How Nintendo Helped Create (And Beat) The Yakuza

Mario once jumped along the 'extreme path'.

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Anyone who's played Sega's Yakuza series will know that the Japanese mafia isn't all tattoos, missing pinkies and generally being baddies with hearts of gold. Turns out there's also a surprising amount of frivolity implicit in the gangster lifestyle - fannying about, that is - such as bowling, karaoke and racking up the high score on Virtua Fighter.

Though besting Dural as quickly as possible without taking a single hit is obviously serious work, there was a time when the Yakuza's interest in video games was less about spending quarters and more about earning them. Appropriately enough, legitimate business dalliances with the digital entertainment industry found the crime group going head to head with Sega's great rivals: Nintendo.

Though today famed for their family-friendly reputation, Nintendo didn't once merely walk along the 'extreme path', but effectively helped paved it. The Kyoto based outfit started life way back in 1889 as a manufacturer of hanafuda - playing cards crafted from mulberry bark, each ornately decorated with illustrations of flowers. Though an ostensibly wholesome, artisanal business, it soon attracted the custom of local bookies, who furnished their gambling parlours with decks. To avoid tampering, professional dealers would begin each game with a fresh stack of cards - and Nintendo were more than happy to supply.

One of the most popular games in kimono-clad kursaals was oichokabu, in which a hand of 8-9-3 - yattsu, ku, san - would score zero points. Hence the abbreviation 'yakuza' meaning 'pointless', or 'useless', in other words. This expression later transformed to refer to the gamblers themselves, many of whom were tattooed with the same elaborate floral patterns painted onto the cards. The Yakuza were, as far as society deemed, 'useless people'.

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Editorial Team
Editorial Team

Benjamin was born in 1987, and is still not dead. He variously enjoys classical music, old-school adventure games (they're not dead), and walks on the beach (albeit short - asthma, you know). He's currently trying to compile a comprehensive history of video game music, yet denies accusations that he purposefully targets niche audiences. He's often wrong about these things.