Why Is It Good? Jet Set Radio

Why Is It Good? Jet Set Radio

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

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One of the classic ads for Jet Grind-Wait, what? You’re telling me this is what the NA version was called?

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

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Jet Set Radio’s lovely narrator, DJ Professor K.

 

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

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So you have your timer on the top right, lifebar on the top left, and Can counter on the bottom left, keep an eye for that when you’re painting over Large graffiti: those can take 7/8 cans to be completed, with a QTE specific for each character, its complexity determined by the Graffiti stat.

 

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

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Looks better than Mighty No.9, if you ask me.

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

 

 

The Point

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.

Why Is It Good? Anubis: Zone of The Enders

Why Is It Good? Anubis: Zone of The Enders

 

The year is 2001, three years after the release of Metal Gear Solid, the game that introduced gamers to movie/game hybrids, a convoluted plot straight out of a Tom Clancy book on drugs, and IA with peripheral vision and that COULD. HEAR. FOOTSTEPS. A Stealth Action experience that set a new standard for videogames, like many revolutionary titles that came out in the magical year that was ’98, and after silently crawling their way through the military compound of Shadow Moses Island, players craved more, and as soon as possible…and Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind it all, in 2001 answered to their prayers: a Metal Gear Solid 2 demo disk was included wih every copy of his brand new game, Zone of the Enders: basically Kojima’s take on Evangelion, but with less mentally damaged children and cooler mechas.

Eventually Metal Gear Solid 2 got released, violated the minds of players all over the world with its even MORE absurd plot and made, of course, even more money than the first one. So Kojima, wanting to leave the franchise open-ended, decided to go back to that semi-obscure mech franchise everybody seemed to care so much about, and decided to make a sequel to that too…after that, the world was never the same.

So, Anubis: Zone of the Enders (Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner, in the West)…why is it good? What is it that really seals the deal and makes it such a solid game? Is it the overall design and art direction that makes everything, from the D-Tier unmanned drones to the cutting-edge Orbital Frames, look like they’re the coolest of their kind? Is it the intuitive control scheme? Is it the sheer amount of content and replayability, extras included? Yes, yes, and yes, and the list could go on, so yeah, this is like finding a golden needle in a haystash full of needles, isn’t it? I say we start from the begining then, let’s analyse this a little more in-depth.

 

 

 

The first 30 minutes

 

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You’re all trapped here with me.

 

The game starts on Callisto, one of Jupiter’s moons, where our protagonist, an ex Orbital Frame pilot called Dingo Egret, now works as a Metatron miner (Metatron being an extremely valuable energy resource that powers basically everything that’s not lawnmowers and kitchen blenders): during a storm our hero follows a trail of energy signatures into a cave with his mining mecha (a lumbering pile of scrap metal that moves at the blinding speed of 15 mph), and after getting off of it to find out the source of those signatures, he literally stumbles into the cockpit of…well…you see that sick robot in the preview picture? Yeah, THAT. The Jehuty, a top of the line Super Robot built with maximum combat efficency in mind.

The cave starts shaking up, Dingo panics and starts up Jehuty by mistake, blowing up the whole cave thanks to its sheer amount of power, and has his first encounter with the Bahram Forces, a rogue militia of martian settlers that claims to fight for Mars’ indipendency, that attacks him to “get back” the Orbital Frame. Dingo, being an ex-pilot, obviously fights back, bests one of their lieutenants, infiltrates their mothership, gets shot from their leader, revived and strapped into the cockpit of Jehuty (that now doubles as a life support system) by the same lieutenant he shot down a few minutes ago…from here on out, it’s a non-stop hype train of High Speed Robot Action.

 

 

 

Plot Overview

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All the cutscenes involving human characters are animated in 2D with occasional CGI, since modelling human characters to look like this with the game engine had pretty bad results in the prequel.

 

The story premise is simple: “yo, this totally-not-evil-looking old general is actually a psycho that wants to destroy the solar system, go off him, since you’re the one strapped to the pilot seat of the best mecha in the universe…but wait, HIS mecha is actually stronger and his fortress has a wall of COMPRESSED SPACE to protect it, so you need the best weapon to ever appear in a videogame and a software update to kill him, go get them.”

This is one of the strong points, in my opinion, because being the objective is so vague there’s a lot of room for sequence variety, so one moment you’re trying to save a martian city from Spider Tanks, the other you’re downing A FLEET OF DREADNAUGHTS by shooting the super weapon mentioned earlier into their power core at POINT BLANK RANGE…but it all feels cohesive, thanks to a solid execution, and no sequence feels out of place.

 

 

 

Gameplay and Mechanics

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When something that looks like THIS is one of your normal moves, you know you’re in for a good time.

The gameplay in itself is an off-shoot of the Character Action genre (think Devil May Cry), that slightly semplifies the attack mechanics (just one button block, one to grab, one to “dash” and one to attack, and the kind of attack, long or short ranged, changes depending on your distance from the enemy) but adds a new layer of depth by including Y-axis movement (you can fly and adjust your height), maintaining the challenge of his more “grounded” cousins. Enemy encounters work like in other similar titles: you get swarmed by various enemy types whose skills compensate each other’s, and your goal is to take them out in the most efficient way possible to move on with your objective, so again, nothing extraordinary…but the flow of the game, thanks to the intuitive control scheme, is as smooth as butter and it’s a joy to play (or to look at, if we’re talking skilled players).

Most of the boss battles are also incredibly satisfying, especially from the second half of the game onwards (with one exception, but it may be a spoiler), where the game finally lets a particularly annoying recurring boss go and starts throwing at you stuff like a moon-sized Mecha Death Star and your mentor piloting a particularly ninja-ish Orbital Frame.

 

 

 

Visuals and Sound

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Jehuty, the Vitruvian Man of robots, some say.

The HUD design, clean and sleek, with his tron-esque whites and blues, is straight out of Metal Gear Solid 2, being this game the culmination of Kojima’s “Tron Period”, the soundtrack is generally solid, has its peaks in boss themes and in a couple of sequences (the Dreadnaught Battle being the prime example), and sets the tone of the game perfectly, blending trance and classical for outstanding results, and last but not least the character and world design…well…it’s Yoji Shinkawa, do yourself a favor and look that name up if you’re not familiar with his works, because if you are, i think i said enough.

 

 

 

The Point

So, to finally end this totally unbiased (i swear, i’m being the most unbiased i can talking about my favourite game of all time) analysis/review/thing, why is the damn game good, 3rd Runner? Well, i gotta say that -at least for me- it’s the sequence variety working in conjunction with near-perfect mechanics that truly takes the cake (because art style alone doesn’t get you anywhere, sadly, even if i, first, adore Shinkawa’s style): the fact that aside from the presence of combat every sequence manages to feel unique, with objectives always shifting in order to put you and your Frame’s potential to full use, is for me what makes Anubis: Zone Of The Enders such a fun and satisfying experience…and an incredible example of how well a system like this could have been used for future, way more ambitious projects, if only Konami didn’t try to bury it after an HD Collection that didn’t live up to their selling expectations.

But i can bet that out there there’s already some indie guy, if not Kojima himself, planning the resurrection of High Speed Robot Action, because in this industry nothing ever really “dies”, it just gets a new coat of paint and goes back into the fray, ask Hideki Kamiya.

I hope you found this excuse of an analysis entertaining and somewhat insightful, and if you think something’s wrong with it, feel free to say it! Feedback is always well received. 3rd Runner out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…did i mention there’s a secret Versus Mode with playable bosses and a Gradius minigame? Because those are cool too.