The Yakuza series has seen a massive surge in popularity in the West in recent years, going from an obscure gem to one of Sega’s most popular franchises. The series is known for its style and phenomenal localizations, but that wasn’t always the case. The very first Yakuza game was brought West in 2006 on PlayStation 2, and it remains infamous for its utterly baffling localization that even featured Mark Hamill as the legendary Goro Majima.
During a time when open-world crime games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row were all the rage, Sega tried to appeal to the Western crowd by casting English actors and filling the dialogue with obscenities and slang. All these years later, however, it’s an experience that feels horribly out of touch with the series at large. One enterprising fan has taken it upon himself to fix that.
In June, Kristian Zdunek, who goes by Sylwahan on Twitter, released Yakuza Restored. The fan-made patch “restores” the original PS2 game to its Japanese language (playable with English subtitles), and puts the script and presentation more in line with the rest of the franchise. Yakuza Restored replaces the English dub with the original Japanese audio, and tunes the script and subtitles to feel more in line with later localizations in the series. It’s part of a growing trend of fan translations, in which players unofficially release their own version of an older game, much like The Geofront’s efforts with patching the Trails series. For Yakuza Restored, however, it has a bit of a different twist.
“The project is and always was primarily an ‘undub,’ that is to say, a modification where the English dub has been swapped out with the original Japanese, and I fully expected to have to leave it at that,” explains Zdunek. “But through some miracle I managed to get a rough grasp on the text system used in the game, and that opened a lot of doors for further improvements.
The project’s development started all the way back in 2019, although there were gaps where it was periodically halted due to the unique challenges it posed. Surprisingly, Zdunek doesn’t have a huge background in coding or translation, and he has nothing but respect for some of those bigger fan projects.
“There are some real geniuses out there who can code things like emulators or completely reverse-engineer entire games in order to port them to other systems, and that kind of thing is just insanely impressive to me — almost beyond comprehension — and even more so after trying my hand at it,” Zdunek says. “Unfortunately, I’m just a regular person of moderate skill and intelligence, who pretty much brute-forced my way through this project on sheer determination alone.”
Zdunek says his process for Yakuza Restored can be “likened to building a house out of duct tape,” as the whole thing came together very gradually, piece-by-piece. There was some basic hacking required, as Zdunek needed to reverse engineer things like the text, the basic structure of cutscene files, and how to modify in-game files.
Once Zdunek had a basic grasp of the system, it became apparent how incorrect and off-base many of the subtitle lines from the dub were. Zdunek says he “dabbles” in Japanese, so he used a combination of his own knowledge and lots of research and dictionary lookups to tune the script.
As noted in a release post on Reddit, Zdunek modified about 50 percent of the roughly 20,000 lines in the game, on top of fixing up layouts, editing title cards to match the right font, recreating freeze-frame intros for characters, and more.
“[With] every pass, I would find more and more things to fix, tweak or re-translate, until I felt the game was in a good place,” says Zdunek. “Had I known from the start where the project would end up, I would have done a lot of things differently, and had I been more proficient/efficient in translating or had some help, I would have opted to re-localize the Japanese version of the game from scratch instead of modifying the existing English one.”
Of course, part of the process also involved looking at the localizations for later games, like Yakuza 4 and 5, and seeing how others approached things like titles and item names.
“I tried to simulate the Kansai dialect of certain characters like Majima with similar shortened speech, so they might say ‘Been waitin’ to see ya,’ instead of ‘I’ve been waiting to see you,’ for example,” explains Zdunek.
A problem, however, is that Sega used multiple localization teams throughout the series, and there wasn’t a firm Yakuza team until after the release and popularity of Yakuza 0. This means there was less of a formal blueprint for Zdunek to follow when working on the project and he put less emphasis on following later localization releases. Instead, he did his best to emulate the overall feel on his own.
Needless to say, the amount of work required to do something like Yakuza Restored is monumental, and after he picked it back up in 2021 the project dominated Zdunek’s life. On top of a regular full-time job, he’d work on Yakuza Restored most nights and weekends for a period of six months, leaving little time for anything else.
“I would frequently fall asleep thinking about what certain bytes in a file could mean, or things to try out the next day,” says Zdunek. “I think I watched maybe four or five movies during this time, and I don’t think I played a single game. I still have an unopened PS5 that’s been sitting in my hallway since last November.”
Now that it’s out in the wild, Yakuza Restored is a fascinating piece of video game history, one that can help preserve the experience on top of providing something new. While an official remake called Yakuza Kiwami is readily available, fans that wanted to experience the start of the franchise in its original form were limited to the underwhelming English version.
You still need a copy of the original PS2 game in order to play Yakuza Restored, as a patch needs to be applied to the ISO, or virtual image, of the original PS2 disc. Still, Yakuza Restored bridges a gap in a series that continues to gain popularity in the West, and it also highlights the overall need for preservation, especially in an industry so digitally-focused.
“As technology and compatibility has changed, hardware died out, and games ended up in the hands of speculators, emulation has been incredibly important to make gaming history accessible and cover the massive gaps,” Says Zdunek. “While remakes can be technological improvements and capture new generations of fans, they should never supplant the original versions. I cannot imagine a world where the original versions of movies like Psycho, Suspiria or The Lion King were relegated to difficult-to-obtain curiosities whenever a remake was produced.”