While videogames are capable of great subtlety and originality, there is no question that the popular face of the industry looks extremely familiar: science fiction games tend to rely on Star Wars, Bladerunner, and Aliens; fantasy titles owe much to the elf-and-orc-heavy lore of Tolkien and even more to Dungeons & Dragons; and horror tends to channel Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later. While games with subtle themes are a worthy subject, I’m going to shelve that topic in favor of one more crazy action genre, albeit one not nearly as popular in the West: the Yakuza.
Specifically, I’m going to rush not long- but whirl-windedly through the Yakuza series created in 2005 by Ryu Ga Gotoko Studio, a Sega division whose catalog is currently represented in North America by seven key Yakuza titles and several spin-offs. Many of the entries in this series have never been translated or released outside Japan, although the truly dedicated Yakuza fans will have found ways to play them regardless.
Tales of crime and mystery are common enough in videogames. There are games about the Mafia, games about cops, games whose action varies from cooperative heists to slow-paced detection and deduction. But there are no games quite like Yakuza, a mixture of carefully paced melodrama and frenzied, cartoonish hand-to-hand combat, embedded in a world where you can choose to ignore the story completely and just play mahjong or run a real estate business or manage a hostess club for weeks.
From Yakuza 0 to Yakuza 6, we follow the story of Kazuma Kiryu, gangster with fists of iron and heart of gold. Orphaned and then adopted by a Yakuza boss, Kiryu grows up in the syndicate, takes over as chairman of his clan, earns the respect due a legend, and eventually retires from crime to quietly run his own orphanage—where he must continually (and rarely successfully) resist the attempts of criminal characters from his past to pull him back in. The seven main games each cover a different period in Kiryu’s life, reflected in environments that model distinctly different fashion trends in modern Japan.
While the design of a good game runs deep, and may encourage intelligent exploitation of complex permutational systems, my favorite games are, most of all, new worlds, into which one can sink just as deeply (well, I would argue more deeply) than a movie or a book. Many games are defined mainly by their colorful environments. But you can keep your ghoul-infested castles and your alien-overrun space stations, your volcanic planets and zombie sewers. For me, there is no place I look forward to visiting quite as much as Kamurocho, a fictitious Tokyo district that serves as stomping ground and contested territory for the warring clans and cops that make up the Yakuza cast. As you play the game, either through Kiryu’s point of view or as one of the dozens of other colorful characters who people the series, you get to know Kamurocho intimately, and over a span of many years. Fashions change, restaurants go out of business and are replaced by new ones, back alleys give way to skyscrapers, vacant lots to construction sites. Yet the streets remain the same down the years, becoming so familiar that once you have learned to find your way around, you can navigate all seven games with the sense of returning to an old neighborhood. The one thing about these streets that never changes is that you will be jumped repeatedly.
The main action of a Yakuza game is…action. Street fights. Whether pitted against swaggering local toughs or predatory Yakuza packs, each lead character has their own fighting style. Kiryu is a master of fantastically improbable martial arts moves, and can make a weapon out of just about any object close at hand—signboards, traffic cones, entire motorcycles. Other characters, products of their era, specialize in dangerous break-dancing, or draw on their past as a disgraced baseball player to bring a batter’s finesse to their melee battles. Kiryu’s most beloved orphan charge, Haruka Sawamura, who begins the series as an infant and ends up in Yakuza 6 as an international pop idol, spends her own street time engaged in urban dance-offs.
While street fights are where Yakuza might seem to have the most appeal for gamers, it is really through the characters and stories that the series has built its immense international fanbase. I have never been big on games whose play grinds to a halt while you sit and passively watch cut-scenes, but in this one instance I will make an exception. I have discovered endless reserves of patience for Yakuza’s endless scripted scenes. The intrigues are complex and surprising, the characters quirky and colorful. And while I am frequently confused by the convolutions of betrayal and double-crossing, I have never skipped a line of dialog. I personally play with Japanese audio, reading along with English subtitles (although dubbed English versions are readily available). The translations are a marvel—melodramatic, self-mocking, sentimental and sincere, perfectly matched to the world of the story.
The sweeping tales are mainly concerned with honor and ethics, the yakuza version of the samurai code, rendered in comically broad strokes. Invariably, Kiryu meets some menacing figure from a rival or allied clan, finds himself in a battle from which he cannot back down, and then beats that rival to a pulp, coincidentally forging a durable bond of brotherhood with his fists. His new BFF is now there to get his back in future rumbles.
One strange charm of the series is that despite the continual mayhem, explosions, backstabbings, and gloomy doomed patriarchs, almost no one ever actually dies. They may seem to die, but death is a plot convenience, often turning out to be reversible when the story requires it. Far from feeling unfair, this makes it easier to enjoy playing the game. Our protagonists are moved to acts of great heroism by the threats of over-the-top villains; but for the player themselves, for you and me, there’s always a sidelong wink to let us know that it’s okay to have fun. Relax. Nothing really bad can happen when Kiryu Kazuma is on the scene. Go explore the streets, stop in an arcade and play some old Sega games, play poker or mahjong or go bowling or spend a few hours in a batting cage, go fishing, or, or, or.… If one follows only the main narrative and ignores all other distractions, one can finish the game with perhaps a tenth or less of its content explored. These small worlds are as fully fractal as your interest in them. For every significant storyline that pulls you to the game’s grand finale, there are scores of lesser quests to pursue, where the world bubbles up in weird and perverse ways: literally perverse in some cases. More than one miniquest tasks Kiryu or one of the other viewpoint characters with tracking down a lingerie thief or chasing a flasher through Kamurocho’s red light district.
