Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jet Set Radio

Year: 2000
Developer: Smilebit
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Dreamcast (originally); now available on Game Boy Advance, PC, PSN, XBLA, Android and iOS
Metacritic score: 94 (original DC version only)
VGChartz sales to date:  Unknown

Some games are are bogged down by their idiosyncrasies, letting their quirkiness and unique kinks distract so much from the actual gameplay that they can be more enjoyable to watch then play.  It's a rare game that can embrace those idiosyncrasies without being overwhelmed by them, and Jet Set Radio is just such a game.  Originally released as Jet Grind Radio in the U.S. because of copyright issues, the game was quick to grab attention from both the press and gamers when it was first revealed.  With it's bright cel-shaded animation, funky soundtrack loaded with catchy beats and fast-paced graffiti tagging gameplay this is a title that definitely stands out from a crowd.  Graffiti tagging is really the soul of the game, but it's focus on constant motion through grinding and pulling off tricks adds a welcome dose of frenzied action to the equation.  Jet Set Radio is in many ways a great game because of it's flaws, not in spite of them.

Developed by Sega's in-house studio Smilebit, JSR wasn't technically the first game to use cel-shading, but it was arguably the first to do it well and it set a standard still felt in games like No More Heroes and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.  At the time there was nothing else that looked quite like it, combining traditional polygons with a style of flat animation that gave the impression of a comic book come alive.  This style perfectly matched the game's focus on graffiti art and made for a natural connection between what your character was doing onscreen and how you experienced it.  Despite the stern warning screen on startup, graffiti tagging isn't seen as a crime but a form of artistic expression which was a fairly radical idea back before anyone heard of Banksy or Sheperd Fairey.  Skating around collecting spray cans and tagging the level doesn't deface it, but adds more color and vibrancy to the area.  Smaller tags can be sprayed while performing tricks, but bigger murals trigger a series of analog stick gestures you need to match.  Screw up and it will cost you extra paint, while getting the rhythm of it right will net bigger scores.  Completing the package is the truly enjoyable soundtrack composed of a fun mix of funk, hip hop, J-pop, rock and jazz elements.  The Tony Hawk series may have given you licensed tunes, but the huge number of in-house tracks found in JSR prove to be far less annoying and repetitive over an extended gaming session.                

This is gonna take a lot of paint
The story takes place in the city of Tokyo-to which for some reason is described as an "unknown Asian country" in the introduction's English translation, despite most of the in-game billboards being in Japanese and advertising prices in Yen.  Within this country that is totally not Japan, young punks called "Rudies" are put down by the fuzz for just wanting to express themselves through skating, graffiti and some really kick-ass tunes.    In Jet Set Radio's version of the world, inline skating is still cool and street gangs mostly limit themselves to acts of vandalism and public disturbance.  Despite the noticeable lack of drive-by shootings and crack dealing, the authorities take the rather extreme response of sending in everything from riot police to attack choppers to try and shut down all the dangerously youthful self-expression going on.  As the founding member of the GG gang, your goal is to grow your gang, defend your turf and spray over tags from rival gangs, all of which is helpfully narrated by Professor K, DJ of the eponymous Jet Set Radio which acts as a sort of gangland Walter Cronkite, not unlike the DJ from the classic film The Warriors.  Also there's some complicated backstory involving a magical record and a greedy businessman trying to take over the world, but I might have been hallucinating that aspect of the game given how little impact it has.

Look I know it must suck for the guy whose car you just tagged, but I think this is a little overkill

The game starts off with you controlling main protagonist Beat as he recruits new members Gum and Tab in a brief tutorial.  Each stage consists of a few square blocks of city streets comprising a variety of landscapes that include surface streets, parks and sewer systems.  Each of the three city sectors have their own feel with your home turf Shibuya-cho being a typical downtown cityscape while Benten-cho is a late night entertainment district and Kogane-cho is a seaside town at sunset.  Playing as any unlocked member of your crew, your goal is to find and tag the designated spots before the timer runs out.  Attempting to thwart your wanton destruction of property is the trigger-happy Captain Onishima and he won't hesitate to call in the big guns for backup as you tag more spots.  There's no way to fight back, but you can outrun them by grinding on rails and other environmental objects and using your speed boost.  The boost has a limited amount of juice, but can be recharged by pulling tricks by jumping while grinding.  If you take too many hits it can end your run early, so keep an eye out for health pick ups that (confusingly) look just like spray cans.  Unlike the paint, these health kits don't respawn so try not to spend too much time eating pavement.  

Make sure you get some distance on the goon squad chasing you before starting a tag, they aren't about to politely wait until you finish

Raise you hand if you owned a Dreamcast?  If the five of you who raised your hands would like to form a support group in the comments please go right ahead.  As we've previously discussed there were a number of factors that conspired to limit sales of the Dreamcast.  That's a damn shame because Sega's swan song was an incredibly fun console that foreshadowed much of today's gaming landscape.  It also means that a lot of gamers missed out on a lot of really great titles that were Dreamcast exclusives, including Jet Set Radio.  Reviews at the time praised the game for it's style and concept, but also raised some criticism over the somewhat wonky physics and the simplistic controls. Reviewers cited both these issues, comparing them unfavorably to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater which debuted the previous year.  This may be why even accounting for the limited install base, JSR didn't sell as well as other hit Dreamcast games.    

While most reviewers didn't let the control issues impact their overall impressions too strongly, this is one area where the game hasn't aged gracefully.  With just one button to perform tricks there's little depth and it can be hard to chain grinds together because of hiccups in transitioning from one object to another.  It's a shame because the level design lends itself naturally to free-flowing and continuous grinding when the controls don't get in the way.  Aside from this shortcoming, my only real gripe with the game is when a passing car hits you and you land on it's hood, forcing you to watch helplessly you're zipped out the level's exit.  Experiencing this again triggered flashbacks of hurled controllers, quite a danger with the Dreamcast especially when they were fully loaded with two VMU's.

You could do some serious damage with one of these bad boys
It's safe to say anyone with a JSR itch can find plenty of ways to scratch it.  When Sega quit the console business for good in 2001 they wisely opted to continue profiting from their existing software lineup even though it meant doing business with their former rivals.  This has been a boon for all those long-distance admirers of JSR because after many long years it's now available on just about every platform out there.  A downsized port came to Game Boy Advance in 2003 but was a far cry from it's namesake.  It wasn't until 2012 that we got a proper HD remake available on PSN, Xbox Live Arcade and Steam along with mobile versions for iOS and Android.  Though still saddled with cumbersome controls (and some bugs reported in the mobile versions) the game has never looked so good.  While some older cartoon-styled games like Sega's own Crazy Taxi look dated, JSR still looks fresh and eye-popping despite being released around the same time.
It's not all happy fun times though, as JSR has been absent from new titles outside of a few cameo appearances in other Sega games.  There was a sequel that came out for Xbox in 2002 but it sold poorly despite good reviews.  Smilebit now exists as Sega Sports Japan and mainly churns out Mario & Sonic Olympic tie-in games.  If we do see another Jet Set game it will need to reinvent its mechanics without harming its unique style.  There have simply been too many good skating games released to ignore the improvements they've made in physics and trick controls.  But Sega has shown a willingness to dip into their catalog before, so maybe if the HD remake does well the series will get another shot.  Surely they can find a better use for Beat and Gum then just mash-up sports games, right?      

Er...right.  Moving on then...
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

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