I'm convinced that everyone has a place and a period in history that they find particularly fascinating. For some folks, it's Victorian England. For others, it's Three Kingdoms era China or ancient Rome. Me, however? Well, I'm a little different. My favorite era in history—the one I've spent countless hours researching, watching footage from, poring over pictures of—is 1980s Japan.
1980s Japan is profoundly fascinating. Japan had made what looked to be the greatest economic comeback in history, becoming a global superpower in the process. Japan was rising so fast, in fact, that many thinkers in America posited Japan's economy overtaking the US. Not-so-subtly racist scare stories stirred up fears about "the Japan invasion" as Japanese investors and companies bought stakes in US property and made huge inroads in markets like cars, electronic, and, of course, video games.
Header and all Yakuza 0 screens courtesy of Sega
Japan rode high on its newfound wealth and status, however. Speculation had driven stock and property prices to absurd levels, and money and investments were flowing all over the place. Investors, flush with cash, pumped money into fantastic innovations in technology, fashion, and entertainment, fueling a Western media image of Japan as a techno-futuristic, cutting-edge wonderland that would persist for decades afterwards. From the outside, everything looked perfect in 1980s Nippon, but not everyone reaped the rich rewards. There were plenty of marginalized groups left in the shadows: Immigrants and Japanese natives of outside ancestry, homeless day-laborers living in hotels, rebellious youth who rejected the societal comfort that conformity offered. Then, of course, there were the individuals involved in organized crime, who took the economic boom as an opportunity to further expand their influence into business and real estate.
It wasn't to last, however. Much in the way the subprime mortgage crisis the US would encounter in the late 2000s, banks and lending institutions made increasingly ill-advised loans for people to invest in property with. But when the speculation bubble burst at the decade's end and the stock market and property values tanked, things went south at a rapid rate, jeopardizing financial institutions, crippling companies, and wiping out fortunes, setting the stage for numerous government bailouts and issues that continue to plague the country's financial institutions to this day.
Given just how much craziness went down over that decade, I'm rather surprised that it took so long to materialize as an interesting modern video game setting. Sure, there's Shenmue, but let's be real—the sleepy slice of 1985 Yokosuka doesn't offer much for interesting sights and interactions in the era.
Yakuza 0 gives us a glimpse of what Japan's bubble era economy flush with money and success looks like, from its biggest high-rollers to the people living in the shadows of polite society—primarily, those tied to organized crime. Here, we see both the lavish lifestyles of the haves and the less-successful working folk, the respectable businesses and mizu shoubai. It's a fantastic virtual trip through an intriguing part of modern history, and, while it doesn't get everything about the era perfect, it successfully places us on the surface of a bubble ready to pop.
Yakuza 0 is, chronologically, the first game in Sega's long-running open-world series, though it's the latest to be released in the West. Like the other games, it features the loveably hard-assed Kiryu Kazuma as its central character. While the other Yakuza games have focused on Kiryu's later life, here we see him as a young man in his 20s who just recently joined the Dojima crime family and is starting his path to become the legendary Dragon of Dojima.
Through the course of Yakuza 0, you'll take control of both Kiryu Kazuma and another frequent recurring character, Goro Majima. Taking control of one character at a time—and occasionally switching perspectives—you'll explore the vibrant cityscapes of Tokyo's Kamurocho and Osaka's Sotenbori, respectively. The stories of each character play out as high drama, filled with surprise revelations, backstabbing, crime family politics, and plenty of vicious beatdowns and manly tears, all rendered in exquisitely detailed cinematic cutscenes. In between the stone-cold seriousness of the main crime drama, however, are plenty of quirky sidequests involving the people of Kamurocho and Sotenbori.
It's rare for a game to be able to oscillate so wildly between humorous weirdness and gritty story sequences as well as the Yakuza series does, but Yakuza 0 pulls it off better than any game in the series previously.
