Mafia vs. Yakuza: Which One Gets a Severed Head?

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In the real world, nobody wants to go up against a member of the Mafia. Their ruthless and cutthroat (or shall we say cut-your-throat) tactics are positively vicious. Whether faced with the vengeance of an underboss, a soldato, or a lowly associate, the Mafia is not an organization you want to mess with.

The Yakuza is just as lethal; if a member screws up, he may be forced to cut off the tip of one of his own fingers. But that punishment is just the tip of the iceberg – you don’t even want to know what the Yakuza will do to full-blown enemies.

Despite the violent (and often disgusting) actions performed by these organizations, both the Mafia and the Yakuza manage to become likable – maybe even appealing – in a fictional environment. Novels, movies and TV were just the beginning. Over the past 20 years, they’ve slowly crept their way into video games.

Grand Theft Auto is by far the most prominent organized crime series, though it tends to focus on the actual crimes more than the organizations behind them. EA tried to one-up GTA with its video game adaptation of The Godfather trilogy, but the results were less than groundbreaking. Just Cause 2 – a GTA-killer, by all accounts – moved away from mobster territory while keeping all of our favorite illegal activities (stealing cars, blowing up buildings, evading police, etc.) intact.

Mafia, the open-world action game from the now-defunct Gathering of Developers (the sequel development is coming straight from 2K), took us back to the 1920s and 1930s, AKA the golden era of organized crime. Meanwhile, the Sega-published Yakuza series tackled the crime setting from a different angle, implementing a hand-to-hand combat system that was reminiscent of Streets of Rage and other classic brawlers.

These games aren’t entertaining because people secretly dream of smuggling drugs, corrupting the stock market, or blackmailing politicians. They’re fun because they allow you to go further – and yes, a bit crazier – than you ever could in the real world. They allow us to start a gunfight with rival gangs, experience a heated battle with the police, and deal with enemies in any way that the player chooses. As such, crime games make us feel unstoppable – and that is very exciting.

Until Death Severs Us

Crime syndicates don’t like the idea of forming alliances with each other. They’ll work together for the greater good (that is, to make more money), but that’s as far as they’ll go. For whatever reason, the Mafia and the Yakuza tend to stay within their own territories, preventing a major war from occurring.

Let’s change that. With the long-awaited Mafia II hitting stores on August 24, and the fourth Yakuza coming in 2011, it’s time for the world’s most prominent syndicates to battle for virtual supremacy.

Three Against One

With three games available, you might think that the Yakuza series has an unfair advantage. Sega has had several years to improve the series’ open-world/beat-‘em-up gameplay, adding new weapons, new characters, and more enemies to keep players happy. As far as brawlers and GTA alternatives go, Yakuza 3 is one of the better games available.

Mafia, on the other hand, is only on the cusp of its first sequel. The original was a significant rival to the Grand Theft Auto series, mostly because of its unique (and, in Hollywood terms, authentic) mob setting. But that wasn’t the only thing players loved about the game – Mafia’s shooting mechanics were vastly superior to the awkward gunplay featured in GTA.

Both series are entertaining and addictive, but if you compare the earlier Yakuza games to the original Mafia, the winner is quite clear. While Yakuza 3 might still be fun in five years, Mafia is the deeper and more exciting experience.

Since the next Mafia and Yakuza games are still forthcoming, I’m going to refrain from awarding either franchise a severed head. For now, let’s just say that Yakuza gets a canary in the mouth – and could get more if Mafia II lives up to expectations, and if Yakuza 4 fails to break new ground.

What if both games are spellbinding achievements in game design? In that case, we could be in for the ultimate showdown.

Another Battle Altogether

The battle between game franchises may lean in Mafia’s direction, but the battle of the actual crime syndicates is much more complex. If the Mafia and the Yakuza were to face each other in one virtual world – GTA-style – the two would ignite a war unlike any other.

The conflict would likely begin in New York as the Yakuza attempts to infiltrate Mafia territory. In less than a week the city would be overrun with violence, creating the perfect scenario for an online deathmatch – like Call of Duty, only grittier. As the Mafia prepares to send a few assassins to Tokyo (another excellent location for deathmatches) in retaliation, the Yakuza would gain some control by threatening local shops and then forcing their owners to pay for protection. This could lead to an interesting gameplay feature where the player must fight to gain and keep control of specific territories or risk a full-scale takeover.

The Mafia would be in for a rude awakening when its assassins are killed. It seems the Yakuza had been alerted of the attack ahead of time – perhaps by someone using an Xbox Live headset.

Consequently, the big boss gives an order that no one saw coming: burn down every location commanded by the Yakuza. The Mafia won’t score any points for doing so, but it would rather burn everything than lose control to someone else. In terms of gameplay, this would present a stellar opportunity for player choice: Should you go through with the order and set the town ablaze, or ignore the order and risk punishment from within?

In either case, this decision gives the Mafia the edge. Any organization that’s willing to destroy its own territory will stop at nothing to win. Would the Yakuza do the same? Most likely. But if this virtual battle gave players complete control over either side, it would up to them to decide.

As it stands now, the Mafia wins – both as a game franchise and as an evil (and painfully lethal) crime syndicate. Virtual Yakuza members should expect to receive their severed head in four to six weeks.

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Louis Bedigian
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