Blood on the Sand: Viking vs. Samurai

April 14, 2009

This week, we'll be taking a look at what happens when Vikings and Samurai clash and why, tonight at 10, this will be Deadliest Warrior's bloodiest battle yet.

First off, Geoff, Armand, and I want to thank everyone for all of the insightful comments and emails you guys have sent us. They are all awesome, and we're going to use them to make future episodes even grittier -with more carnage, harder science, and a closer look at our warriors' fighting styles. I thought we should spend some time this week doing a postmortem of the Apache vs. Gladiator fight, but it looks like you guys have done that 100 times over, so let's get to some fresh meat: Viking vs. Samurai.

This is the fight that I wanted to see most, and let me tell you, it does not disappoint. You want to talk about fighting spirit? Here's the key to this battle: no matter what happens with weaponry, tactics, or terrain, these are two warriors who will never back down. Let me repeat that: They. Will. Never. Back. Down.


Both warriors were the absolute apex of their craft, the best at shedding blood in their time and place. The Samurai fights for honor in a way we cannot even begin to imagine from our place of comfort in the modern world. His culture created Seppuku, a form of ritual suicide that a samurai would inflict upon himself, rather than be dishonored or captured in battle. He would be compelled to kill himself by the disgrace or defeat of his lord, rather than face that dishonor. The Samurai fears no death.

At the same time, Vikings were no strangers to death themselves. You're probably familiar with Valhalla (whose name literally means "hall of the slain"), the best realm of the Viking afterlife. The only way into Valhalla was to die in battle, and it had to be honorable battle: if you were not fighting with every last ounce of courage you had in you at the moment you died, you would be sent to the frozen wasteland of hel, the Viking underworld. So while a Samurai would rather meet his death on the field of battle than off it, the Viking practically lusted after a gruesome death at the hands of a worthy foe.


It is also worth looking at the most notable examples produced by either class of warrior. The Samurai produced Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest swordsman to have ever lived. Musashi killed his first man when he was 13, and when he was 30, clubbed his most famous opponent to death in duel. He did it with an oar he whittled into the shape of a bokken, or practice sword, on the boat ride to the duel. Musashi did not need a blade to be lethal, and neither will our samurai.

The Vikings on the other hand, are a little harder to sort through, and their histories are pretty well mixed with myth and legend. But we do know that as early as the 9th century, Vikings had made their way into the Mediterranean Sea, where they were adopted as the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors, forming an elite unit known as the Varangian Guard. Evidence of their dominance survives to this day in the graffiti they left in Constantinople, including the Hagia Sophia, which was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years. The Vikings did what they wanted, where they wanted. They could not be stopped.

All that is a lot on fighting spirit. Let's talk hard facts and equipment. In general, the Vikings are going to be bringing robust, heavier arms to this fight, while the Samurai weapons and armor we'll be seeing are lighter, but made to a higher standard. While the Samurai's most famous sword, the Katana, is renowned for its construction, Viking swords possessed a similar, multilayered, high and low-carbon steel construction, although to a lesser degree of refinement. The point being: you can still find katanas from Japan's medieval period in the homes of wealthy collectors today, but most Viking swords now are found on the bottom of river beds or in graves. While there is a gap of about 200 years between the end of the Viking age and the beginning of Japan's medieval period, it's worth noting that one style of sword making is still revered, while the other is all but forgotten.

Armor here is a real apples-to-oranges comparison. While both fighters wore armor made from iron, the Samurai's complex system of iron plates laid over quilted padding offered a different sort of protection from the Viking's mail. Arguably, the Samurai has more points at which his armor can critically fail (but better protection at its strong points), while the Viking has fewer points of failure, but a lower quality of protection throughout the entire system of his armor. Both opponents are going to be bringing different fighting styles to bear, and a lot of that is hard to quantify in so short a space (we haven't even touched on berserkers, or different schools of Samurai swordsmanship).

So before this turns into a chapter from the world's most bloodthirsty History textbook, let me just hit on the science in closing. We pulled out all the stops for this one-testing blades not only on armor and ballistics gel, but the other most accurate test for damage we have: pig carcasses. You see, at the flesh and blood level, a pig isn't built all that different from you or me, and when it comes to muscle, fat, and bone, the multiple layers of a pig's corpse provide a fantastic supplement to the usual gel torso carnage. This is, of course, in addition to the load cells, accelerometers, pressure mats, and scales we're using to digitally gather numbers for our simulation.

In closing, Geoff, Armand, and I all want to know what you think: who will prevail? Neither of these warriors will ever back down, so what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? When the howling fury of the frozen North grapples with the iron discipline of the fearless East? Let us know whom you think will win, and after the show airs, what you thought of the episode.

Morituri te salutant,

Max Geiger is a game designer and graduate of USC's Interactive Media Division. He's worked on a variety of projects, including a casual MMO, a game about congressional redistricting, and a simulator for the United States Army.