Ode to Yakuza, a “Serious Crime Drama”

I started my journey with Yakuza over a year ago, on May 8th of 2021, to be exact. I can’t remember how I was turned onto Yakuza, whether it be by a friend’s recommendation, internet memes, or some combination of both. All I know is that it has become one of the best series I have played to date, and that I wish I could go back and experience it all from the beginning again.

Yakuza 0 had been on my Steam wishlist for at least a year by the time I got around to purchasing it. Beforehand I had done some research on the game, and in my research had found that there were TONS of games in the Yakuza series. At that time, there were eight main-line Yakuza games and one spin-off game, Judgement, with the sequel Lost Judgement on the way. There were also three games which were never localized for the West – Ishin, Kenzan, and Dead Souls – but I hold out hope that one day I can play those, too. I decided to start with 0, a prequel game providing origin stories for main characters Kiryu and Majima, as many people had suggested that playing 0 first helps with understanding events in Yakuza 1. So I bought 0, downloaded it, and started it up. I watched the opening cutscene following Kiryu, a low-level Yakuza punk, beat the snot out of a man, then proceed to walk through 1980s Kamurocho – a fictional city modeled on Tokyo’s real-life red light district – and the rest is history.

It took me a while to get fully sold on the game, but it finally happened for me during chapter six of the (chronological) first game. Don’t get me wrong, I was having fun beating up thugs up until that point, but by the ending of chapter six I was really invested. That emotional moment between Kiryu and Nishiki, that was when I was thinking, “yeah, I could spend another year playing these games.” Since then, I have completed all eight main games and currently working on Judgement. (Editor’s Note: While this post was sitting in my drafts I’ve finished Judgement and moved on to its sequel, Lost Judgement.)

The world around you evolves as beloved characters die, plots are revealed, and the games – and in-game years – slip past. You’ll spend lots of time in Kamurocho and get to know its many interesting denizens. And, if you’re like me, you’ll always look forward from a break in the drama to enjoy a meal at Smile Burger. When you get down to it, Yakuza really is a serious crime drama. Its central themes include family and honor, and what it means to be strong. There are a lot of heartbreaking moments involving characters you’ve fought alongside with for an entire game, or those awesome yet doomed minor characters who you’ve spent too little time with before they are taken away. The main story in a Yakuza game is often times dealing with some heavy, philosophical topics. Luckily, if you ever need time to take in the story or process emotions, the side content is on a different level.

Each Yakuza game is packed full with substories, which are side quest-like missions that are separate from the main story and that are usually very short in length. These stories are completely optional side content, but are usually tons of fun and help to showcase the main character’s personality. In sharp contrast to the main story of each game, which often handles many serious topics, the substories are like watching a goofy anime. In one Yakuza 0 sub story you may encounter a young Ryuji Goda, who grows up to be the antagonist of Yakuza 2/Kiwami 2. As a child, Ryuji still possesses his striking blonde hair and inhuman strength. What is he using this strength for, you may ask? Playing pranks on his fellow school students by stealing their pants, so they have no choice but to walk around pants-less. That is all.

If substories weren’t enough, each Yakuza game has abundant minigames. There are Sega arcades filled with classic titles, casinos for card games, Shogi and Mahjong parlors. Sports such as bowling, golf, and baseball. My personal favorite, Karaoke, where each main character can choose from different songs to play in a rhythm-based singing game. The list goes on. You can spend countless hours playing games within the actual game. Each Yakuza title comes with its own list of minigames, but the classics always return. Some games even have business management “minigames” which have their own involved story and take many hours to complete. Yakuza 5 makes the most of this, with 5 playable characters who each have their own subquest that is not part of the main game. There is no lack of things to do, should you ever need a break from progressing the main story.

Maybe one day I’ll revisit the main series and try my best to 100% them. When I started Yakuza over a year ago, I rushed through several of them so that I could catch up to Like a Dragon (Yakuza 8.) While 8 was an amazing game and I feel I have played it to the fullest, I took shortcuts in other games in order to reach the end quicker. In particular, I wish I spent more time with Yakuza 3 even though it’s very dated at this point. It was an important time in Kiryu’s life and I find myself wishing things could just be that simple again. Also, at the end of Kiryu’s journey, Yakuza 6. I had every intention of completing all sidequests and exploring the new minigames until I reached the end of the main story, which really hit hard. It’s amazing to think that Yakuza is still a pretty new series to me and parts of it are already nostalgic to me. This feeling of completely falling in love with a game is what I’m always striving for when I pick up a new title, and each time it happens it feels like the first time. I like to think that one of the common experiences gamers share is this feeling, and it’s why we’re all such obsessive nerds about the things we love.