There was a time towards the end of 2008 when it seemed like everybody in my twitter feed was talking about Yakuza 2. It was apparently a Shenmue-style action RPG (also published by Sega), but (as Steve Gaynor so eloquently outlined in the 2008 holiday confab) filled with delightfully quirky side missions, missions that added a lot more to the game’s charm and enjoyment than the main quest did. And, as a bonus, Sega left the Japanese voice acting intact when bringing it to the U.S.! I didn’t get around to playing it at the time—I chose Persona 3 as my JRPG that winter—but the discussion stuck in my head enough that I finally got around to playing it last month.

I am a big Shenmue fan, to the extent that hearing Yakuza 2 compared to Shenmue made me nervous rather than pleased: I was fairly sure that I was going to be disappointed if I thought too much about that comparison. So I decided to keep that comparison out of my head as much as possible, to try to appreciate the newer game on its own merits.

Which, for a while, I managed to do. Yakuza 2 started off with cut scene after cut scene after cut scene (and why did the game need to load between cut scenes instead of streaming them seamlessly off disk? Were they not prerendered?), but the back story seemed interesting enough, so I was willing to give that a pass. I liked the plot just fine—an odd couple of gangster and cop, warring clans with an old wise man and a changing of the guards, past events coming back to bite you, and all the twists and turns that you’d hope for. The Japanese voice acting was rather good, and, as a bonus, helped my studies: I wouldn’t have wanted to play the game without subtitles, but I could pick up enough from listening to make me happy. (And also enough to notice that, in some situations, they picked different readings for names in the subtitles than were used in the voice acting; oops.) There’s a lot to do in the cities, and many of the side quests seemed pleasantly quirky. And Goro Majima is one of my favorite NPCs ever.

Despite which, the game started to go sour, at two turning points in particular. In the first, I was wandering all over town trying to trigger a cut scene so I could progress the main story line. I had no idea where to go, and ended up looking everywhere; eventually, I stumbled past a male host club, where I was more or less forced to take a job that I had no interest in, and that made no sense for me right then, given that I was in the company of a female cop. And, adding insult to injury, that side mission left a big green directional symbol on my map. I was all for quirky side missions when I started the game; but I wasn’t in the mood for one right then, I doubt I would have particularly enjoyed that one even in better situations, and I was actively annoyed by having the map tell me where to go to do something I didn’t want to do while refusing to tell me how to make progress in the actual story!

The second (much worse) one was when I was wandering around Osaka with Haruka, the main character’s daughter-figure. She was great: I loved the way she was all gangly arms and legs, the way she had to run to keep up but was full of energy and happy to be going anywhere as long as she was with you.

And then you ran across some creep from a talent agency; Haruka, being a sensible child, wanted nothing to do with him. I was willing to write this off as a tone-deaf sidequest, until it became clear that this wasn’t a sidequest at all: the game was going to insist on my meeting with said creep again, and, to my horror, to my character agreeing to sign up Haruka with him. Fortunately, she protested enough to get my character to back off of that, but really: is anybody who worked on this game a parent? When you are confronted by a creep, when your daughter clearly and repeatedly expresses no interest in having anything to do with said creep, then what you do is stay far far away; you do not sign your daughter over to said creep’s care, especially only a couple of hours after meeting him for the first time!

After that, whatever bloom was left on the rose had gone away for me. I played through the rest of the game (including another outing with your daughter, that managed to turn a potentially delightful interlude into a boring-though-mercifully-creep-free grind through the city waiting for a cut scene to trigger), and actually basically enjoyed it. But whatever magic others had seen in the game just wasn’t there for me.

And while I tried to keep the Shenmue comparisons out of my head when I started the game, they had come back in full force by this point. And my opinion on that matter is doubtlessly clear by now: Yakuza 2 is no Shenmue, and it is (perhaps even more strongly) no Shenmue II. Or at least it’s no match for my nine year old memories of Shenmue, but I’m fairly confident that, while the latter game may have warts that the haze of memory has softened, I would still find it far superior if I were to play it for the first time now.

Take the cities that you can wander around. I’m almost positive those in Yakuza 2 are significantly larger than those in the Shenmue games, though I’m not sure that they grew more than you’d expect from the general march of technology. But Yakuza 2‘s are much more homogeneous: the game presents you with sizeable chunks of two cities on opposite halves of Japan (which the game tries to emphasize with the plot and the Osakan dialect), yet it all has a much more homogenous feel than you get simply walking down the hill from Ryo Hazuki’s house to the local shopping district at the start of Shenmue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a consistent visual style where it fits, I certainly wouldn’t want change for the sake of change, but in the Shenmue series the changes in scenery were never forced, the game simply presented different regions that had naturally evolved differently in their different contexts. (Which we saw even more spectacularly in Shenmue II than in the first game.)

That’s the cities at a macro level, but, more importantly, Shenmue had Yakuza 2 beat at a micro level hands down. I’ll never forget the way Shenmue starts you off in a house where you can look at everything; it didn’t manage that level of loving modeling throughout the game, but it continued to have its share of places where you just wanted to stop and take a look around you. I never felt that way in Yakuza 2, and indeed I didn’t have the camera control much of the time to let me look around even if I’d wanted to!

This theme of less sprawling but richer experiences in Shenmue is present in the combat, as well. Yakuza 2 is a brawler; the fighting system is pleasant enough, but (despite all the leveling up options) nothing to write home about, as far as I was concerned. This shallowness doesn’t stop the game from insisting on having you fight all the time, however: that’s great in the sequences in the game where you have to go through enemies for a focused goal, but the last thing I want when wandering around a city and trying to drink it in is to be accosted by punks every block or two. (Yakuza 2‘s atmosphere may have a less complex flavor than some, but there’s still enough there to make it worth experiencing!) It’s the same sort of combat fatigue that I blogged about recently in the context of BioShock: games that have clearly put in a lot of effort into building up a world, but constantly jerk you out of it to beat up somebody.

If I’m remembering correctly, Shenmue didn’t have such random battles at all: if you wanted to wander around the city, you could do so, with interrupts driven much more naturally by the clock instead of by combat. (I may be over-romanticizing this in hindsight, judging from my notes at the time, but the use of forced street fights as a source of money in Yakuza 2 gave me a lot more respect for the job system in the Shenmue games.) And, on the flip side, the combat system in Shenmue was much richer than that in Yakuza 2: Shenmue contains a fully-fledged fighting system, so if you want to take the time to hone your combat art, that game will give you the means and space to do so.

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of my Christopher Alexander analyses (hmm, I really should get around to reading the fourth volume of The Nature of Order, shouldn’t I?); I suspect that Shenmue would come out well in that regard. In comparison to Yakuza 2, it does much better with Levels of Scale (going down to smaller levels, in particular), which in turn leads to Strong Centers, and its gameplay has more Positive Space and Contrast, developing (especially in Shenmue II‘s final act) into The Void and Simplicity and Inner Calm. Is it time, perhaps, for me to replay those games, if I can get my Dreamcast to cooperate? I wonder if I could get other Vintage Game Club members to go along.

Other discussion of Yakuza 2 (including some linked to above); I only wish I could include an archive of the relevant Twitter chatter:

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