One of the greatest pitfalls many developers fall into is making the new main protagonist into “not” the prior protagonist. There may be a few differences diverging the character from their predecessor on paper, but in practice, they are so similar they might as well be the same person. All the new character lacks is the fanfare the prior characters earned through successive iterations. All these doublegangers succeed in is generating a desire to see the older characters return to assume their rightful mantle.
In comparison, Ichiban Kasuga hails from the same great era of the Yakuza as Kazuma Kiryu, but his lengthy prison sentence has left him isolated from the world’s events that have made that era’s mentality an aging and increasingly rare relic in the world of the Yakuza. Ichiban doesn’t go forth to restore this mentality to the world as its last great knight. Instead, he adapts to the changing world with surprise and even happiness when he discovers the Yakuza mentality he grew up with has not been scrubbed entirely from this world.
Differentiating himself further, he does not go about resolving problems in the same way Kiryu would have. He bumbles, stumbles, and develops as a person to discover who he is, joining the series’ roster of characters. When introduced to legends of the Yakuza series, Ichiban does not dominate nor overpower them. Without spoiling anything, there are fights he canonically loses or is about to turn south before outside intervention halts the course of events.
During his journey, Ichiban is forced to earn his way through the world. Building himself up from rock bottom in the city of Yokohama. Earning the reputation that gives him the right to stand among the greats, not above them. Each legacy character introduction is done with prominence; they’re celebrities in their world and are treated as such.
Praise or recognition is not given to Ichiban because he is now the main character. Each instance is earned, built by his determination and upon his failures. Failures that come about because Ichiban does not have the same level of intelligence, wisdom, or experience Kiryu possesses.
After presenting a truly worthwhile entry in the Yakuza series, the game concludes with one last dungeon to test Ichiban’s mettle. At its end, another legend tests Ichiban to see if he is worthy of carrying on the dragon before having a conversation with the previous dragon regarding Ichiban being his successor.
Kiryu immediately shoots down the idea. Ichiban is not meant to take his place, nor is he meant to be him. Ichiban will grow and become his own person leaving his own mark on the world. To long time fans, it assuages concerns, shoots down critics, and establishes Ichiban as a worthy character, but one who will grow in and with the world. Not merely be the greatest because he is new.
By the end of the game, you understand Ichiban is not Kiryu, nor was he ever intended to be him. Rather than being given the keys to the castle because the power of protagonist, he is almost crushed by the world and the events he has to rise above. The game respects what came before while progressing the series with new characters and changes to its world. Demonstrating how to pass the baton to a new lead properly. A lesson other developers could stand to learn.