Saturday, June 22, 2024

What is the Yakuza series?

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If you’ve been in any tumblr fandoms over the past year or two or hung out on video game forums, you might have wondered why people post the same disco gif every Friday. Or perhaps you’ve seen a very serious looking man singing Karaoke before the whole scene dissolves into a strange sequence with him strumming a ukulele and looking out over the sea. Both of these scenes come from the same game series, and they both capture the feel of the series pretty accurately. The series I’m referring to is Yakuza, known as Ryū ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon) in Japan.

Now, the Yakuza series, if you’ve heard of it all at this point, seems incredibly niche. It is after all a very Japanese game about Japanese gangsters fighting, dancing, and seeming to have incredibly strange adventures. And yet, the games are popular enough to not only get seven main games, but seven different spin off games. Not only that but the newest game in the main series, Yakuza 6, has sold as many copies in the west as in Japan. Clearly, there must be something to this series that helps it do as well as it does. Before we can dive into what exactly makes Yakuza such a fun series and why it does so well, we have to talk about the history of the series first.

History of a Dragon

The first Yakuza game was released on December 8th, 2005 and was spearheaded by Toshihiro Nagoshi. Nagoshi had previously been a designer on the Daytona USA series and a supervisor on first Shenmue game. Speaking to an interviewer during the development of the first Yakuza game, Nagoshi said that his goal with Yakuza was not to focus on violence, but on human drama. The amount of research he and the rest of the development team put into the game was incredible, visiting Tokyo’s red light district and spending time in hostess clubs. They also contacted a novelist known for writing about Yakuza crime dramas, hoping to add realism to the main story. When Sega executives expressed some doubts about the future of the game, Nagoshi even went as far as promising to resign from Sega if the game failed to sell.

This dedication paid off when the game was released in Japan. The game sold over 200,000 thousand copies in 2005 and another 300,000 copies in 2006. With such a massive domestic success, Sega pushed the marketing for a western release hard. They even went as far as to get big name Hollywood actors such as Eliza Dushku and Mark Hamill to provide voice work for the characters. Due to a botched first trailer and some clumsy marketing, the game wound up not selling very well in the United States.

This trend would unfortunately continue as the series progressed, with Yakuza 2 (released in the United States in 2008) selling only 40,000 copies in the west. When Yakuza 4 was released on March 15th, 2011 to little fanfare in the west, the decision was made not to localize the sequel, Yakuza 5. That might have been the end of the series in the west if it wasn’t for the hard work and dedication of the new localization and translation team acquired when Sega bought Atlus in 2014. They managed to get Yakuza 0 localized on January 24, 2017, just in time for the release of Yakuza 6 worldwide the next year. That, combined with the release of Yakuza 0 and remakes of Yakuza 1 and 2 on steam have catapulted the series from incredibly niche to cult classics and popular in their own right. But what exactly makes the series so popular?

Essence of Story

As I mentioned in the previous section, part of the reason the Yakuza series had such a rough start in the west was bad marketing. They tried to market it like a traditional open world crime game in the vein of Grand Theft Auto (GTA). This isn’t a fair comparison to either game, and perhaps the first and strongest point of contrast is the way you navigate the map and interact with civilians. In GTA you are exploring an entire city, and the open world aspect comes from being able to transition from one neighborhood to the other. Your interactions with civilians is also very antagonistic, as you can rob them and generally mistreat them.

To contrast this, in the Yakuza games, the most aggressive thing you can do to civilians is bump into them. You will still get into fights on the street, but the thugs or other Yakuza will generally attack your character first. The map is also far smaller, a couple of city blocks at most. The open world aspect comes from learning and navigating the map, eating at the various small restaurants, and playing the various mini games available. This gentler approach helps the game focus more on the character and the story. It lets the player learn to like the character and get involved with them without having to worry about the string of violence they just committed.

You will be beating up a lot of people though. The combat in the Yakuza series is simple to learn, and incredibly brutal. The basic mechanics of it resemble a brawler. You can attack, block, and throw people. Attacks range from simple kicks to using various weapons such as brass knuckles, katanas, and umbrellas. You can also pick up various objects on the street, such as traffic cones, advertising signs, and bicycles to help you pummel your enemies. Where the combat becomes especially brutal is when you activate one of the games ‘heat moves’, a super strong attack that can knock most normal enemies out of the fight in one hit. Heat moves involve everything from slamming your opponent into a wall and punching him to kicking them off a bridge into the water below. Fortunately, the combat is fairly simple and never really the driving point of the game. That’s reserved for another aspect.

