The History Of Yakuza

By On 11 Feb, 2018 At 08:54 AM | Categorized As Gamespot | With 0 Comment

Of all the Sega properties still relevant this decade, none have had the staying power of Ryu Ga Gotoku, which translates to ‘Like A Dragon’. The series is more commonly known in the West as Yakuza. Compared to the wildly inconsistent Sonic franchise and the infrequent releases of Valkyria Chronicles sequels, Yakuza emerged as the most prolific series for the Japanese developer-publisher in its post-hardware era. If you count remasters, remakes, and spin-offs–some of which have never come out in the West–Ryu Ga Gotoku has averaged slightly more than one release every year since its introduction in 2005. As Yakuza, the series hits a milestone in 2018 as the story arc of its mainstay protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, reaches its conclusion in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. We thought this would be a fitting time to look back on this franchise in our History Of series.

A Well-Planned Debut

Yakuza was the brainchild of Sega veteran Toshihiro Nagoshi, the hard-as-nails director behind Daytona and Super Monkey Ball. He envisioned a gritty drama complemented by a sense of humanity in both its storytelling and characters. The game would revolve around the Japanese criminal underworld of the yakuza, exploring the power struggles between rival groups as well as their tenuous relationships with foreign organizations. The yakuza’s fixation to their code of honor would play a huge part in the series’ many stories. How its key characters adhere to or struggle with this code led to some of Yakuza’s most compelling narrative moments.

Development began as ‘Project J’, where Nagoshi assembled a team of Sega developers proficient in both arcade games like Virtua Fighter and Super Monkey Ball as well as more story-driven consoles titles like Panzer Dragoon and Jet Set Radio.

Nagoshi’s team needed a setting befitting a Japanese mafia tale. They settled on Kabukicho, the red-light district of Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, for their inspiration. Fictionally renamed as Kamurocho, this lively but modestly sized open world would become a staple location of every mainline Yakuza sequel. Much of the city’s immense staying power is thanks to its similarities to its real-life counterpart; this sense of virtual tourism would permeate through all of the series’ other locales. And like avid travellers revisiting Japan, fans–upon revisiting Kamurocho in sequels–would notice and appreciate both the clear and subtle changes to the landscape as storefronts disappear or relocate. The moment you start a new Yakuza and the initial exposition gives way to free roaming, you feel like you’ve returned to a theme park you haven’t visited in years, wondering what has changed, whether that’s an renovated batting center or a new selection of arcade titles at Club Sega.

Much of the city’s immense staying power is thanks to its similarities to its real-life counterpart; this sense of virtual tourism would permeate through all of the series’ other locales.

As the recurring locale, Kamurocho became a character itself, always reflective of its respective time periods. Banter among its locals provides color and context to Tokyo as it was in 2005, 2016 and every other year the games have been set in. Adding further personality to this district are the myriad optional substories triggered by Kamurocho’s many NPCs, the subject matter of which ranges from light-hearted to absurdly funny. Last but not least, this district would be inextricably tied to Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza’s main protagonist.

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We’re introduced to Kiryu–nicknamed The Dragon of Dojima–in the first Yakuza as an up and coming member of the Tojo Clan. His plans to one day start his own crime family are derailed early in the game when he takes the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. This was done to protect his best friend, Akira Nishikiyama as well as Kiryu’s lifelong love interest, Yumi Sawamura. Within the first hour of playing Yakuza, our hero ages 10 years in prison, is expelled from the Tojo Clan, and returns to a Kamurocho that is both familiar and foreign. Meanwhile, he meets Haruka, a 9 year-old orphan. She is somehow tied to Kiryu’s former crime family, which is undergoing a tumultuous period of unrest due to the disappearance of 10 billion yen from the Tojo Clan and the assassination of the Tojo chairman who was investigating the missing money.

In a period where one word game titles like Prey, Gun, and Bully were very much in vogue, ‘Yakuza’ was effective in making Ryu Ga Gotoku marketable in the West. Yet in retrospect, the continued focus on Kiryu’s personal journey makes this title inadequate. Here we find a hero who–in his youth–was drawn to the gangster lifestyle yet has been spending bulk of his adulthood trying to leave it. From the get go we learn that his drive to protect those he loves supersedes any kind of Yakuza code of honor. This gets more complicated due to the father-daughter relationship he quickly forms with Haruka, who stays inextricably tied to Kiryu for the rest of the series. This bond is all the more strengthened by their common upbringings as orphans.

