“While making the first and second games in the series, I went drinking in Kabukicho with (Toshihiro) Nagoshi, the overall producer of the franchise, two or three nights every week,” says Masayoshi Kikuchi, a veteran producer at Sega, as we discuss the latest entries in his smash-hit series “Ryu ga Gotoku” — known in the West simply as “Yakuza.”

It might sound as though Kikuchi and Nagoshi were playing truant on those drinking excursions, but no: This was research. The gangster underworld portrayed so convincingly in the “Ryu ga Gotoku” titles is based almost entirely in Kamurocho, a fictional version of Kabukicho. So carefully modeled is Kamurocho on Tokyo’s premier red-light district, located in the heart of Shinjuku, that real-life visitors may not need the on-screen map.

“Kabukicho’s within an hour of our development office, so we could easily go down there to take videos or photos for each game, and we went fairly frequently,” explains Kikuchi. “I basically grew up around Kabukicho, because my school was near there. I hung out there a lot as a student.”

With its mix of dramatic storytelling and spine-splintering violence, the “Ryu ga Gotoku” series has crashed onto PlayStations all over the world — the series’ four main entries and three spinoff games have sold over 4 million copies since 2005 on PlayStations 2, 3 and Portable, with the third episode being the first to get a release in the United States and Europe. It’s pretty clear that in this case, crime does pay.

So popular is the game’s intricate gangland narrative that cult director Takashi Miike even helmed a live-action movie version, released in 2007.

The first few games centered around Kazuma Kiryu, a yakuza tough in his mid-30s who served 10 years after taking the rap for a murder he did not commit, only to be dragged into a complex web of deceit and gang violence upon his release. The games are part role-playing adventure and part action brawler, with the player gleaning clues toward the next fight through conversations with Kamurocho residents. Its ostensible free-roaming nature is in fact a red herring: Sure, you can sometimes wander around Kamurocho and be distracted by mini-games and side missions, but, although the series has been compared with free-roaming action franchise “Grand Theft Auto,” its linear but epic story arcs place it closer to Sega’s classic “Shenmue” role-playing games.

“We never intended to make a sandbox game like ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ where you can do whatever you want,” says Kikuchi. “We wanted to show the underground nightlife of Japan. Our games are all about a dramatic story. There’s a lot of freedom, but you can’t just walk up to someone in the street and hit them or shoot them. By focusing the types of missions and challenges the player experiences, we can make them really feel like a hero.”

It’s not just the landmarks of real-world Kabukicho — Kamuro Theater in place of Koma Theater; Shinjuku Mach Bowl where Milano Bowl really stands; branches of discount megastore Don Quijote and Pronto cafe in their accurate locations — that give Kamurocho such an air of realism. Each game has added a new layer of atmosphere; in “Ryu ga Gotoku 4: Densetsu wo Tsugumono,” released in March this year in Japan and currently being translated for Western release in March 2011, crowds ebb and flow under a vibrant neon glow. There’s a constant hubbub that brings Kamurocho to life. Mini-games include karaoke, arcade machines, UFO catchers, pachinko and even a trip to the public bath, while the previously ground-level-only action now takes to rooftops, underground shopping arcades, basement car parks and (eww!) the sewers.

The game introduces three new playable characters alongside Kiryu: There’s loan shark Shun Akiyama, a one-time vagrant whose fatal footwork is matched by his wicked wit; Taiga Saejima, a heavyset jailbreaker who served 25 years after a brutal clan massacre; and Masayoshi Tanimura, a bent cop. Each character stars in his own long chapter of the game and has his own fighting style and objectives. For instance, Akiyama owns a Kamurocho hostess club and must recruit girls to work there; the player can tailor the girls’ makeup, down to the shine of their lip gloss, and buy them dresses and jewelry to boost their popularity with the customers — and thus their profitability.

This is not the game’s only questionable objectification of women — seemingly underage girls also appear as karaoke companions, for example — but it’s a true reflection of Japan’s dark underbelly that is rarely tackled in mass media. Many of these sections were cut from the Western release of “Yakuza 3” on grounds of cultural differences, though Kikuchi says “Yakuza 4” will fare better; it will include every element of the Japanese original except an impenetrable Japanese general-knowledge quiz game called “Answer × Answer.”

“It’s basically going to be an M-rated title in the States, and the equivalent in other territories; there’s no way around it,” says Yasuhiro Noguchi, an employee of Sega America who is in charge of the games’ localization. “So I don’t think there’s anything that needs to be ‘censored.’ ”

It was a genuine surprise when the titles started to win fans abroad, given their overtly Japan-centric game-play elements; but Kikuchi believes the games’ appeal is precisely that. Not only do they offer a rich portrayal of central Tokyo in which players abroad can walk around and really engage, they also expose yakuza culture in the sort of depth no two-hour movie ever could. “Ryu ga Gotoku 4” takes roughly 40 hours to play and is packed with CG cut-scenes of breathtaking cinematic quality.

Alongside the four main titles, which share a pretty much consistent story, the three spinoff games each offer something totally different, evidence of the development team’s rampant creativity. The 2008 PS3 game “Ryu ga Gotoku: Kenzan!” was set in feudal Kyoto in 1605; “Kurohyou: Ryu ga Gotoku Shinshou” brought the series to PSP in September this year, and was hailed by reviewers as one of the densest games the hand-held console has seen to date (it’s bound to be a prime stocking filler this Christmas); and “Ryu ga Gotoku: Of the End” will unleash zombies on Kamurocho when it is released next year.

“We haven’t had any direct contact with real yakuza members voicing their opinion of the games one way or another,” laughs Kikuchi when we ask him. “But we do notice people who look very much like yakuza standing in line to buy the games on release day, talking on the phone and asking, ‘Boss, boss, I think I got the game. Is this the one?’ So from that we assume that real yakuza might be playing the game and enjoying it. Luckily no one’s ever asked us for protection money, ha ha.”

Do the games court controversy? Of course they do. They are set in Japan’s criminal underworld and, to a large extent, they glorify gang violence, murder, guns, exploitation of women and the idea that you can actually win on a UFO Catcher. But they do it with soul; with love; with an attention to detail that makes each of the games a thrill to play.

“Ryu ga Gotoku 4” and “Kurohyou” are two of the defining Japanese games of 2010; when an English dub of “Yakuza 4” finally emerges in March, with all its seedier elements intact, it’s bound to make the Tokyo underworld a global concern. It’s what you might call the perfect crime.

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