Welcome to Kamarucho: A Primer to Yakuza - Part 1

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If you were to ask me what game I’m most excited for next year, I’d have to say it’s SEGA’s localization of Yakuza 0. I absolutely adore this series, owning every iteration ever released in the West. With Zero just around the corner and the demo of Yakuza 6 going up on the Japanese and Hong Kong PSN stores, this is an exciting time for fans and also perfect for newcomers to the series to jump right in. The series has only ever had a cult following in the West, but in Japan is considered to be an industry juggernaut, having spawned books, toys, radio dramas and even a feature film directed by Takashi Miike. It is my hope that this guide will help introduce folks to the series proper, and maybe get a few curious individuals to give the series a go.

Let’s start by discussing what Yakuza is, and what it isn’t.

Yakuza is not Grand Theft Auto

Back in 2006 when Sega first pushed to introduce the series out to the West they not only hired some interesting vocal talent for the dub (which they thankfully ditched for the second game) but the marketing push gave a very warped definition of what the series was about. Known as Ryu Ga Gotoku (literally "Like a Dragon") iin Japan, the name was changed to Yakuza to emphasize it's crime drama storyline, and was promoted as essentially a Japanese take on Grand Theft Auto. Given that GTA clones were all the rage at the time, this was understandable from a marketing perspective, but has left the series with a somewhat skewed point of view in the West ever since.

Yes, you get to beat people up and enjoy a huge variety of side activities. Kamarucho is a big district with lots to do, but it’s best to understand that Yakuza is not the same wide-open sandbox experience that many open world games shoot for.

Yakuza is not Shenmue

Shenmue is unquestionably Yu Suzuki’s magnum opus, and while it’s clear that Shenmue had a lot of influence on the Yakuza franchise, the latter is not trying to be the former. The tone, pacing, and the very nature of the games are quite different. They are in many ways, direct opposites, with Shenmue being an adventure game that occasionally has a few fights, while Yakuza is a brawler at heart with adventure and RPG aspects.

So what is it then?

Yakuza is defined as an action-brawler RPG. It’s a modern Japanese crime story infused with a strong sense of macho melodrama that helps the series from taking itself too seriously. It’s a series where the last entry alone had me making ramen, driving taxis, playing baseball, hunting deer, training to be a J-Pop idol, and smacking down goons with bicycles and traffic cones for getting in my way.

The combat ranges from simplistic to surprisingly in depth when you build it up with different characters and styles, and it’s roots clearly harken back to the days of the classic beat-em-up’s such as Final Fight or Sega’s own Streets of Rage.

Beyond the combat, the game also is a joy to explore, showing off a side of Japanese culture rarely explored in other games and with a multitude of activities for players to participate in. The series is most infamous for it's hostess clubs, but it's got so much more going for it than that. We'll get more into the combat and exploration later in the series, but suffice to say for now - there is a lot to love here.

Did I mention the last game lets you fist fight with a bear?

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How many Yakuza games are there?

Currently there are 10 games in the series – 6 main series games, 1 remake, 3 spin-offs, and 2 PSP spin-offs. There is also HD remakes of the first two games available. With the impending release of Yakuza 6 in Japan, this would bring the total up to 11. that’s quite a lot!

Sadly not all have been brought over for Western release. While all the main games have been brought over so far and one spin-off (Yakuza: Dead Souls) you would need a good grasp of the Japanese language if you wanted to play the PSP titles or the Ishin and Kenzan titles, which take the Yakuza formula and place them in Meiji-era Japan.

What game should I start with?

With so many titles it might be a little daunting for newcomers to the series to pick a starting point. Yakuza 1 would be the obvious answer; however, the game hasn’t aged well and can be difficult (and expensive) to find. The upcoming Yakuza 0 however, serves as prequel to the series, so is a perfect jumping off point for anyone looking to learn more about the world of Yakuza.

No PS4? Then we would recommend Yakuza 4 on the PS3, as it introduces 3 new protagonists and the story mostly revolves around them, which makes it a lot easier for newcomers to relate to and understand. All main Yakuza games also come with a recap feature to help bring players up to speed on the overarching storyline.

Next week we’ll discuss a little bit about the game-play and combat of Yakuza, and just what makes it so special and unique. 

CLICK HERE FOR PART II

BY: WILLEM DEN TOOM

Willem den ToomComment