The Yakuza series of games is known for a lot of things, but one thing everyone will tell you is that there is A LOT to do in this game. Eating at different restaurants, singing karaoke, hitting up the SEGA arcade, going bowling, and more - Yakuza is nothing if not thorough in providing players with plenty of distraction.
Now for all the wholesome activities the game offers, Yakuza is infamous as well for it's open exploration of Japanese nightlife; more specifically, the sex and sin industry. When you consider this is a series of games about Japanese gangsters, it makes sense for the game to reflect the real life fact that most of the industry is run by actual Yakuza.
For many players, being able to safely explore this aspect of Japanese culture holds a lot of appeal, even if it might be a condensed, simplified version of it, since it's something that is rarely if ever discussed or shown about Japan. Hostess clubs, peep shows, massage parlors, love hotels and more - there is a lot to explore here, and yet Yakuza has managed to keep all of it relatively R-18, which is no easy balancing act.
Japanese Nightlife Quick N' Dirty
Before we jump into the real meat here, I feel it's important to point out that the Japanese nightlife industry is somewhat different from Western ideals. For one, it's extremely rare for foreigners to be allowed into these establishments, primarily because of the language barrier, but also due to a lot of cultural differences. This has led to some level of mystique for foreigners to what actually goes on in these places. Secondly, prostitution in Japan is illegal - and therefore many businesses have had to get creative in how they offer their services.
Generally speaking, the industry is split into two areas. The first, known as mizu-shobai, or "water trade", generally involves anything that does not involve straight up sex or gambling. Bars, cabarets, snack bars, and hostess clubs classify as mizu-shobai. These are mostly wholesome for the most part, offering food, drink, and company. These businesses are generally viewed as separate from their more carnal counterparts, known as fuzoku. Businesses such as pink salons, strip parlors, and image clubs would classify under this. For all intents and purposes, these are brothels, but due to strict prostitution laws they get around them by selling services such as bathing, massage, and conversation, and therefore the act of sex is not actually what is being sold.
This distinction means that hostess clubs, despite the fact you are paying for the time and company of a woman (or a man, in the case of host clubs,) is considered a popular and relatively mainstream form of entertainment for both men and women alike. There are strict "no touching" policies in place, and as mentioned, prostitution is a no go.
At least, that is what they would like you to think. The truth of the matter is another story entirely. Suffice to say, what Yakuza presents us with is somewhat of an idealized version. For those who want to read more on the reality of things, there are numerous articles available online towards this end.
So that being said, how do the Yakuza games actually present all of this to us?
Girls Girls Girls
As we pointed out, Japan's strict laws when it comes to prostitution has led to the proliferation of a large variety of different establishments that essentially all offer the same thing - girls, sex, and titillation. In Yakuza, many of these establishments also exist, and offer players a bit of fan service in exchange for their hard earned yen.
Some are relatively simple, such as going to a pole club to watch a show (come enough times and they'll eventually offer you a front row seat, with an even better view) while others offer a short mini-game. The massage parlor for example, will have you tapping a button repeatedly to prevent yourself from uh, "finishing" too early. The longer you hold out, the more of the pre-rendered video of a scantily clad girl gyrating around you get to watch.
Yeah, these sound relatively shallow and dumb, and the truth of the matter is that they are shallow and dumb. But at least they are there if that is what you fancy. In a way, the fact that someone at SEGA thought it was important enough for these establishment to be present in their game goes to show their attention to detail - these places exist in real life, so why shouldn't they in the game as well?
The real meat, and where SEGA puts most of it's efforts, is into it's hostess clubs. This started off as a small mini-game initially in the first game, but proved to be so popular that now SEGA cuts whole trailers just for the latest hostess girls and hold live auditions for women across Japan to become digitized hostesses in the game.
Charm and Elegance
So you've decided to go to the hostess club. The first time you enter is a little surreal, as it soon becomes apparent this could be an entire game in of itself. Did SEGA really put this much effort into this? After the cover charge is paid, you select a hostess, each of whom have different personalities, likes, dislikes, and such. Your ushered into a booth, given a chance too order a drink and some food, and the mini-game begins in proper.
