You have to wonder about Sega sometimes. Faced with the task of localising the first in the Ryu Ga Gotoku (“Like A Dragon”) series for PlayStation 2 they took one look at the game’s setting, in a seedy Tokyo suburb; the hero, a sharp-suited Yakuza named Kazuma; and the gratuitously brutal combat system. They saw that it was written by a renowned Japanese novelist and was voiced by famous actors. They saw this big-budget hard-boiled Yakuza thriller and decided to really go for it with the localisation; you know, get some real voice talent in, some real stars.
One can only assume all the real stars were busy which is why the western release of the most naturally Japanese videogame of its time features Mark Hamill, Eliza Dushku, Michael Madsen, Murdock out of the A-Team and Rachel Leigh Cook from She’s All That; the most emphatically B-list voice cast in history. The translation was a mess of mafioso posturing. It sold close to a million, but there was no doubt Sega of America had their fingers and pockets burned by over-committing. Yakuza 2 got a low-key Western release two years after its Japanese bow with no dub and English subtitles, and for a while there was concern that we wouldn’t be seeing Yakuza 3 at all. But we got it. Sort of.
When a localised version of the PSN demo appeared a few weeks before release, some who had played the Japanese demo noticed that the hostess clubs had been removed entirely from the map, suggesting the removal of the hostess club management aspect of the game, together with some connected sidequests. Sega duly confirmed that they had indeed done this, fearing that certain parts of the game would fail to “resonate with western culture”.
The internet, being the internet, exploded in fits of indignance. Monitors the world over became flecked with spittle as furious diatribes against Sega of America urged the boycotting of a game the fanbase themselves had spent the previous year clamouring for. But they have a point; Sega fail to recognise that the vast majority of the game’s likely day one Western audience are precisely the sort of people whose gaming switches are flicked by such inherently Japanese behaviour as the nonsensical wooing of fundamentally unattainable professional flirters.
For even without the hostess management this may be the most purely Japanese videogame of its generation. Not in the sense of bonkers art design and big stompy robots and massive eyes and tentacle rape. This is a game about Japan.
Your opening saunter through the streets of Kamurocho is as accurate a representation of a midnight stroll in a Japanese city as I’ve ever experienced in a game, seedy in a light-hearted sort of way, where drunks and gangsters mingle with couples and groups of friends out for dinner or drinks. Drunk salarymen spill out of clubs and karaoke bars past men handing out packs of tissues, staggering over to leer at group of schoolgirls. Couples loiter on the street mulling over where to get dinner. Product placement – Suntory Whisky, Boss Coffee, and many more – deepen the sense of authenticity. The game does a fantastic job of representing the sights, sounds and senses of a modern Japanese city at night. It is, in its way, stunning.
Then there’s Kazuma. A man who took a ten-year fall for a murder committed by his best friend, did his time and came out a changed man, only to find that leaving the Yakuza isn’t that easy. People he loves have since been kidnapped, beaten, murdered. Men he has known all his life have double crossed him. While early on the game goes out of its way to show Kazuma at peace in his new life, running an orphanage on an Okinawa seafront, even he recognises the crushing inevitability that things will soon run awry and his position as Fourth Chairman of the Tojo clan dictates he’s going to have to bust some heads, and so it proves. Now in his forties, Kazuma is repeatedly called ‘old man’ and ‘pops’ when goons run up to start a fight, and it makes the ensuing battle a matter of respect. The game restricts you to walking speed inside the orphanage, a restaurant, a shop. His respect for his fellow man; his love for his friends, for the man who raised him an orphan, and the orphans he now raises; honouring his commitment to the Tojo clan despite his distaste for it. As protagonists go, Kazuma Kiryu is right up there.
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