From Zero to Six: The History of the Yakuza Series

yakuza 6

With the very recent and exciting news that Sega will be releasing a follow up to the brilliant remastering of their first game, Yakuza Kiwami 2, it is a very promising time for fans of the series. Yakuza (Ryu Ga Gotoku In Japan), first released in 2005, has been a series with a long and difficult history in the west. After more than a decade of trying to captivate the western world with its unique blend of action adventure and 3D beat-‘em up gameplay, it seems Sega has finally hit the nail on the head with the recent translation of Yakuza 0 released in the west in January of this year. After many difficulties with censorship, poor localization, lack of marketing, and even an awful dub, the Yakuza series appears to finally be getting the credit it deserves outside of Asia.

The games often had a bad rap in the west for essentially being the “Grand Theft Auto of Japan”. This could not be farther from the truth, however. Yes, it’s true that both games explore the seedy underside of organized crime in their respective countries, and both give you free-roam of a large sand box area, but this is where the similarities end. For one, Yakuza doesn’t allow you to drive cars, motorbikes, or planes. The gunplay is also very limited, and the open world is nowhere near as huge as GTA or any of its clones. It instead has a very deep and rewarding hand to hand combat system, reminiscent of retro games such as Double Dragon, Streets of Rage or even River City Ransom. The lack of vehicles is also not a big loss, given that the environments are not enormous, you rarely ever feel like it’s a drag to run from one point to another.

While Grand Theft Auto has a big open world, Yakuza’s is just a small district. But in that small district, the developers have managed to cram every bit of detail into it. The environments are based on real life locations of various different districts of Japanese cities, recreated lovingly to give an accurate portrayal of the locale. Finally, every Yakuza game features a plethora of mini games and side quests that take you around the game’s respective city. These include going bowling, going to a batting cage, dancing, singing Karaoke, and even going to the famous Japanese arcades to play actual arcade games. Make no mistake, there is no lack of abundance of things to do in the Yakuza games. If anything, one of the largest allures of the franchise is to entice the player into entering a hyper-realistic virtual recreation of the real world Japan.

With such a tumultuous history, it is not hard to imagine why someone that doesn’t know much about the series will be put off by the overwhelming amount of games that have come out in the past 12 or so years. Therefore, consider this a guide to help you ease into what is a truly great franchise, that is finally receiving the justice in the west that it so desperately deserved.

The series consists of seven main entry games, and five spin-off games, and two remasters (with the third one being announced on the 26th of August). The main entries are simply titled 0 – 6. Yakuza 6 is currently slated for a 2018 release in western territories for the PlayStation 4, however, it is out in Japan and gameplay videos are available on YouTube. There currently exists two remasters: Ryu Ga Gotoku 1&2 HD Edition (PlayStation 3, Wii-U, 2013), which as the name implies, it compiles the first two Yakuza games into one package, and remasters them with HD graphics. This compilation is available only in Japan, and there has been no mention of ever bringing it to the West by Sega. The other remaster, is Yakuza: Kiwami (PlayStation 3 Japan only, PlayStation 4, 2016), which is set to release on the 29th of August in the west. Unlike the HD re-releases exclusive to Japan, Kiwami (literally meaning Extreme) is a complete overhaul of the original game, with all the cutscenes being re-done using the Yakuza 0 engine, and the gameplay being much more akin to that game than the original source material.

In the case of Yakuza: Kiwami, this is an enormous upgrade, since the original game was very clunky and featured a set camera angle instead of the free moving camera that was introduced with Yakuza 3 when wandering the streets of Kamurocho, the fictional district of Tokyo in which the series is set. Yakuza Kiwami 2 has been announced by Sega for release in December 7th of 2017 in Japan, with no western release date yet announced. Unlike the first Kiwami game, this one will be based on the Yakuza 6 engine, and will feature many improvements to the original game, such as the ability to play as long time series veteran Goro Majima, as well as the Kazuma Kiryu.

Lastly, the spin-off games are almost limited exclusively to Japan only release. Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! (PlayStation 3, 2008), a period-piece take on the series, set in Kyoto during the Edo-Period of Japan in the year 1605, Ryu Ga Gotoku Shinsho (PSP, 2010), a portable version of the series, featuring a completely different cast of characters from the main series, and gameplay akin to that of the first two titles in the series released on the PlayStation 2, Yakuza Dead Souls (PlayStation 3, 2012), a post-apocalyptic take on the series, complete with zombies. This is the only spin-off game released in the west, and is also the only one that has a much heavier emphasis on weapons than previous games. Ryu Ga Gotoku Ashura Henu (PSP, 2012) is a sequel to Shinsho and continues the same style gameplay, and continues the story of those characters. Finally, Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin! (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, 2014 Japan only), is also a period-piece themed take on the series, similar to Kenzan!, however not related in any way to that game.

These spin-off games should be reserved to the most hardcore of Yakuza fans only, and are merely curiosity pieces that do not represent the quality of the main series. Having said that, however, Kenzan! and Ishin! are held in very high regard by Yakuza enthusiasts. Unfortunately, without any known plans by Sega to localize them in the west, it is hard to recommend these.


Yakuza 0 (PlayStation 3 Japan Only, PlayStation 4, 2017)

Yakuza 0

Yakuza 0 was released in Japan in 2015, but didn’t come to the English speaking world until January of 2017. This is an excellent entry point for anyone trying to get into the series. It embodies everything you could ever want from a Yakuza game, and since it acts as a prequel to the series, it means that new fans will be able to understand the story regardless of how familiar they are with the series. The subtle changes to the main formula make the game stand out on its own, and should definitely not be missed. The game’s story follows the beginnings of series veterans Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, as they reveal the tragic events that occur to each character leading up to the events of the first Yakuza game.