Compared to other open-world adventures, the explorable districts of the Yakuza games are rather small. That's easy to forgive, though: this isn't an expansive fantasy landscape with lots of open areas, this is densely packed urban Japan, with people, apartments, hotels, stores, eateries, and entertainment complexes crammed into almost every space available. Every block in Kamurocho and Sotenbori is alight with neon signs as far as the eye can see, streets full of people shopping, chatting, and stumbling around in drunken stupors. Authenticity to the experience of being in urban Japan has always been a crucial part of these games, right down to the side streets with massage parlors and soaplands standing just a stone's throw away from the big shopping centers.
But Yakuza 0 has a unique task beyond just authenticity of its setting: it also has to be authentic to the time period. It's in an interesting place to comment on this setting, being one of the few AAA games made primarily for a Japanese audience—and reflecting the experiences of people who saw this decade firsthand.
There's a strong, noticeable emphasis on money in Yakuza 0. Hordes of corporate executives gather on the streets bordering Kamurocho, waving 10,000 yen bills freely in the air in attempts to snag a taxi. The enemies you pummel have dollar bills literally flying from their bodies as you enact a righteous beatdown on their sorry asses. Kiryu and Majima are upgraded not through levels or skill points, but by literally pumping cash into their skills. A technique to avoid random punks looking for a street fight involves throwing money on the street to distract them. And to top it all off, one of the central sub-games involves real estate investment. It's an amusing—and, at times, amusingly absurd—commentary on just how ridiculous the Japanese economy was during this time period.
Kamurocho and Sotenbori might be fictional, but they take a lot of inspiration from real-life locales in Tokyo (Kabukicho) and Osaka (Dotonbori), and I was eager to glimpse into the past to see how things had transformed over time. Some stores are still in their familiar locations, albeit with different layouts and signage. Many areas look completely different, however, and key structures in later games like the Millennium Tower are nowhere to be seen. Common street sights like vending machines and store signage take on a different look more in line with the era, and there's nary a NPC with a cellphone to be seen wandering about—though you may see a few with pagers.
With wealth comes indulgence, and there's plenty of distinctly 80's entertainment options showcased in the game. The extravagant cabarets put on a luxurious show, while the then up-and-coming wave of smaller cabaret clubs put more of a focus on providing beautiful young hosts and hostesses to share drinks and conversation with their clientele. Disco halls, which were long dead at that point in the States, were still stayin' alive and serving customers. Arcades were experiencing a period of innovation, with "game centers" dotting areas with high foot traffic. Adult entertainment also experienced a boom at the time thanks to video making erotica more accessible, and facilities like soaplands and pink salons that deftly skirted around Japan's prostitution laws started to spring up.
All of this is reflected in-game. Majima's major sub-game involves the management of a down-and-out cabaret club, asking you to recruit young women and train them as quality hostesses. (That's less sleazy than it sounds: there's no selling of sexual services at such clubs, and training the girls involves nothing more than casual conversation.) Arcades are spread throughout Kamurocho and Sotenbori, and while you can only enter the Sega-branded ones, they're filled with the games, claw machines, and cabinet housings (all Sega-made, of course) that were popular at the time. (A minor nitpick as an arcade dork, though, is that there are no cocktail cabinets, which were pretty common in game centers at the time). Discos are open in each area, and entering one will allow you to show off your awesome dance moves via a unique little rhythm mini-game. There's the Yakuza series staple of karaoke at bars, too, complete with the dot-matrix LEDs machines of the era featured.