Yakuza would also introduce Goro Majima, a fan-favorite character who would be more beloved than even Kiryu to some. His psychotic tendencies are only overshadowed by his flamboyant charisma, attributes that have only been amplified in future appearances. Kiryu’s relationship to Goro plus other recurring characters–like the detective-turned-journalist, Makoto Date–elevates a growing ensemble cast that become as memorable as any you’ll find in Dragon Age or Gears of War.

Kiryu’s relationship to Goro plus other recurring characters–like the detective-turned-journalist, Makoto Date–elevates a growing ensemble cast that become as memorable as any you’ll find in Dragon Age or Gears of War.

And with the announcement of the English voice cast, you could not have picked a better fit than Joker veteran Mark Hamill as the maniacal Goro. Another notable actor was Michael Madsen, whose work on gangster films like Reservoir Dogs and The Getaway made him a natural fit for a brute like Futoshi Shimano, one of the game’s major bosses. Eliza Dushku also proved a match for Yumi. It was a clear message from Sega of America of their well-intentioned efforts to introduce Ryu Ga Gotoku to the West. That said, the localization came with a forced hard edge, featuring more swearing and gangster posturing than the Japanese version. As if to fully own the Yakuza name, this English script played up the game’s criminal element more than what the original writers intended.

A Series Is Born

As Sega of America was localizing Yakuza, fans in Japan were treated to the series’ first spin-off, a film by the prolific and renowned director Takashi Miike as well as a shorter prologue film. These movies were fitting tie-ins to a game with strong cinematic qualities. The Yakuza games’ filmic storytelling would only get better as the series made its way to the PlayStation 3 and 4 consoles, rendering the idea of additional film adaptations obsolete. These later games would go on to use known actors familiar to Japanese audiences like Riki Takeuchi, Hitoshi Ozawa, and even New Japan Pro Wrestling stars playing as themselves. This would culminate in Yakuza 6 with the casting of one of the country’s biggest celebrities, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who has directed and starred in his share of gangster films.

Capitalizing on Yakuza’s success, a sequel naturally followed. Whether it was a financial decision or an attempt to provide a more authentic experience, Yakuza 2 was released in the West with no English voice acting, preserving the original Japanese audio.

Whereas the main conflict among the yakuza in the first game was from within the Tojo Clan, Yakuza 2 explored their struggles in maintaining peace with outside organizations, not just with other clans in Japan but also a crime group from Korea. It’s a dispute that takes part of the story to Osaka, particularly the tourist magnet of Dotonbori, now fictionalized as Sotenbori.

It also continues to portray Kiryu as the reluctant gangster who doesn’t hesitate to take the fight to his aggressors when his loved ones are threatened. He exhibits shades of Michael Corleone, though the Godfather never had someone as loving and kind-hearted as Haruka to keep him grounded. Wanting to get out but only to be pulled back in is a dilemma Kiryu faces time and time again, all the way to Yakuza 6. While this repetitiveness is amusing, it’s never to the detriment of each game’s respective story. After all, it’s satisfying to see Kiryu take out his frustrations on his inability to escape his yakuza roots by beating up countless gangsters in finely tailored suits. All he wants to do live out the rest of his life with Haruka and the orphans they watch over in Sunshine Orphanage, which the two establish in Okinawa.

Wanting to get out but only to be pulled back in is a dilemma Kiryu faces time and time again, all the way to Yakuza 6. While this repetitiveness is amusing, it’s never to the detriment of each game’s respective story.

And given all the peacemaking Kiryu does with his fists, Sega would continue to refine the series’ melee and fisticuff-focused combat sequel after sequel. It never quite achieves the classification as a 3D successor to classic beat-em-ups like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. At its worst moments, combat has been clunky, repetitive, and shallow. Minor improvements to fighting would come with each subsequent release, accompanied by violent and often amusing finishing blows, like the memorable tiger punch in Yakuza 2.

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In 2008, an Asia-only spin-off followed. Set during the dawn of Japan’s Edo period, Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan followed a reimagined Kiryu as Kazumanosuke Kiryu, whose real identity is the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Once again tied by fate to Haruka, Kiryu reluctantly agrees to help this Edo period version of the young woman by assassinating an imposter posing as Musashi.

Sega would eventually explore the twilight of the Edo period 200 years later in the Japan-only Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin! in 2014 for the PS4. It takes creative liberties with two real historical figures of the time. Sega reimagined two samurai, Ryoma Sakamoto and Hajima Saito as the same person with Kiryu’s personality, taking on a dual identity as they survive this era of unrest as the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate ended.