Yakuza (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 Japan Only, Wii U Japan Only 2006)

The game that kickstarted the franchise. Yakuza was originally released in 2005 on the PlayStation 2, worldwide. The original North American release was plagued by an overly cheesy albeit very interesting dub, featuring stars such as Mark Hamill doing the voice of Goro Majima. The game has not aged well, and should be played merely as a curiosity piece. The vastly superior Kiwami remaster of the game should be considered before picking up the original Yakuza. The controls feel clunky, the graphics are not the greatest, and the game has a fixed camera angle as opposed to the free camera that was later introduced in Yakuza 3. Having said that, however, there is still a great deal of fun to be had, not to mention the story really shines here.


Yakuza 2 (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 Japan Only, Wii U Japan Only 2008)

Yakuza 2 builds upon the formula that the first Yakuza presented, with a less clunky control design, and featuring much more than the first game. Now, the district of Sotenbori can be explored, which is based on the real life district of Dotonbori in Osaka, as well as Kamurocho, the fictional version of Kabukicho in Tokyo. The fighting system was substantially improved upon the previous game, which offers a much more fluid experience when in combat. The game also features the full Japanese audio with subtitles, which is a much appreciated change from the first game. Unfortunately, the game still features dated graphics, and is still clunky by comparison to the more modern games. It is yet to be seen what Sega will do with Kiwami 2, however, it is a safe bet that it will be a much better experience than trying to adapt to the PlayStation 2’s graphics and control schemes.


Yakuza 3 (PlayStation 3, 2010)

The first of the main Yakuza games to be in full HD. For the first time, the fixed camera angle is gone, and a superior free camera design is implemented. This change makes the experience all the more immersive, and really lets the player admire the detail that went into creating the environments. The game features two locations; Okinawa, and Kamurocho, both recreated with loving detail. The combat system has once again been revamped for an extremely pleasant and fluid experience. The story starts off slow but gets going fairly quickly. Kazuma Kiryu now runs an orphanage in the city of Okinawa, and whilst the beginning features him running errands and playing with his children, as soon as Kiryu meets the Okinawan gangs, the game starts to really pick up the pace.

The game is unfortunately heavily censored with its release in the west. Many side-stories and mini games have been removed, which detracts greatly from the experience. Some text is also altered, and the translation is not the greatest. There are one or two typos in the subtitles here and there, however these are very minor. This is not the greatest starting point with the series due to the slow start, but there’s a lot of fun to be had here, and the game should not be overlooked. Yakuza 3 also features a “reminisce” section, where a summarized video of the events of the first two games is presented to the player. This is an excellent way to catch up with what is happening in the game, and helps newcomers catch up with the story.


Yakuza 4 (PlayStation 3, 2011)

If Yakuza 0 is not an option, or you have already played that game, Yakuza 4 is the one to move on to next. The game is not censored in any way, with the exception of one mini-game which is absent from the western release due to according to Sega, it not really making sense to western players. The mini-game in question involves answering questions about Japanese topics. The game continues what Yakuza 3 introduced, and now features a cast of four different protagonists, with four different storylines. The separate stories eventually converge at the end of the game in an incredible climax. There are now four different fighting styles to accommodate each of the four protagonists. This idea really freshens up the story and keeps the game from getting stale. This time there is only Kamurocho to explore, but it has been expanded to include underground tunnels as well as rooftops. The game greatly expands upon the mini-games that were included in the third game, and the fact that the translation is much more accurate and there is little censored content, makes Yakuza 4 a perfect entry point after Yakuza 0. The “reminisce” feature is once again available, so catching up with the story is not a problem.


Yakuza 5 (PlayStation 3, 2015)

Yakuza 5 was not released on disc in the west, due to the dissipating interest in the franchise in those territories. The game once again follows the format of Yakuza 4, with multiple playable characters. Yakuza 5 is also the first game to feature a completely revamped engine. The combat has been improved once again, and there are now five locations to visit. These include Kamurocho, Sotenbori and for the first time Nagasugi, which is based on the Nakasu district in Fukuoka, Tsukimono which is based on the Susukino district in Sapporo, and Kin’eicho which is based on the Sakae district in Nagoya. There is a vast array of mini-games and sidequests never before seen in the series, and a level of detail new to the series. Another first is the inclusion of Haruka, the adopted daughter of Kiryu, as a playable character. Returning playable characters include Kazuma Kiryu, Shun Akiyama, and Taiga Saejima from Yakuza 4. This is a good continuing point for the series, and is definitely not to be missed. The new changes make the game feel like a real jump in quality, and is the first game since Yakuza 3 to truly feel like something new.


Yakuza 6: Song Of Life (PlayStation 4, 2018)

Yakuza 6 concludes the story of Kazuma Kiryu. The last game in the series chronologically is slated to be released in 2018 in the west, but has been out in Japan for since 2016. Many improvements have been made to the game’s engine. The level of detail is once again increased greatly, and features an improvement to the combat once again. An interesting new feature which has never been seen is the increased degrees of freedom with which the camera can be moved. Now the tall parts of the buildings can be viewed better than before. It is yet to be seen what kind of changes Sega will implement to the localization of the game coming out in 2018, however, high hopes that they will continue their trend of leaving the content in for us players outside of Asia.

The future seems bright for the franchise. Even though the saga of Kazuma Kiryu is concluded with the sixth title in the series, Sega has announced various more games slated for release in Japan in the upcoming years. If the series continues to get the popularity that it seems to be receiving as of late, we may be blessed with seeing this masterpiece of a series continue to be translated into English.

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