For the past ten years, Yakuza, or Ryu Ga Gotoku in Japan, has taken Sega to a new edge. It has reasonably been considered a successor to another cult Sega title, Shenmue. One core reason is that the game allows players to explore a realistic part of Japan, and take part in its real-life pleasures (such as the bars, restaurants, hostess clubs, and legal sex establishments) as if you’re really there. A majority of the series takes place in Kamurocho, a fictionalized version of Kabukicho, a famous red light district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward. Like in Shenmue, you can buy drinks from vending machines, go shopping at convenience stores, and play classic Sega games at local arcades. Just like how Shenmue accurately portrays Yokosuka, the same can be said about Kabukicho in Yakuza to the point that they share the red neon entrance sign, the Don Quijote thrift stores, and the movie theater.
A good number of gaming media sources to even real-life yakuza members have praised the series for its accurate portrayals of the yakuza. Despite being a criminal organization, the franchise does a great job of demonstrating some of their more honorable qualities, most notably with its main character, Kazuma Kiryu. For the past 10 years, he has done a great job of being the face of the series but with the upcoming release of Shin Ryu Ga Gotoku, we are going to have a new character. So shortly before the newest installments of Yakuza come out (Ryu Ga Gotoku Kiwami 2, Shin Ryu Ga Gotoku, and Hokuto Ga Gotoku), we’d like to celebrate some of the franchise’s present best.
10. Yakuza: Dead Souls (Ryu Ga Gotoku: Of The End)
- Platform: PS3
- Release Date: Jun 9, 2011 (Japan), Mar 13, 2012 (US)
Kicking off this list is the non-canon spin-off, Dead Souls. While most games deal with power struggles, in this game, you fight a zombie outbreak in a quarantined Kamurocho. This installment is more of a spoof and homage to the action-horror genre that has been popularized by recent Resident Evil installments prior to 7 but includes many tongue-in-cheek jokes that show that the game doesn’t take itself seriously. Heck, it still finds ways to still include visiting hostess bars and pachinko parlors. Even so, it still tells an engaging story to keep players interested.
As opposed to being hand-to-hand combat oriented, the game appropriately relies on heavy firepower and has some sweet boss battles. Beyond your standard guns, you can use tanks, a baseball launcher, and a forklift to plow through zombies. As for recommending this game as a gateway to Yakuza, it depends on your tastes. If you enjoy Resident Evil or action-horror, you may enjoy this but get used to a different set of controls and style.
9. Yakuza 3 (Ryu Ga Gotoku 3)
- Platform: PS3
- Release Date: Feb 26, 2009 (Japan), Mar 9, 2010 (US)
This game introduces Kiryu’s new home of Okinawa and how he is operating an orphanage there. Unfortunately, the land it lies on is subject to eminent domain, but there might be a conspiracy behind it and it is up to Kiryu to save the children. In addition to Kamurocho, the third game allows you to enjoy the tropical paradise of Okinawa. You can talk a walk along the beach near his orphanage, or the shopping area of downtown Naha, the capital of Okinawa. Some features this game introduces are the chase battles where you have to run after an enemy around town and catch up to them. This includes throwing whatever foreign objects you can pick up off the ground.
Unfortunately, the Western release criminally removes a majority of the mini-games that are Japanese oriented such as visiting hostess bars, getting massages, and playing mahjong. Just like how many Western players objected to the dub of the first game, they felt the removal of these novel mini-games take away the authentic Japanese feel. Other than that, this game is still an amazing political thriller that really captures some real-life issues such as the short-term rise of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009, and Japan’s foreign policy in context to the land issues in Okinawa with the US.
8. Kurohyou: Ryu Ga Gotoku Shinshou
- Platform: PSP
- Release Date: Sept 22, 2010 (Japan only)
Kurohyou, meaning Black Panther, is a Japanese exclusive spin-off for the PSP. Though the game still takes place in Kamurocho, the main character this time is Tatsuya Ukyou, a teenage thug who is in for a world of hurt. In comparison to the cool and compassionate Kiryu, Tatsuya is hot-headed and naïve. This game gives you a perspective of what it’s like to survive in Japan’s underworld as a nobody, and you have to fight for your respect on both the streets and yakuza sponsored MMA bouts. Despite featuring a different character and story, the iconic mini-games from the main series still remain such as going to the batting cages or bowling alley.
Tatsuya can still go to the hostess clubs, but he can only order soft drinks since he’s underage. Its main notable difference to the core series is its fighting engine that relies more on martial arts as opposed to brawling that you can equate to hardcore wrestling from the heydays of ECW or the Japanese circuits. The heat action tends to emphasize more on the grappling, but other than that, this game is a great addition to the franchise. While the PSP is region free, Japanese lingual abilities are a necessity in order to fully enjoy it.
7. Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin
- Platform: PS3, PS4
- Release Date: Feb 22, 2014 (Japan only)
In Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin, the cast is portrayed as actual historical figures of the late-1800s. Kiryu plays the role of Saito Hajime, the captain of the third unit of the Shinsengumi. In addition, Daigo portrays Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Gouda from the second game assumes the role of Meiji reformer Saigo Takamori, and Nishiki represents the most famous assassin in Japanese history, Okada Izo. A lot of real-life incidents are also taken into account such as the Ikedaya Incident, which helped established the authority of the Shinsengumi. When it comes to the fights, you have the option to fight bare handed, with a sword, a spear, or a combination of a sword and a pistol.
While it takes place in the past in Kyoto, it does take some creative liberties by still including a Don Quijote store and you can also enjoy singing karaoke or share traditional sake with bikini model Anna Konno. But in place of a bikini, she wears a traditional kimono but winning a game of rock-paper-scissors can change all that. Another distinct mini-game is helping the Haruka of this game run a vegetable farm to make your own vegetables for sale or for personal consumption. So if you want to experience the old Japan, Ishin is the perfect place to start. However, a good amount of Japanese knowledge is going to be necessary if you choose to purchase it due to having no English releases.
6. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (Ryu Ga Gotoku 6: Inochi no Uta)
- Platform: PS4
- Release Date: Dec 8, 2016 (Japan), Mar 20, 2018 (US)
What makes Yakuza 6 a milestone is that it features Takeshi Kitano (who you may know as Aramaki in the live action Ghost in the Shell movie), a famous actor for numerous yakuza movies as a character in this game. The game does a great job of utilizing his appearance and acting abilities. Other big-name Japanese actors in this game are Shun Oguri (from Gokusen and the 1998 GTO live action series) as one of the antagonists, and Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya from Battle Royale and Light in the live action Death Note movies) as a supporting character. While most Yakuza games allow you to enjoy the nightlife of the big city, Onomichi in the countryside of Hiroshima allows you to experience small-town life in Japan such as playing in a community baseball game. Other activities you can enjoy in Onomichi are going fishing underwater to help a local fish market.
Last, its newest features include a mini-game where you help a gang fight another gang that features New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest stars such as Tetsuya Naito, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kazuchika Okada. And for some of you perverts out there reading, you can go to net cafes and enjoy video chats with Anri Okita, one of Japan’s hottest adult film stars! But if there is one thing that makes this game beautiful, is that it brings Kiryu full circle. In addition, his relationship with Haruka is fully developed and it is masterfully complimented by Tatsuro Yamashita’s (who many Japanese music experts can call the best Japanese musician of all time) song in this game, Soubou.
5. Yakuza 4 (Ryu Ga Gotoku 4: Densetsu wo Tsugu Mono)
- Platform: PS3
- Release Date: Mar 18, 2010 (Japan) Mar 15, 2011 (US)
The main contribution of Yakuza 4 is that it was the first to allow players to not only play as Kiryu, but as three new characters including Detective Tanimura, Taiga Saejima (an escaped death row inmate), and a loan shark named Akiyama. They are all intertwined with uncovering a conspiracy that happened 30 years prior to the events of the game, and at the heart of this conspiracy is a mysterious woman named Lily, who has a connection with some of the featured characters.
Each selectable character has stories and side quests to make the game fresh. In addition, they have their own unique fighting styles and heat attacks to give players something different. Saejima relies on his brute strength to compliment his muscular size, while Akiyama is primarily a kicker like a Taekwondo practitioner. In Tanimura’s part of the story, you will get calls about crimes in progress and you have the option to check in and solve these mysteries. So if you want to see the true beginning of what makes Yakuza great, this game is it.
4. Yakuza Kiwami (Ryu Ga Gotoku Kiwami)
- Platform: PS3 (Japan only), PS4
- Release Date: Jan 21, 2016 (Japan), Aug 29, 2017 (US)
Kiwami, meaning ultimate in Japanese, is not only a highly upgraded re-release of the first game but serves as a direct sequel to 0, which highlights the friendship between Nishiki and Kiryu, who become bitter enemies. The plot of this game still follows that of the original PS2 release but adds new scenes to further expand Nishiki’s turn to the dark side and why he became a villain during Kiryu’s 10-year sentence. Also borrowing from 0 is Kiryu’s multiple fighting styles between his standard brawler style, his kickboxing rush style, and his power-oriented beast mode.
Another new feature is that Majima will be on the streets constantly challenging Kiryu. Upon victory, it gives players the ability to unlock new moves in Kiryu’s dragon fighting style. While the original PS2 release was released with an English dub, it wasn’t well received (despite featuring the talents of Michael Madsen and Mark Hammil) by players and reviewers to the point that the Japanese audio was kept for the international releases of the sequels. Thankfully, this is also the case for Kiwami. So if you want to experience the first game the most authentic way possible, Kiwami is it.
3. Yakuza 0 (Ryu Ga Gotoku 0: Chikai no Basho)
- Platform: PS3 (Japan only), PS4
- Release Date: Mar 12, 2015 (Japan), Jan 24, 2017 (US)
Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, 17 years before the first game. You play as a 20-year-old Kiryu whose story takes place in Kamurocho, and as Majima who is in Osaka. The game mostly portrays how Japan was during its height as an economic powerhouse. Money is practically the name of the game and up until the end of the 1980s, Japan was spending money like water. In fact, money is used as experience points in unlocking new moves, heat action moves, and raising your health or throw money out on the streets to get thugs off your back. You can easily get money by taking out punks on the streets or operating your businesses. As Kiryu, you can be a real estate mogul and take out other territory owners, or as Majima, you can be the King of the Night by getting the best hostesses in town for your hostess bar.
