Yakuza is one of my favourite gaming series of all time. It’s arguably the peak of virtual escapism, with Ryu ga Gotoku Studio spending decades crafting faithful renditions of Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, and so many other places you can visit in real life if you so desire.
I have taken a curious pilgrimage to the legendary red archway amidst Shinjuku just to sit underneath it and take selfies, knowing the impact its virtual rendition and the adventures of Kazuma Kiryu have had on me as a person. Yakuza will go down in history as something truly special, but we likely wouldn’t have it at all if it wasn’t for Shenmue. As the second game celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s time to look back on its legendary impact.
The absurdly expensive passion project from Yu Suzuki has received a total of three games and has told about three percent of its overall narrative, with fans following the journey of Ryo Hazuki as he seeks to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Lan Di for several decades now. We’ll likely never see this tale reach its conclusion, but that honestly doesn’t matter, since the legacy of Shenmue is already firmly cemented in the games we play today. Back in 1999 on the Sega Dreamcast, Shenmue featured a dense, realistic world to discover filled with distinct characters each with their own daily routines.
You could roam the streets in search of your objective, or spend hours curiously exploring each unique building, whether it be an old-fashioned general store or a quaint office harbouring unexpected secrets. You could even walk up to the park for a scrap, getting sweaty so you’re ready to take on your father’s killer. The sequel only expanded on this, taking Ryo to Hong Kong as he encountered new friends, new enemies, and a far larger world to exist in.
Shenmue felt real, and nothing else did in 1999, especially on console. The act of exploring a rural Japanese town invited a sense of virtual voyeurism that so many games today seek to imitate, especially immersive sims such as Dishonored or The Forgotten City where learning the inner workings of your environment and those who inhabit it are key to success. While Shenmue had a narrative for you to pursue, you never felt pressured. Day would turn into night as you went about your usual routine, and this level of freedom is something that Yakuza would take and expand upon significantly. I’ve always viewed Toshinori Nagoshi’s beloved series as a spiritual successor, something that took the foundations first established by Shenmue and built upon them with more style, more substance, and a willingness to engage with Japanese culture in a way that Shenmue wasn’t. While I love it, the localisation for Shenmue is beautifully archaic. Voice acting is awful and everyone speaks like they’ve been scripted by a computer who has never been exposed to true human emotion, so returning to it today isn’t easy. Shenmue 3 keeps all of those awkward quirks, too.
But this didn’t matter two decades ago, expectations for storytelling in the medium weren’t as high as they are now, so players took to Shenmue for its exploration and mechanics, with a fondness forming for its young lead in the process. You could argue Shenmue is hard to play today, but so are the majority of games from that era, and it’s important to view them from the context in which they were consumed upon their release. By that metric, Shenmue changed everything, setting a new benchmark for video games that made Yakuza and so many other games like it possible. It’s also something that wouldn’t be made today, a harsh reality made clear by the third game being crowdfunded and failing to live up to expectations. Now Yakuza can fill that void, and it’s more than up to the task.
Much like Shenmue, Yakuza has a central narrative and excellent characters you come to love, but it’s so easy to detach yourself from their motivations for hours at a time to simply roam the neon-lit streets of Kamurocho or the idyllic seaside towns of Hiroshima to play arcade games, fish, gamble, eat delicious food, or help out the locals with optional quests. It builds upon the realistic virtual worlds that Shenmue pioneered, delivering them with an equal measure of cultural authenticity and outlandish style that makes Yakuza such a constant delight to engage with. When you do step into the story, it’s a wondrously emotional rollercoaster ride of unexpected betrayals, epic showdowns, and the importance of family even in a criminal underworld defined by corruption. Kazuma Kiryu is a legend, and made Yakuza his own much like Ryo Hazuki became synonymous with the brilliance of Shenmue.
Even with the steps forward taken by Yakuza to modernise the formula, Shenmue still reigns supreme in some respects. All of its characters can be spoken to, while a number of Yakuza’s NPCs exist purely to populate the streets as silent spectres or approach our heroes for a quick battle before fading into nothingness. It lends the world an element of artificiality that Shenmue manages to supersede by having everything feel so real. The day/night cycle further exemplifies this, while Yakuza chooses to hurl you into a specific time of day that is always determined by the narrative. Life doesn’t pass you by in Yakuza, and thus it feels like a plaything sometimes, while Shenmue feels real, nuanced, and earns its magnificent grasp on player agency.
There’s probably an alternate universe where Yakuza flopped and we’re all busy playing Shenmue 12, but that’s not the world we live in, so it’s important to highlight the mammoth steps Yu Suzuki took in proving that this medium is capable of vast, lifelike worlds that can mimic reality in ways we would have never foreseen before this game’s arrival. Yakuza means the world to me, and I’m so grateful for Shenmue for allowing it to happen.