At first glance, the Yakuza series looks akin to Grand Theft Auto: beating people up on the street, amassing ungodly amounts of money, partying with vinyl-clad women. Growing up, I wasn’t interested in any of it. I wanted a meaningful story from the games I played, not excess and senseless violence.
But as Sega released both a prequel to and a remaster of the original Yakuza, I realized there’s more to it than just Japanese gangsters committing crimes. There are karaoke songs to sing and nightclubs to run. There’s 18-year-old whiskey that needs to be bought, sexy beetle games to play, takoyaki to eat. The polish that new technology can bring to an old franchise is astounding. It’s what encouraged me to change my mind and bump the Yakuza series up to the top of my own “must play” list.
Remasters are changing the way we approach our backlogs. In just the past three years, publishers have announced more than 10 remasters of major games. Capcom surprised E3 2018 attendees with footage of a Resident Evil 2 remake, while Activision went all-in on Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot over the past two years. Sega even jumped on the bandwagon, promising cult classics Shenmue and Shenmue 2 for modern consoles and Windows PC. We’re living in a time where it’s probably more prudent to wait for a remaster or a next-generation port than spend the energy locating an old console to play something. But while the word “backlog” may be associated with feelings of reluctance, apathy or shame for old games, now is probably one of the best times to have one.
Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami (a remaster of the first Yakuza) showed me that tackling a backlog doesn’t always have to be about confronting popular titles in my library out of embarrassment or procrastination. I’ve become more selective, more deliberate in what I need from a backlog. Recently, that’s taken the form of intense escapism and casual tourism. I didn’t even know those were things I needed until I started playing — and truly living in — these games.
It started out small, in the muffled, cheerful voice of the UFO catcher that piped up at the arcade. I put in some coins and became a zombie, repetitive and desperate for a Bun-chan sparrow plush. After some time had passed, night crept in and the streets lit up with soft neon. I left the arcade and ran past izakayas and ramen shops boasting bowls of colorful plastic in the windows. I started remembering my own experiences with Japan, and I kept running. A few days later, I decided to plug in a good pair of headphones. After realizing I could listen to 360 degrees of urban Tokyo sounds, I knew this was was the series for me.
Yakuza Kiwami illuminates in-game details that never could’ve existed in the original version. Originally released in 2005 for North America, the first Yakuza was only available on the PlayStation 2. The faces were twisted, polygonal, limited in emotional range. The city was a bit less bright. But now, run through any part of Kamurocho and the sounds of karaoke bars, telephone clubs and hostesses effortlessly ebb and flow around you with every step. The frosted glass entrances to neighborhood bars emit a familiar, dim glow. Everything you can do in your free time is essentially indulgence without any of the consequences. The remaster scratches an itch that both occasional travel and an old PS2 can’t quite reach.
While some remasters may not always live up to the originals, others can bring new features. Unlike the first two Yakuza games released stateside, the two Kiwami remasters stick with the original Japanese voice acting and audio. There’s a distinct presence and attitude of the characters that can only be conveyed through Japanese. It’s fitting, because the Yakuza series is naturally illustrative of so many aspects of Japanese culture. These bite-sized bits of ’80s and early 2000s pop culture are best reflected in minigames, substories and even convenience store items. Going to karaoke? Get ready for a master class in cheesy Asian montages of the ’90s. Want to gamble? Sure, you can play blackjack or poker, but you can also play cho-han, koi-koi and other gambling games that may not be as well-known among Western audiences. Hell, I sat in something called a telephone club with hopes of seducing a beautiful, young woman. It was educational.
In the case of Yakuza Kiwami 2, Sega plans to bring back Majima Goro as a playable character — a much-loved campaign available only in the series prequel, Yakuza 0. I’ve talked extensively about my love for Majima Goro and was disappointed to see that he wasn’t playable in Kiwami once I finished 0. What I love most about this series so far (i.e., being Majima, looking at delicious food, using café signs to bash my enemies) is highlighted so much more in the remasters. These features simply don’t exist in the original versions.
A lot of strong skepticism and outrage for any reboot, at least in my own experience, stems from a protective sense of nostalgia. I realize that my experience with the Yakuza games isn’t some sort of lost cause, because I’m playing them just now. I used to feel like a part of me had some sort of irrecoverable gap because I never played, for example, EarthBound when I was a kid. The “I missed the boat” mentality that hangs over all my unfinished old classics doesn’t surface with the Yakuza franchise, and that was a welcome relief. If anything, I felt like waiting all that time to play was the best move for me.
Not all games age well, and it’s okay to admit that. It’s even more OK to play them at your own leisure, at an appropriate time in your life. In my case, I wanted something immersive but realistic, rooted in something that I know and miss: exploring the neighborhoods of Tokyo while being a total weirdo.