Right from the beginning, Shenmue amazes you with the amount of detail present within the world. The graphics may have aged a bit, but still impress considering their age and are actually better than many of the titles on today's consoles. After Ryo Hazuki witnesses his father's murder at the hands of Lan Di, he sets off on an epic journey to track down his father's killer, and if possible, slay him for what he has done to the Hazuki family. It's a classic revenge story, and I find there are quite a few similarities and messages to the Kill Bill films (but without all the Hanzo swords and bloodshed. There is a 80 man battle though!).
Piecing together the information that leads Ryo to Lan Di's trail is slow going (indeed, this game is only Chapter 1 of a planned 15 chapter story that still hasn't been concluded today, but don't let that put you off). You take control of Ryo's life in December of 1986, and everything he does from then on is up to you, including all the little things like spending spare time at the arcades while you wait for an appointment, etc. At times all the waiting can be a bit tiresome, and it's rather annoying that you can't go to sleep until 8pm rolls around. You also have to go back home before you can save the game. Thankfully Shenmue 2 fixes a lot of these flaws.
In the neighbourhood of Yokosuka, which includes Yamanose, Sakuragaoka, Dobuita and the Amihama harbour, you will meet a colourful range of characters, some with very strange accents indeed. The strangest of all has to be Tom, the local hot dog vendor. It's clear he's supposed to be Jamaican, but the voiceover work is so bad that you will detect some scottish and cockney mixed in there at times as well. It still makes me laugh every time I talk to him. What also makes me chuckle are the dubious conversations and quests you have to go on, such as crusing around the seedier side of town looking for sailors.
When you're not trying to find the next clue to further the story, you can collect capsule toys, play a game of darts, Space Harrier or Hang On, or practice your fighting moves. Every time you enter a fight (they're all scripted into the story, there's no random battles), the battle engine kicks in and it's almost as complex as Yu Suzuki's other famous series, Virtua Fighter. In fact, you won't need all these moves to get past the fights as their very easy, but it's nice to have a choice of ways to pound their faces in.
I've already mentioned how laughable the voiceovers can be at times (although some are actually pretty good), but the music is fantastic. I love the main theme that plays during the ending sequence and the credits, and who can forget the music that plays at the Tomato Convenience Store? A lot of the tracks feature traditional Japanese or Chinese instruments, and sound very exotic to the western ear. Definitely up there with the great gaming soundtracks of our times.
Depending on how quick you are to get on with the main story, Shenmue lasts in the region of 15-30 hours. You can spend days just wandering around, playing in the arcades if you wish, but you must have reached your goal before the end of March or Lan Di will reappear and finish you off. This is still a very generous time limit and most people will have finished way before that point, however.
So there you have it. Shenmue remains one of my favourites to this day and it's worth keeping hold of my Dreamcast so I can play it every so often. Is it worth getting a Dreamcast just to play it? I'm not so sure about that. You could just go straight to Shenmue 2 on the Xbox and watch Shenmue The Movie which tells you everything you need to know about the story so far. My hope is that one day Sega will finally conclude the series and I will get to see what happens to Ryo, whether he gets his revenge and how much this ultimately costs him. Shenmue was apparently the most expensive game ever made when it was released, so it would be a shame to waste all the resources that were created and leave the tale unfinished.