Shenmue was the brainchild of Japanese designer Yu Suzuki, who joined Sega in 1983. Following his success with arcade titles such Hang On, Out Run and Virtua Fighter, Suzuki set out to create a game with greater longevity and researched many role-playing-games (RPGs) of the time before embarking on the development of an ambitious, Chinese cinema-inspired revenge thriller which would play out over a series of four, or possibly even five, games.
The first game in the series begins with teenage martial artist Ryo Hazuki witnessing an altercation at his family’s dojo between his father Iwao and a Chinese villain named Lan Di. Lan Di makes off with a mysterious stone artefact known as the dragon mirror, but not before murdering Iwao in cold blood.
Ryo swears to avenge his father’s death and travels to the nearby town of Yokosuka in search of clues regarding Lan Di’s whereabouts. Via conversations with some of the game’s many NPCs, Ryo learns that several people recall witnessing a black car speeding through the town on the day of his father’s death and later receives a letter from somebody named Yuanda Zhu urging him to speak with Master Chen at the Yokosuka Harbour.
Ryo tracks down Master Chen and his son Guizhang, from whom he learns that the dragon mirror is one of two mirrors, the second of which – the phoenix mirror – he finds hidden in the basement beneath his family dojo.
Chen tells Ryo that Lan Di has fled to Hong Kong and Ryo borrows money to buy a plane ticket from a disreputable travel agency. However, when he goes to collect it, he is ambushed by a member of the Chi You Men, Lan Di’s criminal cartel, and the ticket is destroyed.
Ryo learns that the Chi You Men are linked to Yokosuka Harbour gang the Mad Angels and takes a job as a forklift driver in order to investigate, thus beginning one of the most Marmite moments in gaming history.
Shenmue is packed full of quirky innovations, such as the quick-time-event system (interactive, reflex-testing cut-scenes which range from Ryo dodging flying footballs to hot pursuits through the streets of Yokosuka) or the fact that Ryo often has to wait until a specific date or time of day for an event to occur which will move the story forward. In the meantime, he’s free to wander around town, pay a visit to the arcade or hone his martial arts technique in the park.
The forklift driving section is another of these quirky ideas and after spending several real-time hours doing little more than transporting boxes from one side of the harbour to the other, Ryo attracts the attention of the Mad Angels, who subsequently kidnap his friend Nozomi. Ryo rescues Nozomi and makes a deal with the Mad Angels to beat up Guizhang in exchange for a meeting with Lan Di.
However, Ryo soon realises this is a trap and instead teams up with Guizhang to take on the Mad Angels in an epic final fight against no less than 70 men. As the game ends, Ryo boards a boat to Hong Kong, where Master Chen advises him to seek out the help of a martial artist called Lishao Tao, who is supposedly linked to Yuanda Zhu, the man whose letter led Ryo to Chen initially.
Shenmue II begins with Ryo’s arrival in Hong Kong. After his bag is snatched by some harbour hoodlums leaving him penniless, he manages to track down Lishao Tao, who is really a woman named Xiuying Hong. Hong tells Ryo she considers his pursuit of vengeance to be reckless and declines to help.
Ryo later meets street gang leader Wuying Ren who, intrigued by the phoenix mirror, offers to help him. Ren finds out that Yuanda Zhu is hiding from the Chi You Men in the walled city of Kowloon but when they eventually track him down, they are ambushed by the criminal Yellow Head organisation and Zhu is kidnapped.
Ryo manages to infiltrate the Yellow Head headquarters, a tall, derelict building, which he battles his way to the roof of via a series of hard fought hand-to-hand battles, but not before Lan Di escapes in a helicopter. Ryo does manage to rescue Yuanda Zhu, however, who tells him that Lan Di killed his father because he believes Iwao to be responsible for the death of his own father. Zhu reveals that the two mirrors will lead to the resurrection of China’s ancient Qing Dynasty and tells Ryo to follow Lan Di to the mountains of Guilin.
The end of Shenmue II (which, rumour has it, was actually initially intended to be the beginning of Shenmue III) takes place in Guilin where Ryo meets a young woman named Shenhua Ling, who he’d previously envisioned in a series of dreams. Shenhua appears to have magical abilities and takes Ryo to her family home, where a tree named ‘Shenmue’ is in bloom. The two of them visit a local quarry in search of Shenhua’s father but all they find is a cryptic note and a sword. Ryo combines the sword with the phoenix mirror and. as the credits roll, a large mural of both mirrors cascades onto the wall of the quarry.