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    A screenshot from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Image: Konami

    The Technological Alt-History of 'Metal Gear Solid'

    Written by Ewen Hosie

    Game designer Hideo Kojima has always been something of a futurist, even when his games are set in the past. Take his most famous creation, the espionage-themed Metal Gear series.

    The latest game in this long-running series, the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is set primarily in 1980s Afghanistan, but others span from the 1950s all the way through to nearly 2020. The series offers a glimpse at an alt-history that is reflected more than anything in the games' outlandish gadgets, which are often inspired by real-life technology.

    Some of the unlikely devices that have aided or hindered protagonist Snake and co show how real life can sometimes be as strange as fiction. Let’s take a look at some of the best examples through the game worlds’ past and present.

    The Shagohod—Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (set in 1964)

    A progenitor of the walking tanks seen in the rest of the series, the Shagohod is a massive mobile missile launch platform designed by the Soviets in Metal Gear Solid 3. Its unusual propulsion system, drawn not by wheels or caterpillar tracks but massive screws, was inspired by a Russian all-terrain vehicle called the Shnekohod (“shnek” being Russian for a type of screw).

    While the design never really gained much traction (sorry), the Shnekohod was a capable off-road vehicle, and was used by the Soviets to pick up landed Cosmonauts and other stranded people.

    The Fulton Recovery System—Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (set in 1974), Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (set in 1984)

    Screenshot from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Image: Konami

    The Metal Gear series has many comical moments, and one of the most memorable is the Fulton recovery system, a balloon-like gadget that allows Snake to lift unconscious soldiers and items into the air to be picked up by a passing plane for extraction. It sounds like a convenient videogame shorthand for gaining items quickly, but this design actually has a basis in real life.

    The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system was a CIA invention designed to pick up soldiers and cargo into passing planes with the aid of a self-inflating balloon. Although a seemingly unlikely way to retrieve people, it was actually quite safe. The Metal Gear games take the concept to its logical conclusion, and in the latest release, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Snake can lift just about anything with it—jeeps, cargo, soldiers, guard dogs, and even errant sheep.

    Railguns—Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (set in 1974), Metal Gear Solid (set in 2005), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (set in 2007-2009)

    A real US Navy railgun. Image: US Navy/Wikimedia

    Railguns are able to fire projectiles through the use of electromagnetic conduction. The advantage of this is that it allows payloads to be launched at extremely high velocities over extremely long distances, and saves on propellants used in more traditional launch systems.

    In the real world, railguns are still at something of an experimental stage (though this is expected to change over the next 10 years), but they’re quite common in the Metal Gear series. In Peace Walker, they are seen mounted on UAVs and serve as the primary weapon of the bipedal Metal Gear REX.

    In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a portable version is carried by the character Fortune as a type of rifle. Their appearance in the first Metal Gear Solid is perhaps the closest to reality, as real-life research into railgun technology has been primarily invested in their usage as launch platforms for naval forces rather than personal weapons.

    Prosthetic limbs—Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (set in 1984)

    Snake's prosthetic arm. Screenshot from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Image: Konami

    Prosthetic limbs have been around in various forms for thousands of years; the oldest known example, a detailed foot, was discovered in Cairo and dates back 3,000 years. Prosthesis is a major theme of Snake’s latest adventure; the phantom pain of the title actually refers to an unusual phenomenon where people who have lost their limbs can still feel sensations of pain where their arms or legs used to be. While we were still some way off the highly sophisticated replacement arm sported by Snake in the game’s alternate take on 1984it even comes complete with an electric shock discharge—such sophistication is slowly starting to become a reality in our real-life 2015.

    Nanotechnology—Metal Gear Solid (set in 2005), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (set in 2007-2009), Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (set in 2014)

    The nanotechnology in the Metal Gear series is certainly far-fetched, but like many of the other tech concepts in the games it does have a source. In the Metal Gear universe, nanomachines are tiny machinery that can be used to simulate microscopic entities small enough to be injected into the human body.

    In the first Metal Gear Solid, Snake was injected with various nanomachines to boost performance and (in a plot twist) a catalyst to induce a virus activated by the nanomachines in the captives he was sent to save. By the time Metal Gear Solid 4 comes around—set about a decade later—the technology is commonplace among soldiers, giving them stronger muscles, endurance, and accuracy.

    Unlike the Metal Gear universe, where nanomachines are used for military applications, their real-life purpose is primarily medicinal and is more rudimentary at present.

    Optic camouflage—Metal Gear Solid (set in 2005), Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (set in 2014)

    University of Tokyo researcher Susumu Tachi's optic camouflage coat. Image: Z22/Wikimedia

    A Metal Gear staple (it is the premier stealth series after all), camouflage is one of the central mechanics of nearly every game in the series, and no series does it with more panache. In Metal Gear Solid, upon completion of the game’s ending, the player is awarded a light-bending Predator-esque optic camouflage device. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake’s suit can adapt to match his surroundings in the fashion of a cephalopod.

    Optical camouflage like the kind seen in Metal Gear Solid does exist, but in a far more limited form. Researchers at Tokyo University invented a material that could appear to make its wearer almost invisible with the help of background camera projection in 2003, but for now, camouflage is one area where the series is more firmly entrenched in the realm of science fiction.