Review by Popcorn
"Another fine example of Sega's technical mastery of video games, but this is more Mario than Tony"
Sega have done a good thing recently, and that was to finish compiling their collection of Master Game Developers. The key word here is ‘Game’, in that it is not ‘Cash-Collecting, Quality-Dodging Pig of a Much-Criticised yet Annoyingly and Persistently Popular Game (i.e. Tomb Raider)’. Their motley crew of masterpiece-creating video game gods may not produce the best-selling titles of all time, but they do produce some of the best titles of all time. There’s a subtle difference there, but it’s an important one— can you spot it?
Such members of these aforementioned gaming god squads include the legendary Sonic Team (Sonic Adventure, Phantasy Star Online), Hit Maker (Virtual On), United Game Artists (Space Channel 5), Sega Rosso (Daytona), AM2 (Shenmue, Virtua Fighter), No Cliché (Toy Commander), and Smilebit, who are those responsible for this, Jet Set Radio. Jet Set represents a change in direction for the team, whose previous work is composed entirely of odd Japanese baseball titles. And, after playing this for any length of time, I’m confident that you’ll be glad that they decided to drop the bat for a while.
You know that new graphics style that’s been floating around for a while now? The one that’s been used in Wacky Races, Sonic Shuffle and Looney Tunes Space Race? The one that makes everything look like a 3D cartoon, with bold outlines and simplistic, bright colours? It’s good, isn’t it? Well, Smilebit invented it. What was once a highly original and innovative graphical ingenuity has been milked dry by countless other enterprising development houses, so much so that Sega should probably have patented it. It’s called Manga Dimension, and provides a very, very cool playing experience that has yet to be fully harnessed by its other users, and here it’s used so brilliantly that it feels just as fresh and new as ever. It provides a rare case where the graphical styling of the game actually helps mould the feel of the gameplay, and immerses the player into an extravaganza of colour and style that has to be seen— no, seen in motion— to be fully appreciated. It’s great. It really is.
The music, in keeping with the rest of the game, is excellent; a blend of hip-hop, rock and dance all accompany you on your missions, piped out of the same pirate radio station that gives the game its name, headed by the dreadlocked Professor K. Most of the songs featured are of better quality than what can be found in any fifteen-minute session of MTV, and have entertaining lyrics, uniquely differing themes and styles, and whose variation caters for all that play it. You’re guaranteed to find at least one song you’ll love, my favourites being the fantastic title theme Let Mom Sleep and the intrinsically weird electric guitar-a-thon Superbrothers. Look out for them.
The gameplay, should you feel any necessary after watching and listening to the game for a few minutes, is similarly satisfactory. It revolves around four groups of in-line skaters (called rudies) who express themselves by spraying graffiti all over the fictional city of Tokyo-to, which is, as one may presume, loosely based on Tokyo. The gangs involved are in perpetual rivalry with each other and, as Beat, the primary member of the newly-founded GG’s, your initial goal is to convince potential members to join you. This is performed by either beating them in a race across a district, or by successfully copying a series of tricks. New characters can then be selected for the main missions, in which you are required to paint various points within a designated area within a time limit using the artistic force known as graffiti. The police, of course, are eager to put a stop to the youthful antics of these gangs, and will call in a number of different forces to do so, the intensity of which varies massively, ranging from footmen and police dogs to SWAT teams, paratroopers and attack helicopters. The entire story is spread across five districts, with each area offering a series of different challenges.
The wonder of this game lies in its roots— this is the first in a while to fall back on classic gaming formulae, the most basic of which requires the player to collect Item A, proceed to Point B and avoid Threat C, with A being the necessary paint cans that must be collected before painting may commence, B being the designated graffiti point and C being the police. Even old elements like the score counter, life metre and timer have been re-introduced, and they’re a welcome return into the land of gaming, rather like re-discovering that old Super Metroid title was quite good.
