The Yakuza series is having a moment right now, thanks to Sega’s breakneck localization of Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, the freshly released Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and the upcoming Yakuza Kiwami 2. Like a man casually walking down the street in an eye patch, a snakeskin jacket and no shirt, the series is suddenly drawing a lot of attention. Yakuza has been a mainstream hit in Japan since 2005, but today, the average person might need a little help differentiating all the prequels, sequels and reboots.
To help, we’ve ranked the games leading to Yakuza 6 from worst to best. (They’re all good, so even if the “worst” Yakuza is all you have access to, you’ll have a good time.)
But before we get to the list, a brief note on the connective material that makes these games special.
Yakuza games transport you to small, richly detailed Japanese neighborhoods full of lovingly modeled shops, restaurants and ambience. You’ll get to know Kamurocho, the lightly fictionalized version of Tokyo’s Kabukicho area, navigating its streets with the familiarity of your hometown.
These neighborhoods serve as backdrops to stories that shift between high drama and sublime silliness in the most delightfully video game-y way. Take down a criminal organization with your bare hands, rescue someone from a cult, help someone in dire need of toilet paper and still make time to build a lifelong friendship with the announcer at the slot car racetrack.
Holding everything together is the most earnest, steadfast, caring man ever to devote himself to a life of crime. Kazuma Kiryu isn’t the most well-known video game protagonist, which is a shame. He’s masterfully drawn, a hero with pathos, humor and emotional depth. He is the series and the series is him.
9. Yakuza: Dead Souls
I don’t know what’s more out of place in the Japanese cityscape of this inexplicable spinoff: the zombies or the guns. Yakuza: Dead Souls swaps out the improvisational brawling of the core Yakuza games for automatic weapons, as Kiryu and friends defend a walled-off Kamurocho against various undead monsters.
Somehow, Dead Souls doesn’t diverge too much from the main games; the batting center and other local attractions remain open, event in the midst of the apocalypse, and the city is just as full of weirdos who need your help with inane problems. But ultimately, this is a forgettable riff on the Yakuza experience.
8. Kurohyo: Ryu ga Gotoku Shinsho / Kurohyo 2: Ryu ga Gotoku Ashura hen
(PSP, 2010; PSP, 2012)
Sega released a spinoff Yakuza series on PSP with the help of Syn Sophia, a developer known at the time for wrestling games — though it would soon become known as the company responsible for Style Savvy.
The Kurohyou (“Black Panther”) games star Tatsuya Ukyou, a teenager who gets pulled into an illegal fighting tournament in Kamurocho. These games feel similar to their console cousins, despite the necessary technical downgrades. And they show the criminal underworld of Kamurocho from the fresh perspective of a low-level initiate. But it’s still hard to justify playing Japanese-language, PSP-only games, particularly for newcomers.
These spinoff titles actually had their own spinoff in the form of a TV miniseries. The Yakuza franchise is cavernous.
7. Ryu ga Gotoku: Kenzan / Ryu ga Gotoku: Ishin
(PS3, 2008; PS3/PS4, 2014)
Sega has, over the course of the Yakuza series’ lifespan, released two samurai spinoffs — two different and unrelated samurai spinoffs. The first, Kenzan, cast Kiryu as the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, living quietly in the Gion district of Kyoto until he meets, fittingly enough, a young girl named Haruka, who needs his help.
Ishin, set 200 years later, puts Kiryu in the role of Ryoma Sakamoto, another real-life historical figure who’s pursued by the famous Shinsengumi samurai organization. The game sees Sakamoto fake his death and join the Shinsengumi in an effort to uncover the circumstances of his mentor’s murder.
Both games feature familiar characters and locations translated into their respective time periods, perfect for those who wonder what a Don Quijote store would have looked like in the 1800s. They also feature a lot of untranslated Japanese text and dialogue. Online guides are available for dedicated players.
6. Yakuza 2
At this moment in 2018, Yakuza 2 isn’t the most inviting experience: It is only available on PlayStation 2, and atmosphere and combat that were brilliant for 2006 are foggy and stilted, respectively, over a decade later. But in August, it will be released on PlayStation 4 in a remade Kiwami edition, using the new Yakuza 6 engine and featuring a new Goro Majima story. Play it then.
In either case, Yakuza 2 introduces Ryuji Goda, a yakuza from a rival family who, like Kiryu, bears a totally boss dragon tattoo and a tragic past. It also introduces a love interest for Kiryu. Neither of these characters shows up much in the games beyond this one, although Goda is playable in Dead Souls, having somehow acquired a flashy gun-arm.
