Looking back at Jet Set Radio, it’s immediately apparent why much of Sega’s output has been disappointing in recent years. While recent titles Sonic Generations and House Of The Dead Overkill have been mostly decent, terrible film tie-in games like Iron Man 2 and Thor, along with uninspiring sequels like Super Monkey Ball 3DS have tarnished the reputation of the once great company. Jet Set Radio is symbolic of a time in which Sega took more risks than anyone else in the industry – the Dreamcast era being notable for hosting many of Sega’s most unique and groundbreaking games like Shenmue and Crazy Taxi.
To be fair to Sega, it’s not exactly their fault. The console itself failed to sustain interest with the public (who flocked to the PS2 instead) and was thus doomed to fail, forcing the company to reinvent itself as a third party publisher to other consoles – ending a bitter rivalry with Nintendo in the process. Had the Dreamcast been more of a success, perhaps the Sega of today would be giving us Shenmue III rather than tosh like Rise Of Nightmares. Jet Set Radio is just one such title which shows Sega at its very best, produced at a time in which they were pushing the boundaries of gaming to its most unique and wonderful capabilities.
Set in a hyper stylized version of the Shibuya district in Tokyo, the game depicts a city overrun by various gangs who roam the area spraying graffiti and fighting for territory. These gangs are at odds with the various authority figures of the area, including a trigger-happy police chief named Captain Onishima – who isn’t afraid to grossly misuse police resources by dispatching S.W.A.T teams at a whim like a power driven maniac.
The gangs themselves are just one of the many inventive aspects of the game, with each one having their own distinctive style and outfits which evoke classic film ‘The Warriors’. At the start of the game players take control of Beat – a young but well established tagger, notable for his distinctive orange and green clothing as well as being leader of the GG gang. Over the course of the game, new recruits to the GG’s also become playable, including Gum and Tab, but only after beating them at challenging trick battles.
Despite the game playing pretty much identically with every different skater, each one was bursting with personality. Even rival gangs left a notable impression, such as the Poison Jam – who bizarrely dressed as blue monsters – and the Love Shockers, an all-girl group of eye-patch wearing mentalists. These weird and wonderful characters who populated the world of Jet Set Radio were a breath of fresh air to the stiff and unimaginative ones that many gamers had become accustomed to.
Likewise, it was one of the earliest games to make use of Cel-Shaded visuals – the technique which gives games a distinctive 2D hand drawn look which is reminiscent of a comic book. Even at the time it was clear that Jet Set Radio’s visuals would probably be a lasting legacy, as it looked entirely unlike anything else. In the wake since its release, hundreds of games have adopted the style, including the underrated first person shooter XIII (which is also worth playing for David Duchovny’s awful voice acting) and most recently, The Darkness II.
Due to its wildly different visual style and the Cel-Shaded graphics Jet Set Radio has perhaps garnered a reputation of being memorable more for its style rather than its gameplay. There might be a element of truth in those sentiments, but playing Jet Set Radio today is still an addictive and enjoyable experience. The timed structure of the levels, in which you are tasked to quickly find all taggable spots, collect paint cans and avoid the clutches of police results in a game which is both frustrating and addictively rewarding. Many levels will require a number of attempts before you’ll finally locate all spots and tag them in the time limit.
Thankfully, with the levels being so gorgeously designed and the gameplay so addictive, frustration never crushes the desire to have one more go – even if the difficulty is enough to test even the most skilled player. The city stages of areas like the shopping district of Shibuya-cho and the neon lit Benton-Cho are filled with hidden routes, roller-coaster style grindable rails and sprawling suburban playgrounds. Skating around and finding ridiculous paths which send you flying around rooftops and through billboards is immensely satisfying.
It also wouldn’t be nearly as good without its soundtrack – a catchy mishmash of J-Pop, dance and electro tunes from a varied selection of artists. It remains one of gaming’s greatest soundtracks, sitting proudly alongside GTA Vice City as a soundtrack that’s not only enjoyable to listen to by itself, but also develops the overall atmosphere and tone of the game. In particular, the songs by Hideki Naganuma such as Humming The Baseline and Let Mum Sleep are so catchy you’ll find yourself unable to get them out of your head for days.
Sadly, like many of the Dreamcast’s crowning achievements, Jet Set Radio is still seen as something of a cult oddity, having been experienced by an audience criminally smaller than it deserved. With Sega’s switch to software only came a launch title sequel for Microsoft’s Xbox in 2002, Jet Set Radio Future. While the game was a decent follow up – with another great soundtrack and larger more elaborate levels – it was also a step backwards, losing some of the enjoyable mechanics of the original such as tagging by tracing movements with the analogue stick.
Many fans still remain faithful that one day Sega will continue the series with a brand new installment, updating it with modern graphics and another awesome soundtrack. Meanwhile, the announcement of an Xbox Live and PSN HD remake have resurfaced, and we can only hope it fares better than the shambolic and lazy recent ports of Sonic Adventure and Crazy Taxi. Whatever the future holds for the franchise, Jet Set Radio will live on as a groundbreaking moment in gaming history, as well as a nostalgic memory of Sega’s glory days.
Why it’s a classic: Stunning Cel-Shaded visuals, awesome J-Pop soundtrack and inventive unique gameplay make Jet Set Radio an unforgettable experience.
Does it still hold up ?: Booting up the Dreamcast and throwing yourself into Tokyo-To again today, it’d perhaps be a little incredulous to say that Jet Set Radio plays perfectly. Controls are a little clunky and floaty, while the awkward camera makes tricky jumps difficult. It doesn’t really effect the fun of the game though; it’s still just as addictive and refreshingly different as it ever was.
Availability: At the time of writing it’s available brand new and sealed for a shocking 85p on Amazon Marketplace. The fact there’s still sealed copies floating around after 11 years says a lot about the fact that not enough people played the game. If you’ve got a working Dreamcast knocking around, you MUST own Jet Set Radio.
Jet Set Radio will be released on XBLA and PSN later this year.