Lost In Translation

With Yakuza 3 in 2010, Sega was still trying to find the series’ footing in the West, the least of its problems being its poorly conceived box art. Citing time constraints and the presumption that some sections wouldn’t resonate with audiences outside of Japan, Sega of America released an incomplete version of Yakuza 3 in the West. The most notable omissions were the hostess clubs and historical trivia quizzes.

But this was 2010. You could argue that a fascination with the peculiarities of Japanese culture had long since permeated through many areas of gaming fandom in the West. The backlash on forums and in social media sent the message to Sega of America that fans want to be immersed in this culture. Sega have since learned their lesson, if every English release since are anything to go by.

You could argue that a fascination with the peculiarities of Japanese culture had long since permeated through many areas of gaming fandom in the West.

Despite the omissions, Yakuza 3 was still a fine first entry for the series on the PlayStation 3 in the West. Kiryu’s orphanage is under threat of demolishment by the government and his efforts to save it gets him embroiled in the arms smuggling underworld, attracting even the attention of the CIA.

Even beyond the main story, Yakuza 3 shows tremendous heart, with Haruka’s Trust being the most memorable optional mission. Imagine the first moments of bonding with Hakura in the first Yakuza and stretching that out to an entire game. Impressing her and building trust takes more than just buying her stuff and taking her to restaurants. She has very specific scoring expectations when you’re doing even the most mundane of activities like baseball. Miss the mark and that’s time and money wasted.

More Gangsters, The Merrier

Sega’s plan to regain the consumers’ trust began with Yakuza 4. Received well by both fans and critics, this sequel gave an idea of what a post-Kiryu Yakuza series would be like in a big way. In fact, the Dragon of Dojima doesn’t appear in the game’s first 10 hours. The series mainstay would share the stage with three other playable characters: Masayoshi Tanimura, Shun Akiyama, Taiga Saejima. Their sections collectively did more than just help double the playtime over Yakuza 3. How their diverse backgrounds and predicaments intertwined with Kiryu’s offered the same compelling kind of suspense and intrigue found in the previous games while adding a great deal of lore to the series overall.

Equally significant are the various game modes exclusive to each character. Akiyama manages a hostess club not unlike the version cut from Yakuza 3’s English version. The player is tasked with winning fighting tournaments in Saejima’s section. And Tanimura keeps the peace in Kamurocho by listening in on police radio reports and catching crime perpetrators. This expanded cast doesn’t equate to a four-Yakuza-games-in-one playthrough, but it still was the biggest Yakuza game yet.

Back in Japan, fans were treated to another spin-off, Kurohyo: Ryu Ga Gotoku Shinsho, curiously released on the then six year-old PlayStation Portable handheld. While not as feature-rich as any of the console games, this adventure, starring an aimless youth named Tatsuya, was recognized for its customizable fighting system. It also offered its share of minigames including the batting center and hostess clubs.

A sequel would follow two years later, once again on the PSP. Kurohyo 2: Ryu Ga Gotoku Ashura Hen preserved the previous game’s memorable fighting gameplay and was notable for having an involving mahjong minigame.

The series never made an appearance on the PlayStation Vita.

What came next to the West capitalized on the rising popularity of zombie games. Yakuza Dead Souls marked the first and only time to date a Yakuza spin-off has been translated to English. As a zombie game, the emphasis on gunplay proved to be its weakest feature, not too surprising for a franchise more known for its melee combat and brawling. Still, it proved to be more than a novel, non-canonical break from the series’ hard boiled storylines. Just seeing these tough Japanese gangsters deal with the undead made for great comedy.

Sony Comes To The Rescue

Dead Souls came out at a time when Sega’s American presence was once again struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing and competitive market, so much so that they had to secure support from Sony to bring Yakuza 5 to the West, three years after its release in Japan. One of the caveats to bringing the game overseas involved foregoing a physical disc version and making it a PlayStation Store exclusive. It’s a fiscally prudent approach that publishers like Bandai Namco and Koei Tecmo have practiced for many of their games in recent years.

Not to mess with a good thing, Yakuza 5 continued with the multi-character design of 4. Along with the return Kiryu, Akiyama, and Saejima, there’s newcomer Tatsuo Shinada, a former baseball pro whose career was cut short by a gambling scandal. Yet the fifth and most notable playable character is Haruka, whose idol singing career resulted in many first-time gameplay modes for Yakuza. In a series that has featured karaoke minigames, Haruka’s idol rhythm action sections were a natural fit.

