Ghost of Tsushima and the real world history behind Sony’s latest PS4 exclusive

Feudal Japan has proved a fertile setting for video games to blossom within for decades now, Ghost of Tsushima being the latest. Most are based around Sengoku period, which bore witness to a country-wide conflict that raged during the time of the Warring States: this era has cropped up on multiple occasions within the four hundred and sixty two entries in Koei’s Samurai Warriors series. You may think that four hundred and sixty two games is an exaggeration, but it’s not – I checked.

The period of attempted Japanese unification that followed, witnessed the ascendency and dramatic death of iconic warlord, Oda Nobunaga. It’s a story that has been retold and explored by numerous memorable titles over the years, like Capcom’s third person hack-em-up Onimusha, as well as modern classics, such as the tall Yokai-filled tale found in Nioh 2.

Kamakura – the golden age of samurai

What’s curious is that the Kamakura period – which preceded all of these Warring States shenanigans – has been left relatively untapped by video game developers. It’s an odd omission, as it’s an era ideally suited for the standard tropes of video games; killing lots of people and looking really cool doing it. The Kamakura period, which lasted from 1185 AD – 1333 AD, is ideal video game fodder because it bore witness to the rise of the legendary samurai.

Most intriguingly, it also saw these elite warriors come up against one of the most formidable and unstoppable armies in all of human history; the Mongols. It’s the historic equivalent of Pirates versus Ninjas or Vikings versus Spartans: a blood-filled smack down which no-one wants to be in the middle of but which everyone wants to see play out. And funnily enough that’s exactly what we’ll be able to do in Ghost of Tsushima. So if you’re planning on picking up Sucker Punch’s latest PlayStation exclusive come release day (and based on the jaw-dropping preview footage, why wouldn’t you?) then you might need a little lighthearted history lesson to set the scene and discover the historical context behind the game.

Who were the Mongols?

Ghost of Tsushima is set during the first invasion of Japan by the Mongols. First question: just who were these fearsome warriors? The Mongols were a group of tribal peoples who originated from the Mongolian Plateau. They became big players on the world stage under the rule of Genghis Khan, when they carved out a humongous land empire for themselves, wiping out kingdoms and killing some 40 million people in the process. There are many reasons for the Mongols’ astonishing global dominance but for the purposes of this article I’ll keep it brief: they were really, really good at winning battles.

They won by outwitting their foes, utilising advanced tactics and superior mobility to encircle their enemy. This was possible because their forces were also made up of highly capable and much feared horse archers – the riders were supposedly trained in the saddle from the age of three. Three?! When I was three I could barely walk, whilst the skills necessary to wipe my own backside were still a veiled mystery. Anyway, the Mongols ruled over the second largest empire in history; bringing the entirety of Eurasia under their booted heel.  Astonishingly they managed all of this whilst remaining a nomadic society. They even conquered Russia and no-one conquers Russia. In this, as in many aspects of their culture, the Mongols are the exception.

Nothing stood before the Mongols. China boasted the largest army in the world at the time, numbering some one million soldiers. These formidable numbers meant nothing to the Mongols, who wiped out half of the Jin Dynasty’s army on their way to conquering Northern China. It was Ghengis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, who then vanquished the Sung Dynasty and conquered all of China in 1279 AD. Kublai Khan ended up directly ruling over China, Mongolia and Korea. And, if the rest of the increasing disparate Mongol Empire was included, also laid claim to an impossibly vast kingdom; stretching from Siberia to Afghanistan. So, taking this success story into account, when Kublai Khan cast his imperious gaze at the tiny land of Japan around 1268 AD, surely it was just a matter of time until it too fell under his control?

The invasion of Tsushima

Starting in 1268 AD, Kublai began to send ambassadors and letters to Japan, demanding tribute to be paid to the Mongol Court. When no satisfactory response was received, Kublai set about conquering Japan by force instead. In 1274 AD a massive fleet, consisting of 800-900 ships, was launched from Korea. Accounts vary to the exact size of the army, but the largest estimation is an impressive force of up to 40,000 warriors. All that stood between this unstoppable legion and mainland Japan was the island of Tsushima. Could you imagine the emotions that its inhabitants must have felt when this gigantic fleet rolled up at their shore on the fifth of November?

It is at this point that Ghost of Tsushima departs from real-world history, to create its own fictionalised account of what happened on that island so many years ago. In reality, the defenders, consisting of a mere 80 cavalry, were led by Sō Sukekuni of the Sō Clan. These brave warriors were ultimately swept aside by the numerically and technologically superior Mongol forces and Tsushima was then ruthlessly plundered.

However, in Sucker Punch’s fictional version, the ruler of Tsushima is a man called ‘Shimura’ who manages to survive this battle/massacre alongside his nephew Jin Sakai. The player will take control of young Jin and will become embroiled in a spot of guerrilla warfare. Perhaps, at the culmination of Ghost of Tsushima, he’ll ultimately be able to defeat the Mongol menace from within? But how would this be possible? How did Japan resist the unstoppable Mongols?

How were the Mongols really defeated?

If Jin is ultimately triumphant then this will be where fiction and reality will join together once again. The first Mongol Invasion was ultimately foiled when a large storm wiped out a third of Kublai Khan’s fleet, forcing the survivors to retreat back to Korea. These divine winds (which would later return to save Japan from a second, even more deadly Mongol Invasion) were called “kamikaze”. In an interview with Variety, Sucker Punch’s Nate Fox references the historical conclusion to the Mongol invasion, “in fact, the original invasion was foiled by a kamikaze, the Mongol boats were sunk by a hurricane. Our hero isn’t a hurricane, he’s a man, and we actually acknowledge that change with his sword that’s engraved with storm wind designs.”

Jin Sakai is the hurricane that will wash away the Mongol invasion. Either that or he’ll sacrifice himself heroically in the finest traditions of the Samurai film genre. We’ll just have to play Ghost of Tsushima to find out how Jin’s story ends. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing come release day on the 17th of July.

Playing with History is our ongoing series spotlighting video games and the real-world people and events that inspire them. From the harrowing historic backdrop fuelling Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, to the existence of zombies in Days Gone, and a deep dive into Jurassic World Evolution’s T-Rex, join us as continue to expand our timeline.

Ghost of Tsushima Guides from TheSixthAxis