I've never really played any of SEGA's Yakuza games before, so I've always assumed they were fairly serious open-world crime dramas, like most Grand Theft Auto clones. After demoing the series' upcoming prequel (Yakuza 0) at E3 2016, though, I realize I've had it wrong all this time.
Sure, maybe there's some seriousness lurking beneath the game's surface, but after messing around with it for 15-20 minutes, I'm pretty sure it's actually a comedy masquerading as a brawler. I think I can be forgiven for misunderstanding, though — SEGA certainly puts on a serious, self-important face. I don't know how many times I've seen an elaborate Yakuza-themed Tokyo Game Show booth, decked out like a luxurious bar or something equally over the top. And while I'm there, I'm as likely as not to get a glimpse of series creator Toshiro Nagoshi strutting around outside the booth, tanned to a crisp, decked out like a gang boss, a beautiful girl on each arm.
But I keep forgetting that despite Nagoshi's gangster presentation, he's the same guy who created the Super Monkey Ball series. It seems you can take the man out of the Monkey, but not the Monkey out of the man. Yakuza 0 is every bit as ridiculous and goofy as a series of games in which simians roll around in plastic spheres collecting bananas... it just dresses itself up a bit in a veneer of toughness.
It's perhaps easier for Yakuza 0 to embrace its inner drift toward ridiculousness thanks to the game's setting: It turns back the clock on the franchise's timeline to the late ’80s, a time when Japan was flush with wealth and had the disposable income to indulge in all manner of ridiculousness (like $60 video tapes containing 20 minutes of anime). Series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu — here a mob enforcer rather than the guy running the show — strides through the streets of Tokyo as the living embodiment of the era: Decked out in a double-breasted white pinstriped suit, pockets lined with millions of yen, punching dudes for justice (or for the supremacy of Kiryu's particular brand of crime, which I suppose is something else entirely from justice).
The game starts to become even more ridiculous once you shift away from Kiryu's Scarface impression and head to Osaka to take control of Yakuza 0's other protagonist, Goro Majima. While Majima's play mechanics work more or less like Kiryu's (you can alternate light and strong attacks, build combos, and use the environment for finishers against opponents), bringing Majima's two different combat styles into action really shatters any vibe of seriousness Yakuza 0 may have going for it. Where Kiryu's combat forms simply emphasize speed or strength, Majima has a bit more of a thematic approach. He can attack with a baseball bat, which he uses with the sincerity of an aspiring ball star (such excellent form for his swings!)... or he can switch to breakdance style, which is exactly as it sounds. He performs low sweeps and spinning attacks, dancing foes into submission. Because it's the ’80s.
And because it's the ’80s — specifically, 1988 — you can also find and play period-appropriate SEGA arcade games. Company representatives have confirmed Out Run and Space Harrier, and suggested there could be more. Personally, I hope they go all in on the 1988 setting and include a mission that involves stealing a launch day allocation of Mega Drives from a truck....
The missions tend toward ridiculousness as well, even for the fairly straightforward Kiryu. We played through a demo that involved the protagonist training a too-polite dominatrix in how to be appropriately harsh to a client. Besides the fact that this read like the most blatant foreign stereotype of Japan I've ever seen in a game — courtesy and kinkiness all at once! — it was hard to take the whole scenario at all seriously given its completely over-the-top writing and staging. But its preposterousness left me far more interested in Yakuza 0 than any previous, fleeting glimpse of the series ever has. Who knew that SEGA was secretly publishing a criminal farce beneath that GTA-wannabe façade?