The epic that was under our noses the whole time
With everyone and their Nonna cranking out “best games of the 2010s” articles as of late, we’re getting a clear picture of what the last decade “was” in videogames. Some trends –the Gamergaters, the monetization, the walking simulators – we already knew about. It’s been hard not to, considering how massively they impacted the conversation around games over the last few years. These are the low-hanging fruit for which listicles were invented.
It’s the stuff higher up the tree that’s interesting, the juicy morsels that drop when you’re least expecting it. One of the most surprising things to have come out of our communal retrospective of the 2010s, is how Japanese games got… big again. Of course, that’s not counting the Nintendo stable, but they were always on their own, unassailable plane. We’re talking about the rest of the Japanese games industry, that had doggedly kept its horizons set to home shores, and had found its fanbase increasingly eroded by the rise of immersive, cinematic Western games and the rise of mobile gaming
This decline seemed to come to a head at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show. Barely attended by home-grown developers, the show’s Western dominance led Mega Man/Dead Rising legend Keiji Inafune to say:
“Personally, when I looked around (at) all the different games at the TGS floor… I said ‘Man, Japan is over. We’re done. Our game industry is finished.’”
Fast forward ten years, however, and we see a rejuvenated Japanese industry that has more Western fans than ever. The Souls series, Persona, Fire Emblem, Monster Hunter… when these franchises debuted, Western gamers saw them as little more than quirky curios at best, and at worst utterly incomprehensible gibberish best left to the Japanese market; a decade later, these franchises have become hugely popular in the Western market, crossing cultural borders once thought impregnable. Of these franchises, perhaps the most impressive turnaround belongs to Ryu Ga Gotoku (Like A Dragon) – or, to give its Western name, Yakuza.
In 2020, we all know that Yakuza is a series of action-adventure games about reluctant gangster Kazuma Kiryu, and his adventures saving the Tojo Clan from one crisis after another. We know that they’re action-packed, humorous and at times genuinely touching epics you could lose years to, if you choose to play the saga (and its offshoots) in full. But on the first game’s release in 2005, the West looked at it and assumed “Grand Theft Auto Japan”. Even loading the game with an impressive English-language voice cast (Including Michael Madsen and Mark Hamill) failed to spark much interest.
Much like that other gaijin-repellent open-world franchise Shenmue, the Yakuza series gained a small but vocal cult following in the West, but not enough to take it to the level of success it enjoyed at home. Of the numerous spin-offs released, exploring new characters (or even, in the case of the Kenzan/Ishin games, different time periods), the only one to even get a Western release was 2011’s zombie-themed Yakuza: Dead Souls.
As SEGA really should’ve expected, the Western market was not ready for a quirky alternate-universe take on games they hadn’t played, especially in a franchise as lore-dependent as this. The game flopped, seeming to close the door on any chance of Yakuza cracking the Western market. When Yakuza 5 released in 2015 – three years after its debut in Japan – SEGA didn’t even deem it worthy of printing discs, instead making it a download-only title.
Then, in 2017, Yakuza 0 happened. A prequel, showing the events that shaped a young Kiryu and his rival/soulmate in mayhem, the lovably insane Goro Majima, it was lauded as the best of the series. More pertinently, with its 1980s setting removing the need to understand several games’ worth of incredibly convoluted lore spanning over a decade, it provided an ideal jumping-on point for beginners.
SEGA of America seemed to think so too, giving the game a full Western release. This time, however, the public was ready for it. Yakuza 0 sold an estimated 108,000 units in the West in its first week at retail – an impressive result for a series that had come to be regarded as something of a poison chalice in the West.
Strong reviews (including my own) and word of mouth, combined with an already vocal cult following, resulted in the game becoming a sleeper hit, encouraging SEGA to bring a string of Yakuza games to the West in newly-localized form. Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original game, was released a few months later, followed in 2018 by Yakuza Kiwami 2 (an expanded remake of Yakuza 2) and the most recent game in the series, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. Yakuza 6 sold as many copies in the West as it did back home, putting a capper on one of the most remarkable turnarounds made by a franchise in years.
