How “Portable Ops” changed “Metal Gear”

The year was 2006. By this point, Sony’s first handheld console — the PlayStation Portable — had featured two non-canon spinoffs in the critically acclaimed Metal Gear series: Metal Gear Acid and its sequel. But the system was due for something bigger. Leading up to the release of Metal Gear Solid 4, the highly anticipated conclusion to the series, Kojima Productions began work on a new chapter in the Metal Gear series, one that would continue Naked Snake’s story from Metal Gear Solid 3, play into the upcoming series finale, and be the first chapter in the series to be released exclusively for a handheld system. That game was Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops; a strange title that history hasn’t exactly been kind to.

Portable Ops is a game about carrying out smaller, byte-sized missions and objectives. You bring a squad of four soldiers into battle, each possessing different strengths and weaknesses. You explore different areas, kidnap enemies, recruit them to fight for you, and then place them into whatever team suits them best. Those teams then provide benefits based on who’s in them; for example: a soldier skilled in Close-Quarters-Combat (CQC) might be better suited for the combat team, whereas a medic might thrive more in the medical team, where they can develop healing items as well as increase your life-bar. The more effort you put into recruiting soldiers, the more your base grows, and the more your base grows, the more equipped you are to carry out missions.

Compared to the games that preceded it, Portable Ops is significantly more gameplay-driven. Gameplay has always been complex in Metal Gear games, but it’s clear that these games exist to tell stories — the nature of which have become so well-known, that people who have never even played Metal Gear still know that it’s one, big smorgasbord of convoluted lore. The complex plot could be considered the defining trait of the series back then, more so than any one gameplay mechanic or system. 

But Portable Ops turned the tables by letting its story take a backseat, and putting its gameplay in the spotlight. All of a sudden, Metal Gear ceased to be a game solely about sneaking your way through a large military facility to further the plot, but rather a game about building up your base, and that’s where the focus of the franchise would be through the end of Kojima’s tenure at Konami.

Portable Ops planted the seeds for the growth of the franchise, and they would later blossom into many of the mechanics found in Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain. The Fulton Recovery System was a streamlined response to the time-consuming task of dragging a soldier halfway across the map to recruit them. The base-building mechanics were expanded heavily, not just by adding more teams, but by adding more things to manage around the base. You could now abduct vehicles found during missions to add to your armory, dispatch soldiers to meddle in international conflicts, and even build your own Metal Gear mecha using items you acquire from boss fights.

Portable Ops was the game that charted a new course for the Metal Gear series. It paved the way for Tactical Espionage Action — the tagline so proudly boasted on the boxart of several Metal Gear titles — to become Tactical Espionage Operations, and for Metal Gear to forge a new identity for itself; one that put its gameplay first, and featured a gratifying gameplay loop that didn’t make you want to just replay the game after you finished it, but rather keep playing.

But the impact doesn’t stop there. Portable Ops was the beginning of Metal Gear letting its story take a backseat, but it’s worth noting that its story has a lot in common with the games that followed it. Suddenly, every game started being about Snake and his fall from grace. Portable Ops and Peace Walker are both games about Snake joining forces with his thirsty, blond-haired companion as they raise up an army of soldiers in order to prevent a nuclear catastrophe that’s being orchestrated by a group of people who have a history with The Boss — a legendary soldier and Snake’s mentor, who he had to kill at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3. Both games see Snake faced with a revelation regarding The Boss’ death, and ultimately show him rejecting her, and taking a step towards becoming the villainous Big Boss.

It’s uncanny, and it doesn’t stop there. Metal Gear Solid V is a game that’s built largely off of the premise of Snake pulling a heel-turn towards becoming the villain we see in the MSX games. Take a look at some of the pre-release material for Portable Ops, and you’ll see that this game had a similar idea in mind, going as far to describe itself as “The Tragedy of Big Boss.” Considering how much the series drew from Portable Ops on the gameplay side of things, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume it could’ve impacted things from the story end, too.

But for as important as Portable Ops has been to Metal Gear, it’s often the most overlooked entry in the series for a few reasons. For starters, it’s only available on the PlayStation Portable and the PlayStation Vita, both of which have been discontinued. Secondly, it hasn’t exactly aged gracefully; while its mechanics spurred the growth of the franchise, everything about it feels antiquated, especially when sized up against its successors, who have improved upon nearly every aspect of it. Finally, perhaps the biggest reason it is overlooked, is because its own developers barely acknowledge that it exists.

The official 25th anniversary series timeline completely excludes the game, while Ground Zeroes and Peace Walker both take jabs at it; jokingly referring to the game and its events as “nothing special” and “that crap in San Hieronymo,” respectively. All of this adds fuel to the fire that is the question “is Portable Ops canon?” and it’s a question that, to this day, doesn’t exactly have a concrete answer. Even Kojima’s answer pretty much translates to “kind of.” But the truth is that it doesn’t matter if it’s canon or not; Peace Walker’s story and character arc for Snake strips Portable Ops’ story of any significance within the series’ lore, because both games tell virtually the same story, but only one of them has Hideo Kojima’s name on the boxart, so that’s the only one that matters, at least from the canon perspective.

The Boss was a character from Metal Gear Solid 3, and is probably among the most tragic characters in the whole series. She was a soldier so loyal to her country that she died for it, but only after defecting to a foreign nation as part of a ruse. As a result, the country she died for disregarded her as a traitor, and all she got for her efforts was one unmarked grave. Yet, her ideals went on to inspire the creation of many groups who attempted to carry out her final will, and her influence is omnipresent in the motivations of many of the series’ characters.

Similarly, Portable Ops has seen better days. Once regarded as a critical part of the story, it has since been largely disregarded, even by its own creators. But there’s no denying its influence on the rest of the series. While its story and themes might have given rise to a repetitive trend of retelling the same story over and over again, its fresh approach to what a Metal Gear game could be helped the series not just to grow, but to adopt a new identity. Peace Walker would go on to improve upon its formula, and The Phantom Pain would go on to nearly perfect it, all the while both games would go on to be some of the best entries in the Metal Gear franchise. Even though Portable Ops likely won’t be remembered with that same distinction, that doesn’t stop it from being the game that changed Metal Gear for the better, and it deserves to at least be remembered as that.