Following a tumultuous early-2000s that saw internal strife and change at Sega, the publisher was looking for new paths. Fresh from its exodus from the console-manufacturing business, Sega had to face market realities. Interest in mascot-driven games like Sonic was fading and the industry was maturing beyond many of its well-known properties. Gamers wanted new experiences, and Sega needed a hit. Instead of playing it safe, Sega took a risk betting on a gritty new concept from longtime producer and director Toshihiro Nagoshi. The gamble paid off, leading to a new flagship franchise and launching Sega into a new era of gaming.
During that time, Nagoshi, who had previously worked on franchises like Daytona U.S.A., Super Monkey Ball, and Shenmue, noted a definite shift in preference toward the North American style of game design. He felt the most popular games during that timeframe followed similar conventions, with few risks. He wanted to break out from that standardized style. Nagoshi also wanted to demonstrate that Japanese developers could create interesting games set in Japan. The result was Yakuza, an action-packed series about the infamous Japanese crime syndicate that has now captivated players for more than a decade.
For series producer Daisuke Sato, the mission was to give adults a reason to remain gamers. “Japanese players tend to step away from gaming after they join the work force; they’re either too busy or they’ve gotten bored with the medium after playing games since childhood,” he says. “We created Yakuza in hopes of bringing those adults back to the gaming world.”
Sato’s inspiration to develop a series based on the yakuza stemmed from other popular media in Japan. At the time, movies and comics were telling great stories about these crime families, but Japanese video games centered on the yakuza didn’t really exist. He believed the subject matter could be just as successful in video game form.
When Nagoshi brought up the concept internally, questions arose regarding the idea’s viability. Because the yakuza was largely unexplored territory for video games, the team had to adamantly defend its decisions to executives. “It raised a lot of eyebrows from both inside and outside the company,” Sato says. “We were often asked, ‘Is this game really going to sell?’ Their concern was that the hardware makers wouldn’t be interested in a title like this. As the director, Nagoshi took a lot of heat, but he stood firm in his belief in both the game and the team.”
After winning the battle for the game’s existence, the team worked on a modest budget to develop the first title. Sega brought in noted yakuza crime novelist Hase Seishū, who helped craft the underworld vibe in the first two games. The first game introduced Kazuma Kiryu as he seeks bitter vengeance for a wrongdoing within the ranks of the yakuza. The tale is rife with twists, intrigue, and betrayal.
The series’ premiere had modest returns, but made enough to justify a sequel. However, Nagoshi and Sato say it wasn’t until Yakuza 2 sold nearly 600,000 copies in Japan in less than a month that they believed in the series’ staying power. Though the first games received critical praise and performed well in Japan, Western markets proved reluctant to embrace the series.
The franchise continued selling well in Japan, fostering several sequels and spin-offs, as well as a live-action film in 2007. An influx of famous Japanese actors expressed interest in playing roles in the Yakuza games, a reversal of fortune after so many performers rejected appearing in the first game.
The growing enthusiasm surrounding the series over the years can be largely attributed to the relatability of the characters amidst extraordinary situations. This was further demonstrated in Yakuza 3, which gave Kiryu more depth than before. Even though Kiryu is known to crack thugs’ skulls without much thought, his kind-hearted nature and relationships with supporting characters like Goro Majima and Haruka Sawamura captured the hearts of players. Kiryu’s evolution from a young gang member to a man running an orphanage delighted fans.
Nagoshi understands that even in an action-packed story, crafting characters with wide-ranging personalities is important in creating a relatable experience. “In this day and age, having really stylish action movies just isn’t enough; you’ve got to have something like Kingsmen and stuff like that,” he says. “You’ve got to have a little bit more going on to keep people’s attention and keep them watching from moment to moment. I understand that as a student of Hollywood and movies.”
Outside the serious drama, the quixotic, deeply Japanese side activities became beloved by fans. With optional jaunts like taking the stage at a karaoke bar to helping a kid get a video game that was a nod to Dragon Quest’s popularity, these diversions sometimes venture into the realm of the ridiculous. The silly nature of these can serve as a welcomed reprieve from the serious tone of the main storylines.
According to Sato, they’ve intentionally left it up to players to decide how much humor they want in their game. “If they only want to experience a serious drama, they’ll probably play the main story without even glancing at the substories and minigames, at least on their first playthrough. Then maybe they’ll try those out on their second run,” he says. “On the other hand, some players enjoy the huge disparity between the main story’s serious tones and the goofy substories, so I think the balance is really up to the player.”
One unavoidable element of Yakuza is its savage street fights. Through entries, the combo-focused brawling has only grown in complexity, allowing for additional player experimentation through different fighting styles and brutal finishing moves. To conceptualize these ruthless moves, the series’ planners and designers take in action movies and come up with new moves to pitch to Nagoshi.
As the fanfare caught more fire, the West slowly began taking notice. Yakuza 0 served as a prequel entry told through the eyes of both Kiryu and Majima, creating a compelling drama of intertwined fates. This is the entry that slid into Western markets’ mainstream consciousness. In addition, the prequel nature of Yakuza 0 made it a perfect place for newcomers to start. Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original game, allowed those players to jump right in following the events of Yakuza 0.
Yakuza’s newfound global success has paved the way for future projects. Yakuza 6: Song of Life launched in April and Yakuza Kiwami 2, a modern remake of Yakuza 2, released just last month. In addition, Sega is already working on a new Yakuza project that shines the spotlight on a new protagonist named Ichiban Kasuga, a man with a different background and relationship with the yakuza than Kiryu.
For Sega, the ceiling is higher than ever for the red-hot Yakuza series. Only time will tell if this renewed popularity in Western markets is sustainable, but as long as the developers continue to complement compelling drama with Yakuza’s signature brand of brutal action, prospects look good.
This article originally ran in Game Informer issue 301. The final paragraphs were updated to be accurate to its online publication.
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How Sega Continues To Create Compelling And Ambitious Adventures In The Yakuza Franchise