Metal Gear
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Since its inception over three decades ago to the murky waters of today, Metal Gear has been hypnotizing, confusing, beguiling, and dividing gamers all over the globe. It’s also one of the most adored series by fans and critics alike, and one of the biggest-selling franchises of all time, with over 56 million copies sold. We can see why; almost every entry is a reinvention of the series, while simultaneously continuing the same bewildering yet ingenious storyline. It’s a series that has given its creator, Hideo Kojima, his reputation as one of gaming’s first auteurs.

With its future being up in the air following Kojima's messy divorce from rights owner Konami, it’s a strange time to rank every entry, but, hell, we’re going to do it anyway. The series is timeless and, still to this day, relevant. If you’re new to the franchise, you might be wondering where to start or which one’s the best. They’re two very different questions that depend entirely on what kind of gamer you are. Do you want to begin with the most modern instalment, or start with the earliest game that feels like a contemporary game?

You may (like the writer of this article) be a purist who wants to begin with the very first entry and work through the series accordingly. If this is the case, we’ll be providing the release dates alongside the games. What we aim to do here, however, is work through every release in order of merit. Very subjective, but we welcome any debate or challenge.

And yes, we’re including absolutely every game, which we count at 22 (give or take) if we exclude expansion packs. The ranking below is decided by user votes, so if you don't agree with the running order, cast your vote and you can change it!

So get out from under that cardboard box, and let’s get started.

22. Metal Gear Solid Mobile (Phone)

Even the most die-hard fans might have missed this, but a Metal Gear Solid game was released for mobile phones. And by this we mean pre-smartphones, the ones with actual buttons, remember? Metal Gear Solid: Mobile was released as part of the Metal Gear 20th anniversary back in 2008 for phones that were powerful enough to play it, like Nokia’s ill-fated N-Gage. It’s not canon, but that’s not why it’s at the end of the list (there are plenty of decent non-canon MGS games, as you’re about to see). It’s janky to play because the exploration utilizes modernish 3D graphics, combined with 2D controls from the 8-bit era – up, down, left, right, with no diagonal option. You can go into first-person at times, but don’t expect fluid movement. The story is essentially ripped from Metal Gear Solid 2, and it’s set chronologically between the first and second games. It’s all very fanfic. At the time, playing a 3D Metal Gear Solid on your mobile phone may have been a novelty, but that’s all it remains – a novelty in 2008, and something of a nightmare today. The MSX games from the '80s play way better.

21. Metal Gear Solid Touch (Phone)

Metal Gear Solid Touch, released for iOS in 2009, retold the Metal Gear Solid 4 story by way of fixed third-person shooting and short exposition text chunks. While it was playable and fairly addictive, it’s just a novelty. In 2015, the game was removed from iOS due to compatibility issues with newer versions of Apple's mobile OS, but you're honestly not missing a great deal here – just play the real Metal Gear Solid 4 instead.

20. Metal Gear Solid: Social Ops (Phone)

That all the mobile MGS games are at the end of the list isn’t an attack on mobile games. They can be great. That being said, whether it's on old-school mobiles or smartphones, Metal Gear rarely works. It’s best left for systems made specifically for video games, and Metal Gear Solid Social Ops is proof of this fact. A turn-based, free-to-play card-collecting game released on Android and iOS back in 2012, it isn't considered canon and is saddled with dull gameplay. Mercifully, it was only ever released in Japan, and the servers were shut down in January 2014, which is something of a blessing.

19. Metal Gear Survive (PS4)

Controversial statement klaxon! Metal Gear Survive isn’t the god-awful mess that it’s painted out to be by so many fans, but it’s far from perfect. It's the first canon release (though this is debatable) in the series since Kojima and Konami’s rift, so the creator of Metal Gear himself had nothing at all to do with it. It’s essentially a survival base-maintenance game with a loose sci-fi connection to the story of Metal Gear Solid V (which is convenient, because they reused that game's maps for the most part). It’s fun and addictive, but if you’re not into survival sims it’s a long and pointless grind. Also, there are microtransactions required for the simplest things – which is enough to put anyone off this bastardization of Kojima’s passion project. One might suggest that, had the Metal Gear name not been involved, people might have treated this one more kindly.

