Retro Review – Jet Set Radio – Dreamcast
Publisher: SEGA Developer: Smilebit Genre: Action Adventure, Sports Players: 1
Age Rating: 12+ Other console/handheld formats: PS3, Xbox 360, PS Vita
Back when SEGA were in their prime and before the PS2 hammered the final nail into their console coffin, there were many unique games released for the SEGA Dreamcast, including Shenmue, Chu Chu Rocket, Crazy Taxi, Sonic Adventure, Space Channel 5, among other such original titles. Another title that made it to the Dreamcast was the funky game Jet Set Radio (Jet Grind Radio in the US), with the premise of the game revolving around the popular craze of graffiti and in-line skating.
Jet Set Radio was originally released on November 1st 2000 and was known for its vibrant, cel-shaded art style, one of the first games to use this technique. The first part of the story follows a group of youths, known as the GG’s, as they compete against rival gangs and reclaim their territory, using graffiti as a way to express themselves by tagging over rival gang members own graffiti art and all whilst trying to be silenced by a shady government. The narrative then drastically changes as the group finds themselves caught up in a conspiracy against the sinister Goji Rokkaku, a villain who is determined to get his hands on a mysterious record known only as the “Devil’s Contract”. The cutscenes are nicely animated and are made to look like something straight out of a comic book thanks to the cel-shaded animation and sharp-edged visuals. There is little dialogue, but certain parts of the plot is narrated by Professor X, a DJ who runs the pirate Jet Set Radio station. The second part of the plot is narrated by one of the rival characters – who at this point has joined your team – as well as the DJ himself.
The plot is unnecessarily confusing and isn’t very interesting at all, especially with the introduction of each new enemy. The game perhaps could have done without such a convoluted story, one that has been made to sound more complicated than it actually is. It would have sailed on nicely with only one narrator, without needlessly adding a second. It isn’t helped by the fact that the majority, if not all, of the characters aren’t very interesting at all, and are very underdeveloped, so the player won’t really care about what is happening to them; Professor X has the majority of the screen time, during cutscenes, and is the only one who shows any sort of personality. Thankfully the gameplay more than makes up for the lack of characterisation and plot.
There are a total of 15 characters to choose from, with Beat, Gum and Tab being the initial three characters, and with other characters unlocked as the game progresses. To unlock these extra characters, firstly they offer you a challenge which you can either accept or refuse. Challenges mostly include performing tricks of increasing difficulty, or racing to and tagging a certain spot. Each character has their own statistics, comprising of Power; how many hits you can take before you are killed; Technique; the difficulty of how you spray your tag; and Graffiti; how many cans of spray you can carry. Depending on the difficulty of the levels, once unlocked, you are then able to choose the appropriate character for the job.
The levels are split into three sections: Shibuya-cho, Kogane-cho and Benton-cho, and each area has its own signature rival; The Love Shockers for Shibuya-cho; the Noise Tanks for Benton-cho and Poison Jam for Kogane-cho. Each area is also split into smaller sections, and sees you playing within each of these levels to start with, allowing you time to get used to the environments; later these smaller sections are connected, making for a more open play area, with more tags to find and more advanced enemies to avoid. As well as tagging areas, the GG’s also have to compete against the three signature rivals in order to add them their own gang roster, needing to tag the all three members of each team by chasing them and tagging them directly. The gameplay, for the most part, is very polished and it is hugely satisfying pulling off tricks, offering a lot of gameplay variety. Throughout the levels, you can also collect Graffiti Souls, small emblems which allow players to change the style of tags used in the game.
There are three different sizes of tags, with each comprising a number of different combo’s in order to successfully create. The smaller tags just see you skating by and pushing a button to spray them, but medium and large tags require a bit more effort. As mentioned, tags are created by copying control directions that appear on-screen using the analogue stick, and here, successfully copying them all can reward you with a large multiplier, adding to your score and the likelihood of a Jet rating, the highest rating. You are also able to create your own tag which is a lot of fun and makes the game more personalised, and there were probably many players that were ecstatic at the opportunity to write obscene words to use within the game.
As slick as the gameplay is, the controls at times can be quite finicky, especially the collision detection; during a trick, you are unable to stop and change direction and so you’ll find yourself thinking from time to time that you have triumphantly pulled off a cool trick, only to face-plant a wall. The controls can also be fairly unresponsive at times; just turning a character in a different direction can seem rather slow, and stopping as you skate at full speed can result in some awkward turns. At times you may also find yourself flying down into a lower part of an area that you didn’t want to go, and so will have to backtrack to where you previously were, making the gameplay slightly jarring. However, the issues with the controls do not dent any fun that can be had should you persevere, and the controls work at their best when chaining together combos as you copy the control stick directions given on-screen as you spray a tag.
The level design is very bright and urbanised, but the developers did expect you to have very accurate control of your character as sometimes you’ll be in the middle of grinding, wanting to jump over onto another rail, only to miss it because you can’t properly land due to there being a wall that you bump against or a pipe or line not being visible enough. Again, you are still able to pull of some very neat looking tricks, though it can take several attempts before you are successful and can go around an entire level with barely putting a foot on the ground. The levels are a learning curve and whilst you can pull off some short, showy tricks, continuously-flowing grinds and tricks do take longer to learn.
The enemies in the game are uniquely designed and each has their own distinctive weapon, with the purpose of stopping the youngsters from tagging areas and preventing Goji Rokakku from getting his hands on that special record. The enemies in this game are relentless, following you at every opportunity or until you can get to a safe area, usually on higher platforms. When trying to escape an enemy, a red arrow appears on screen directing you towards the nearest escape point, and once you are there, a short scene appears that shows the enemy cursing that they could not catch you. Sometimes escaping from an enemy can be a bit of a chore; they chase you persistently, set canines onto you, blast you from above with helicopters and whip you with electrified wires. There are times when you’ll wish that there were no enemies so you can just get on with finishing a tag; sometimes you’ll get hit while creating a tag and you’ll have no choice but to leave it and come back. There is no way for you to attack the enemies themselves and they can only be avoided; it is a shame that nothing was implemented into the gameplay whereby each of the characters could at least do something to slow down the pace that the enemies reach you. Still, the only violence in the game comes from the enemies themselves, so points to Smilebit for creating a game where the youths are fighting back without resorting to aggression (of course, graffiti is still illegal, but a better way to get across a message rather than chopping off an enemies head).
Jet Set Radio is a game that is aimed at teenagers and so, with its youthful themes, it couldn’t be without a catchy soundtrack to draw you in and keep you playing. There are a total of 30 tracks and each is able to get your head bobbing along as you play. The tunes fit the game very well and keep things very upbeat, even when things aren’t going your way, and you don’t mind having to restart a level if it means listening to a favourite song. The songs are certainly memorable and whilst some will have you reaching for earplugs, there are many that still help to bring out your teenage rebelliousness and continue fighting, and playing, for your rights.
Jet Set Radio is a very colourful and exciting game with a youthful vibe, giving you a sense of unison as these young characters all come together to fight for their rights. Being able to create your own tag was certainly novel and enjoyable, and being able to skate around, destroying the environments, spraying graffiti, being able to perform skating tricks and annoy other non-playable characters in the game certainly made you feel like the rebel that these teenage characters are.