Long before marketing research and return-on-investment projections dictated its project decisions, Sega's various development studios appeared to make whatever they pleased. During this time, the company produced some of the most fun and creative games around – and also some of the weirdest and most outrageous – only to appeal to almost no one outside of a small but fiercely loyal group of Sega enthusiasts.
But those Sega fans never did shut up about how awesome Sega's games were in its creative heyday. Fast forward several years and a couple of corporate restructurings later, the digital era has provided Sega with a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to give the rest of us a glimpse of those crazy, imaginative titles that fans have been raving about. And with an HD re-release on XBLA and PSN, Jet Set Radio is one of the craziest and most imaginative of the bunch.
Jet Set Radio released on the Dreamcast twelve years ago and there wasn't anything else quite like it. Jet Set Radio can be classified as an action game with some platforming elements sprinkled in. The concept is bizarre but simple: as a member of one of Tokyo's numerous in-line skating graffiti gangs, you must skate around the city, spray painting (or “tagging”) numerous targets to take over rival gangs' turf. Meanwhile, you must evade an increasingly hostile police force, led by the zealous police captain Onishima, that will stop at nothing to end your shenanigans – collateral damage from helicopters, super soldiers and tanks apparently notwithstanding.
Not content with just having an unorthodox premise, Jet Set Radio presents it as outrageously as possible. Grinding a fine line of retro funkiness and modern hip-hop styles, Jet Set Radio is built on a unique foundation of entrancing music, dazzling visuals and unabashed silliness - the latter of which is never more apparent than with the game's energetic, bad joke-spewing emcee (narrator), DJ Professor K. The characters, and by extension the game itself, dare to be obnoxious at times, yet as groan-inducing as the dialogue can be, Jet Set Radio remains boldly confident that its zany antics will ultimately work to its benefit - and they do. Jet Set Radio pulls no punches with its absurdities and lets its presentational elements work together to create an immensely charming package that few games would ever get away with today.
As the most vital element of Jet Set Radio's appeal, the soundtrack is easily the game's greatest asset. It's simply brilliant. Fans of the original Dreamcast version will be pleased to know that nearly every tune they remember is very much in-tact. Even better, it still holds up as one of the most vibrant and fitting video game soundtracks out there. The game treats players to a perfect blend of catchy hip-hop, rock, electronica and dance grooves that befit the experience perfectly.
The third and final pillar of Jet Set Radio's presentation lies in its visuals, which have also aged well. As a pioneer of the 'cell-shading' graphical technique of flattening polygons into solid colors while outlining objects and character models with a black ink-like style, Jet Set Radio's cartoony aesthetic translates well to HD. While some occasional flickering polygons and blurry textures still stand out, Jet Set Radio's visuals are sharp and vivid on the whole.
Jet Set Radio's biggest gameplay strength is its level design. Tokyo's three fictional districts are nicely varied. Each are split up into multiple intricately structured sections and play host to Jet Set Radio's individual stages. Later on, these sections cleverly connect to form large, expansive levels that are ripe for exploring and tagging. The calculated placement of spray cans (which you must collect before tagging) and graffiti targets reward players for being smart about how they navigate each stage. Tag targets vary in size, ranging from small (which require only one quick spray) to large (which require several tag maneuvers and consumes several paint cans, leaving you potentially vulnerable to pursuers). These elements encourage prioritizing targets accordingly which, along with performing nifty trick combos, reward players with higher score rankings and leaderboard standings.
Unfortunately, Jet Set Radio's outstanding presentation does not enhance its gameplay as much as it compensates for it. While Jet Set Radio mostly succeeds at being a fun game to play, it is hampered by some frustrating quirks that may not be easy to overlook. Jet Set Radio's twitchy controls quickly spoil some of the fun. Aligning jumps and rail combos can be more of an exercise in patience than precision. This frustration is compounded by a camera that doesn't always adapt to your perspective, turning some jumps into a leap of faith. Dual analog stick support attempts to rectify this by adding camera control to the right stick but it doesn't work while airborne and rotates too slowly to be useful for anything more than leisurely exploration.
Exacerbating these issues is a rather perplexing control decision: the 'center camera' and 'tag' functions are both mapped to the same button. This is annoying in situations where you're tagging rapidly or are quickly spraying targets while passing by. The ability to customize the button layout of these functions would have been a simple remedy but the game does allow you to disable the 'center camera' function altogether, which is somewhat helpful.
Apart from a graffiti editor and time-trial runs for each stage, the experience is short-lived. Jet Set Radio is enjoyable enough to warrant additional play-throughs but gamers will see all there is to see in a few short sittings. As a $10/800 MSP download, Jet Set Radio delivers an adequate amount of value but it doesn't go above and beyond in offering an abundance of extra content.
Jet Set Radio has its failings: it's brief and occasionally frustrating, but the value of its outstanding visual, aural and creative assets should not go understated. Jet Set Radio is a unique and largely enjoyable experience that most players should find a lot to like. At the very least, Jet Set Radio is a relic of a bygone era when game designers had free reign to only make games they wanted to play, taking solace in the hope that a few devoted fans would appreciate their work for years to come.