the point that, during development, it was referred to internally as “Metal Gear Solid 5: Peace Walker”.
6 – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
The Phantom Pain is a difficult game to place along all the other entries. After all, based on what we know, the game appears to be far from the complete product Hideo Kojima wanted to deliver. Developed in the midst of a controversial falling out between Kojima Productions and the higher-ups at Konami, this game was to be a broad perfection and evolution of Metal Gear. Leaping ahead with the base-building from Peace Walker, telling a darker and more intimate story of Big Boss’s fall, and all with a newly-developed engine from Kojima’s studio, The Phantom Pain could have been the definitive Metal Gear game.
However, due to extensive time and money being spent on development, Konami didn’t allow Kojima to complete the game as intended. So the final product, while excellent, innovative and engrossing, is far from what it could have been. The story in particular is lacking compared to previous games. Despite this though, the game does tell a great story. The opening scene is one of the tensest things I’ve ever experienced, and the “real” ending is a fantastic twist that makes a meta-commentary on the relationship between the player and the game itself, as well as bridging the gap between this game and what would occur in Outer Heaven in 1987’s Metal Gear.
The core gameplay here is the most special thing, as it’s the most refined aspect of the game, and it’s truly the perfection of the basic Metal Gear gameplay formula. But since the game was released, there’s been a slow drip of what had to be cut from the game in order to meet Konami’s deadline. We’ll never know for sure what could have been, but what we have is still an amazing experience, proving to me that a Metal Gear game that’s incomplete is still better than almost any other game that’s completed in full.
Geek bit: After release, data miners discovered a cutscene taking place at Mother Base that’s believed to be triggered once all nuclear weapons in the game’s online “Forward Operating Base” multiplayer meta-game have been destroyed. As of this article’s publishing, this benchmark still hasn’t been reached by the game’s online community.
5 – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
The hype surrounding Sons of Liberty when it released was immense. Its predecessor was a massive hit for the PlayStation, and fans like me stalked development through magazines and what existed of the internet at the time. I still have my Toys R’ Us pre-order bonus (the original 2000 E3 trailer for the game on a VHS tape), and fans formulated their own ideas of how this game would advance Solid Snake’s story. But nobody quite expected what Kojima would do with this sequel.
In one of the most unexpected moves in gaming history, even though all the marketing featured Solid Snake as the sole playable character, the final game switched you out from playing as Snake for the vast majority of the game, instead putting you in control of a newcomer named Jack (codenamed “Raiden”). This move upset fans for years to come. It wasn’t until recent years that fans began to come around on this game, and understand what Kojima was communicating with it.
In the aftermath of the events on Shadow Moses Island from Metal Gear Solid, Snake and Otacon go rogue to sabotage new Metal Gears popping up on the black market based on leaked designs. The story begins simply enough there, but when Snake disappears and Raiden intervenes, the game goes on a mind-bending journey that questions society, the digital age, and information control. The game has a broad meta-commentary on its own development too, but the social commentary of it is particularly striking, as the ideas espoused by Kojima have been coming to fruition in a major way in 2017.
Evolving the formula from MGS1 and telling a story that is epic, deep and ahead of its time, Metal Gear Solid 2 is a true classic that gains more relevancy with age.
Geek bit: The originally-planned title for MGS2 was actually “Metal Gear Solid III”. The three ‘I’s for the roman numeral ‘3’ were meant to symbolize the three tallest skyscrapers of New York City. Also, the audience questioning of why they would have skipped ‘2’ in favor of ‘3’ would have integrated into the game’s themes.
4 – Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Technically part of The Phantom Pain, but split off and sold separately to appease Konami, this serves as a primer for what we’d be getting in the full MGSV game. Because of the small size of this game, and the additional time it had in development compared to The Phantom Pain, I actually think that Ground Zeroes is overall stronger.
Taking place in a single location (Camp Omega), the game’s story mode, along with its multiple alternate missions, make full use of this well-designed location. The game has a light amount of story, but it’s just right for a game of this length. It’s by far the darkest entry of the Metal Gear series, and it accomplishes a dour atmosphere that stands apart from other chapters. It also introduces us to the first gaming experience in Kojima’s new Fox engine, and the next major step in evolving the gameplay of Metal Gear.
Geek bit: The game marks the first time that Big Boss was voiced by anyone other than series staple David Hayter for the North American release. Kojima brought in actor Kiefer Sutherland for voice work as well as motion and facial capture, on the recommendation of Sony producer Avi Arad.
3 – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
This game, for me, is the culmination of years of intently following the series. It has gameplay that satisfies all types of players, but has a story that is suitable only for long-time fans. Because of this, many find Guns of the Patriots bloated and convoluted. I don’t agree, as I see it as satisfying and immensely impressive to tie up every loose end in the series, all while having a wide variety of gameplay. From sneaking and shootouts, to one-on-one fighting and mech combat, this is a Metal Gear fan’s dream.
