SEGA’s cult classic graffiti-and-skating game has its share of frustrations and archaic design choices, but its ambition and fantastic core win out to make an essential experience.
|Franchise||Jet Set Radio|
|Genre||3D Platfomer; Sports|
World-building & Story
The streets of Tokyo-to, a state ruled by a totalitarian government who seem to want to stop any form of expression, are roamed by various gangs of youths who graffiti the walls to make their mark on the world. Jet Set Radio follows a new gang, the GG’s, set up by a boy called Beat who aims to bring a new form of expression to the city.
Plot is rather disjointed in Jet Set Radio, mainly told by interjections by pirate radio DJ Professor K between each set of levels. He’ll tell you what’s going on in Tokyo-to between all of the three districts, but it’s sometimes a little difficult to keep up with who everyone is and what’s happening. It does eventually settle on a central idea involving the Rokkaku Corporation and their power-mad leader and once this happens things get far more interesting, ensuring that the game ends on a particularly high note.
Characterisation is rather broad – each member of the GG’s features a funky design that almost pops off the screen, but you’ll know very little about them otherwise – not unexpected given this is an arcade-style game, but still. The exceptions are Combo and Cube who kick off the game’s second act – their backstory provides some much-needed insight into this world and they worked well as new members of the gang (although I would note that the bad guy Captain Onishima was very enjoyable with his increasingly frustrated yelling over the radio each level).
What Jet Set Radio does absolutely nail is its world – Tokyo-to is a fascinating place full of neon-lit cities, beautiful San Francisco-inspired streets and even a fishing village filled with shacks and huts to explore. Just existing in it is an absolute delight and it’s the kind of place I’m going to remember for a long, long time – surely the best indicator of what a well-designed world it is.
Presentation & Sound
An absolute audiovisual treat, Jet Set Radio was one of the first cel-shaded games at the time of its release and that stylistic choice has ensured it has aged extraordinarily well, aided by a solid Blitworks touch-up here.
Jet Set Radio is an undeniably stylish title that embraces its graffiti influence in full force, permeating every aspect of its presentation. Menus look like scrawls of writing on a wall while characters feature crazy street clothing with an array of vibrant colours (tonnes of bright greens and yellows) and accessories accentuating their outfits. There’s a funky style to everything and that means just looking at the game, now more than ever, is a real joy.
These crazy designs of the main cast contrast with the enemies you’ll come across who are decidedly more bland – dressed in blacks and greys, they represent the totalitarian state they work for and this works well within the theme of the game. Sure, at times the modelling can look a little archaic (compared to something like Jak & Daxter which released around the same time, there’s a lack of detail and things like mouth animations are missing) but otherwise they’re a very impressive feat.
Environmentally, Jet Set Radio fares even better. There’s a gorgeous selection of areas here that are surprisingly open, allowing you to go wherever you want, meaning you can take some gorgeous screenshots from a variety of places. They all feel like urban Tokyo too, whether it be the beautiful and bustling neon-lit shopping streets or the hidden train tracks just under the city ripe for graffiti sprawling, the detail seems unparalleled (at least for the time) and really made Tokyo-to feel like a living, breathing place.
For all the game achieves its massive ambitions, there have been some concessions made presumably to get it running on the Dreamcast hardware that have made their way across to Vita. There’s some odd texture pop-in where far-off elements suddenly change completely but more egregious is some crashing I experienced that I assume is a Vita-specific problem – the title would freeze up my console completely that was eventually rectified by starting the game, closing it then restarting before every play session, which was an inconvenience that could’ve done with a patch.
Sound is, as you can imagine, a massive part of the package – music is a funky selection of tracks that mix weird beats and instruments to fantastic effect, creating a truly memorable selection. Sound effects are arcade-y and there’s voice acting from Professor K and Onishima, but otherwise Jet Set Radio doesn’t give voices to its main players which isn’t a deal-breaker, but I’d have liked to have heard them.
Gameplay & Content
Jet Set Radio makes one of the worst first impressions I’ve ever come across in gaming relative to the fun that awaits if you keep going. There’s a real gem here that’s unlike anything else I’ve played on any console, but you’ll have to power through a tonne of frustration to get there.
