Set in 1980s Yokosuka, Shenmue followed the story of Ryo Hazuki, a young man unfortunate enough to witness the murder of his father by Lan Di. Lan Di's looking for an object called the Dragon Mirror, and is willing to go through anybody to get it. Ryo then sets off on a journey to avenge his father's murder.
After the opening cutscene, you are free to go and do whatever you want, be it advancing the story, heading into a video game arcade to play Hang-On or Space Harrier, entering raffles or collecting little capsule toys. Shenmue was the first game to offer the player an open world "sandbox" to play in, and whilst you had a time limit (the game would start in Nov 1986, and end in April 1987), you had plenty of time to explore everything the game had to offer.
It's likely you've played a game that Shenmue may have inspired, directly or otherwise. As we noted in the last paragraph, Shenmue was the first game to offer the player a sandbox to play in, two years before Grand Theft Auto III was realised to critical and commercial acclaim. It was also the first game to introduce the QTE (Quick Time Event) mechanic, which has now been used in pretty much every video game genre with varying degrees of success.
Another aspect of the game which was ahead of its time: the weather effects. Utilising real weather records from the time period, Shenmue's Yokosuka changed according to the day and time of day. Whilst it could possibly be raining in the morning, the weather could change to an overcast afternoon, and finally clear starry skies in the evening. Revolutionary back in 1999, and something hardly seen since.
Soundwise, Takenobu Mistoyoshi (best known for his Daytona USA endevours here at RS) crafted an absolutely masterful orchestral score, which captures the feel of the game perfectly. The only real negative here is that the encoding for the voice acting is very poor, as you'll be able to tell from the YouTube video above and to the right.
Shenmue was the first game in a planned trilogy, and whilst Shenmue II was released two years later, poor sales left the series unfinished. Yu Suzuki still talks of finishing the series to this day, and hopefully one day he will.
If you have a Dreamcast and for whatever reason you haven't played Shenmue, you really do owe it to yourself to play it. The game was stunning twelve years ago, and has hardly aged a bit.
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