Why now, though? What is it about Yakuza that enthralled the West in the 2010s, after giving the series the cold shoulder the previous decade? As one might expect, several factors were at play.
The Changing Marketplace
The 2000s saw the last gasp of the old way in which games were sold, where brick-and-mortar stores were the only way games could be bought and the resources of the major publishers were the only way to get anything on those retail shelves. The biggest franchises not only dominated the retail space, but even customer awareness: even if you could get your plucky little original IP on a major publisher’s books, you were still fighting for whatever scraps of marketing resources left after the big boys had had their share. Yakuza suffered because of this imbalance, along with many market-stifled critical darlings of the time like Beyond Good And Evil and Psychonauts.
The rise of indie game development and digital distribution changed that, providing an unprecedented scope of availability for gamers seeking something new outside the mainstream. Now customers could learn about and purchase smaller games without needing retail, or even the games press, as a middle man. Additionally, the rise of fan made games coverage on the internet allowed for word of mouth to spread far quicker and further, generating interest in games that would previously have struggled to find a niche in the marketplace.
Not Your Senpai’s Crime Sim
Though many were quick to dismiss Yakuza as “Grand Theft Auto Japan”, the series is in many ways the polar opposite of Rockstar’s flagship franchise. GTA perfectly encapsulates the tone of narrative and world-building that was in fashion in the West in the 2000s: a focus on realism – or at least, preserving the illusion of realism – no matter how ridiculous the gameplay was. There was also the fascination with being grim and gritty, a sustained edginess that, with time, settled into a kind of complacent and wholly predictable cynicism. Violence and jadedness, in the service of “adult storytelling”.
With the new decade came a sense of “grit fatigue”. The tropes that seemed so bold and transgressive a few years ago now felt stale and rote. As enjoyable and technically impressive as Grand Theft Auto V was, it also had a sense of “been there, done that” about it, especially in the writing. Rockstar’s brand of satire was starting to feel forced, its cynicism coming across as, well… cynical in itself. We’d already seen Rockstar successfully mature itsstorytelling in Read Dead Redemption, and going back to the well felt like a regression.
Meanwhile, another popular – if somewhat less successful – crime franchise was catching the scent of change in the air where Rockstar couldn’t. Developer Volition had achieved fair critical and commercial success with its GTA knockoff Saints Row (2006), but it was that game’s sequel, 2009’s Saints Row 2, that saw Volition diverge from the Rockstar template in a way that caught gamers’ attention.
Rather than be like most other games of the time and try and play like a movie, Saints Row 2 embraced its “gaminess”. It added fighting game-style combos to combat, as well as lots of over-the-top minigames (including the infamous “Septic Avenger”, in which you have to devalue as much property as possible by spraying it with shit from a septic truck).
More crucially, the tone was far more comedic, almost cartoonish opposed to GTA’s edginess. The positive reaction to Saints Row 2 encouraged Volition to push the series’s tone even further into comic book territory. By 2013’s Saints Row IV, the franchise had basically turned itself into a superhero game, with your protagonist in an ersatz Matrix, leaping skyscrapers in a single bound.
Looking back, no other games than the Saints Row series did more to prime Western gamers for Yakuza. While Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s franchise has its fair share of grit and drama, it’s always shot through with a sense of giddy silliness. Whether it’s decimating a small country’s worth of goons with a pretty much superhuman Kiryu, Majima’s antics, or the multitude of downright odd NPCs you meet throughout the series, Yakuza’s style has always been one of inviting self-awareness.