It’s the characters and their motivations that really drive the game, not the combat. By virtue of being seven games long, the Yakuza series has dozens of different characters, but the main protagonist through all of the games released so far is Kazuma Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima. Kiryu is a fascinating character, remaining incredibly stoic for most of his time on screen. Despite his stoicism, we learn very quickly that Kiryu has a strong sense of honor, one that he will not violate for any reason. It’s this honor that oftentimes serves as one of his greatest weaknesses as well, causing him to make decisions that are against his best interests.

Serving as a counterpoint to Kiryu’s quiet stoicism, Goro Majima is the closest thing the series has to a secondary main character. And where Kiryu is quiet, Majima is loud. Where Kiryu is contemplative, Majima barrels into situations with nothing but a knife and a smile. What’s fascinating about Majima’s character development is that in Yakuza 1, he is an antagonist. As the series progresses, we learn more and more about him until eventually we reach the prequel. During the prequel, we not only play as Majima but through the story we learn why and how he became the grinning maniac we meet in Yakuza 1.

On the left, Majima. On the right, Kiryu.

It’s through the story of Yakuza that we get the most character development for our heroes. But the story is set up in a slightly unusual way compared to most other open world crime games. Unlike GTA, where the side missions are generally along the lines of ‘Chase person A’ or ‘Race to point B’, the side stories in the Yakuza series have small plots of their own.

It’s the strength of the writing, both in the side stories and the main plot, where the Yakuza series really shines. The main plot is incredibly dark, full of betrayal, plot twists and vengeance. The side stories on the other hand vary in tone, but are never what you could call ‘dark.’ They range from things such as ‘Helping a high schooler recover his stolen pants from a very strange mugger.’ to ‘Dress in a mascot costume to help a little girl overcome her fear of surgery’. Perhaps one of the weirdest ones was helping a Steven Spielberg expy film ‘Thriller’ with a Michael Jackson expy. If these seem wildly out of tone with the main plot…they are. And yet the writing manages to bring these differing elements together into a cohesive story.

Part of the way the game ties these elements together is through keeping the substories generally on theme with the rest of the game. In Yakuza 6 for example, part of the main plot focuses on how Kiryu is almost fifty years old now and a new generation of Yakuza don’t respect the old ways. The side stories in this specific game often involve Kiryu being baffled by modern technology. A particularly memorable one has him chasing a roomba across the streets of Tokyo. Despite this veneer of comedy, the side stories help maintain the theme: Kiryu is an old man now, and he knows it.

These side stories also do the lion’s share of work fleshing out the protagonists. If all we had was the main plot, we would never know how human Kiryu and Majima can be. How Kiryu enjoys racing model cars, and how much Majima respects women. The last advantage of  the wildly differing tone of the side stories is that it gives the player a chance to breathe and recover from some of the heavy drama of the main plot. I remember during one of my play sessions of Yakuza 0, I had just finished a substory where Kiryu helps teach a dominatrix how to be more dominant. I then started a main plot quest, which ended with a cutscene that rivaled the final scene in Chinatown for cynicism. To cool down from that, I then went to sing karaoke, race toy cars, and play darts.

Yes, darts. One of the other things that sets Yakuza apart from other open world games is the sheer variety of stuff you can do. There’s almost too much stuff, as you can easily get distracted by everything you can do. And each minigame is in-depth enough that it could easily be a game on it’s own. There’s Karaoke, darts, pool, batting cages, blackjack, poker, Shogi, Mahjong, baccarat, and (in Yakuza 0) running a cabaret club. These minigames not only help break up the game play, but can provide even more character development. The karaoke in particular is full of character moments if you are aware of what’s going on in the plot and look up the lyrics to the songs they choose to sing.

Pictured: Important character development.

You’re never alone…as long as you remember these Yakuza

Hopefully by this point you’re at least a little curious to see what a Yakuza game is about. And perhaps you’re wondering which game is the best place to start. Honestly, you really can’t go wrong with most of the games, as the stories are generally self-contained. If you want the best experience though, you will want to start with either Yakuza 0 or the re-make of the first game, Yakuza Kiwami. Either option is a good jumping in point for the series although there is some debate among fans about which order you should play the games in. One side argues for starting with Kiwami and following the games in release order while the other argues for starting with Yakuza 0 and going in numeric order.

I would personally recommend starting with Yakuza 0, then moving on to Kiwami 1 and 2. This way you get the backstories of all the important players first and then move on to their first adventures. All three of the games I mentioned are available on Steam, so getting them is a simple process. As for Yakuza 3? Sega already made a remastered version available in Japan back in August. With a little luck, hopefully it will come to the west sooner rather than later. No matter where you start, I would strongly urge you to give this niche little series a try.

Images Courtesy of Sega

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