The use of viewpoint in Yakuza is one of its most novelistic innovations. Some of the games barely feature Kiryu at all, moving fluidly through the lives of other main characters. In Yakuza 3, for instance, there are three playable protagonists; four in Yakuza 4, and five in Yakuza 5. Nor are the games tied exclusively to Kamurocho. Other locations, fleshed out with nearly the depth of Kamurocho, include a coastal town on Okinawa; a canal district based on Osaka; a maximum security prison; and even a small mountain village where you will find yourself spending days learning to trap animals for food and fur, before finally daring to hunt the local grizzly bear. This barely hints at the variety of activities packed into the series, not to mention all the food you will eat. Oh, the food! I have never been so hungry as ordering vaporous entrees from the dozens of menus of restaurants and cafes and takoyaki stands scattered around Kamurocho. This being a game, everything you eat will give you some health and even improve your character’s skills. And should you ever find yourself drinking too much liquor, you are likely to stumble dizzily into yet another backalley ambush, only to discover you now have access to a new drunken fighting style. It’s worth trying everything!
The series is not without flaws—or anyway features of the Yakuza genre which many will consider bugs in the western market. I am no expert in Yakuza cinema, and few Yakuza novels have been translated (the writer of the first Yakuza games, Seishû Hase, is a crime novelist well-known in Japan but unpublished in English), but they are extremely short on female characters other than the variety needing to be rescued. Mistresses, mob wives, clan matriarchs who step in when their husbands are murdered, are about all I can recall from the films. The games do somewhat better than this, there are several memorable women scattered through the series, and indeed Haruka’s story is playable in Yakuza 5, but it is overall a saga of exaggerated machismo. Fair warning.
To sum up this complex epic of treachery and brotherhood in a few pages is proving impossible, so I will instead offer a suggestion of where to dive in if you are curious. The series began in 2005 with Yakuza 1, and has barreled ahead with regular releases ever since. But in the gap between Yakuzas 5 and 6, the designers created a prequel, a new entry point for a new generation wanting to meet Kiryu-chan. Many feel Yakuza 0 is the best game in the series, which means it is one of the best games of all time. It features cunning narrative twists, dazzling dance sequences, and a brilliant use of shifting viewpoint to tell its story. So by all means, start with Yakuza 0.
If you like Zero, Ryu Ga Gotoku has remastered the older games. Yakuza 1 has been reworked and reissued under the name Yakuza Kiwami (meaning Yakuza Extreme!); Yakuza 2 is now Yakuza Kiwami 2; while Yakuzas 3 through 5 have been released in a single pack as the Yakuza Remastered Collection. Yakuza 6 is the very latest game in the main Yakuza series, and the last to feature Kiryu Kazuma or the streets of Kamurocho. The series is expected to continue without them for years to come, but this is a good time to get the complete Kiryu story.
Meanwhile, Ryu Ga Gotoku has given us the spinoff, Judgment. Also set in Kamurocho, the hero of Judgment is a former lawyer, trained by the Yakuza, full of shame after the outcome of a hugely public trial, now working as a gumshoe with legal leanings, who happens to race drones for fun and detection. A fine and self-contained spin-off, it distinguishes itself from typical videogame fare in its themes, which center on government corruption, health industry connivance, and the search for an Alzheimer’s cure. We are light-years from zombies and haunted sewers here. It’s a remarkable piece of work.
For fans of pulpier fare, Ryu Ga Gotoku has hardly surrendered ground on that front. In Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, they adapted a popular manga set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland obviously inspired by Mad Max, where an outpost called Eden barely holds its own against roving bands of car-driving mutant punks. Eden is constructed with the same care as a Yakuza district, and in fact the whole city is but a dystopian skin, in some places stretched all too thinly across the bones of Kamurocho, packed with slightly futurized minigames, casinos, arcades, and bars. You can choose to manage a nightclub by throwing mutants out on their ears, or engage in a post-apocalyptic mixology competition. Ultimately, the nods to Yakuza are so emphatic that you can give your hero a makeover and dispatch Kiryu Kazuma himself to patrol the wasteland, battling roving marauders in car-to-car combat. If the Yakuza genre holds no appeal, if you must have mutants and psionic superpowers in your videogame entertainment, then by all means go straight for Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise. If you enjoy that, you might find yourself warming to the idea of a pre-apocalyptic civilization, where good-hearted Yakuzas do their best to keep the world from ending, one beat-down at a time.
- Yakuza 0 (PS4, PS3, XBox One, Windows)
- Yakuza Kiwami (PS4, PS3, XBox One, Windows)
- Yakuza Kiwami 2 (PS4, XBox One, Windows)
- The Yakuza Remastered Collection (includes Yakuza 3, 4 and 5) (PS4)
- Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (PS4)
- Judgment (PS4)
- Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise (PS4)