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Jet Grind Radio

As a reviewer, it’s important to keep your bias on a short leash. There are times when it becomes difficult to keep things to yourself, though. After experiencing a game like Jet Grind Radio, it’s almost impossible for me to contain my excitement and write a straightforward review breaking down the parts of the game and comparing them to whatever else is available on the market. The problem is, there’s no reference point for Jet Grind Radio.

Smilebit has effectively created a game that’s about art. Although Sega’s careful to make the distinction between graffiti as an act of vandalism and an act of art in an in-game disclaimer, it doesn’t change the fact that Jet Grind Radio glorifies tagging as a rebellious form of expression. The plot hinges on youthful disobedience, pitting players up against rival factions whom fill their native locations with spray paint. You’ll be joining the GGs, an ever-growing band of outcasts with lots of personality.

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Challenge is almost entirely predicated by the availability of spray cans, the placement of sometimes out of reach areas you’ll have to tag, and the government stepping in to put an end to the madness. Empowered by rocket skates, you’ll be able to traverse difficult landscapes with ease (or at least that‘s the intention), utilizing your skates to pull off grinds and wall-rides throughout the suburbs of Tokyo-to. It admittedly sounds pretty absurd. Narrations are provided in-between levels by an energetic DJ called Professor K. He mans the underground pirate radio station dubbed “Jet Set Radio”, from which the game initially drew its title.

It’s fitting that as a game centered around artistic expression and rebellion against social norms, Jet Grind Radio was the first video game to ever utilize cel shading in a three dimensional environment. Cel shading has added such a unique, fun quality to JGR ensuring that it will never age, visually. While many developers seek to accomplish some kind of realistic visual appeal, this game presents another side of the coin which has previously been explored in titles such as Comix Zone, albeit never quite as liberally. What this style looks like is a whole bunch of clashing vibrant colors, with each object being contained by heavy black outlines. It’s a classic Disney cartoon come to life, only with so much potential energy and enthusiasm put into the designs of every character and location that it’s almost tiring to look at. This is all appropriately accompanied by a killer soundtrack that ties into the idea of the pirate radio station, which plays music that can only be described as eclectic. The combination of visuals and audio have never been so effectively intertwined.

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Perhaps the one drawback of the new visual style is its occasional negative effect on the gameplay. Some camera angles can be problematic at times. The L button resets the camera behind the player, which can often misguide your timing, as you frantically attempt to escape from the military firing squads or heavy tank units. There are a select few narrow passageways that come to mind where this plays against the game every time you try to make your way through. Sometimes the overly agitating controls can add to the frustration.

For example, after you’ve cleared each set of levels with any given “gang” or group of taggers, it becomes necessary to face-off against them on their turf, spray painting three of their members, 10 times each. It seems easy enough, since they follow set paths and never deviate from them, but each member of the opposing team has to be sprayed from behind. Often, you wind up running into them, as the icon pops on the screen telling you that you’re in a good location to spray them, but you’re temporarily stunned after taking on the damage. This can be frustrating. You’re typically allotted more than enough time to get each one, but after you’ve gone through a whole run and had the last guy down to a couple more sprays left until you win, it gets kind of discouraging when you wind up losing due to the timer running down. Often times, you’ll be lined up to tag the opponent and will run straight into them, causing you to go into shock for a couple of seconds while they make their getaway and you then have to start this process over. If its not that, you’ll often find yourself catching up only to take an unintended detour, either by way of a rail you didn’t mean to land on or by hitting an object while jumping. Sometimes it can be hard to gauge where the player’s going to land or how much air time they’ll have, so this tends to happen far too often, until you get a good grip on the gameplay mechanics. Once you’ve gotten it down, you’ll be linking trick combos and grinds in endless chains. Jet Grind Radio feels different than any game out there, after you have an understanding for how the gameplay works. Before long, everything will come naturally to you and at that point, the game just flows.

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Those are my main gripes, none of which should stand in anyone’s way, if they still haven’t played the game. Jet Grind Radio is one of those games you just can’t put down and will continue to return to for many years to come. One of the really cool things about the game is the process for tagging. Sure, it’s just directional commands, but it just feels the way you’d imagine it should in a video game. There are three varying levels of difficulties for the tags, with each character differing in skill. Some characters have extremely easy tags and require far fewer spray cans in order to execute them. More adept graffiti artists can’t carry so many cans, yet require more in order to do their spraying combos (with increasingly complex directional commands, also). Graffiti spirits are scattered about each level, and once collected, they’ll unlock different tags which you’re able to change for each of the three sizes. It’s some added incentive for collection oriented people to further explore the creative level designs.

This all might sound a bit simple-minded and silly, if you’ve never heard of Jet Grind Radio before. I assure you, the plot is entirely inane and nonsensical up until the very end. That’s really not my style, I don’t like when games think they’re really funny or that they’ve got more style than they really do. However, that’s not Jet Grind Radio. It has an over-abundance of style and personality around every bend and fits all the aspects that should make up a perfect game into one tight package. This is my idea of how flawless looks, sounds, feels, and plays. It’s not so much that it gave me a new standard, but it has certainly redefined how I view innovation in gaming.

So much for containing my bias.

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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