It all starts with quite possibly the most useless tutorial I’ve ever come across, that starts out simple but quickly progresses to high-level stuff and offers no feedback on whether you’re getting things right or not. It’s maddening and I can honestly say that you’re better off attempting the tutorial once you’ve completed the game rather than at the beginning as you have more of a chance of doing it then – which is a bizarre position to be in.
Jet Set Radio is at its core an extreme sports game (in-line skating) that doesn’t control anything like you’d expect if you’ve played any similar titles (such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater), instead blazing its own momentum-based path. Your chosen character skates with one analogue stick and can get a minor speed boost with the R trigger, plus you can centre the camera by pressing the L trigger and grind on rails and ledges simply by jumping on them with the X button.
Complexity comes in with the fact that simply jumping on a grind rail won’t do it – you’ll need speed going into it, to approach it at the right angle and you’ll need to continue jumping to pull off tricks to keep the momentum going. It’s a very difficult system to get to grips with and even towards the end I found I was constantly fighting with the controls – the biggest issue is that there’s no ‘sticky’ element to jumping on a rail (like in InFAMOUS or Sly Cooper) meaning you’ll constantly just leap past your target and have to line up again which is just infuriating.
The other control issue comes in the form of Jet Set Radio’s main mechanic – spraying graffiti. Your standard objective on any level will be to find a number of points on the map and spray them with graffiti (you have to explore around to collect cans to do this, which does well in giving you a feel for the area), which is done by triggering a quick-time event. I found these to be hugely unresponsive until I figured out they wanted me to do it in an exaggerated and drawn-out way, which seemed rather un-necessary (perhaps this is just an issue with the Vita’s analogue sticks?).
Still, exploring around Jet Set Radio’s world is where the fun truly starts coming in – each level is basically a sandbox, full of hidden routes to explore and grind rails to find. Control issues aside, I had an absolute tonne of fun just poking around them and doing things like climbing up the back of a billboard then grinding down to the floor and collecting paint cans along the way, or leaping between rooftops to reach the graffiti soul (the game’s collectables) at the end. There’s a level of freedom that’s liberating here, even if you are against the clock.
It’s not as simple as just looking around though – you’ll have to contend with state-enforced resistance who want to stop your graffiti crusade including police officers, dogs, helicopters and eventually even tanks. When these show up you’ll need to escape and quickly, which is where the frustrating controls come in again – a missed jump can mean taking a tonne of damage as you scrounge to find a new route, but pulling it off can feel incredibly liberating (the lack of a mini-map hurts in this regard too – you have to open the menu then the map, which feels archaic).
To mix things up you’ll have to undertake other missions that involve things like simple Simon-says games (following the actions of another skater to get them to join your gang) or tagging the backs of a rival gang to eliminate them. The latter is particularly frustrating as the graffiti tag button is also the camera centre button, which means you’ll lose your sense of location every time you tag one – I have to wonder if this was an issue on the original Dreamcast version or if it had a separate button.
Still, let me clarify here – despite all the objective problems I’ve listed here, I still had an enormous amount of fun with Jet Set Radio, the kind I haven’t had for a good while with a videogame. It starts out extremely poorly and you might even be tearing your hair out for the first few hours, but it reaches a point where the rhythm begins to make sense and you’ll finally be able to string together the movement combos to glide across the map, blazing a trail of graffiti along the way – it makes the latter half a complete joy and I honestly didn’t want it to end by the time I was done.
There’s a good 7 or so hours of content here and incentive to come back and collect graffiti souls or chase high scores – although you’ll find you replay a number of areas along the way which can become slightly stale by the end. Still, it feels a good value proposition on Vita not least thanks to the enjoyment you’ll have and it’s one I can wholeheartedly recommend as long as you’re willing to put a bit of time in to get to understand what it’s offering.
Don’t be fooled by Jet Set Radio’s first impressions – underneath the difficult controls and archaic design choices lies one of the most inventive and enjoyable games not just on Vita, but in gaming. It’s the kind of colourful, enjoyable escapist trip that you really don’t see anymore and once the rhythm clicks for you there’s an incredible time to be had that’s well worth checking out – just be prepared for some frustration along the way.