5. Yakuza 3
The move to PlayStation 3 allowed Sega to amplify everything that the burgeoning Yakuza franchise embodied. In Yakuza 3, the city is more detailed, the minigames more numerous — including a brand-new arcade game, Boxcelios, made just for this entry. Even the family drama is more heartfelt: The game begins in Kiryu’s Okinawa orphanage, where you meet the kids in his care and see his most dadly aspects.
Yakuza 3 leans further into absurd jokes as well via the Revelation system, which might be the first blogging-based progression mechanic in games. Basically, Kiryu sees something amazing happening, like a woman miraculously surviving a motorcycle accident while daydreaming about a man on a billboard, then realizes how to translate what he saw into a fighting move while typing out a blog post on his flip phone.
Despite the literal government conspiracy Kiryu uncovers, Yakuza 3 still feels a bit smaller and more compact than the expansive Yakuza titles to follow. The localization doesn’t help. Some minigame content is absent in the Western release. According to Sega at the time, the Answer x Answer Japanese history quiz game and the hostess club game “didn’t resonate with Western culture.” These decisions made sense in 2010 due to the amount of localization work required for such niche material. But these days, nothing is left behind, no matter how much explanation is required, unless it’s licensed music that can’t leave Japan.
4. Yakuza / Yakuza Kiwami
(PS2, 2005; PS3/PS4, 2016)
The very first Yakuza game nailed much of what makes the series special today: a crime story full of dramatic turnabouts; explosive fistfights between men who can somehow remove the entire top half of a suit in one smooth motion; a living Kamurocho to inhabit; a heartfelt father/daughter relationship; and Goro Majima, the Mad Dog of Shimano.
Last year’s Kiwami remake updates the once-fussy fighting, adds more weird humor through new substories and increases the Majima quotient significantly: The new Majima Everywhere feature has Kiryu pursued constantly by Majima, who goes full Bugs Bunny with a series of unexpected pranks and silly costumes. In the original game, Majima appears as a dangerous, unpredictable killer; in this new content, it is more apparent that the rival loves Kiryu as much as he loves fighting, and he will let no fourth wall stand between him and what he holds dear.
3. Yakuza 4
Kazuma Kiryu’s soap opera-length backstory had grown unwieldy by the fourth main game, Yakuza 4 — though I cannot stress enough how little the details of any Yakuza game’s story matter, as long as you remember that Kiryu is strong, Kiryu is dad and Kiryu will punch everyone.
Sega wisely rebooted the narrative by introducing three new playable characters with whom Kiryu shares roughly equal focus: the very large, very grumpy prison escapee Taiga Saejima; the sleazy but somehow altruistic loan shark Shun Akiyama; and a dirty cop named Masayoshi Tanimura, an unfortunately forgettable character that never comes up again. Their stories offer new footholds into the ongoing crime dramas of the series.
2. Yakuza 0
It’s no coincidence that this PS4 release marked the beginning of full-on Kiryumania in the West. The 1980s “Bubble Economy” setting let Yakuza be more joyous, more colorful and more ridiculous upfront. Whereas previous games would politely sequester their silliness in optional side quests and minigames, Yakuza 0 openly teaches you a move in which you throw cash to distract thugs.
The silliness carries over into some of the series’ most amusing side quests to date, like using a giant, state-of-the-art (for the time) mobile telephone; tracking down a stolen copy of a newly released Dragon Quest analog; and apprehending a pants thief. Not only do these vignettes help set the tone of the very particular time and place in which the game occurs, but they’re also genuinely funny thanks to the Atlus localization team, which took over the series on this game and whose work is apparent in nearly every out-of-context screenshot you may have seen on Twitter in the last year.
Yakuza 0 has something for everyone, and its prequel status makes it a great entry point for newcomers and an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the world and characters for longtime fans. Plus, you get to meet Miracle Johnson, the best video game character inspired by Michael Jackson since actual Michael Jackson!
1. Yakuza 5
For most game series, the biggest wouldn’t necessarily be the best, but it works for Yakuza. Yakuza 5 is the culmination of its predecessors’ individual ideas and ambitions: The world is crammed full of minigames, restaurants and visuals cribbed from every previous game, and Kiryu has a staggering number of fighting moves to flaunt.
Yakuza 5 takes place across five cities with five protagonists, including Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka, who takes part in dance battles across Osaka as she trains to become a singing idol.
On top of the free-form gameplay, there are exclusive minigames in wildly disparate genres for each character, each with its own progression. There’s a taxi driving game and an idol career simulator. And they have more depth than you’d expect from minigames inside an open-world game. Haruka’s chapter includes two different rhythm gameplay styles and what may be the most stark portrayal of an idol’s grueling practice and promotion schedule in this medium. You get to fight a bear in this game, too.
It’s affecting and funny, big yet intimate. It’s everything a Yakuza game should be.