The Student Has Become the Master: Why Yakuza Is Better Than Shenmue

SEGA has produced two of the finest adventure series of all time – but it's only right, now, that we recognise Yakuza has surpassed the iconic Shenmue.

by John Robertson
03 October 2016, 5:00am

Kazuma Kirya as seen in ‘Yakuza 0’ (screenshots courtesy of SEGA)

History takes time to reveal its hand. Upon the initial release of anything that could be considered disruptive, modern or progressive, the environment allowing for its careful appreciation and study tends not to exist. We can understand that this new entity is different from what has come before, but it's all but impossible to accurately predict and understand how the nuances of these differences will influence what is going to come after it. As with Marcel Duchamp's Fountain or Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, the meaning and result of originality is invisible at first sight.

Oftentimes, once the form of the originality starts to become clearer, the initiator of the concept takes so much credit that it obscures that work which comes after it. Even when others have taken inspiration from the core idea and successfully sought to refine and advance it towards its most powerful and decisive end, it's ground zero that remains front and centre in the public eye. In no small part this is because we remain at such a loss as to how to truly comprehend the impact of this new expression that we've no time or courage to further confuse ourselves by expanding upon what we've already put under the microscope.

Duchamp's Fountain, essentially a signed urinal turned on its side, for instance, remains the defining statement across the entire spectrum of conceptual art to such a degree that few could name or describe another entry in the movement. Arguments continue as to what it means, despite first being shown in 1917.

'Shenmue III' is announced at E3 2015. Its release is currently set for December 2017.

Is it, however, so important that it should eclipse the conversation surrounding everything that came in its wake? Yes, the founding statement of a movement is vital, but that which its influence gives birth to thereafter is of at least equal value and deserving of at least equal recognition. Without the egg you have no chicken, but without the chicken no further eggs can exist. After all, if we concern ourselves only with Duchamp's Fountain then we miss out on Piero Manzoni's Artist's Shit – literally, the Italian's shit presented in a tin can on a plinth. We wouldn't want to overlook that creative discharge, would we?

This dedication to narrowing the lens of appreciation to cover only small, easily manageable chunks has its equivalents in video games, too. As such, and like everyone else, let's take some time to talk about Shenmue.

Since the launch of Shenmue, with Shenmue, in 1999 (2000 in the West), no one has been able to stop talking about Shenmue. Since the death of Shenmue following the collapse of SEGA's Dreamcast console, no one has been able to stop talking about the resurrection of Shenmue. Since the successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of Shenmue III, no one has been able to stop talking about the next Shenmue.

The opening to 1999's 'Shenmue'

In many ways, the Shenmue series is the Fountain of its video game niche: whenever it's presented or mentioned, it throws everything else into shadow. This becomes an injustice when something as exceptionally well conceived and executed as the Yakuza series is left to go comparatively neglected.

Shenmue, while undoubtedly an important moment in video game history and for many the game that opened their eyes to the potential of the medium as a narrative force, has become so fetishised and worshipped that it has become almost impossible to consider it in anything close to objective terms. The Citizen Kane effect: everyone says they've played it, everyone says they love it, because to do otherwise is to make you look like a fool. It is an excellent game, but this kind of crowd mentality does little to help history reveal its true hand.

Much like Shenmue's Ryo, Kaz isn't beyond playing with toys ('Yakuza 0' screenshots courtesy of SEGA)

Such clouding of the collective mind has been to the 2005-introduced Yakuza's detriment in that, due to the many gameplay similarities between it and Shenmue, it is often used as a tool of comparison. Within dedicated circles Yazuka commands a great deal of respect and it's that reverence that makes it the perfect example to use to highlight Shenmue's further greatness. "Yazuka is amazing, but Shenmue is even better, and therefore Shenmue must be otherworldly in its capacity as art," says the crowd. For many, this ability to boost Shenmue to an ever-higher status is the greatest gift Yakuza has bestowed upon them.

As wonderful as Shenmue was at the time, and remains in nostalgic memory, is it really better than Yakuza? I would argue not, and not least because of the fact that the latter is very much a student of the former. Shenmue opened our eyes to what a Japanese action-RPG might be able to accomplish, Yakuza has taken the formula and improved upon it.

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Both series blend the sombre with the ridiculous. Each features core narratives that rely on an emotional connection with the audience, whilst skilfully managing to fold in mini-games, side-quests and peripheral characters that are as far from serious as you could imagine. The masterstroke in this approach is that the world created feels more personal and real. Just as our own, real lives are a combination of events both silly and serious, as is our existence in both games.