While many Western games (especially in the 2000s) have done everything they could to hide the kind of power fantasies to which video games cater and the pulpy contrivances that inevitably support them, Yakuza wears these things on its sleeve and encourages the player to indulge in them equally. After years of games telling us that this is all serious business that we need to take seriously, and pretend our sense of disbelief isn’t being suspended at all, it’s been genuinely refreshing to find a series that lets us say “This is a video game, it’s silly as hell and that’s what makes it great”.
A Sense of Place
Aside from Kiryu and Majima themselves, most have agreed that the Yakuza series’ other main characters have been the locations. Kamurocho (a heightened take on Kabuchiko, Toyko’s red light district) has been the main stomping ground in all of the Yakuza games, as well as many of the spin-offs.
No place goes through almost thirty years without changes, and Kamurocho is no different. Each installment has seen the area undergo changes big (the mysterious empty lot central to Yakuza 0 becoming the towering – and regularly exploding – Millennium Tower) and small. Stores and venues close, to be replaced by other businesses. Sometimes, whole blocks get rebuilt to suit whoever’s using them at the time, creating new areas to explore.
Throughout it all, though, it has remained Kamurocho. It becomes like any place we’ve known for a long time: no matter how much it changes, there’s a basic familiarity with the layout, landmarks or loved spots that remain where they’ve always been. No matter how much a place has changed, it’s still known to us in a fundamental way. It creates a relationship with Kamurocho that’s rare in video games, the kind of relationship we have with our hometown, with the areas in which we’ve lived for years.
In the West, we have come to expect open worlds to be huge, sprawling things. You cover dozens of miles of virtual landscape, always being pushed towards a new area, a new biome, a new culture. You rarely go back to a place more than once. It’s a constant stream of new information designed to communicate scope, but not much of how places actually feel. Likewise, there may be lots of cool stuff to look at, but it rarely has much inside it as the actual game content is spread over such a large area. Case in point: L.A. Noire’s pretty but mostly functionless 1940s Los Angeles.
Yakuza takes the open-world concept, with its goal of constantly giving the player new things to do, and compresses it into smaller but denser areas. There’s a side mission or minigame around every corner, housed in locations either previously unused or completely new. A humble random shopfront in one game may become a central, fully explorable part of the plot in the next, while an unremarkable, single-storey building in one may have a couple of extra storeys the next time you’re there, with things to do on every floor. Even spin-offs such as last year’s Judgement have opened up new areas to check out, allowing players to increase their knowledge of Kamurocho without Kiryu.
What this creates is a sense of evolution in a place, one unfamiliar to gamers until the rise of the MMO, and games inspired by them. Western gamers have gradually become used to persistent locations in their games, forming attachments to places like World of Warcraft’s Stormwind and Orgrimmar, or more recently Destiny’s Tower, watching them expand and change as technology, and the games’ own overarching stories, have progressed over the years.
In the meantime, open worlds have become bigger, more spread-out yet also less interested in letting players get to know the space. While there are still fantastic open-world games coming out, such as The Witcher 3 and the recent Assassin’s Creed games, there’s also been an escalating sense of burnout with game worlds that are heavy on the real estate, but sometimes short on depth.
All things considered, it seems perfectly natural for gamers, by the latter half of the last decade, to want to see more of that depth. Worlds that give variety and depth of content, but with which they could also gain a sense of familiarity and intimacy. It turns out that Kamurocho was there, waiting for them all along.
The belated acceptance of the Yakuza games in the West says as much about the ways in which Western gamers have evolved as it does about industry trends. Sometimes, today’s weird and inaccessible franchise is simply what everyone’s going to need tomorrow.
While we in the West were handed a lot to catch up with, it’s also made the deluge of new, remastered and freshly-localized games from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio over the last three years a rare joy to binge through (and I imagine, like me, most people are still nowhere close to playing everything). With the next mainline installment, Yakuza 7: Like A Dragon, having just released in Japan with a worldwide release coming later this year, it’s safe to say that we’ll be exploring Kamurocho for a long time to come.
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Also published on Medium.