It’s sprawling in scope yet intimate in its portrayal of Solid Snake’s painful final mission. It’s about a globe-trotting endeavor to save the world from the ultimate Metal Gear villain (Liquid Ocelot) by uniting the various forces for good the series has had up to that point. At the center of it all is Solid Snake, whose every step closer to accomplishing his goal is utter agony for his aging body. As a devotee of Solid Snake, I was continually touched by the game’s treatment and honoring of this hero.
The game seeks to definitively conclude the Metal Gear story, and it surprisingly does so. Both story-wise and thematically, everything is wrapped up. It’s thrilling and emotional, while also being an innovative pleasure to play. For certain players, this is the definitive Metal Gear game.
Geek bit: The iconic Metal Gear Solid musical theme song that was introduced in the 1998 game was not used here, or any game going forward. A Cold War-era Russian composition was discovered to sound very similar to the theme, and rather than litigate any possible infringement, Konami elected to drop the theme from any future use in the series.
2 – Metal Gear Solid
When I got a PlayStation for Christmas in 1998, Metal Gear Solid was one of the two games I received for it. It was a revelatory experience for me, but the game also had a remarkable impact on the gaming industry as a whole. It was a true pioneer, bringing a level of quality and playability to the burgeoning 3D gaming realm. Also the game’s story, presented in such a serious tone through cinematic narrative, was groundbreaking.
Serving as a sequel to Metal Gear 2, this game follows icon Solid Snake in the game that certified him as a video game legend. An American special forces group has taken possession of an Alaskan nuclear base housing a new Metal Gear mech prototype. They have hostages, they’re making demands, and they’re led by Liquid Snake; the man who’s revealed to be a brother of hero Solid Snake. Liquid Snake would go on to become, arguably, the series’ greatest villain.
The top-down gameplay of the old MSX games was translated into this new 3D medium with some variation. The game used the technological advances of the PlayStation to provide an immersive adventure with a beautiful orchestrated score, remarkable voice acting for the entire cast, intelligent enemies that would keep players on their toes, and an array of environments and bosses that escalate to a show-stopping climax. It was revolutionary in 1998, and it’s still every bit the remarkable journey now as it was back then. It’s so good that Kojima *almost* never quite outdid what he was able to accomplish here.
Geek bit: Rather than calling the game “Metal Gear 3”, the word “Solid” was added onto the title as a reference to Solid Snake, a nod toward the move to 3D graphics, as well as a reference to Konami’s rivalry with Square at the time.
1 – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
I never quite expected any subsequent Metal Gear game to outdo Metal Gear Solid for me. But when I finished Metal Gear Solid 3 for the first time, there was no other conclusion. Kojima had topped his original masterpiece with this new game. A prequel, that tells the story of how the original villain from the MSX games, Big Boss, started his career, and what began his shift from hero to villain.
After Metal Gear Solid 2 tread similar ground to what Metal Gear Solid did, this new entry brought some radical changes into the series. The game took place predominantly in the jungles and mountains of Russia. It took place decades before the other games, and with Kojima’s direction the game made great use of the stylistic flair and military history of the 1960s time period. The gameplay was far deeper, introducing more abilities, a hand-to-hand combat system, as well as a customizable camouflage system for your outfit.
Along with the advancements in gameplay, the story tells a more personal and emotional story. A young Big Boss (codenamed “Naked Snake” here), having been betrayed by his mentor who defects to the Russians, is forced to infiltrate enemy strongholds to prevent the launching of a new experimental nuclear weapon (the first version of the titular “Metal Gear” weapon) and kill his old teacher.
What follows is a powerful, diverse, engrossing journey through varied settings, all of which brilliantly set up the saga to follow, as well as a bittersweet emotional twist in the ending that puts an entirely new perspective on the entire series up until that point. Both through gameplay and through narrative, the game is an impeccably-produced, brilliantly-realized vision that cements the Metal Gear series as an all-time great of the video game medium.
Geek bit: The game was originally intended to take place on August 24, 1963 – Hideo Kojima’s birthday. However they ended up pushing this date to August 24, 1964 instead, since the game incorporated the assassination of John F. Kennedy into its plot.
Born from the genius of Hideo Kojima and his colleagues, and experienced by eager minds and hearts like myself and thousands of others all over the world. We’ve all felt the joy, sorrow, pain, fear and the fury of these games. Even now, as Kojima and Konami have split and the series as we know it is over, we can recall, appreciate, and relive the complex and essential ideas of this franchise. Happy 30th birthday, Metal Gear. And thank you Kojima-san for continually realizing this vision for years for all the fans.
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