The two also share commonality in their approach to combat, how exploration is promoted and rewarded and the partially open-world design of their environments. Many of the team members responsible for bringing Shenmue into being went on to work on Yakuza after the Dreamcast failed and Shenmue was left in limbo, so a range of structural similarities is not surprising.

What is more surprising – or, at least, what many people are unwilling to even entertain – is that Yakuza presents these foundations to the player in a superior fashion to that of its mentor. In no small part this is down to the sheer volume of "core" Yakuza games (five and counting, with Yakuza 0 due in the West in January and Yakuza 6 coming out in Japan at the end of 2016) and the freedom that has allowed the franchise when it comes to exploring, and tinkering with, game concepts. With only two games (to date) to work through ideas, Shenmue never enjoyed this same potential to improve on its fundamental traits.

The Yakuza character Goro Majima, seen here in 'Yakuza 0', is a fan favourite

Where Yakuza really most brightly is in its character development. In the grand tradition of classic yakuza movies such as Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) and Sonatine (1993), the Japanese gangsters in Yakuza games are often presented ambiguously in terms of good and evil. Often they're drawn in a way that mirrors the samurai of old; a romantic vision in which a person living a life of violence and servitude struggles to balance their external role in the world with morally admirable internal perspectives on life. In many ways, the historical Japanese respect for the way of the samurai continues in how yakuza are drawn as tortured, lost souls.

Certainly, this applies to Yakuza protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Given that Kaz is made up of the good and bad in life, his character allows the audience to read deeply into his possible motivations and history and, in turn, this helps foster a greater emotional connection between yourself and the game, if you're prepared to put the effort in.

At heart Kaz is a man who, over the course of the (spin-offs aside) five games so far, is revealed as someone wanting to do good in the world and take care of those around him. Regularly, however, it's either his own internal struggles or negative external forces that surround him that makes this path a difficult one – indeed, the conflict between himself and a yakuza boss hinted at in this trailer for prequel Yakuza 0 highlights this struggle between nature and nurture. It might just be quicker and easier for him to take an ethically less pure route, and he acknowledges this possibility. This kind of character weakness speaks to the human condition that affects us all and makes Kaz a being capable of triggering self-reflection.

Kaz tackles another classic SEGA game in 'Yakuza 0'

Shenmue protagonist Ryo Hazuki is, by comparison, a simpler proposition. Essentially, he's the stereotypical "good guy" of the sort we've in countless mainstream movies and games. His ambitions are pure of heart as Kaz's are, but the way he wants to stick so rigidly to what society would deem acceptable makes him a less human entity. He's so perfect that he doesn't seem as real, whereas Kaz has rough edges like the rest of us. Ryo is a character tool used to take the plot in a certain direction, whereas Kaz feels like a person.

This potential to really dig deeper into proceedings extends beyond the cast and into Yakuza's environments, too, which are a character unto themselves. By no means are they the largest worlds a video game has ever provided, but they are so densely packed, and sometimes confusing, as to feel that they have been constructed by human hands and minds struggling to keep pace with the development and changing tastes of society over time.

The 'Yakuza 6' trailer from 2016's Tokyo Game Show (in Japanese)

These locations do a great job of providing an essence of Japan, the sense of carefully controlled chaos being as palpable in Yakuza's digital world as it is when taking a stroll through Shinjuku under the power of your own legs. Provocative hostess clubs sit alongside sterile convenience stores, the uncouth elements of society are exaggeratedly represented by street-prowling thugs, and neon lights of capitalism beam down and question your motivations in life and tempt you into earning more money to spend.

Again, these settings are an evolution of those seen in Shenmue, and are recognisable as the imperfect creations humans tend to build. Shenmue is a fantasy seeking to tell a controlled story within a beautiful but sanitised environment. Yakuza is prepared to depict and celebrate the warts of society as being important to our identity.

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There exists a tendency across the Western world to promote originality over refinement, that new ideas are inherently more important than improving on existing concepts. This is not a healthy way of viewing creations, not least because it prevents us from truly appreciating the achievements of refinement and understanding the core essence of why the creation works in the first place. We can never drive towards something close to perfection if we're constantly setting our sights on creating entirely new enterprises from scratch, with Yakuza suffering in the eyes of the audiences for its dedication to constantly better existing principles.

Yakuza, undeniably, owes an enormous debt to Shenmue, but this is a case of the student having surpassed its mentor to become the master. Only now, with history having had time to play its hand, can we really appreciate the way it has worked to refine and build upon the framework set out by another construction.

If we stand in limbo by concentrating the bulk of our efforts of adoring the originality of past Shenmue games, or hold our breath waiting for the next, then we are unable to welcome and understand the quality that we've been presented with today.


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