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Alright, new thesis time: The Yakuza games are the Die Hard films of Christmas movies.
No, wait: Don’t flee the cliché! I know discussing John McClane’s status as Santa’s bloodiest helper has climactically fallen off a skyscraper into meaninglessness at this point. But the idea that a work can take on the flavors of the Yuletide season—without necessarily drowning itself in the explicit signifiers of indoor trees and baubles in abundance—still has some merits. (See also the less played-out “Shane Black movies are Christmas movies” argument.) And Sega’s long-running Yakuza games slot into that category pretty neatly, and not just because the holiday season is my only chance each year to indulge in the kind of long-term “explore the shit out of this city” gameplay that makes them so incredibly compelling as December-time binges.
I’ve been playing a Yakuza (or Like A Dragon, as the franchise has been rebranding itself, now that it’s getting more and more distant from just the crime drama genre) game every Christmas for a few years at this point. Nothing helps me sink into a post-ham food coma better than running around the now-familiar streets of the (fictitious) Japanese district of Kamurocho, punching my way through elaborate plots and also, weirdly, helping and befriending huge swathes of the city’s population of obsessive and obnoxious oddballs.
Because, for all their pretensions to John Woo-itude, the Yakuza games are the near-definition of gaming comfort food: Expansive, detailed, and shot through with a blend of the strange and the warm that epitomizes the holiday season. (It’s not for nothing that several games in the series take place right around Christmas; the mix of the festive and the melancholy that naturally follows fits perfectly with the games’ own tone.)
At the heart of it all is, of course, series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, whose usual franchise nickname, “The Dragon Of Dojima,” could easily be replaced with “The Santa Of Smashing Up Thugs.” Kiryu is low-key one of gaming’s great main characters: A legendary hardass who inevitably finds himself roped into doing anything and everything that some weirdo who flags him down on Kamurocho’s crowded streets asks him to do, with a dedication to both kindness and excellence that borders on the superhuman. (He’s also, despite his intimidating appearance, an enormous dork, who approaches model car racing or bowling with the same single-minded determination that he applies to plowing through the latest local scheming crimelord’s murderous machinations.) One of the reasons I come back to this series every year is that being Kiryu (and, to a lesser extent, some of the series’ other playable characters) feels good; there’s something refreshing about stepping into the stylish shoes of a guy who can’t say no when someone comes to him in need. Isn’t helping a Michael Jackson-type character fend off fake zombies so he can shoot a music video (and then later moonlight as a property manager for your incredibly elaborate real estate simulator) the perfect encapsulation of the holiday spirit?
Meanwhile, there’s also nothing quite like dipping back into Kamurocho itself, which has remained largely unchanged across the nearly 20 years of the franchise’s history. Gaming has so few familiar places, obsessed as it is with new horizons at every turn. Returning to a city I know by heart at this point–from the big-ass Club Sega (with its bastard-cheap-unfair-horseshit claw machines) over in the Theater District, to those maze-like warrens over in the Champion District–is a comfort that’s hard to overstate. That’s the part that really makes these games feel like unexpected holiday classics, for me: The feeling of coming home, and discovering a brand new world full of weird stories to tell, engaging distractions to get sidetracked by, and, of course, an enormous number of shitheads to beat within an inch of their lives.
What could be more “holidays” than that?