Her idol aspirations came with a price, though. Given his known crime history, Kiryu had to disassociate himself with Haruka and the Sunshine Orphanage as part of her signing agreement. That’s why we meet Kiryu as Suzuki Taichi, a taxi driver living in Fukuoka at the start of the game. Like Yakuza 4, all the playable characters’ storylines are connected by fate. Making progress in the game to discover how their respective quandaries are woven together is part of the draw.

While Kamurocho as a setting has always been one of the series’ constants, every mainline sequel has expanded the window into modern Japanese urbanity as well as the occasional glimpse into more rural settings. Whereas Yakuza 4 slightly expanded Kamurocho, Yakuza 5 had a different city for each of the five characters. It’s no surprise that Yakuza 5 has been described by its developers as the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas of the series.

Going To The Beginning, Twice

Sega would take the series to the PlayStation 4 in a big way with both Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami in the West in 2017. It made for a fitting pair; Yakuza 0 being a prequel to the original Yakuza, and Kiwami being the remake of that very same first game. As the first installment to capitalize on the console’s video sharing feature, Yakuza 0 served as the series’ long overdue coming out party. Bolstered by a new, yet experienced localization team, Yakuza 0–in some ways–felt like a reboot in regards to how the series would be treated in the West from this point on. This new group even convinced Sega Japan to lift the game’s video sharing restriction, which is common with many Japanese-developed games. Much of its more absurd optional content lent well to video-friendly social media platforms like Twitter. Pulling in intrigued gamers is easy when you can show Kiryu defending a Michael Jackson doppelganger in an escort mission. Yet the clip that won over even more newcomers on social media was the now infamous Nugget scene. If you were skilled enough at the bowling minigame, you had the chance to recruit a chicken named Nugget to help manage your real estate portfolio. Yes, there is a commercial property minigame, a perfect fit for a game set in 1988.

Bolstered by a new, yet experienced localization team, Yakuza 0–in some ways–felt like a reboot in regards to how the series would be treated in the West from this point on.

This nostalgic representation of Tokyo and Osaka in the 1980s–right down to the romantic yellow hue emanating from nighttime street lights–is one of the many reasons why Yakuza 0 is considered a series high point. While the presence of contemporary bikini models and arcade games show that this isn’t a wholly authentic depiction, the surroundings and the story nonetheless offer a glimpse of Japan’s last halcyonic period before its economic bubble burst. Moreover, the recurring appearances of the Club Sega arcades is both a celebration of the company’s coin-op heritage and recognition of a bygone era.

Yakuza 0 gives equal screen time to Kiryu and the game’s other playable character, Goro Majima. A prequel focusing on the birth of the Dragon of Dojima within the Tojo Clan is eye-opening enough; witnessing Goro’s origin tale unfold is an entertaining look at his charming lunacy. Sega would double down on his twisted attachment to Kiryu with some substantial retconning in the remake of the original game, Yakuza Kiwami.

Mainline Yakuza games have progressively improved its side missions, but Yakuza 0 took these diversions to another absurdist level. These often comedic substories underscore the duality of the series. Its fans can get engrossed in its melodramatic and serious story events while also relishing in the games’ countless lighthearted moments. The Yakuza faithful know that there’s nothing wrong spending an hour fishing as they ignore the sense of urgency of the next story objective. Rescuing a damsel or an informant will have to wait; Kiryu needs his shark fix!

These often comedic substories underscore the duality of the series. Its fans can get engrossed in its melodramatic and serious story events while also relishing in the games’ countless lighthearted moments.

Before jumping from Yakuza 0 to witness the end of Kiryu’s arc in Yakuza 6, Sega took us back to the start. Yakuza Kiwami wasn’t your typical fresh-coat-of-paint remaster. This was a full on remake that struck a fine balance between expanding the original game’s comparatively sparse side content with a strict faithfulness to the narrative. Yakuza fans with videographic memories will recognize practically all the cinematics, shot for shot, right down to the camera angles, all with new visuals.

That attention to detail is just one of the many layers of fan service Kiwami delivers. Keen eyes will notice subtle story callbacks to Yakuza 0 and appreciate the repurposing of the three fighting styles from that prequel, on top of a modified version of Kiryu’s original moveset. And for better or worse, Kiwami alters Goro’s role by accentuating the more endearing and psychotic aspects of his personality from Yakuza 0.

