In the year 2000, the Dreamcast-loving public (as if there were any other kind) were introduced to a secret city (“you won’t find it on any map”) called Tokyo-to, and a pirate radio station called Jet Set Radio. Tokyo-to is a place in which it is perfectly acceptable to use firearms, tear gas and SWAT teams in response to a fifteen-year old skating on magnetic roller blades and spraying a little graffiti. Twelve years on, and it has become another of the iconic titles that made SEGA’s last console one of its most beloved, but has it held up for twelve years, or has the HD re-release just shown the cracks in the cel-shaded wall?
First and foremost, since we’ve mentioned them, Jet Set Radio is absolute proof that the cel-shaded style of design never, ever ages. Yes, it’s been made to a higher resolution to better suit modern TVs, but Jet Set Radio looks flawless. Sure, character models for pedestrians are a little bit… dated, but other than that you’re unlikely to find very much that wouldn’t look at home on a HD console today. It has certainly aged better than other entries in SEGA’s Dreamcast revival projects (like Crazy Taxi) and even looks better than parts of even the best of Sony’s HD PS2 classics collection. If you’ve ever wondered if games like Borderlands will look as stylish as they do now in a decade’s time, you only need to see Jet Set Radio in motion to fully answer that question.
But that’s where Jet Set Radio stops shining. I hate to say it – this was the one Dreamcast classic I never got to play in the day and I was looking forward to finally getting my teeth into it – and it sounds slightly more harsh that it actually is, but Jet Set Radio is definitely a game that has been improved in iterations since its original release, and going back seems like something has been taken away. This isn’t a fault with the game itself, and it’s the same reason Sonic Adventure, Crazy Taxi and the others got such negative reviews at their launch. The Dreamcast did a lot of things first, but it’s sometimes difficult to see it in that context when graphically it has aged so well.
Each level is made up of a couple of tasks. First, spray paint over opponent gang’s tags (I’ve got all the lingo). This is done by hitting a single button for smaller patches, but on the bigger signs you’ll enter into a quick timed mini-game in which you must move the analogue stick in a certain way to score extra points. Secondly, you must avoid police interference. As you’re bombarded with tear gas, hit by motorcycles and bullets, you’ll lose health, and when you’re out of health, you’ll need to start the level again. There’s also a time limit you compete against, and several areas in game where you can “accidentally” exit a level, which can be infuriating when hit by a car and forced out of the level.
Individually, levels are fun, and I’ve had a great time playing one per day, trying to achieve as quick a time as possible in each area before moving on. I can’t imagine playing the whole game in a single sitting – the levels just seem too similar to me – but as a game to complete over a number of weeks (or even months), you can’t top it. I can forgive the small annoyances in level design; I can’t forgive the huge annoyances in control.
I fully realize that to a Jet Set Radio veteran, somebody who has played repeatedly since 2000 and has mastered everything on offer, this is going to sound like the complaint of somebody without the time or patience to truly “understand” the game. That’s fine: I don’t think the controls make Jet Set Radio unplayable, but there have been times at which I’ve been ready to slaughter small puppies, kittens, or children. The problem is that the controls are a little too sensitive. Your character will move rather slowly (although you can build up speed on a long straight with plenty of grind points), but your control of his direction is a little too pinpoint, especially when it comes to jumping.
If you’re even a little bit off when going up a ramp, you’ll miss what you were aiming for entirely. This is true even if you accidentally tap it at the last second or if your finger shakes when pushing the analogue stick forward. Yes, it’s doable and you do get used to it the more you play, but it isn’t the most accessible thing in the world and I can see some people – mostly those unclouded by nostalgia – giving up before giving it their all.
Talking of nostalgia, this review wouldn’t be complete without a quick mention of the soundtrack. Jet Set Radio is famous (infamous?) for its soundtrack of thirty songs across multiple genres. These are thirty songs you may never want to hear again once you’re finished playing. For the most part, they’re upbeat and fun, and there are even several you may listen to outside of the game, but once you’ve heard the same sample time and time again, you’ll probably resign yourself to being vaguely positive about the whole experience and not hearing any of it again until the next time you play through Jet Set Radio. I know there are people out there that love it – but there have been times during which I’ve been ready to turn off the game based on the repetition of music alone.
Jet Set Radio was a fantastic game, and I say that having barely played it in the twelve years between the game’s initial release and its re-release this year. It’s no longer a fantastic game; it’s been replaced by games with better control schemes, crisper action sequences, and better AI. It’s a relic, an interesting example of the games we used to play. That alone can make it worth your time alone, even if you didn’t get to play it in the day, but you have to go in with a certain frame of mind and the knowledge that things have largely changed for the better. If you can play it for what it was, there’s an awful lot of game on offer.