The Yakuza series is a trip… I can’t think of many other series that have made me laugh out loud during one scene and have me crying during another. It’s a series that knows how to blend tones masterfully so nothing gets too ridiculous or too serious and still feels like it all belongs. And it’s been doing this for almost two decades now! However, most of the games’ current fans haven’t been following the series for that long. Myself included! And there was a big chance this now globally loved series was going to simply fade away or remain an obscure series only released in Japan.
That is, until Yakuza 0.
Yakuza 0, as the name implies, is a prequel to the Yakuza series. Taking the story back to the late 80s so that players could see the humble beginnings of beloved characters like Kiryu and Majima. The game was meant to be a celebration of the series for long time fans. But it also made for a great jumping on point for new fans as well. Something that may not have been intentional at first but would prove to be the most important aspect of the game down the line.
At this point, the series was on its fifth entry. And unlike some series, like Final Fantasy, where each numbered entry really doesn’t connect to the others, Yakuza follows some key characters throughout each game. Making every game in the series rather important to getting the whole picture. As such it was understandably hard to jump into the series at this point. Personally I had heard lots of great things about the games but even then I really had a hard time wanting to get into the games if I was going to have to start from the fourth or fifth one in the series. Luckily, someone at SEGA, the publisher of the Yakuza series, realized the opportunity Yakuza 0 provided them. This was a chance to finally get the series popular somewhere besides Japan. And it actually managed to work!
For the longest time the most news people heard around the series was about how the next entry in it might not ever be localized outside of Japan. Yakuza always had a cult following, a very dedicated cult following at that, but even then it was always up in the air whether or not a new game in the series would get localized. This sort of worry wasn’t too uncommon back in the day. There are a lot of stories about games that never made it out of their country of origin for one reason or another. But as the internet became more of a thing, it became much easier for people to become more aware of the games that they were missing out on. Nintendo in particular has always been known for holding certain games back despite fan out cry. Still waiting for that localization of Fatal Frame 4… But even then Nintendo has actually given in to very vocal fans from time to time. Famously, Xenoblade Chronicles was Japan exclusive for a very long time until they finally relented and released it worldwide. And now it’s one of Nintendo’s bigger franchises! All because they listened to their fans and actually put in the effort to push the game with some marketing. And while SEGA had tried marketing and pushing Yakuza in the past, it wouldn’t be until Yakuza 0 that they realized they were going about it the wrong way.
There are a lot of reasons for a game to not be localized ranging from poor sales in the country it came from to how long and difficulty it would be to actually localize it. SEGA couldn’t really give either of these reasons though. For one, Yakuza has always been a popular series in Japan. Like I said before, Yakuza 0 was made as a celebration for the series and it’s fans. SEGA is also a large company that can certainly afford the time and effort it would take to localize the series. So, the main reason why Yakuza always had trouble coming outside of Japan was because the higher ups at SEGA simply assumed that other countries and cultures wouldn’t really get the appeal of the game. This is actually the reason why some games in the series that did manage to get localized had some content cut out as it was assumed they wouldn’t really be understood. This mentality also lead to them deciding to market the series in the west in the worst way possible…
Unlike with Nintendo and Xenoblade Chronicles, SEGA did actually really try to market the Yakuza series when it first released on the PS2. However, assuming anyone outside Japan simply wouldn’t get the appeal of the series, they decided to basically market the game as “Grand Theft Auto but in Japan.” It’s a bit hard to blame the marketing team for going in this direction as the GTA series was just gaining it’s massive popularity around that time. But not only did this direction fail to highlight what made the game great it also meant the few people that did try the game were rather upset by how much it wasn’t like GTA. This seemed to have made SEGA assume that the series just wouldn’t catch on outside of Japan. It wasn’t till they tried a new approach with the marketing of Yakuza 0 that they realized they had been going about it all wrong. Rather than trying to hide the aspects they assumed would turn people away, they embraced them!
Yakuza 0 had nothing to hide! It was happy to show off just how weird it was. From helping a dominatrix learn how to dominate to hiring a chicken as a manager at your realty company. Rather than marketing one aspect of the game or trying to get people to focus on certain spots, they let the game speak for itself. And they did this mainly through giving out plenty of review copies of the game for people to discuss and talk about. By letting people discover what they love about the series for themselves, and then having them tell others about it, it ended up drawing lots of people in. From people who just wanted to see if the game really was that crazy to people who had heard about the series before and finally had a place to start with it. This approach let the game show off what it was really about. And it clearly worked wonders!
Before Yakuza 0 it would take years for each entry in the series to be localized. For reference, Yakuza 0 was released on March 12th, 2015 in Japan and it wouldn’t be until January 24th, 2017 for it to be released worldwide. And while localizing does obviously take time, it doesn’t usually take that much time! After Yakuza 0 though the next game in the series, Yakuza Kiwami – a remake of the first game, was released that very same year worldwide. Which means that 0 did so well they felt confident releasing another game in the series just a few months apart. That’s two games in the same series released in the same year! And the series success outside of Japan didn’t stop there. It was really only beginning.
Not only did the Yakuza games start appearing on other consoles like the Xbox, a brand that has notoriously done terrible in Japan, SEGA even started going the extra mile when it came to localizing the games. Now new releases like Yakuza: Like a Dragon were getting full English dubs rather than just being translated and being localized a few months after the Japanese release. No longer do fans outside Japan have to wait ages for the next release or even have to worry if they’ll get to play them at all as the series is more popular than ever now!
Since I started with Yakuza 0 I have become a massive fan of the series as a whole. It’s a series that offers some truly unique things. As I mentioned before, it manages to blend the ridiculous with the serious better than any other series I have seen. Even topping Metal Gear in that regard! And speaking of Metal Gear, very rarely do I really get into long running series where knowing the story of each game is important to understanding what’s going on. It can be exhausting to keep up with. Looking at you, Kingdom Hearts. But more than that, it normally leads to the stories getting more and more over the top and unbelievable. And while this is true for both Metal Gear and Yakuza, two series I love, Yakuza manages to keep each story rather grounded for the most part and keep player extremely invested in the characters. Well… Not including Yakuza 5. But that’s a whole other story.
Fans don’t just love playing the games, they love every aspect of them! Especially the characters. Kiryu Kazuma, the main character of the series until Yakuza: Like a Dragon, is one of the most beloved characters in gaming now. He’s by far one of the most unique as he manages to be both insanely intimidating while also being goofy and relatable. And then there’s Majima Goro. A character so loved that they made an entire game mechanic around him popping up in random places in Yakuza Kiwami. It’s literally called the Majima Everywhere System. And it’s the greatest thing. While there are obviously plenty of reasons for players to not be fans of the series, it’s hard to find someone who is just a casual fan of the games. If you’re into Yakuza, you love it! There is no in between with the series. And that just proves how special it really is.
The Yakuza series is a trip… And not just with the story the games tell but with the story of how it finally got the recognition it deserves. How it went from being a small but popular series in Japan to a beloved series worldwide. There are now seven mainline games, not including spin-offs like the Judgement games, and it’s still going strong! SEGA seemingly has no plans to stop or slow down the series anytime soon.
They even recently announced they will be making a film based on the games!
And it’s all thanks to Yakuza 0. A game that made a niche series known…
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Have you played any of the Yakuza games before? Thinking about giving the series a try now? Are there any niche series you’re a fan of that you wish were more popular? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!
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