If you've played a Yakuza game, then you already know how good the side activities are. Often far more in-depth than minigames have any right to be, these optional distractions can be ignored entirely -- or they can soak up hours and hours and hours of your life.
I recently played through Judgment for review. Essentially a Yakuza spin-off, Judgment's implementation of minigames -- both old and new -- made me realise just how important they are to the structure of these titles. For the record, I've always loved the minigames in Yakuza, but I've never really considered them core components of SEGA's semi-sandbox adventures.
Without the minigames, I think the Yakuza series would lose a lot of its edge. As I've already stated, you can ignore these side activities entirely if you really wanted to, but you'd be missing out on a key aspect of Yakuza: its enviable ability to chop and change between stern-faced drama and outright absurdity with very little effort.
The property does this all the time. It's always saved much of its serious stuff for main storylines -- the twisting, turning, engrossing narratives that they are -- but you're always free to take a breather, head over to the karaoke bar, and belt out Kiryu's biggest hits to your heart's content. Again, being able to jump between completely different tones is arguably the series' greatest strength -- and that's saying a lot.
Of course, the icing on the cake here is that each and every minigame has an unprecedented amount of effort put into it. When you look back across the Yakuza franchise, some of these excursions are absolutely wild. To bring up a perfect example that's still fresh in the mind, the drone racing in Judgement is crazy. Consisting of multiple, full-blown tournaments that see main character Yagami pilot a fully customisable drone around the city at great speeds, drone racing goes above and beyond. It's basically a whole game inside a game -- and it's certainly not the only minigame with such depth.
What about the all-women underground wrestling competitions that you could bet on in Yakuza 0? Admittedly not to everyone's tastes, but bloody hell, the amount of effort that must have gone into making it. Every fighter has their own moves, animations, voicework -- it's bordering on obsessive. And that's to say nothing of the impressively robust arena minigame and campaign that appears in multiple Yakuza titles.
The bottom line here is that you're spoilt for choice, especially when it comes to the vast minigame selections in Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami 2 -- two of the most content-rich entries in the entire series. And let's be clear: Yakuza games aren't exactly short. An average playthrough usually takes around 30 or so hours to complete, but that's if you don't find yourself hooked on UFO catchers and memorising those pesky pitching patterns at the batting cages.
It's sometimes like being torn between two addictions. On the one hand, you want to press on with the main story because it's just that good. But on the other hand, you can't possibly be expected to leave the arcade until you've beaten your Outrun high-score. And yes, that's the Outrun. And the Virtua Fighter 5. Actual SEGA classics built into the arcades of Kamurocho. "Just one more go" you keep telling yourself, as Kiryu settles in for a mammoth Virtual-On session instead of rescuing his friends from the clutches of an evil gang. "They'll be fine."
Looking back, Shenmue was, in a lot of ways, proto-Yakuza. Yu Suzuki grounded his incredibly ambitious series by incorporating mundane tasks as well as minigames that acted as fun little diversions -- they immersed you in Shenmue's world. Flash forward a few years and the eccentric Toshihiro Nagoshi -- once supervisor on Shenmue -- is taking that same concept and applying it to his all-new Yakuza series as producer, supervisor, and director. There's definitely some shared DNA between the two properties, but it was Yakuza that took the idea and ran with it, evolving its minigames into a defining feature. And yes, I know Shenmue didn't exactly get the chance to do the same, but you know what I mean. Its spirit lives on and all that (and hopefully Shenmue III actually delivers).
Without spoiling anything, there's a bit in Judgment where Yagami's really down on his luck. The aloof detective's hit a brick wall with his current case, and the game's done a great job of portraying the kind of hopelessness that comes with being stuck in a rut, even though you feel like the answer should be right there in front of you. But instead of having an out-of-the-blue phone call snap Yagami from his funk, the game just lets you stew -- Yagami tells himself that he should take a walk and clear his head.
This is important because it's Yakuza's and Judgment's structure that stops this scenario from being frustrating. In this moment you feel Yagami's exhaustion, and you just want to see the guy relax and take a little time to think things over. So you head to the nearest arcade, or gear up for some drone racing. Before you know it, Yagami's troubles have all but washed away. It makes getting that out-of-the-blue phone call all the more meaningful as you strap yourself in for another high-stakes story mission.
At the risk of sounding way too cheesy, minigames breathe so much life into Judgment and the Yakuza series. Maybe there's something relatable about spending all your time doing something other than the thing that you probably should be doing. Maybe they're just really, really good minigames. In any case, I thought that they deserved some recognition. As far as I'm concerned, they're easily the best minigames in gaming.
Are you a fan of Yakuza's minigames? Which is your favourite? Blow all your yen in the comments section below.