As for the hostess bar mini-game, it is so addictive to the point that you can feel it’s the main game itself. For the platinum ranked girls (who are portrayed by actual adult movie actresses), you get to dress them up while listening to this very immersive song (despite being heavily accented) that just gets you in the mood. You can also help improve their rankings and skills by training them how to converse with customers. Last, the action takes a new creative step by allowing separate styles you can choose for each character. For Kiryu, you do have his standard fighting style, but he also has styles where he fights like a kickboxer or more as a dirty brawler. With Majima, he can also move like a breakdancer, or go nuts on with a bat as a default weapon.
Now, we can’t deny the inclusion of one of Japan’s best yakuza actors of all time, Riki Takeuchi, who plays one of the antagonists in this game, whose inclusion was long overdue.
2. Yakuza 5 (Ryu Ga Gotoku 5: Yume, Kanaeshi Mono)
- Platform: PS3
- Release Date: Dec 6, 2012 (Japan), Dec 8, 2015 (US)
Like Yakuza 4, the 5th game allows players to not only play as Kiryu but to play as Akiyama and Saejima once again. In further addition, you can also play as Haruka and introduces another new character, Shinata, a disgraced baseball player turned reviewer for Nagoya’s sex establishments. Speaking of Nagoya, this game also introduces that city and some other new locations to explore. In addition to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, parts of the game take place in Sapporo in Northern Japan, and in Fukuoka in the South. What makes Haruka distinguishing as a playable character is her story of pursuing her dream of becoming an idol. As opposed to getting into fights on the streets, she engages in dance battles in Osaka, which play like a Project Diva game (also made by Sega). Some other features of her game include appearing on talk shows and choosing how she answers questions in those TV appearances.
For Kiryu’s part of the story, he is living in exile in Fukuoka as a taxi driver, and some of his mini-games include either driving the taxi itself or interacting with customers about their problems. For Saejima’s game in Hokkaido, there are instances where you go hunting in the cold wilderness of its harsh winters. But when you hit downtown, you get to enjoy Sapporo’s real-life Winter Festival, which includes snowball fights! So if you want a true all around Japan experience, Yakuza 5 is it! For those of you studying Japanese, you’ll probably notice at the beginning of Kiryu’s game that the Hakata dialect of Fukuoka sounds very unusual compared to standard Japanese to the point it will sound foreign to you. Also, Nagoya people have a very unorthodox way of speaking, and gamers who study Japanese should be able to appreciate those respective parts of the game.
1. Yakuza 2 (Ryu Ga Gotoku 2)
- Platform: PS2
- Release Date: Dec 7, 2006 (Japan), Sept 9, 2008 (US)
Though the Japanese Kiwami release of the second game has yet to be released upon the writing phase of this list, we still acknowledge the original second game as the best. While the first game ended conclusively without any loose ends, the release of a sequel made it better than ever and further raises the stakes with the fate of Japan between Tokyo’s Tojo Kai and Osaka’s Oumi Rengou. In addition to immensely improving the combat engine by making it smoother and easier to aim, Yakuza 2 demonstrated the true potential this franchise truly had by introducing players to Osaka and expanding Kiryu’s character by giving him a true rival through Gouda and a fresh love interest with Kaoru.
Everyone can acknowledge that Nishiki was a great antagonist but with Gouda, you can actually see him as an equal to Kiryu. In the end, they want to just prove themselves that they’re men and they truly respect each other in their own ways, but only one can be the alpha male. While it sounds ridiculous and cliché in regards to Japanese masculinity, the game just tells a great story and presents the characters in a captivating way to make it pull off. What also makes this game still stand out is its beautiful soundtrack. As the ending approaches, Kiryu and Kaoru embrace each other and the emotions are heightened by the presence of "December 17" by Crazy Ken Band. Every note, instrument, and beat just knows how to suck you in and you don’t have to understand Japanese to really understand what the song is about. That song alone is why the second game can be considered the best.
Putting aside the random street fighting and other crazy shenanigans you see in this game, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and we can guarantee that the real-life Kabukicho is safe despite some of the annoying touts. Yakuza in its entirety gives you a good portion of the country to explore. Not only do you get Tokyo, but you can also see Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and Sapporo.
In all games, you get to enjoy hostess bars where they are portrayed by the hottest adult film stars and eat out at other famous Japanese fast food chains such as Matsuya or Nagasaki Champon. You can also enjoy Sega’s arcade classics like Out Run, go bowling, sing karaoke, or score some home runs at the batting cages. Yakuza is the ultimate Japan experience, and that is probably why fans enjoy it beyond its deep stories, rich characters, extreme action, and emotional soundtracks.
So what are some of your favorites in the franchise? Leave your thoughts in the comments.