18. Snake's Revenge (NES)

Konami began production on this sequel to the original Metal Gear behind Hideo Kojima’s back. In fact, he only found out about its existence after someone working on it told him about it. Only released in the US, and it doesn’t even have the Metal Gear moniker. Completely Americanised for western audiences, Snake is now LT. Solid Snake and his appearance closely resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger. That being said, this game supposedly influenced Kojima to carry on with the series. Snake is armed with a knife, Metal Gears are mass-produced, and a cyborg version of a past character appears. Hmmm. Maybe Snake’s Revenge has a bigger influence than we supposed. Still, we recommend avoiding it – it’s non-canon, and made without consulting Kojima. Not the last time Konami acts shady in relation to the Metal Gear series, but more on that later.

17. Metal Gear (NES)

This is the version most Americans discovered Metal Gear back in the day, no doubt thinking it was the original game, or, if they were aware of it, an exact port of the MSX version. After all, Konami released it just 5 months after the original. However, Konami made drastic changes here, all of them without Kojima’s involvement. This is why we’ve given the NES version its own placement, further down the list than the MSX version – it’s just not as good. The colour pallet has been filled, taking away the atmospheric murkiness of the original. The maps have been rearranged, it’s not as challenging, and the bosses are nowhere near as exciting – the awesome-looking Metal Gear mech is replaced with a giant computer monitor. Why? We have no idea.

16. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS4)

Yes, it looks and plays great, it’s part of the original story, and there are plenty of mini-games for when you’re done. But there is a reason fans were annoyed by this release: it looks like a 'part-1-of-2' situation, but this was a brief prologue to the main Metal Gear Solid V game. Ground Zeroes is very brief – about an hour compared to the full game's 40-plus hours. Yet it sold for the price of a full game. We all like a Kojima twist, but not one where Konami robs us. Still, it looks awesome, and it’s an essential part of the story. Luckily, this is included in a pack with Phantom Pain these days.

15. Metal Gear (MSX)

It feels blasphemous to put the humble beginning of the entire franchise so low down on the list. The game that started it all on the MSX system in Japan is, however, difficult to play – and we're talking about a difficulty that isn’t intended. The controls are clunky, there’s little plot, and it’s repetitive. It plays better than Snake’s Revenge because there are no pointless side-scrolling sections, and the puzzles are actually possible to work out. The ending is pretty fun, too, with Kojima breaking the fourth wall and melding gameplay and narrative for the first time. We recommend playing it – just don’t expect a smooth and well-aged classic.

14. Metal Gear Acid (PSP)

The first game released for a handheld Sony console, Metal Gear Acid took the franchise in an interesting direction. We’ll flag here that neither of the Acid games are considered to be canon, but they do have an interesting plot that can be enjoyed on its own. We won’t spoil anything, but the art style is interesting, as is the way the narrative unfolds. It is the gameplay that makes the Acids what they are, though. Instead of stealth action, they’re turn-based card collecting games. Unfortunately, Acid number 1 was rusty, with a frustrating card spending system and long boring boss fights. If this doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, that’s fine, you can skip them. If you do like the sound of them though, they’re pretty fun – and it’s worth playing through 1 to get to 2.

13. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (PSP)

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is an ambiguous release in the Metal Gear timeline; despite having nothing to do with its production, Kojima said it was a necessary component to the series’ storyline. He also waited for its completion before finalizing Metal Gear Solid 4’s plot. However, after the release of Peace Walker, Kojima seemed to make it non-canon, and declare Peace Walker as the true sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3 (the first game in the chronological timeline). We only say this because it’s far from a perfect game, and if you don’t fancy buying an old PSP just for this, you really don’t have to. The gameplay is slow and arduous, mainly due to the hardware’s restrictions. If you already have a PSP though, then we suppose there are worse ways to spend an afternoon. It’s the first entry to incorporate recruiting enemies to join your ranks – a gameplay loop that was massively expanded on in later releases. The story is pretty cool too, even if it isn’t canon. It’s told through stylish comic book illustrations, and the voice cast includes David Hayter. We should add that we’re including the expansion, Portable Ops Plus, an online-focused stand-alone expansion game, in this entry.

12. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3)

Raiden, Metal Gear Solid 2’s controversial protagonist, finally gets his own sequel, and it’s absolutely bonkers. The last in the official chronology of the series and coded by the legendary Japanese studio PlatinumGames, Metal Gear Rising is a surprising high point for the series – surprising because the action is so OTT and the plot is a watered-down version of mainline releases. Yet it’s so damn fun, with a combat system that’s challenging but satisfying to perfect, and a thumping soundtrack. Think of it as 'Metal Gear May Cry'. Then buy it.

11. Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions (PS1)

Released as Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions in Europe, and as a part of Metal Gear Solid: Integral in Japan, Metal Gear Solid: VR missions served as a companion piece to the first game on the original PlayStation. It might sound like a mere expansion, but there is actually more content on offer here than there is in the original. Granted, there’s no official story, but the VR missions themselves are addictive and plentiful. We also get to play as fan-favourite Gray Fox in a few missions, which is enough for the price tag alone. Again, it's far from essential, but so much fun.

10. Metal Gear Acid 2 (PSP)

Like its predecessor, this turn-based card-collecting game has a non-canon story that has very little to do with the mainline games. But it’s fun to play, and the story is as wacky as any canon release. Released a year after Metal Gear Acid, Metal Gear Acid 2 boasts many improvements in terms of gameplay. Cards can now be upgraded for a price, and a bird’s eye view option allows for more tactical decision making. The art style is unique, too, with cel-shaded graphics that’s kookie and smooth – it adds to the fun and crazy missions. Like we said about the first Acid, it’s perfectly fine to ignore this if card games aren’t your bag, and you’re only here for the stealth action. That is what Metal Gear is all about, anyway.

9. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (MSX)

While the first Metal Gear had a pretty big plot twist, it was with Metal Gear 2 that Kojima fell in love with merging philosophy, complex characters and geopolitical situations to create the storylines we now associate with the franchise. The gameplay is a vast improvement on the original, too, with the ability to crouch and crawl added, as well as more complex puzzles. At one point, you have to lure a carrier pigeon with a certain type of ration. The gameplay and story are merged perfectly, too, with the context of the narrative affecting the codec conversations. Sure, it’s aged a bit, but Metal Gear 2 still holds up as a great game.

8. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4)

Metal Gear Solid V is perhaps the title that we feel the most ambivalence towards, but due to the gameplay we just had to give it a high ranking. Insofar as the story, this is the last of the mainline games and ends the series on a whimper. Replacing Hayter with Kiefer Sutherland as Snake was the first in a plethora of odd choices that ended with the story just fizzling out due to Kojima’s exit from Konami. Codec calls are replaced with optional tape recordings, cutscenes are (almost) nonexistent, and the series’ trademark sense of humor is absent; it just doesn’t feel like Metal Gear. Judged on its own merit, though, it’s a fantastic game. You're expected to infiltrate a variety of strongholds from the outside, travelling to different bases via horseback, car, or chopper. It’s a perfect blend of open-world, stealth and action. The recruitment system peaks in this game, too, with the ability to traverse an ever-expanding offshore base. Still not convinced? You can also save endangered species of animals, send them back to the base and visit them in your own personal wildlife enclosure. It’s easily the longest in the series, too, with the potential of over fifty hours. It’s just a shame about the story.

7. Metal Gear Solid (GBC)

Released somewhat confusingly as Metal Gear Solid outside of Japan, this Game Boy Color title was supposed to be a handheld adaptation of the original game. However, it isn’t a port and the storyline is – yet again – non-canon and set in a separate universe in which the events of Metal Gear 2 never happened. Hardly an essential part of the Metal Gear story, then, but Ghost Babel remains a fun game with a lot to offer that pushes the Game Boy Color hardware to its limits. The gameplay is similar to the aforementioned Metal Gear 2, which is pretty decent.

6. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (GCN)

In 2004, Canadian Publisher Silicon Knights released a remake of the first Metal Gear Solid using some of the gameplay functions introduced in Metal Gear Solid 2. While being remade from the ground up, the maps, bosses, and dialogue were virtually the same – with the exception of the cutscenes, which were overseen by Japanese filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura and overused the "bullet time" effect made famous by The Matrix movies. Even if it were a decent remake, though, it just isn’t necessary. Of course, the first game feels janky and looks dated to our eyes, but that’s its charm. The pixelated snow, the missing or blacked-out walls... they all add to the original’s feel and challenge. Twin Snakes' improved graphics and gameplay spoiled and broke it. Imagine Citizen Kane in colour – it's just wrong.

5. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP)

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker takes the best elements of Portable Ops and ramps them up to eleven, with better gameplay and a management system that’s way easier to keep on top of. The story, too, is once again told through artful still images, and with many of the voice cast from previous games. Although it’s worth noting that it's probably the weakest of the mainline Metal Gear Solid games, with some RPG elements feeling out of place, it’s fun to sink your teeth into – especially if you enjoy management sims. We do recommend getting one of the HD home console ports on PS3 or Xbox 360, however, because the PSP version can be a slog with the system's button limitations.

4. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)

If Metal Gear Solid V sacrificed story for gameplay, Metal Gear Solid 4 arguably did the opposite. There are way more cutscenes than there is gameplay, and the gameplay itself isn’t as fun as was made out in trailers. Taking place in the midst of a battle in the Middle East, trailers led us to believe we could pick sides and play enemies against each other. It never quite came to fruition. All this being said, it still holds up as a playable game. It introduced new ways of sneaking, moving in first-person, and ingeniously designed set-pieces and bosses. As we’ve said, though, the plot, and the way it’s told, is what steals the show here. No spoilers, but Solid Snake’s journey concludes in a beautiful crescendo, with plenty of dramatic twists and turns before we finally reach it.

3. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2)

We’re aware Metal Gear Solid 2 is a controversial choice for the top spot because it divides fans – but the reason it divides fans is, we believe, the reason it’s so great. It takes our expectations from Metal Gear Solid and toys with them. Kojima keeps us guessing here, until we become unsure of our own reality. After playing Metal Gear Solid 2, you won’t be sure what to do with yourself. How can a game from 2001 look and play so good, for starters? Also, how did it manage to predict, quite accurately, how the start of the 21st century would turn out? Kojima weaves a story of paranoia and uncertainty into a smoothly running game of action and stealth. There are plenty of ways to work your way through the bases, having fun as you go, with various weapons and items. The bosses are great, too. The biggest twist is the character change at the start, pushing Snake from protagonist to an enigmatic mentor-like figure. It’s the progression we like to see, after he was made into such a pawn in the first game. But yes, after finishing Metal Gear Solid 2, you’ll have some thinking to do, before playing through it once again (and again), noticing something new every time. It's a perfect game in our opinion, even though we know many will disagree.

2. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)

Plenty of fans will be mortified that Metal Gear Solid 3 isn’t at number one, and we understand why. The variety of settings (jungles, swamps, sewers, bases) harken back to the MSX era. The bosses, especially a certain sniper battle, are the best in the series. And the story is a cold-war espionage thriller to rival Flemming or Le Carre, with a big dose of Kojima’s magical realism thrown into the mix. The changing of camouflage every time we move to a new area can be a bit finicky, as can the need to heal almost every gunshot wound. But the game is almost flawless. The only reason it’s not at number one or two is because its predecessors only just steal the mantle. The 3DS port is well worth a look, even if it's graphically a little weaker in places.

1. Metal Gear Solid (PS1)

Not the best technical achievement of the series, but nearly the best in the series. Kojima took Metal Gear 2’s format and placed it in the 3D realm – and, in doing so, gave it a dark and melancholic feel. Oscar Isaac – set to Play Snake in an upcoming Metal Gear Solid film – has said "I love the feeling that the game would give me every time I’d play. It’s just a strangely isolated, mournful, lonely game…" It’s easy to see why Isaac chose those words. Snake is suspicious of his superiors, unsure of his own actions, wary of the mission, and all the while on his own. We feel his isolation as we control him through the cold, dark, Alaskan base, his breath steaming. The PS1’s grainy graphics and muffled sound contribute to the ambience, so make sure you play this one. It's a real masterpiece.