Metal Gear is unquestionably one of the greatest video game franchises of all time. The series’ tactical espionage action meshes beautifully with Hideo Kojima's utterly insane yet poignant, heartfelt, societally relevant, and thematically sound story. Solid Snake carries a franchise on his back, every arc narratively or thematically tying into the story he kicked off when invading Outer Heaven in Metal Gear for the MSX.
That said, Metal Gear is a franchise that is more than the sum of all its parts. Certain games are indeed masterpieces in the medium, while others leave quite a bit to be desired at times. At its core, Metal Gear is an inconsistent franchise, but here are their 10 best outings.
10 Portable Ops
Of all the semi-canon/non-canonical games, Portable Ops stands out on something of a pedestal. Not in any way that speaks of its quality, but for its canonicity. Its marketing heavily stated it was a canon entry before Kojima’s retcon in Peace Walker. It looks, feels, and sounds like Metal Gear Solid, but to an extreme.
The game heavily lifts themes and moments from MGS1 and 3, twisting them so they’re entertaining enough to play out a second time around, but wholly and utterly derivative. Portable Ops has few good ideas of its own (though they are all mostly good,) and instead blatantly lifts from its better predecessors. It feels painfully derivative when all is said and done.
9 Ground Zeroes
Metal Gear Solid 2’s Tanker mission is considered by many to be a massive highlight of the game, if not its better half in terms of level design. It’s a playground for Snake mechanically while also successfully kicking off an incredible story.
Ground Zeroes wants to be that for The Phantom Pain, but Ground Zeroes fails. Horrifically overpriced at launch, Ground Zeroes’ Camp Omega is an amazing battlefield and the build-up to TPP is eerily cool, but it’s all too short. It’s all trapped in one single moment. There are no beats, gameplay or narrative. If nothing else, the unfocused feel makes for some very compelling moment to moment gameplay.
8 Metal Gear
The original Metal Gear is equal parts impressive and unimpressive. On one hand, Kojima managed to make stealth gameplay work on an 8-bit console, mechanically and in terms of design. Metal Gear is fun, responsive, and quite tense. On the other hand, the difficulty curve is sloppy and the story is a bit bland.
The latter of which actually shouldn’t be treated as too much of a flaw as this was the series presenting its skeleton. Metal Gear 2 would immediately flesh everything out. The difficulty curve, however, makes for a frustrating game at times. At the very least, Metal Gear is a charming game.
7 Guns Of The Patriots
It’s almost maddening how much of a drop in quality Guns of the Patriots is from Snake Eater. The series was picking up speed at an incredibly fast pace and dropped all its momentum in its last act. It’s a deliberate decision by Kojima and almost admirable in some ways, but it’s still a disappointing ending nonetheless.
Metal Gear Solid 4 brings the series to its clear thematic close but struggles with gameplay and story. The former of which features magnificent gunplay and level design, but barely any opportunities to indulge. The latter is messily paced and cluttered beyond belief, leading to a bizarre conclusion that feels too sentimental for its own good.
6 The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a complicated game with an even more complicated development. On a purely design level, the game offers perhaps too much of a playground, leading to a main game that never manages to find a way to stand out in terms of setting. The mechanics are fun, but the story is boring and the level design surprisingly held back.
That said, the gameplay really is terrific and stealth in gaming has never been better. Its story isn’t as bad as it might seem on a surface level. The Phantom Pain has rich themes that tie back into the franchise’s roots. It’s a game that looks back to the past in a subtle way.
5 Peace Walker
Essentially Metal Gear Solid and Monster Hunter’s love child, Peace Walker is a great little game that rarely seems to get the credit it deserves. While fully derivative of both Snake Eater and Portable Ops, Peace Walker has a surprisingly good plot, a charming script, and a very fun vibe compared to other games.
Peace Walker indulges in Metal Gear’s wackiest qualities. Some might find it offputting, but there’s value there. More importantly, all this leads to more over the top gameplay moments. Peace Walker is a very fun game to just sit down and play in a way the other games aren’t.
4 Solid Snake
The leap from Metal Gear to Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake is downright incredible. Easily one of the greatest 8-bit games of all time (and clearly the best MSX game,) Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake is where Metal Gear Solid gets its best qualities. At this point, Kojima had created a battlefield with history, three-dimensional characters, and killer gameplay.
The first Metal Gear Solid takes a lot of its best set pieces from Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. It’s arguable which game pulled off the concepts better, but Metal Gear 2 does put up an interesting fight, showing off Metal Gear in 2D. Despite its non-canon status, Ghost Babel is just as good, if not better.
3 Snake Eater
The franchise’s favorite game if nothing else, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a magnificent game with a few flaws. The Camo system is conceptually interesting, but at times tedious; the jungle is unfocused at times, and Volgin is perhaps too one dimensional. That said, it really is outstanding.
Both the story and the gameplay bolster the game to legendary heights. Groznyj Grad is easily the best area in the entire franchise, offering incredible stealth opportunities at every turn. It’s also the most emotional MGS game, really diving into its characters in an intimate way. Snake Eater is one of a kind.
2 Metal Gear Solid
The original Metal Gear Solid is unforgettable. Even with its PS1 blocky graphics, and honestly because of it, Metal Gear Solid still looks beautiful to this day. It has the series’ best script, its best performances, and best cinematography. Arguably. Both MGS2 and MGS3 give it a serious run for its money.
Shadow Moses, if a bit short and rushed by the end, is an iconic piece of video game level design, offering some very interesting moment to moment gameplay. The story itself is also incredibly fun, playing out like an incredibly good action movie at times. There’s so much to love about MGS1.
1 Sons Of Liberty
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is one of the greatest video games of all time. It told a relevant story far ahead of its time, predicting the pathway of the information age, while also breaking down what it meant for Sons of Liberty to be a sequel.
Metal Gear Solid 2 is thought-provoking from start to finish, challenging Metal Gear’s core themes. It was Kojima’s clear end for the series and it shows. Everything is resolved even if the conclusions are painfully out of sight. This is to say nothing of the Big Shell. It may not be visually all too pleasant, but it offers the overall best gameplay in the franchise.