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Learning Japanese board game culture from Yakuza 0

The side benefits of Sega’s attention to detail

Yakuza 0 is not an educational game in most respects, unless you’re trying to learn how to defend yourself with a salt shaker or you want detailed descriptions of Japanese whiskey. Nor is it a realistic game, despite taking place in obsessively detailed neighborhoods full of faithfully recreated restaurants, stores and tiny parks.

But if you spend enough time in Yakuza 0 wandering the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, forcing your avatar to ignore the urgent, life-or-death situations happening back on the critical path, you can learn something real about non-dramatized Japanese culture.

Buried among the myriad distractions — darts, pool, fishing, bowling, slot car racing, batting cages, Space Harrier and so many more — are the traditional Japanese games mahjong, shogi, koi-koi, cho-han and cee-lo. Yakuza may the first place many Western players will encounter any of these games, and they all come with convenient tutorials.

Yakuza as a series builds out its cities over multiple games, meaning that minigames from previous installments are also in future games alongside new ones, making for a dense open world. Even though Yakuza 0 is a prequel, the full breadth of minigames is there.

Atlus USA localization producer Scott Strichart took over Yakuza localization with 0, and he saw an opportunity to refresh some of the conventions of the long-running series’ localization — “What can we fix?” For instance, the team revised the English terms for titles within the yakuza hierarchy, replacing “lieutenant” and sub-lieutenant” with the cleaner “captain” and “lieutenant.” It makes the daunting task of understanding just who all these tattooed men are in relation to one another a bit clearer.

As another example of updated localization, Atlus replaced the titles that flash on the screen before a fight to tell you who you’re fighting — “the don-don,” Strichart calls them in reference to the drum sound that accompanies the effect. Formerly displayed in large Japanese text with subtitles, they are now all in English. “It didn’t feel like you were playing an English game,” he says.

Part of that initiative included making the returning mahjong and shogi minigames more accessible. And that meant writing a new tutorial for mahjong, replacing a simple translation of the rules with an extensive tutorial aimed at Western players who likely don’t have existing cultural familiarity with mahjong.

“The impetus for attempting the new mahjong tutorial was my own reading of the existing tutorial and realizing it had taught me nothing,” Strichart says. “So I approached Justin Phan, a tester on the project who happened to be intimately familiar with mahjong, with a request for him to rewrite the tutorial. I gave him the old one so he would have some idea of the restraints on the text window, and then just let him go to town.” Phan also helped unify the mahjong terminology to be consistently Japanese, rather than a mix of Chinese and Japanese.

Strichart edited the new text and took it to other testers, who he says appreciated the additional detail. “Although much like playing a board game, I don’t think any amount of tutorial reading ended up being as helpful as hands-on experience,” he says.

Updating shogi was less a matter of adding text and more a matter of changing the presentation of the game, exemplifying the case-by-case approach Atlus took to improving Yakuza 0’s localization. Shogi pieces bear Chinese characters, and are otherwise identical wooden pentagons. In the minigame, shogi pieces now also have English letters. It’s literally a tiny change, just a red letter on the corner of the piece, but it drastically reduces the learning curve, no longer requiring the player to learn to read another language. It also makes Yakuza shogi more accessible than a physical shogi board.

Both games are still complex and challenging to learn — Strichart bemoans the team’s inability to do more, and wished for the ability to add video tutorials. But the written tutorials make it easier.

Rob Stone, QA lead, had mahjong, shogi, and the other games drilled into him over the arduous process of testing and replaying them. “I didn’t really understand mahjong,” he says, until repetition in the service of Yakuza taught him. Naturally, he ended up pretty good; while testing the online versus mode, he routinely won against other testers who were using a debug tool to swing the camera around and peek at his tiles. There were also debug tools for the board games to instantly give a tester a winning hand, saving Stone and his colleagues from having to be mahjong hustlers eight hours a day.

As a newly minted expert, Stone gave us tips to pass along to Yakuza mahjong neophytes. The first tip is just to do your homework — learn all the tiles, so that you can quickly recognize potential matches and hands without having to refer to the tutorial or a computer.

Also: “Mash square all the time.” There’s a scoring condition, riichi, that occurs when you’re one tile away from a potential scoring hand and you call “riichi” (by pressing square). So, he says, you can potentially gain extra points by doing that, perhaps even before you realize you qualify.

Sega never intended these games to work as a cultural exploration of Japan, included as they were by Japanese developers of a game about Japan primarily intended for players in Japan. But as Strichart and the Atlus USA team updated elements of Yakuza 0 for clarity and accessibility, they created a situation in which it is possible not only to unexpectedly discover mahjong, shogi and other Japanese table games, but to learn to play them.

As a side effect of the improved accessibility, players can learn to understand games that are played on real tables in Japan, offering a slice of life that is more true-to-life than the constant street fights and bizarre fetch quests that protagonist Kazuma Kiryu encounters.