It’s Time to Let the Yakuza Games Punch Your Cold Dead, Heart Back to Life

It’s Time to Let the Yakuza Games Punch Your Cold Dead, Heart Back to Life

August 31, 2018 Off By admin

JOSHUA RIVERA

Twelve years agoYakuza flopped hard in the U.S.—and we almost missed out on one of the best series in video games.

I have a level of affection for the Yakuza games that most people reserve for big floppy dogs that are too dumb to realize that they are no longer the same size they used to be when they were puppies. That’s because these games are big gangster soap operas, but it’s also because they are, for entire chunks of time, not. Play a Yakuzagame and you’ll most likely be dropping in on a day in the life of Kazuma Kiryu, a guy with deep ties to one of the titular Japanese crime syndicates. There will usually be some sort of intrigue, a plot that pulls Kiryu into a deadly mystery where loads of men are out to beat him to a well-dressed smear. Play it a little longer and you might find that, where you expected gritty crime, you’re suddenly driving a taxi. Or taking care of an infant. Or singing karaoke. You’ll take a girl and her dog into your care, and across many years and various games, become extremely invested in her ambitions of becoming a pop star. You’ll find a man named Mr. Libido whose sole character traits are “being horny” and “only wearing underwear.” You’ll play darts or billiards for an hour.

I bring this up because Yakuza Kiwami 2 is out today, and it’s hard to know what you’re getting into from that title alone. On paper, it’s a remake (Kiwami means extreme) of Yakuza 2, a PS2 game from 2007. It’s the latest in the red-hot Western revival of Yakuza, a series that pretty much stalled right out the gate when the first one landed Stateside in 2006. Following that misfire, the series was relegated to cult favorite status until last year’s arrival of Yakuza 0, a prequel to over a decade’s worth of games and the perfect jumping-on point for people who missed the boat the first time around. I happily leapt aboard.

These are weird games, full of things you’ll love, things you’ll find questionable, and a lot of local flavor—each game is set in modern-day Japan, and full of references to real-world brands and fads that are popular at the time of release. And we almost missed out on them entirely.

According to Sam Mullen, who works with Yakuza publisher Sega to bring its Japanese games to the West, it might have to do with the expectations set by the game’s name. Yakuza, he notes, is the English title for the franchise.

“The Japanese name is Ryū ga Gotoku, which roughly translates to ‘as a dragon would.'” And that, he says, is the first step towards realizing what the Yakuza games are—because the name Yakuza implies hard-boiled crime. “It was never really about crime. The criminals were the context, but not the subject, of the series,” Mullen says. Instead, Yakuza is best understood through the lens of its Japanese title—about people moving through life as a dragon would. “It’s a whole bunch of different types of those people—sometimes they’re men, sometimes they’re women. These people who have decided they’re going to go this way, and damn everyone else.”

Mullen calls this the “localization butterfly effect,” where one decision in bringing a game stateside—like giving a game a pretty accurate name—ripples outward in unforeseen ways. Like when that game receives myriad sequels, and those sequels start to stretch far beyond the scope of that first game, but are still anchored to the name Yakuza. Issues like this can be difficult to foresee, because localization is an extremely complicated process that stretches far beyond mere translation.

still from the video game Yakuza Kiwami 2

Twelve years agoYakuza flopped hard in the U.S.—and we almost missed out on one of the best series in video games.

I have a level of affection for the Yakuza games that most people reserve for big floppy dogs that are too dumb to realize that they are no longer the same size they used to be when they were puppies. That’s because these games are big gangster soap operas, but it’s also because they are, for entire chunks of time, not. Play a Yakuzagame and you’ll most likely be dropping in on a day in the life of Kazuma Kiryu, a guy with deep ties to one of the titular Japanese crime syndicates. There will usually be some sort of intrigue, a plot that pulls Kiryu into a deadly mystery where loads of men are out to beat him to a well-dressed smear. Play it a little longer and you might find that, where you expected gritty crime, you’re suddenly driving a taxi. Or taking care of an infant. Or singing karaoke. You’ll take a girl and her dog into your care, and across many years and various games, become extremely invested in her ambitions of becoming a pop star. You’ll find a man named Mr. Libido whose sole character traits are “being horny” and “only wearing underwear.” You’ll play darts or billiards for an hour.

I bring this up because Yakuza Kiwami 2 is out today, and it’s hard to know what you’re getting into from that title alone. On paper, it’s a remake (Kiwami means extreme) of Yakuza 2, a PS2 game from 2007. It’s the latest in the red-hot Western revival of Yakuza, a series that pretty much stalled right out the gate when the first one landed Stateside in 2006. Following that misfire, the series was relegated to cult favorite status until last year’s arrival of Yakuza 0, a prequel to over a decade’s worth of games and the perfect jumping-on point for people who missed the boat the first time around. I happily leapt aboard.

These are weird games, full of things you’ll love, things you’ll find questionable, and a lot of local flavor—each game is set in modern-day Japan, and full of references to real-world brands and fads that are popular at the time of release. And we almost missed out on them entirely.

According to Sam Mullen, who works with Yakuza publisher Sega to bring its Japanese games to the West, it might have to do with the expectations set by the game’s name. Yakuza, he notes, is the English title for the franchise.

“The Japanese name is Ryū ga Gotoku, which roughly translates to ‘as a dragon would.'” And that, he says, is the first step towards realizing what the Yakuza games are—because the name Yakuza implies hard-boiled crime. “It was never really about crime. The criminals were the context, but not the subject, of the series,” Mullen says. Instead, Yakuza is best understood through the lens of its Japanese title—about people moving through life as a dragon would. “It’s a whole bunch of different types of those people—sometimes they’re men, sometimes they’re women. These people who have decided they’re going to go this way, and damn everyone else.”

Mullen calls this the “localization butterfly effect,” where one decision in bringing a game stateside—like giving a game a pretty accurate name—ripples outward in unforeseen ways. Like when that game receives myriad sequels, and those sequels start to stretch far beyond the scope of that first game, but are still anchored to the name Yakuza. Issues like this can be difficult to foresee, because localization is an extremely complicated process that stretches far beyond mere translation.

“There’s a creative aspect to it. You’re not just trying to say what they said in another language, you’re trying to elicit emotion, create connection with the characters, you’re trying to entertain,” Mullen says. It’s not just translating words, it’s translating culture and making sure it still has the same effect, even in the absence of 1:1 counterparts.

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