I have a proposition: there is no good place to start with the Yakuza series in 2021.
This isn’t true of course. There are plenty of great places: there’s the chronological prequel, Yakuza 0, or the remake of the original game, Yakuza Kiwami. There’s the most recent game in the series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which is the first time the original protagonist has been left aside entirely and a new character takes the lead for a completely fresh introduction. It’s also the first game to ditch the real-time brawling that made it famous and go with turn-based, JRPG style battles. There’s even a spin-off, Judgement, that is just now getting a sequel, that carries on the brawling legacy but features more of a private detective flavour, and again stars an original character.
So why would I argue there’s no good place to start?
It goes back to Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami. The remake of the original game came out after the prequel, and while it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the original PS2 version, it’s also a sequel to 0 in the sense it picks up on plot threads and game mechanics featured in the prequel that were never in the original Yakuza. None of these are likely to be dealbreakers or even particularly confusing, but to get the most out of them, you’re going to want to have played 0 first.
So why not just do that? Well, 0 is a prequel. And like most prequels, it’s not really intended to be experienced first. There’s a lot of dramatic irony in where characters are and where they feel they are headed that works best if you’ve played at least some of the later entries – at the time of release, the main series was up to Yakuza 5, so that’s a lot of material to reference. More importantly, 0 features two protagonists: Kazuma Kiryu, the longtime lead of Yakuza 1 through 6, and Goro Majima, an antagonist-turned-fan favourite. It’s not until Yakuza 4 that you get some of the big revelations about Majima’s past that are referenced heavily in 0, including explanations for why he’s working as a cabaret club manager in Osaka instead of as a yakuza in Tokyo. There are flashbacks in Yakuza 0 that reference flashbacks in Yakuza 4!
I doubt any of this would actually stop someone enjoying either game. Indeed, Yakuza 0 was the start of a new era for the series, proving so popular that the other remakes and sequels that were coming out were localised and brought to the west in practically record time. As a heavily invested fan, though, I’m fascinated by the way Yakuza has become a kind of ouroboros: the first game in the series is now a prequel that, when originally released, would have expected players to be much deeper in series lore.
This raises a question: what about the original Yakuza? Isn’t it possible to go back and play the series as originally released – with Yakuza and Yakuza 2 on the PS2, followed by 3, 4, and 5 on PS3, and only then jumping back to the prequels and remakes?
Setting aside hardware issues – later PlayStation consoles didn’t offer any support for it, and only the launch model PS3 was backwards compatible with PS2 games, so you’re better off tracking down an actual PS2 in this scenario – the original Yakuza came out in an entirely different era. It’s not universal, but it’s now pretty common to expect Japanese games to feature at least the option for Japanese language audio.
Yakuza featured only an English language dub, with some curious casting – Mark Hamill playing Majima as a variation on the animated Joker he had portrayed for years was a reasonable choice, but picking Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum for another major character was stranger. I’m biased against dubs anyway, but in this case, the localisation also changed a number of names and established some conventions that would carry on at least through Yakuza 3 before the series was “re-localised” to be closer to the original Japanese even though only the first game had an English dub. As an example, Kazuma Kiryu’s mentor was renamed from Shintaro Kazama to Shintaro Fuma, presumably because it was deemed too similar to the protagonist’s name for an Anglophone ear.
When the series was still coming out on PlayStation 3, a situation developed where only the first two games were unavailable on that console, so Sega released Ryū ga Gotoku 1&2 HD – a straightforward remaster making Yakuza 1 and 2 playable on PS3. Why am I using the Japanese title? Well, despite my hopes, it never came out in the west. By that point the series was foundering here and it would take a staggering three years for Yakuza 5 to make the journey – coming out as a digital only title for PS3 years after the launch of the PlayStation 4. It was a missed opportunity to bring the original Yakuza games back with their Japanese audio, one that wouldn’t be rectified until the Kiwami remakes.
Now we’re practically living in a golden age of Yakuza. The main series is available in its entirety across both major consoles and on PC. All indications are that future Yakuza games will follow the JRPG footsteps of Yakuza: Like a Dragon while sequels to Judgement will preserve the brawler gameplay. If the most recent release – Lost Judgement – is anything to go by, we’re also looking at simultaneous releases in Japan and the English-speaking world.
It’s a great time to be a fan, and one can only speculate about what comes next. More sequels? Or can we even dream of further remakes, remakes that might bring the long-absent, historically-set Yakuza games to the western world for the first time?