The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Yakuza Fan In The Noughties

I’m a self-proclaimed Yakuza hipster. Nowadays, the franchise is one of Sega’s biggest properties, beloved by millions around the world as each new entry is welcomed with open arms. But before the release of Yakuza 0 in the West and Kazuma Kiryu’s subsequent explosion in popularity, the picture was very different indeed.

Fans were used to waiting years for games to be localised, and even then they’d be rewarded with a digital-only release on a platform that had been on the shelf for years. For example, Yakuza 5 was first released in Japan in 2012, and for several years there was no hint at a Western release. After the horrendous commercial performance of Yakuza: Dead Souls outside of Japan, Sega gave up hope on the franchise, labelling it as something too niche for Western audiences to fully appreciate.

That absolutely wasn’t the case, as future successes would go on to prove, but back then, fans had to beg Sega to reconsider a Western release for Yakuza 5, providing us with the barest of clues that maybe, just maybe, it would see the light of day… otherwise, the only option was to import a copy and learn Japanese. I imported it in the end, but learning a language is way harder than I expected. After three long years of waiting, Yakuza 5 was finally thrown onto the PlayStation Store in 2015.

The wait was worth it. After Dead Souls, Yakuza 5 felt like a return to form for the franchise. An ensemble cast of new and existing characters were featured, each with their own substantial narrative arcs that would take dozens of hours to see through to their respective climaxes. Even today, it is arguably the most diverse game in the series. Kiryu takes up a career as a taxi driver upon abandoning his Yakuza ways, while you’ll also spend over ten hours as Haruka as she builds a career as a nationwide idol.

It remains one of my favourites in the series, and I’m so glad more people can now experience Yakuza 5 and all of its younger siblings without having to dig out an old console. These games haven’t aged brilliantly, but they’re a history lesson for a series which long existed in relative obscurity. Some titles such as Yakuza Kenzan and Yakuza Ishin remain as Japanese-only releases, but with the recent success of Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima, their likelihood of localisation has only increased. I have faith Sega will see the light and release them over here one day.

I was the weeb kid in secondary school who was boasting about saving Sunshine Orphanage in Okinawa while my friends took down General Shepherd in Modern Warfare 2. Kiryu wouldn’t even need guns to take down Task Force 141, so don’t even get me started. As a younger gamer (oh how I’ve grown) this was a franchise I fell in love with, grasping at any and all new pieces of information I could find about new games being unveiled and the slim chance they might be localised.

During the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, Japanese developers were going through a tumultuous period. Capcom was determined to appeal to Western audiences with mediocre reboots of Dark Void and Bionic Commando, while Sega fumbled with equally doomed projects like Golden Axe: Beast Rider. It was a messy time, and it took a few years for such companies to release that the true value sat in their original library of IP, and appealing to fans who wanted true, authentic experiences instead of half-assed Western reboots.

Once the PS4 rolled around, this harsh lesson had been learnt, resulting in some of the best games ever made coming out of Japan in rapid succession, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. I’m here for it, and Yakuza is a franchise amongst many that continues to go from strength to strength. Its recent evolution into a turn-based RPG focused on middle-aged losers was a bold change, but has been received, with Sega set to double down on Ichiban Kasuga in the years to come.

Then you’ve also got Judgment, which is due a next-gen upgrade and a rumoured sequel is also in the works. If you’d told me even two years ago that the majority of Yakuza games would be available on Xbox and PC I would have laughed in your face. This franchise has always been faithful to PlayStation, and Sega was arguably too ignorant to port such games on platforms predominantly used by Western audiences. It just wouldn’t happen, but things have changed so much, and the gaming landscape is so much better for it.

I’ll always be a Yakuza hipster. Not because I like throwing my dedication to the franchise in your face, but because I’m proud of the journey Kazuma Kiryu and company have been on over the years. It has evolved from a niche experience enamoured with Japanese culture into a blockbuster series with fans eagerly awaiting each new reveal.

More and more people are appreciating Yakuza for the wondrous stories it has to tell, and the beautifully developed characters who have received years of heartfelt development from a team that truly cares about them. I was just a passive participant cheering them on, and sometimes screaming in frustration after years without a new game. But it was all worth it, and I’d do it all again.

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Jade King is one of the Features Editors for TheGamer. Previously head of gaming content over at Trusted Reviews, she can be found talking about games, anime and retweeting Catradora fanart @KonaYMA6.

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