Yakuza Zero’s slogan promises “Money, women and violence.” While these words could be applied to any Yakuza game, everything is turned up to 11 in this prequel, which sends its cast back to 1988, the middle of Japan’s economic bubble.

“What you see in the trailer is really how it was at the time it’s not a parody,” says series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi, who was in his early 20s in 1988. “For example, the part in the trailer where people are waving ¥10,000 notes in the street to flag down a taxi really used to happen. I once saw a guy  in a drinking establishment flash open a suitcase full of money to impress the ladies. That’s the sort of time it was.”


In an extended trailer at September’s Tokyo Game Show, Sega showed off a young Kazuma Kiryu, a man yet to be humbled by the prison stretch that transformed him into the anti hero we know today, as well as a mild mannered Goro Majima, who’s running a hostess club. “They’re both still young outlaws,” Nagoshi says. “Kiryu is the violent type and he likes to get his hands dirty, while Majima is earning a comfortable living and is quite well adjusted. He’s quite the opposite of the Majima fans know today.”

The story traces the two gangsters’ early dalliances with the world of organised crime. Majima in particular has a lot of change ahead of him, triggered when unpleasant clan politics land him in the unwanted position of having to make his first kill. He’s destined to become a ruthless killer, so the sight of him trembling as he attempts to dispatch his target is captivating. And when he discovers his mark is a blind woman called Makoto Makimura, he ends up rescuing her. (Among the game’s usual mix of sidequests, there will be ‘escort battles’, where Majima must protect Makimura by fighting off aggressors.)

The series has visited the distant past before, but why specifically 1988? “I’ve always wanted to make a Yakuza prequel,” Nagoshi says, “but after the first two games everyone wanted a third, and then a fourth, and the chance to return to the start of the story never came up. With next year being the tenth anniversary, it seemed like a good opportunity, especially since Yakuza 6 will require a lot more time to make.”

Nagoshi and his Yakuza Studio team seem to be relishing the setting too. Japan to this day has not fully escaped the economic depression that followed the bubble, and today young people face a grim reality of scarce employment, low wages, declining birth rates and social malaise. By contrast, the fictional Tokyo and Osaka red light districts of Kamurocho and Sotenbori of Yakuza Zero are alive with gleeful excess.

Money is everywhere. Pulling off flashy moves in fistfights rewards you with bonus cash, which can be used to unlock new skills. Yen can also be made by playing the real estate market or running an efficient hostess club, both deep management-sim minigames that can absorb countless hours of playtime.

You can drop some of that cash in the usual in-game arcade, which will include period Sega titles such as OutRun, Hang On and Space Harrier. Nagoshi promises more, and teases that we may even see Mega Drives, perhaps a nod to the console’s 1988 release.

Like Yakuza: Ishin  before it, Yakuza Zero is being developed for both PS3 and PS4, with a companion app available for PS Vita. “We considered making it for PS4 only, but while the graphics and performance would be better, fewer people would be able to play it,” Nagoshi laments. “It’s still too early in the PS4’s life to make an exclusive game for that system and the same goes for Nintendo’s and Microsoft’s consoles.”

Yakuza is a hugely popular brand, and many would surely fork out for new hardware if that was the only platform on which Zero was available. But Nagoshi doesn't see this as his problem. “That’s for Sony to figure out,” he laughs. “We don’t make hardware any more, so our focus is on making great games that will satisfy lots of gamers.”
“What you see in the trailer is really how it was at the time it’s not a parody”
Indeed, lots of gamers are about to get their first dose of the series, since Zero marks the first Yakuza game to be translated into Chinese. Nagoshi hasn't ruled out an English release either, but China is a huge potential market for Japanese game makers. Now that foreign game consoles are allowed to be sold in mainland China, a fresh market of almost 1.4 billion new consumers is hard to pass up.

Despite this, the main audience for Nagoshi's games remains Japan. The market has grown ever more insular, and the games that generated the biggest buzz at TGS were domestic. Nagoshi foresaw this trend and made the first Yakuza game to capitalise on it; he certainly doesn’t believe Japanese developers should chase global appeal.

“If anything, I think overseas publishers should make more effort to create games that will sell in Japan,” he says. “Games from overseas are clearly high quality, but the ones that sell 300,000 or 500,000 copies in Japan are rare. They would be better off creating titles that are targeted towards Japan, and then cultivating a bigger market here for the games they are currently releasing.”

Yakuza Zero Release Spring 2015 on PS3, PS4, Vita