Jet Set Radio Review
Posted by Damien McFerran
Get your skates on
It’s genuinely hard to believe that Jet Set Radio is 12 years old. To look at the game now, you’d swear blind it was a modern release; the gloriously inventive cel-shaded visuals (well, they were innovative back in 2000, anyway) still possesses an alluring quality, and the quirky soundtrack is virtually assured to get the toes of even the most grumpy music-hater tapping. As such, it’s the ideal title to revisit in HD, so we’re immensely happy that Sega has done just that.
Best described as a “graffiti-em-up” with in-line skating thrown into the mix, Jet Set Radio sees you dashing around the blindingly colourful streets of Tokyo-to on your blades, performing stunts, tagging designated areas with your spray can and avoiding the aggression of the local police force. Led by the malevolent and trigger-happy Captain Onishima, the armed forces of Tokyo-to have been given orders to put down your antics with extreme prejudice - a fact which is made all the more disconcerting by your inability to retaliate effectively; you can stun some of the enemies in the game, but this isn't a permanent solution.
Aside from the introduction of a better camera control (thanks to the Dual Shock pad’s second analogue stick, which the Dreamcast lacked), everything remains the same in terms of interface. You can grind along pretty much any surface in the game, a mechanic which never loses its appeal even when you’re several hours in. Tagging is achieved by tapping a button and then following on-screen gesture prompts. These are relatively simple for the smaller tag areas, but for the larger ones you’ll have to combine several different movements to completely execute the tag - something that is easier said than done when you have an attack helicopter bristling with missiles bearing down on your position.
Each level has areas - denoted by red arrows - which you must tag in order to succeed, and when you consider the game is dictated by a strict time limit, it soon becomes quite a stern challenge. Mix in the rival police units and the overwhelming temptation to showboat by performing death-defying stunts off every vertical edge and you’ve got a title which calls for some serious time management on behalf of the player. As you pick off the various tag points in each mission, the level of law enforcement escalates, meaning that the last few tagging operations are made much harder because you're likely to be surrounded by hostiles.
The time limit was one of the first things that Sega changed when it created the Xbox sequel, Jet Set Radio Future. The jury is still out on whether or not this alteration makes for a superior game, but it does drastically change the way you approach the challenge. In JSRF, you have all the time in the world to go about your business, which is swell if all you want to do is show off, but part of what makes the original so gripping is lost. In short, we’re all in favour of the time limit in Jet Set Radio; it may lead to some rather frustrating moments, but it also keeps the experience tight and tense.
Visually, Jet Set Radio looks stunning in HD - quite an accomplishment when you consider it was never originally intended to be viewed at such a high resolution. Sega has successfully scaled-up all of the assets, with only a few of the textures looking a little fuzzy. It’s a testament to the vision of SmileBit (the in-house Sega development studio responsible for the Dreamcast original) that Jet Set Radio holds up so well when compared to modern titles.
The same story applies to the audio; the chaotic mixture of J-Pop, hard rock, hip-hop and funk sounds absurd on paper, but when placed within the cartoon-like context of Tokyo-to’s graffiti-lined streets, it just seems to make perfect sense. And, like the graphics, the aural side of the package feels timeless. Whereas many games from the late ‘90s sound hopelessly dated in musical terms, there’s no such issue here.
There are a few annoyances to report, however. While the interface is mostly decent, performing precise movements at low speed is often much harder than it should be. As strange as it sounds, it’s actually harder to land a grind when you’re moving slowly than it is when you’re dashing along at breakneck speed. And despite the ability to control the camera via the right-hand stick, there are still far too many moments when it feels like you’re fighting against it - usually when you’re in a tight spot and being chased by unfriendly cops baying for your blood.
These problems might seem significant, but they quickly evaporate during play. Jet Set Radio is just so much fun and possesses such a convincingly cool appeal that you’re too busy smiling from ear-to-ear to allow your enjoyment to become mired in such relatively minor criticisms.
Time is usually far from kind when it comes to re-experiencing retro classics, but Jet Set Radio is one release which doesn’t seem to have aged a day. The HD upgrade has given an already visually impressive title a fresh lick of paint, and the fact that Sega has been able to secure almost all of the original soundtrack means that it sounds as good as it looks. Fuse this effortlessly cool presentation with some engaging and challenging gameplay and you’ve got one of the few genuinely timeless classics of the past few decades. Granted, there are a few irritations present which really should have been rectified in the upgrade process, but they're not deal breakers by any stretch of the imagination. Jet Set Radio went down as a cult favourite but a commercial failure when it originally launched back in 2000; we sincerely hope this download release can remedy that sorry situation.