Painting graffiti itself is a process that varies in length, as the size of the tag (graffiti painting) that must be produced is split into three subdivisions— small, large and extra large, each of which demand differing amounts of time and effort to complete. In anything other than the ‘small’ size, you’ll have to follow the directions on-screen with the analogue pad to paint individual parts of the picture, with additional points awarded for a tag completed with no mistakes. For example, you might have to roll the analogue stick up, down and in a full circle, mimicking the movement of your character’s spray-painting hand.
Skating, meanwhile, is a simple matter of pressing in the desired direction on the analogue stick, and although performing tricks does not require much input on the player’s part, they are a vital supportive girder in the game’s structure. All that’s needed is to press the jump button whilst moving at some speed, with the trick performed determined through such factors as velocity, height and current direction. Another move, grinding (whereupon the skater jumps onto a railing, fence or other such piece of landscape and slides along it) is such a vital component of success that the game has been renamed Jet Grind Radio in the US to reflect this factor. Apart from offering point bonuses, the main encouragement for utilising tricks in play is the protection they offer— whilst grinding, for example, you are immune to being harmed by police forces, and performing an air trick gives a vital burst of speed.
It is probably important to note that these are all employed to enhance the game, not to emulate a true skating experience; this is not Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. No, Jet Set Radio is not a skating game— the designers sat down to make an action game, and the addition of in-line skates is simply another component in its execution. Many will play this expecting to have a hard time balancing on the grinds, and spend time learning how to pull off a specific trick, only to be disappointed that virtually no skill has to be employed in these areas. Instead the game requires its users to place it in challenges that can be more commonly found in Sonic the Hedgehog or Rayman¸ where timing, threat evasion and platform-hopping proficiency are paramount. You could easily have Mario replace any of the characters in Jet Set (although he’d look somewhat out of place), but only Tony Hawk fits into Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater— this, in all truth, is a different ball game all together.
Jet Set Radio’s main problem is that it is too short. While it puts up a pretty much perfectly-balanced challenge over a series of excellently designed playing areas, you may be disheartened by the pace at which you’ll get through it; not, as previously stated, because of lack of challenge, but instead because of its lack of length. Thankfully there are several factors which make each level worth playing through more than once; the first of which concerns the point-based ranking system. Ranging from the terrible Pedal all the way up to Jet, achieving a maximum rank on every level is a necessity if you want to take control of the secret characters. Both a good knowledge of the stage and a proficiency in the art of grinding is needed if a good score is to be achieved. The second main incentive for replay is hidden in the many JSR icons which are placed in devilishly cunning places throughout every stage. Collecting one will reward you with a new graffiti design, which can be selected (amongst many others) as the tag your player uses during play. It’ll be a long while before you successfully even find each one, let alone find a way of getting at them; but choosing your favourite tag in Jet Set is all part of the appeal, and collecting the icons is the only way you’ll get to view the full selection. If none are to your taste, then a handy— if comparatively limited due to the restrictions of any game controller— graffiti creator is included on the disc that allows players to design and save their own works of art using a selection of MS Paint-style tools, and even upload them onto the ‘net for others to use. Indeed, the levels of customisation Smilebit have allowed players access to is phenomenal; it’s even possible to turn almost any picture on the Internet into a graffiti design, should you feel so inclined.
Other than the length of the game (for which Smilebit have compensated tremendously), only one other real flaw spoils this otherwise diamond of a game: the developers’ apparent unwillingness to make use of most of the controller. Both the spray command and the camera centre command are bound to the same button, which means that when you’re nearby an area which must be tagged, it’s impossible to do the latter without triggering the former. This wouldn’t be so unforgivable if Smilebit hadn’t left three buttons unused that could otherwise have been devoted to camera control, giving somewhat of a bad impression on those looking for faults. But, assuming you’re not, then you’ll enjoy this immensely. Just don’t expect Tony.
Jet Set Radio is an explosive merging of style, fun and infinite coolness, whose prowess caters for every conventional gaming sensation in completely unconventional ways. Superb gameplay, excellent music and astounding graphics all add up to form one universally unique experience that you’ll be salivating over for time to come. Get it.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/16/01, Updated 01/16/01
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