Chances are you’ve already heard about the Yakuza series since it hit the Western gaming mainstream with the magnificent Yakuza 0 in 2017. With just one fantastic game, paired with a witty, self-aware localisation, Yakuza went from an Japanese obscurity to a worldwide gaming treasure practically overnight. If you aren’t familiar with Yakuza, it can be summed up as a crime simulator that balances beat-em-up gameplay with a small-but-distraction-packed open world and a complex tale of intrigue and betrayal in the world of organised crime.
If that sounds a lot like Shenmue to you, you would be right. Yakuza’s most obvious influence is Yu Suzuki’s earlier SEGA classic. That’s obvious from the first time the game encourages you to get up and sing at a karaoke bar, or the first time you realise you can buy Boss Coffee from a vending machine to help you in a scuffle with a local gangster. The street brawls are similarly Shenmue-esque, although it’s easy to argue that Yakuza’s fighting DNA goes back even further than that, with its particular brand of martial-art street fighting being so reminiscent of Streets of Rage.
But that’s not really where Yakuza’s heritage gets interesting. The game shows a whole other side the first time you walk into the “pocket circuit” racing club, the manager’s office of a cabaret club or, in one game, the mountainous, snowy wastes armed with a hunting rifle. Alongside all the more typical Japanese side content, like rhythm games and lite dating sims, Yakuza throws just about every genre into the mix of side content.
When I booted up Yakuza 0 for the first time, I had one thought bouncing back and forth through my mind: “this is the kind of madness that only SEGA could create”. In the midst of this gritty crime drama, gameplay comes first. Gameplay in its purest, maddest sense. Is it fun? Throw it in there. And after decades of creating wacky, fast paced arcade games, SEGA knows exactly what makes a game fun.
Bored of beating up thugs? No problem, how about spending 30 hours tuning remote control cars to race them around a tiny track with a bunch of excitable children? Too childish? No worries, there’s an incredibly in-depth real estate management game, or a management minigame that allows you to run a cabaret bar and customise hostesses to suit your customer’s needs. Not silly enough? How about a minigame that lets you type hilariously thirsty comments to camgirls online?
Everything is fun in Yakuza. There is even a minigame in Yakuza 5 where Kiryu just drives a taxi. That’s it. No typical SEGA-esque Crazy Taxi shenanigans either. You provide your customer with a smooth, comfortable ride and obey traffic laws. But it’s so fun. I wish I could tell you how SEGA does it but, honestly, they are in such a league of their own with this specific brand of insanity that I don’t think an outsider like myself could ever truly pin it down.
The entire game is a beautiful pastiche all the SEGA classics that have come before it, and Yakuza most certainly isn’t afraid to show it. You can even walk into an actual SEGA arcade in-game and play a spot of Virtua Fighter, Space Harrier or Outrun. In homage to the company’s modern life as an arcade chain in Japan, you can even spend hours on the UFO Catcher crane games, collecting every stuffed toy the game has to offer. Why? For no reason other than it’s just so fun.
All of this is, essentially, to say that everyone should try Yakuza at least once. If you’re the right kind of person, the kind who grew up beating their own high scores on Columns or Jet Set Radio, then I’ve probably already won you over. For everyone else, this is a game for gamers, and you owe it to yourself to experience it.
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