The real kicker are the "fantasy" bits that pop up towards the end of each song, depicting the singing characters in an 1980s music video environment. It's hard not to crack a smile when you see tough yakuza bros roller-skating with a cadre of extras in a shiny sequined suit or rocking the hair metal look to a hard rock anthem. The songs are original compositions that are not only excellent in their own right, but sound like they could have been ripped straight off a random J-Pop LP from 1988. The extra step of making elaborate, dramatic, and joyously ridiculous music video accompaniments adds another layer of giddy fun to one of the Yakuza series' most endearing distractions. Yakuza 0 doesn't gloss over the prurient entertainments of the time, either. One of the optional activities involves a unique establishment called a "Telephone Club." In the days before the internet and cellphones were widespread, lonely singles in Japan would pay a fee to sit for a set period of time in front of one of the club's phones. If the customer got lucky, someone would call in during this looking for conversation, companionship, or maybe something more. They could talk to the person on the end of the line, maybe arrange a meeting, and maybe, just maybe go even further. The mini-game that plays out at the telephone clubs is like something out of Danganronpa mixed with extremely softcore imagery: you try to shoot correct responses to the query of the girl on the other end of the line, and as you answer correctly, an image of a woman sexily cavorting about in a bikini comes into focus. You're going to be disappointed if you're expecting some hot coffee out of the deal, though: meetings with the girls usually involve a fadeaway and the duo exchanging words and numbers afterwards. (If that's a bit too subtle for you, you can opt to go to a good old-fashioned private viewing booth instead, where you'll see a clip of a girl rolling around in skimpy clothes on a tiny CRT playing back a VHS tape before another tasteful(?) cut to a box of tissues nearby.)
Throughout, its the little details that sell the atmosphere. Cafes have a mix of regular tables and sit-down "cocktail" video game cabinets (sadly unplayable), just as they did in the late '70s and 80s—many arcade games were marketed to cafes and other casual eateries as well as arcades. Convenience stores offer a selection of magazines to view that mirror what you'd find at the time (check out Famitsu's second anniversary issue!).
Discount store Don Quixote has signs promoting the first generation of brick-style cellphone handsets, while convenience stores advertise cheap shades using Japanese-language slang that sounds as corny as "gnarly" sounds in English today. The collectable locker keys found strewn about in previous titles are replaced with telephone cards—prepaid public phone calling cards that were hot collectibles in the era (and still have a devoted following of fans today). A story sequence involving a squatter at an apartment has a brief of but loving camera pan over his then brand-new Sega Mega Drive.
Optional quests, too, mix elements of the era with that distinct Yakuza brand of side-story strangeness. You'll be asked to protect a world-famous popstar from the zombie extras out to maul him, help a young boy recover the hot new RPG that was stolen after waiting hours in line, assist a young tech-head in repairing his state-of-the-art shoulder phone (a device I didn't even know existed until I saw it in this game), promote a Yankii band, and enlist the services of a character whose primary business is selling illegal unlimited-use phone cards—among numerous other potential sidestories. While the situations are often overblown and bizarre, there's something at their core that still feels grounded in the era's reality: furors over hot new game releases and technology, youthful rebellion against boring corporate life, and the excitement that celebrities and media would create.
As much as I adore Yakuza 0's recreation of 1980s Japan, there's one major element of the era that the game drops the ball on: fashion. Much like in America, the 1980s in Japan boasted a very distinct type of fashion that helped define the era. Yet there's very little of it on display here.
Sure, the suits-and-skirts attire for business people might not have changed much, but things like casual wear, social wear for nights on the town, hairstyles, and so on had a very distinct look in the 80s. Instead, the NPCs in this game look like models pulled straight from the modern-day-set Yakuza games with only minor adjustments, leaving us in a 1980s Japan with a lack of bright-colored clothing and an overabundance of dyed hair. It's jarring: if you saw a game based in America during the 1970s where people were wearing backwards baseball caps and sporting pink dyed hair and multiple facial piercings, you'd probably be like "hey, this seems really off." Perhaps it has something to do with the numerous real-life actors and actresses who lent their appearances to the game, but considering some of the slavish attention to detail in the stores and environments.
While Yakuza 0 isn't the perfect virtual recreation of 1980s Japan I crave, its devotion to the overall feel of the time period is admirable. When media can elicit a sense of nostalgia for a time and place you never experienced yourself, then it has accomplished something truly special. Yakuza 0 took me there.