Jet Set Radio: the game that everybody knows by name, but nobody has actually played, just…what the hell is this game? Some kind of street gang themed Tony Hawk rip-off? The game that inspired Lucio’s design in Overwatch? Air Gear before Air Gear? Kinda, yes and yes, but i’ll tell you what this game is alright: a forgotten gem.
It IS a game about doing tricks (and graffiti), but it’s on rollerskates rather than on a skateboard, it DID inspire Lucio’s design and even the gameplay to some extent, it’s clearly what inspired Air Gear’s creation, and it’s one of the reasons why cel-shading is still such a widely used technique in today’s videogames…But let’s take a step back, shall we?
A Game That Rocked The World
A step back to the year 2000: the peak of Hip Hop culture, the beginning of the 21st century, and the third year of life of a little console called “Sega Dreamcast”, which aspired to rival the dominating Playstation in terms of sheer power.
Jet Set Radio debuted on that little console, and with an upbeat and cartoony presentation, a weirdly eclectic soundtrack which, even though was largely influenced by that same hip hop culture, also included a few acid jazz, j-rock and even metal tracks (like the unforgettable “Dragula” by Rob Zombie, who catched most players by surprise when it first appeared), and a “pick up and play”, high skill ceiling gameplay involving zipping around the streets of Tokyo-To (Totally NOT Tokyo, you guys) with magnetic inline skates, looking for spots to tag with your trustworthy spray can, in order to reclaim your turf from rival gangs and add some colors to the greyish concrete of the city.
A formula actually never seen before, in game form at least, that made both the critics and most Dreamcast possessors (even though they were not many people in the first place) utterly fall in love with this youthful, vibrant game, receiving 9/10, 92s and all kinds of acclaims, granting it even a sequel (exclusive to Xbox): Jet Set Radio: Future, which took the original formula, modernized the music to 2006’s standards (going from Hip Hop to Techno) and added a cyberpunkish tone to the plot and art style, but this is a Whole different story.
So, now that we actually have an idea of what kind of beast this game is, it’s time to analyze what made it the masterpiece that is known to be today!
Would you stop playing with that radio? The First 30 Minutes & Plot Overview
Ok, as you might expect the plot isn’t a shakespearian tale: in the 21st century a brand of magnetic rollerskates is really big with the young, and gangs of teens recklessly skating around, called “Rudies” have formed all over the world.
Tokyo-To’s goverment, heavily financed by a corporation called Rokkaku Group, isn’t very fond of those Rudies, who have been causing trouble and disorder all across the city’s districts, and has issued the police to take care of them with extreme prejudice.
Leading the Anti-Rudi branch of the law enforcement is Captain Onishima, a midget Dirty Harry wannabe with an absurd hairstyle and the shortest temper a police officer has ever had, getting to the point of asking permission from the army to dispatch armed choppers and tank units, all to “take care” of some kids in rollerskates.
Starring this story are the GGs, a small gang of Rudies who go by Tab, the “chill guy” who manages to skate with a hat that covers his eyes, Gum, a somewhat cocky girl who’s all about technique, and Beat, the headphone-wearing poster boy with the best pair of goggles in gaming history, and their goal is to reclaim their turf, that has been attacked by a misterious gang, and just have a grand old time…but there’s more about this situation than it meets the eye.
Now, the first 30 minutes of this game go by pretty fast, with an introductory explanation much like mine, narrated by a much smoother sounding DJ, the first tutorials to make the player familiar with the controls and the first real mission, where Captain Onishima and his oversized Magnum .44 revolver make their first appearance. After that you’re left in your “hub menu”, a garage from where you can change and customize your graffiti, check your records (and leaderboards in the HD version), change the various settings, and choose missions from the Tokyo-To street map, which is divided in three districts: the city of the night, Benten Cho, the industrial Kogane Cho, and your turf, the lively Shibuya-Cho.
The Joy of Painting (and skating): Gamplay and Mechanics
Now, the gameplay itself is somewhat a simplified version of titles like Tony Hawk Pro Skater, that we know: tricks are executed automatically on jump once a certain speed is reached, and are character based, meaning that the characters with a higher Technique stat will execute tricks both more complex and rewarding, score wise, even though because of the other two stats, Graffiti and Power, that couldn’t be always the best choice.
Long story short, you have three values to take into consideration when choosing a character: Graffiti, the higher the stat the more points you’ll receive by spray paiting, but the less cans you will be able to carry, Power, the lenght of your lifebar, for which you also receive points at the end of a mission, based on how much life you lost, and Technique, which i explained above.
Outside of the stats, everything else is purely skill based: your main tools are wallskating and grinding, which can be done on every Surface slightly resembling a strip of any material, from an electric cable to a straight up train rail, and grinding itself helps you build speed along with a dedicated “sprint button”…and that’s about it, mechanically speaking: a simplistic control scheme which depth comes from knowing where you can do what, and where you’re gonna land after it.
Applied into gameplay, the ability to read the enviroment is used to get from point A to point Z while spraypainting through the rest of the alphabet as fast as possible: the levels in fact are timed, and your rank at the end of each one is also determined by how fast you complete it. Of course memorizing the most optimal routes for each level, the angles at which you get most speed off of rails and so on takes a bit of practice, but the results are as stylish looking as a perfectly executed fight from a spectacle fighter.
Let’s Look at the Funk: Sound and Visuals
What really set Jet Set Radio apart from its contemporary titles, though, was the unique graphic style: this game, in fact, kickstarted the use of cel-shading as a common practice for japanese titles, with games like Suda51’s Killer 7, No More Heroes and Killer Is Dead, Kojima’s Zone of the Enders 2 and the more recent Arksys’ Guilty Gear Xrd and Hard Corps: Uprising using this technique to both give the models a smoother look with relatively low effort and to emulate 2D animation with the added “visual depth” of tridimensional models.
A part of the game’s visual charm, though, must be attributed to the various actual graffiti artists who designed the in-game graffiti: people like Eric Haze (who also did album covers for the Beastie Boys and Eric Haze), K-Chap, Chikpon, Enas and Higuchin, who, in a situation similar to WipEout with The Designers Republic, managed to make the in-game art actually cool by…well…designing it like actual art.
About the OST, it’s generally a bit hit and miss: it shoots REALLY wide, showing off Hideki Naganuma talent in covering a lot of genres, and it’s backed up by a quite a lot of other artists, with the NA version getting in even Rob Zombie and Cold…so yeah, there’s gonna be at least three songs you love, but also three songs you’ll probably won’t like. What I can say for sure that it’s just the weirdest collection of tracks to actually represent the zeitgeist of its time I have ever listened, and even if at first I was a bit reluctant, even the “bad” tracks eventually grew on me
In a nutshell, Jet Set Radio is both the kind of game to play when wanting to mellow down after a particularly intense session, without paying much attention to the score, just to focus on looking stylish and listening some funky beats, or a Speedrunner’s/Score Attacker’s dream AND nightmare, with levels seemingly designed to drive people insane (and again, the NA version is particularly good at that, with two new stages added to appeal more to western audience, one of them still making speedrunners tear their hair off to this day).
Also, as if it wasn’t obvious enough, there is already an indie studio taking inspiration from both this game and the acclaimed parkour simulator, Mirror’s Edge, to make their own hybrid hypebeast of a game: look up Hover: Revolt of Gamers for more details, it’s on Steam Early Access.
I hope you found this “review” entertaining and somewhat insightful, this is The 3rd Runner, off to settle a score with Grind Square.