It is my supreme honor to be the one to be the one writing about the history of Metal Gear. It’s a pretty big burden as well. The series is as well-known for its innovative gameplay and storytelling techniques as it is for being convoluted as all get out. The Philosopher’s Legacy, The Patriots, La Li Lu Le Lo, nanomachines, double agents, triple agents, nuclear war, and plenty more can make even the most dedicated fan’s head spin.
And I get to be the one to make sense of it all.
Metal Gear Begins: I Feel Asleep!
Unlike the other enduring classics of 1987, the original Metal Gear wasn’t originally released on the NES. Hideo Kojima designed the game for the MSX2 home computer for release in Japan and Europe. When it finally released on the NES here in the United States, much of the game had been changed, all without input or consent from Kojima or the rest of his team. We haven’t even discussed the actual game yet and shit’s already bananas.
In the proper Metal Gear that Kojima designed, we take control of rookie Solid Snake and are tasked with rescuing fellow FOXHOUND operative Gray Fox, who was himself on a mission to infiltrate the militaristic state of Outer Heaven. All of the game mechanics introduced here — stealth, on-site procurement of weapons, and fourth wall-breaking dialogue — have endured to this day. By the end of it all, we find out that Big Boss, Snake’s mentor and FOXHOUND commander, is behind everything at Outer Heaven, including the titular Metal Gear. Snake of course prevails over Big Boss in combat and seemingly leaves him for dead, but we all know how that kind of thing works.
Metal Gear was a success in both its MSX2 and NES form, and Konami got right to work on developing a sequel for NES called Snake’s Revenge. Once again, this happened behind Kojima’s back and he quickly got to work on developing his own sequel. While he initially said that he’d enjoyed Snake’s Revenge as it “was very faithful to the Metal Gear concept,” he’s also called it “a little crap game” fairly recently and is considered non-canonical to the rest of the series. So there’s that.
Kojima’s sequel was titled Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and released in Japan in July of 1990. Like its predecessor, it never saw release in the US until it was packaged with other Metal Gear games years afterwards (more on that later). For this adventure, Solid Snake was pulled out of retirement by new FOXHOUND leader Roy Campbell and thrust into the nation of Zanzibarland. This very fictional state had kidnapped a scientist that developed an alternative to fossil fuel in the hopes of controlling the world’s supply of oil, all with the help of some stockpiled nuclear warheads. Shenanigans ensue, and once again Snake faces off against Big Boss in a Metal Gear. Once again, Snake is victorious.
And then nothing happened for a while. Development was underway for Metal Gear 3 for the 3DO, until Kojima realized that he was developing a 3DO game. With a little retooling, development began on Metal Gear Solid for Sony’s new PlayStation.
Tactical Espionage Action
While the Metal Gear games for the MSX2 were well-received, they didn’t exactly light up the sales charts. They were MSX2 games, after all. Metal Gear Solid, meanwhile, shipped over six million copies to help solidify the PS as the dominant platform of its generation. You can argue which Metal Gear game is best ‘til you’re blue in the face, but there’s no denying that no other game in the franchise is more important than Metal Gear Solid.
The tools presented to Kojima were well beyond anything he’d worked with before, and the result was a masterclass in game development. The 3D models that made up the gameplay and cutscenes dazzled players, as did the accompanying voiceovers. The stealth mechanics were a wonderful evolution of those introduced in the 8-bit games. The characters were dynamic. Tthe boss battles were twice as memorable. The story was gripping, and since the series was still pretty fresh there wasn’t as much room for convolution. It was truly wonderful.
Eventually the PlayStation’s time would pass, and it was time to hand the torch on to the creatively named PlayStation 2. There was plenty of reason to be excited for the new hardware, but nothing sold gamers on the potential of the new tech quite like the demo for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty at E3 in 2000. Everything about seeing Solid Snake on that tanker was sublime, and MGS fans were in for a treat. Except that a lot of them felt like they had the ol’ bait and switch pulled on them. As it turned out that Snake’s Tanker mission was simply a short prologue to the rest of the game. Gone was the gravelly-voiced super spy, replaced by the soft-spoken, bleach-blond rookie that had nothing but VR training to go on. “Double-you-tee-eff”, as the kids say.
Those willing to open their minds to playing a new character were treated to yet another gem. The gameplay evolved to allow for first-person aiming, Snake could hide bodies in lockers, and the enemy AI was some of the best in the PS2 era. MGS2 also had its own set of fantastic characters and boss fights, although the story became difficult to follow about halfway through the game. The series hasn’t really looked back in that regard. Yet even with overbearing girlfriends and naked cartwheels, Sons of Liberty remains one of the PS2’s finest games. A re-release called MGS2: Substance would come out roughly a year later with new VR missions and extra modes, and we could finally skateboard with Snake like we’d always wanted.
The next game in the series would present a new set of challenges, as Kojima and his team wanted to shake up the MGS formula. To say that they succeeded in doing so with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is an understatement as they would be implementing sweeping changes all across the board. Gone were the indoor environments, replaced with sprawling jungles in which you had to constantly adapt your camouflage and hunt for food. You were yanked out of the near-future and plopped into Cold War-era Russia. Solid Snake was replaced with his “father” Naked Snake, who would go on to become Big Boss.
