With its 15th anniversary fast approaching, Yakuza has been one of the biggest Japanese franchises in the past decade, even if it only finally found a wider audience in the West in recent years.
The release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an exciting new chapter to that saga, and hopefully will have more people digging into the series’ rich history. But how do the games stack up against one another? Can Ichiban compare with the might of the legendary Dragon of Dojima?
Here’s our definitive ranking of the series, what it includes, and what it doesn’t. We’re going to omit the first two PS2 entries and just use the Kiwami remakes since they’re essentially still the same story (but with better extra content). This also includes some but not all spin-offs, basically the instalments that only received a Japanese release are out as is the Fist of the North Star game, but we’ll include Judgment since that’s still set in the Yakuza universe.
So without further ado, here’s the Yakuza games ranked from worst to best.
11. Streets of Kamurocho
Bit of an unfair pick as it’s just a free mini-game released on Steam as part of the Sega 60th anniversary. Given the debt Yakuza owes to Streets of Rage, reskinning the classic arcade brawler with Kiryu and Majima should’ve been a delight. Instead, it’s hard not to feel that this was a wasted opportunity and just a bit phoned in.
10. Yakuza: Dead Souls
Compared to the Japanese period drama spin-offs, the zombie apocalypse setting of Dead Souls meant it had the right kind of western appeal. But really, there’s something very un-Yakuza about going around the streets shooting things with guns. If you do want a decent shooter from the Yakuza team, you’re better off with Binary Domain. The only frightening thing about Dead Souls was that it was almost the last Yakuza game the west ever got.
9. Yakuza 4
An interesting change of course for the series by introducing multiple protagonists. While having to start each character from scratch can be off-putting, it’s hard not to warm to newcomers Akiyama and Saejima, the latter also giving us some meaty backstory for Majima. Sadly, police officer Tanimura feels a bit like dead weight (not to mention his original voice actor ended up being replaced in the remaster) while you can’t even play as Kiryu until towards the end – he does however make one hell of a boss fight.
8. Yakuza 3
Definitely the one that shows its age the most technically, this is nonetheless one of the most memorable entries as Kiryu finally makes a new life running an orphanage and Okinawa is a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of Kamurocho, before of course a number of plot devices, including the CIA and an assassin resembling Kiryu’s late patriarch, pulls him back onto the streets of Kamurocho. Nonetheless before all this, it’s just nice spending time with Kiryu doing his best to be a good father figure as well as making new surprising friends. And who can forget the rare moment when the Dragon of Dojima loses his composure. Rikiyaaaaa!
A complete remake of the original game built using the Yakuza 5 engine, Kiwami’s modernised mechanics including the fight style switches from Yakuza 0, makes it the best way to play through the first game’s story of the Tojo Clan’s internal power struggle and the MacGuffin of the missing 10 billion yen, while also providing a whole lot more new quirky side quests the newer games are known for. Even series favourite Majima features more prominently to help the just-out-of-prison Kiryu into fighting shape through some bizarre methods. Who knew the Mad Dog would look good in fishnets.
The first post-Kiryu game in the Yakuza universe except with a bit of Phoenix Wright thrown in for good measure. You play disgraced lawyer turned private detective Takayuki Yagami finding himself pulled into a whodunnit murder mystery that forces him to confront the case that destroyed his career years before. Having a light bit of detective work and disguises helps change up the Yakuza formula, though Yagami also kicks ass with two different fighting styles.
It’s hard not to feel it’s got a dragon-shaped hole but there’s nonetheless a great cast of characters, from ex-yakuza/everyone’s wingman Kaito to deadpan law firm assistant Saori. While it’s mechanically disappointing as a detective game (do we really need more tailing missions?), the story it takes you on remains riveting from beginning to end.
Definitely the best of the remakes as Kiwami 2 uses Yakuza 6’s Dragon Engine to recreate both Kamurocho and Sotenbori back to their prime. This is also the entry that introduces us to some of the series’ most memorable characters, including the Tojo Clan’s future Sixth Chairman Daigo Dojima, the Omi Alliance’s Ryuji Goda, and Osakan detective Kaoru, the closest Kiryu’s had to a love interest.
Compared to Kiwami, the stripped back combat is disappointing, but it’s more than made up with some inspired mini-games including Sega’s own interactive urinals and the return of the cabaret management game from Yakuza 0.
4. Yakuza 5
It may have taken longer to get localised, thanks in no small part to a vocal fanbase, but it was worth the wait, even though it’s also flawed as one of the most sprawling entries with too many protagonists and a long running time. Nonetheless, the content here is golden, beginning with Kiryu working as a taxi driver in Fukuoka until he’s eventually roped back into the latest Tojo conspiracy – but really, the taxi missions are genuinely brilliant.
What ultimately brings this up high in the list is that Haruka finally gets her time in the spotlight as a playable character. Some might consider her path towards pop stardom as filler, but this rhythm action aficionado disagrees – it’s a refreshing counterpoint to the rest of the game’s testosterone, and like all Yakuza games, it finds a way to become hugely significant to the story in the grand scheme of things.
Sure, there’s some recency bias here, but make no mistake: Like a Dragon is more than a worthy new direction for the series with a brand new leading man that’s hard not to love. Ichiban Kasuga is in many ways the opposite of Kiryu – loud, inexperienced, wearing his heart on his sleeve – but he also packs the same unwavering sense of justice and honour, wanting to see the good in others, even if it means punching it out of them. At his side is a formidable party of equally likable characters, including kick-ass bartender Saeko who more than holds her own with the lads.
While the dramatic change from traditional brawling to turn-based RPG battles might seem too weird, it works surprisingly well, bringing this close to Sega/Atlus’ own Persona series. It’s undoubtedly a great starting point for newcomers, but there’s plenty of surprises that series fans will love too.
Technically, this is one of the most polished Yakuza games thanks to the new Dragon Engine giving us open-world environments without loading screens and the first game in the series to be fully voiced. While Kamurocho and other series regulars get a bit short-changed, the setting of Onomichi is a refreshing setting for meeting a whole new cast of fantastic characters, including a standout performance from legendary actor Takeshi Kitano.
Yakuza 6 also has some of the best side quests and mini-games, from the introduction of mascot Ono Michio to becoming the most popular boozehound at a local pub, as well as the guilty pleasure of chatting to cam girls played by real-life Japanese adult performers. Ultimately, it provides a hugely emotional send-off for one of gaming’s greatest protagonists. I’m not sure what it is about watching hard men struggling to keep it together, but Kiryu’s reunion with Haruka never fails to turn me into a blubbering wreck.
1. Yakuza 0
As a prequel set in the 80s at the height of Japan’s economic boom where the streets flow with yen, Yakuza 0 is a perfect entry point for newcomers without all the knowledge of the series history. Not counting his role in Dead Souls, it’s also the first time that series favourite Majima gets a proper playable role as we learn how he came to be known as the Mad Dog of Shimano (he also has arguably the best character intro of all time).
It’s terrific flipping between Kamurocho and Sotenbori as you play as both Kiryu and Majima across the game. The 80s setting was also perfect for Sega to bring out its greatest arcade hits from Out Run to Space Harrier, while Majima’s cabaret management mini-game (recycled in Kiwami 2) remains one of the very best mini-games of the series.
Most importantly, as a prequel, this proved to be the perfect opportunity for Sega/Atlus to give the series a soft reboot, making this game instrumental in giving the series newfound acclaim and attention in the West. Just for this reason alone makes Yakuza 0 the best game of the series.
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