Jet Set Radio
More than a decade ago, Jet Set Radio came to embody Sega as a whole: the quirky developer and beleaguered hardware manufacturer. Long after their success with the Genesis, Sega had to reinvent themselves with the Dreamcast and reclaim their mantel as the hip alternative to Nintendo, and now, Sony. Jet Set Radio was new, it was unique, and it was one of the last truly influential console titles Sega ever produced.
Jet Set Radio is still just as fresh as it was twelve years ago. As soon as you boot it up the game’s iconic beats grab you, and you’ve only made it to the loading screen. Even watching the game run in its demo mode from the main menu, there is an almost effortless feeling of cool that the game still exudes, and though part of it is admittedly nostalgia, it’s hard to not get caught up in its unique energy.
The biggest changes to this HD variant are the new widescreen presentation and the welcome addition of a second analogue stick. Back on the Dreamcast, Jet Set Radio was a new benchmark for visual presentation thanks to the vibrant, clean look of its cel-shading, which it also happened to more-or-less pioneer. Since Jet Set‘s looks relied more on style than geometry, this new version looks mostly as crisp and colorful as you might remember it. However, when you get up close and personal with some of the textures, character faces and graffiti tags specifically, it’s still pretty low resolution. The texture work never really spoils the experience, and in some cases even enhances the game, as it makes Inspector Onishima’s face far more haggard, and thus scarier, than even Sega initially intended.
The other major addition, as mentioned, is dual-analogue controls, which thankfully adds real camera control where there was none before. Having the seemingly simple (in this day and age) ability to free-look around environments is a god send to Jet Set and no level better represents that then Grind Square, a towering representation of New York’s Time Square, featuring pipes, rails and tag spots that climb into the sky. It must be noted though, despite being given full camera control, it’s not a wholly new camera system. When near walls or in some tight spaces the camera still cannot decide where it should be, even with your own input taken into account.
Controls in general remain finicky. Modern gamers and even vets of the original will both likely find a significant adjustment period required to understand, relearn, and possibly embrace the floaty nature of Jet Set‘s skating and grinding. Having played and mastered the controls once previously, it’s entirely possible to hit the lines you see in the stages and retain your momentum, but getting to that point can be a frequently frustrating proposition, exacerbated by the fact that you’re constantly being shot at by cops, suits, and various branches of the military.
One of the highlights of Jet Set that is often overlooked is the level design, providing a great mix of rails and gaps to traverse. Though only partially a skating game as we think of them, each stage has lines both clear and unclear to find, generally revealed by the placement of graffiti tag locations strewn about each area. Thankfully environments are mixed up by the different neighborhoods and surfaces, meaning you could find yourself skating the streets of Shibuya-cho or the rooftops of Kogane-cho, all the way to the pair of Grind City levels.
Other than its control and camera issues, there are other nuisances that sour this HD port. For the most part the frame rate across the game is solid but the Bantam Street area of Grind City frequently succumbs to crippling frame rate issues, especially when you’re tailed by the law. Race-type missions can infuriate without the simple addition of a restart option, which you’ll want once you’ve fallen behind and have no real chance of catching up. And tagging the backs of other gang members is still just as touchy as it ever was, made worse since you still lose 100% of your momentum when bumping into another skater.
Jet Set Radio is by no means a perfect game, nor was it originally, but it’s the world, its ideas and that same unique energy that keep it relevant today. There are very few games that channel street culture and capture that rebellious feeling of youth and sticking it to the man, but Jet Set is all of these things, and there’s a playfulness to Smilebit’s work that hasn’t been replicated since. Despite being a first-party title, Jet Set Radio feels like it belongs with the modern indie crowd; it’s the rare game that twelve years later, still feels ahead of its time.