The idea of playing as the character who was the villain in the earliest Metal Gear games was insanely fascinating, and exploring the seemingly mother-son relationship he had with The Boss was a large part of that. In true MGS fashion, the characters in MGS3 helped make the game special (seeing a young Ocelot fumble with an automatic is a real treat), and the bosses were arguably the best in the series. That’s high praise considering that the bar was set higher and higher with each release. It’s packed to the gills with great moments with all of them forming into one magnificent whole.
Like MGS2 before it, MGS3 also had an enhanced rerelease. With MGS3: Subsistence, players were able to ditch the traditional top-down camera for a fully moveable camera. That was one area in which the series was showing its age. Subsistence also brought with it an online mode, the first in the series’ history. It wasn’t tremendous, but there weren’t a lot of options on PS2 that weren’t SOCOM. A nice touch was added as well, as the ports of the MSX2 originals were included.
Jumping forward to the current generation of consoles, we finally have the latest numbered game in the series in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. MGS4 tested the resolve of even the most ardent cutscene lover by including roughly eight hours of cinematics. The convolution also hit a tipping point, as Konami saw fit to release a Mass Effect-like database explaining all of the biggest and most intricate points of the Metal Gear saga at large. And Old Snake is just weird to look at.
Still, Metal Gear Solid 4 was a benchmark title for a long time after its release. Awkward intermittent installs aside, the game was a showcase for the PlayStation 3’s capabilities. It also redeemed Raiden as a character that players actually wanted to see more of. This was a feat that shouldn’t be taken lightly considering the amount of hate that he got. MGS4’s combat is also quite versatile, allowing for full stealth play, a Rambo approach, and anything in between. There’s plenty of fan service as well, especially in Chapter Four’s return to Shadow Moses Island. While they might be the least interesting out of all the series’ bosses, the BB Corps are still pretty great.
PSP, GBC, MGA, and Beyond
While that does it for the console versions of Metal Gear, there’s plenty of the franchise to go around. Some games stuck to the formula, while others shot off in other directions entirely.
Metal Gear has had a surprising presence on handheld devices, with MGS: Portable Ops and MGS: Peace Walker easily amongst the best of the bunch. They both continue Big Boss’ story post-MGS3. Together they do an impressive job of breaking down the grand scale of the console games into morsels that were perfect for playing on the go. Peace Walker also placed a large emphasis on online co-op for the story, a franchise first.
The honor of being the first to get Metal Gear experience on the go, however, belongs to Metal Gear Solid for the Game Boy Color. Contrary to its title, it’s not a port of the PS classic. Instead it played much like the MSX2 originals. It was an all-new game (often called MGS: Ghost Babel to avoid confusion) taking place seven years after the events the original Metal Gear. However, it is considered to be outside of the regular continuity. In any case, it was very well-received critically leaving it to still fetch a fairly high price on eBay today.
Speaking of non-canon, there’s no bigger offshoot than Metal Gear Ac!d on the PSP. You played as Solid Snake as always, but all of your actions are controlled by via a turn-based card game. It was a total love-it-or-hate-it experience. One has to appreciate the effort put into making the game look familiar while playing completely differently. This spinoff series lasted all of two games. Metal Gear Ac!d 2 might have the distinction of being the only PSP game to ship with 3D glasses. Trivia!
There have been a good amount of Metal Gear games in the series’ 25-year history, but it’s a juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance starring Raiden is just months away from release, while Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes was announced just weeks ago as a prologue to Metal Gear Solid 5. That’s a whole lot of Metal Gear, and, quite frankly, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Long live Snake.
This was tough, as most games in the Metal Gear series are excellent. At gunpoint though, it’s difficult to choose anything other than Metal Gear Solid 3. The bosses are the best and most memorable fights the franchise has to offer, the story is tear-jerkingly good, and the primal jungle setting helps it stand apart. And that ladder!
It’s hard to count it as a standalone game (as you couldn’t play it without owning a copy of Metal Gear Solid 4), but no tears were shed when the servers for Metal Gear Online were finally shut down earlier this year. You had to jump through several hoops just to register an account to play (inexplicably separate from your PSN ID, mind you), and the gameplay simply didn’t follow through on the promise of an MGS-flavored multiplayer experience. Good riddance.
My first time playing any Metal Gear was playing my buddy’s copy of Metal Gear Solid 2, but I wasn’t totally convinced just yet. A couple of years later though, one of my brothers asked what game I wanted for my birthday. There were only two games that caught my eye at all, so I told him either Need for Speed Underground 2 or Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. My other brother shook his head in disgust at the thought of me playing another Underground game (he’s not big on import tuners), and that was good enough to sway him into choosing MGS3.
My MGS2 friend and I spent the following weeks poring through the game, simply in awe of all the different ways to approach situations and the tension in fighting The End. We loved how bombastic the theme song was, and we were damned if that wasn’t one of the greatest endings we’d ever seen.