Happy Endings And New Beginnings

As the conclusion to Kiryu’s story arc, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a more focused and intimate story compared to the last few games. As a throwback to the Playstation 2 games, the Dragon of Dojima–now 48 years old in 2016–is the only playable character, a marked contrast over the robust fivesome of Yakuza 5. In addition, his move set does away with the previous games’ multiple fighting styles in favor of a single refined but comprehensive set of skills. While the optional missions and minigames aren’t as plentiful as prior Yakuzas, what it does have are exceedingly involved. That includes underwater fishing with a speargun, running your own gang, and even learning the fine art of conversing in a bar. And this swansong is peppered with notable quality of life improvements, like the ability to pin waypoints on the map, auto-saving, limited loading times, and full voice acting in every conversation. The game also introduces you to Onomichi, a port town Hiroshima.

While the optional missions and minigames aren’t as plentiful as prior Yakuzas, what it does have are exceedingly involved.

Yakuza 6’s story sends Kiryu back and forth between Kamurocho and Onomichi as he deals with events that were set in motion at the end of Yakuza 5, particularly related to Haruka’s idol career. And just as Yakuza 0 offered a view of urban Japan in the late 1980s, Yakuza 6 portrays yakuza as a dying breed, affected by the foreign influence of crime organizations from both Korea and China.

Kiryu’s dealings with the yakuza of Onomichi provide yet another glimpse of organized crime in another region of Japan. With this new batch of colorful characters–from the high strung Nagumo Tsuyoshi to the intimidating Toru Hirose, the latter played by Beat Takeshi–, it’s easy to fantasize a Yakuza spin-off based primarily in this charming Japanese port town. One of the strengths of this franchise is that you can name a dozen existing characters who can potentially be the main protagonist in their own game.

One of the strengths of this franchise is that you can name a dozen existing characters who can potentially be the main protagonist in their own game.

Seven mainline games is a lot for even someone as beloved as Kazuma Kiryu and Sega chose “The Song of Life” subtitle to convey both symmetry and the circular beauty of life. As much as this series is about the Japanese crime underworld, it is also the story of a man’s journey. In an entertainment medium where character driven franchises can go on too long or lay dormant indefinitely, it’s an immensely rare gift to witness the conclusive end to a multi-game story arc of a protagonist as loved and admired as Kazuma Kiryu, told over three consoles generations and two decades. You can’t name more than a dozen other game heroes who are fortunate enough to have this kind of send off. Solid Snake, Big Boss, Ezio Auditore, Commander Shepard, and Nathan Drake, but who else? Yakuza fans are incredibly lucky to get this sense of closure.

Enter The New Dragon

Yakuza 6 marks an end but it is also a new beginning for the franchise. For as visually impressive as Yakuza 0 and Kiwami were, these games were built for both the PlayStation 3 and 4, and like all the games before it, reiterated on design foundations that go all the way back to the very first game in the series. Yakuza 6 is the first game to run on the new Dragon Engine with the Kiwami remake of Yakuza 2 being the second. We hold out hope that the positive reception of the recent games in the West will encourage Sega to make an English translation of Yakuza 2 Kiwami a reality.

At least in Japan, 2018 is primed to be a busy year for Sega and Ryu Ga Gotoku. Ryu Ga Gotoku Online is a microtransaction-driven free-to-play Windows and mobile game designed to tee up the next console game, aptly titled Shin Ryu Ga Gotoku (in this context, ‘Shin’ means ‘New’). Powered by the Yakuza 6 engine, Shin Ryu Ga Gotoku’s playable protagonist is newcomer Ichiban Kasuga, a 40 year-old ex-con trying to make sense of Kamurocho in 2018 and the surprising state of the Tojo clan.

This story arc isn’t the only new territory Ryu Ga Gotoku is exploring. In a move reminiscent of Koei Tecmo’s Musou spin-offs, the team behind Yakuza is developing Hokuto Ga Gotoku, an adventure brawler based on Hokuto No Ken, or Fist of the North Star as it’s known in English markets. There’s no word yet on whether any of these games will make their journey to the West, but it’s clear that gaming’s biggest niche franchise is ready to enter its next era.

As with most any narrative-driven adventure game series, Yakuza is best appreciated when playing through all the releases in story order. Between the collective play time of over 200 hours, experiencing the complete Kiryu saga can be a daunting task. To all ambitious newcomers, getting Yakuzas 0 to 6 isn’t anything the PlayStation Store and Ebay can’t take care of. Yet, the beauty these games is that they can each be appreciated on their own, much thanks to their mostly self-contained plots, the wealth of optional missions and minigames, and succinct summaries of the other games’ stories.

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