Jet Set Radio (formerly Jet Grind Radio), Shenmue, and Crazy Taxi are the three games I most associate with the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast. They all personified the system in that they were new, quirky, and undeniably Japanese.
Since the Dreamcast’s premature demise, the stature of Japanese developers has slowly fallen in the eyes of many Western gamers. The re-release of Jet Set Radio brings us back to a time where invention and whimsy were acceptable in the AAA space, but have the mechanics aged as well as the aesthetics?
Jet Set Radio is a weird game in pretty much every way. The visual aesthetic is cel-shaded and colorful, and it has aged very well. Cel-shading, along with hand-drawn animation, age the most gracefully of all videogame visual styles, and the HD treatment is predictably kind to Jet Set Radio. Upscaling the world removes most of the jagged edges from the game, and as a whole the already vibrant graphics are made even more distinctive. The character designs are hilariously exaggerated and bold. Jet Set Radio looks like graffiti in motion, and the art style helps the game stand out, even 12 years later.
The music in the game is brilliant. Funky background music is highlighted by small stabs as the player completes tasks throughout the world. Everything has a certain rhythm to it, and a well-executed skating line sounds as nice as it looks. The voice acting isn’t wonderful, but that’s to be expected for a game that came out in 2000. The sound does have a strange hotness to it, however, as if all of it was recorded into a microphone that had its sensitivity turned way up. The sound has a tendency to distort and crack at the default settings. It’s not a major issue, but for a game that is so intrinsically built around sound, it’s disappointing that the implementation here is somewhat sloppy. It doesn’t detract from the overall package, however, as Jet Set Radio still sounds great.
Where the game falls apart is in its mechanics and controls. Throughout the game you will control any one of a number of graffiti artists, and you explore an open area, “tagging” different objectives while running from police and fighting with rival gangs. The skating is sticky in strange places, as you magnetically gravitate towards rails when landing near them. However, this feels necessary since the jumping is so weightless and floaty. It feels like the game is taking place on the moon, as light presses of the jump button will send your character rocketing into the sky, surely overshooting whatever you meant to land on. The game is also a little slower than it perhaps should be, as there isn’t a very good sense of speed. I understand that speeding up troublesome controls would exacerbate the problem, but there are some stretches of the game where you’re skating in a somewhat straight line, and the game feels like it’s holding back on allowing you to go as fast as you might want to.
The tagging mechanic is also problematic. The feedback on the stick movements feels delayed, and there’s a hesitation that is caused by this delay that causes players to distrust what they’re doing. The inputs required aren’t overly complex, but everything feels sluggish which causes you to fail more often than it feels like you should. This was a problem for me in the Dreamcast version as well, so it’s just a fundamental design flaw in the game, not something caused by the porting. If you didn’t have a problem with Jet Set Radio in the past, you won’t here.
Sega went all out with the extra content in this package, and there is a lot to see and do for your $15 dollars. The main game offers about 8-10 hours worth of gameplay, and there are multiple hidden goodies to find and earn throughout the world, as well as leaderboard support. There’s also a bundled documentary and bonus tracks from Jet Set Radio Future.
The rerelease of Jet Set Radio fixes a lot of problems with the original game. Separating the camera and tagging controls is a godsend thanks to the Xbox 360′s dual-analog setup, and the game has been able to finally fulfill its visual promise in HD. However, legacy issues persist, and the subject matter may not be for everyone. If you have an affinity for Japanese culture or a fondness of the days of the Dreamcast, this will be a welcome trip down memory lane. If neither of those descriptors fit you, you might want to give the trial a go, but a sight-unseen purchase is not recommended.
A copy of Jet Set Radio for the Xbox 360 was provided to us by Sega for the purposes of this review