In 2022, Yakuza is a pretty big series in the West, as we saw yesterday when eight games made it to PlayStation Plus. But it wasn’t always this way! Between the release of Yakuza 2 and 3 things were looking incredibly dicey for English-speakers, and there were real fears that if Yakuza 3 didn’t sell well, it would be the last game in the franchise we’d ever get to see here.
I know this sounds absurd given the number and prominence of Yakuza games around these days, but it’s true! Folks were so anxious about it, in fact, that every tiny little change that Sega made to Yakuza 3's English release was scrutinised to hell and back, with fans terrified that anything that could potentially hurt sales would mean the end of the series in the West.
All that fear counted for nothing, of course—Yakuza 3 did just fine and the rest is history—but all that trepidation over low sales helped set the stage for why, around the same time, a different Yakuza game was released in Japan (later followed by a sequel) that we still to this day have not been able to play in English. And it’s about time that changes.
In 2008, Sega released Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! for the PS3, which I guess you can best describe as a Yakuza holiday special. Set in Kyoto in 1605, it was a Yakuza game sent back in time, with players still controlling Kazuma Kiryu, only now he’s called Kazumanosuke Kiryu, and instead of being a gangster he’s a retired swordsman now working as a bodyguard.
Then in 2014 Sega released Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin! for the PS4, which did the same thing—only now set during the end of the Shogunate in the mid-19th century—and introduced more cameos from the main series, with appearances from favourites like Majima and Daigo.
While set in different time periods and with a sword-heavy, historical slant, these were still Yakuza games through and through. Check out the Japanese trailer for Ishin and you’ll see what I mean:
Ishin even has, if you’re a fan of the karaoke sequences in the main games, its own historical take:
These look great! I really want to play them!
Sega and developers Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio have long had multiple reasons to keep these games in Japan. The first was an understandable fear that, if nobody was buying the main Yakuza games, why would they bother with these spinoffs? As that was slowly nullified by the series’ increasing popularity in the West, there remained concerns that much of the vibe of the games would be lost on a Western audience, who wouldn’t be as familiar with the nuances of the time period. (It’s telling here that another Yakuza spinoff, the gun-heavy Dead Souls, was given an English-language release, which says a lot about Sega’s perceptions of the Western market.)
Those have now been joined (or replaced) by technical issues, as we covered just last year, when director Daisuke Sato said:
Personally, I would like for these titles to be localized and enjoyed by our Western fans. We were prioritizing regaining our ground with the series in the West from Yakuza 0, so time just flew by without an ideal time to release these games.
In my opinion, the action is one of the best in the series, so I’d like to localize them if we get the chance. However, the game is also close to 7 years old, so we may need to put in additional work to remake it instead of a simple port, so the decision is a bit more complicated.
Despite the potential in those statements, and the fact the developers have said they’re working on games beyond the Yakuza and Judgment series, we haven’t heard squat on the possibility since. But even if it does take some work—and in the case of Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan!, some serious work—to get the games up to speed on modern hardware for modern expectations, there’s never been a better time to pull the trigger on that spend.
The Yakuza Kiwami games—remakes of the first two entries in the series—have done well, and that was for two games that had already been available in the West! These spinoffs would be starting from scratch, not to mention appealing beyond the existing Yakuza fanbase to the potentially wider audiences that lapped up the setting of, say, Ghost of Tsushima.
Anyway, I’m not here to demand these games. We’ve all managed to survive the last 15 years without them, and could maybe survive another 15, outside world permitting. I’m just here to maybe give Sega a nudge, a reminder that, hey, we love Yakuza games, but maybe one day we could also love those other Yakuza games, the ones with the swords, as well.