After producing two card game spin-offs, Konami finally released a real, honest-to-god Metal Gear game on the PSP in December of 2006. Titled Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, this handheld entry sought to capture the iconic Metal Gear gameplay we know and love, engineered to work around the limitations of Sony’s portable device.
Even though series creator Hideo Kojima only served as producer on Portable Ops—the development of Metal Gear Solid 4 likely kept him pretty busy—this unsung little Metal Gear Solid entry would greatly shape the series’ future. We may not know where the series will go after Kojima’s departure, but we can at least trace how this strange, underappreciated offshoot left a lingering impact on the series over the following decade.
Building a Team
While, as with any Metal Gear game, some variation of Snake takes on the role of protagonist, he’s not the sole playable character. Portable Ops’ biggest addition to the series comes in the form of recruitable soldiers, which can join your team if successfully subdued. But Portable Ops doesn’t make it easy to add soldiers to Snake’s private army. First, you have to knock them out, then drag them all the way back to your supply truck, which can often sit at the opposite corner of a level.
Further games would take this idea and greatly improve on it. Starting with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, captured soldiers can be captured instantly using the Fulton device—cutting out a whole lot of unnecessary tedium as a result. And Peace Walker also introduced Mother Base, which tasks the player with organizing soldiers into the right departments for the sake of building new weapons and items, and heading out on away missions while Snake keeps himself busy with more important tasks. Last year’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain brought the whole Mother Base concept to its logical conclusion, and also turned the offshore fortress from a series of menus to a fully rendered environment Snake can explore.
Sticking with the Past
While 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots dove into the dark future, Portable Ops chose to stay in the past. Rather than starring Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2’s Solid Snake, Portable Ops thrusts Metal Gear Solid 3’s Naked Snake into the hero role once again. And in terms of Metal Gear lore, he’s a pretty important character—not to mention the clone-father of the Solid Snake we got to know over the course of the series’ earlier entries.
While Solid Snake has his charms, he amounts to a patsy sent in to do his job and not ask too many questions. Naked Snake did exactly this in Metal Gear Solid 3, but his resentment about soldiers being used thoughtlessly as tools of war would greatly shape the narrative of the remaining games. Over the course of Portable Ops, Peace Walker, and The Phantom Pain, we see the rise and fall of Naked Snake as he assembles his army for hire and becomes the infamous Big Boss—AKA Snake’s enemy in the first two Metal Gear games.
Gameplay Over Story
Prior to Portable Ops, gamers typically knew Metal Gear for its long, long cutscenes. While the games offered plenty of interesting, unique, and memorable bits of gameplay, director Hideo Kojima seemed most interested in telling relentlessly twisting and philosophizing stories about espionage. This all changed with Portable Ops, mostly due to practical concerns: Since players would be engaging with the game on the go, they wouldn’t want their PSP’s limited battery life consumed by extended cutscenes.
Portable Ops still features cutscenes, but delivered in a sketchy, enigmatic art style, and in much smaller doses than before. Peace Walker takes the same approach, and also offloads previously mandatory exposition onto optional cassette tapes earned throughout Snake’s journey. And The Phantom Pain takes this idea even further by allowing players to listen to their collection of tapes while playing around in the game’s huge, open world. Previously, playing Metal Gear games entailed plenty of sitting and watching, but Portable Ops really pushed it into being a much more gameplay focused series.
Shaping the Future of Metal Gear
Granted, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops might not be the easiest game to revisit. Every future installment improved on what it did so much, its innovations now feel incredibly outdated. But no matter how cumbersome it may feel today, you can’t ignore how Portable Ops shoved the series down a completely different path than the one it previously traveled. Now, if only Konami would make it available on anything other than a physical UMD…