There is a distinct feeling to walking around in a city you used to live in. It is different from going to a new place for the first time and it’s different from walking around a place you live in now. There is a mix of nostalgia and surprise as you walk around the old places you used to know and the new places that have cropped up since. You may feel a tinge of sadness at the places that are no longer there and, with it, a sense of the passage of time.
There really is only one game series that is able to fully capture that feeling. The Kamurocho map in Yakuza has been a staple since the PS2 entries. With new console generations and new engines, this fictional red-light district in the heart of Tokyo has received many face-lifts, but to those familiar with the series coming back always feels the same. Not at all in a bad way. It’s easy to imagine the outrage any other open-world series would face if the developers announced they would re-use the map, but the Yakuza fanbase welcomes this very same decision. A lot of it has to do with the care and attention the Ryu Ga Gotoku studio puts in to make every visit slightly different and period appropriate.
Like many newcomers to the series, I started with Yakuza 0. Kamurocho set in the Japanese economic bubble of the 80s is a sight to behold. You see the gaudy suit-wearing nuevo riches splurging cash as soon as they can make it. The blaring neon signs drench the streets with crimson golden glows. You can’t help but be dazzled by it. Moving forward, in Yakuza 1, during the turn of the millennium this same place takes on a whole new feel. A certain modesty has taken over to mask the debauchery that still thrives under the surface. The Tokyo citizens still want to have fun but they don’t want to imitate their parents. Moving further pn still, Yakuza 6 is set in 2016 after the proliferation of the internet and smartphones. Kamurocho has taken on a new-age feel by blunting some of its edges to attract a wider demographic. The creeping tendrils of capitalism is apparent as new investments keep pouring in.
With each iteration, Kamurocho continues to change. There is a subtle underlying story being told here, mostly separate from the melodramatic crime soap opera that is featured front and center. It’s a story of the city itself told through the ambient sights and sounds. I feel that this is where the devs are truly honest, as you notice all the granular details the world is populated with. These details may not be familiar to you, but you feel that they are deeply familiar with someone else. With each new game these vapors of nuance tell the tale of a city in perpetual change.
Things that change are easily noticeable yet what is most interesting is the things that do not change. Generally agreed upon by anyone that matters, the Champion’s district is the heart of Kamurocho and it is the part that cannot change. Forces both within the game and within the dev team have made sure to keep it exactly the same since the first game. This dense cluster of bars interweaved by shoulder-length-wide alleyways is the quietest and least flashy part of town. Hidden away from the hungry eyes of the tourists and newcomers, this area is just for the regulars. It’s the type of place where your preferred drink would be ready before you have your coat off. Perhaps it was in a bar similar to the ones in Champion’s district where the idea of the game first came about. I don’t know for certain, but I like to believe it just to find a meaning as to why this part of Kamurocho never changes.
That is just one example of the numerous details in Kamurocho that change or stays the same that keeps you wondering. You try to find the intention behind every detail in the city. This is the trick that draws you in: It’s all in the details. The repetition of Kamurocho as well as its subtle changes gives the place a certain heaviness, a permanence. On your first visit you are the same as every tourist. Feasting your eyes on all that the place has to offer as you try to absorb as much as you can. On a second trip, things are more familiar. The zeal you had from the first visit is replaced with a comforting feeling. And with each visit, the feeling grows until you start to feel a sense of belonging. No longer an outsider, Kamurocho starts to feel like home. With each game, over the years, even when certain things are changed and you yourself change, that feeling only grows.
It’s a wonderful and difficult thing to find a place where you belong. It’s a place that accepts you just the way you are even if you change over time. Likewise, you accept it in the same way. It’s a place where leaving means you will return before long, and goodbyes don’t last forever. Kamurocho is one of those places for me and many others in the Yakuza fanbase. While there are so many games that allow us to escape, the Yakuza series is one of the few that allow us to return.