The entire mini-game is essentially dialogue based. As you spend time with your companion, she talks to you about a variety of topics, and you are then given a sort of conversation wheel with which you can then respond and guide the conversation. If you play your cards right, the hostess will find you charming (usually represented by hearts) and will grow more fond of you, to the point that she might even fall in love with you (I did say this was an idealized version of things right?)
Conversations range from asking the player about themselves, to the hostess discussing personal issues, or even opinions on certain issues such as what makes an ideal life partner to sports. The dialog is pretty much always set in stone with little variation, although this has slowly been changing as the games continue be made. If you really wanted to you could save-scum your way through each girl till you max out their hearts, but I find it more fun to treat it like a real conversation. There is a real ebb and flow to the conversation and is written extremely well, to the point you could be excused to think your actually talking with a real person.
While all this is happening, your presented with a talking head of your hostess, which is animated beautifully to match the conversation. Talk about something serious and her face darkens up. Compliment her and she'll giggle and smile. Say something disgusting and she'll scowl and lean away from you. I find that watching the girl react to the topics at hand really lends a level of realism to the whole thing, and there is a real joy to seeing your hostess give you flirtatious smile after some slick conversation.
As the evening progresses, you might be prompted to buy more drinks, food, or even get an extension on your time with your hostess - all of this affects her fondness for you. Purchase cheap drinks and her opinion might drop, but buy her favorite dish on the menu and watch her hearts go up.. You can also opt to give gifts to your hostess (but don't do it too soon, otherwise you just come off as creepy) which she may or may not like (she wanted FRENCH perfume, not ITALIAN.) The more you spend time with the hostess, the more you start feeling out her personality, and by playing to this you'll eventually create a repertoire with her, to the point that you start thinking of this virtual person as real.
There is no way you can max out your hearts in one visit, and inevitably you'll be asked to pay your bill and leave. Depending on how your conversation went, the girl may send you a text message or two, and you can respond to these just as you would as if in conversation. Respond properly, and she might make reference to the text in your next visit. It's small details like this that all add to the feeling that your actually dealing with an actual woman.
Keep your hearts up and after some time, you will also get the option to take your hostess out on a date. In these scenarios she'll agree to meet you at a designated location (don't be late!) and you can then take her around for a night on the town. Almost all the activities available to you solo are available for a date. Take her out for some sushi, or how about a good old karaoke session? Or maybe a game of darts or pool. It's entirely up to you, but just remember she might not like certain activities as much as you think she does. Sometimes, she'll just want to walk and talk with you, and this gives you further options for dialog. You'll find that conversation outside of the club is a bit more candid, and it helps round off each girl well.
If you manage to max out her hearts for you, she'll offer you a quest, usually resolving a personal problem (getting rid of a stalker, dealing with some bad debt, etc.) This is the final part of the mini-game; Resolve this quest for her, and she'll declare that she loves you, and you'll have a short scene where the screen will fade to pink, then fade back in, revealing the player and the hostess standing in front of a love hotel. Of course, this is all hinting towards a night of uh..."carnal" knowledge. She'll even send you a private photo to your phone! (Sorry, no nudes, just a selfie.)
At this point the hostess mini-game is over. However fret not - you can continue to visit your hostess if you so desire - I'm not sure if you can ever exhaust all the conversation topics, but I've yet to experience any issue of repeat discussion lines in a game. The other option of course is to select a brand new hostess and start again. As mentioned, each girl has different personalities, likes, dislikes, and aspirations, so it's always a fresh set of conversations to be had.
Given the relative shallowness of the "other" activities mentioned in this article, it might be easy for many to put off the hostess club mini-game to be equally as shallow. Yet the truth is that this whole mode could be an entire game in of itself. For a foreigner like myself, this small peek into something so uniquely Japanese, however condensed and simplified and idealized it may be, was utterly fascinating, and it was actually an enjoyable venture. It made me curious about the real thing, and sadly through my research I've come to realize that the reality is far different from what is presented. Still, I can't deny the appeal of ending a long hard day with a drink in hand and a pretty girl to chat with, and I'm glad SEGA has decided to take the time too showcase this side of Japanese nightlife to the global audience.
Next week, we'll take a look at the other aspect of the fuzoku game - gambling.
BY: WILLEM DEN TOOM