Jet Set Radio Review (PS3)

Reviving this nostalgia is well worth the price tag.

I get mad at reviewers a lot. We get rave reviews for crap games and crap reviews for awesome games lately (CoD, please). And nothing quite pisses me off more about this disturbing trend than what’s happened recently with the release of the HD remix of Sega’s sleeper-hit, cel-shaded masterpiece of an art game, Jet Set Radio.

Back in 1999, the gaming world was completely different. With the PS2 on its way, but not quite here yet, Sega had a firm threshold on the title of “Most Powerful Game System on the Market” with its Dreamcast console, their first attempt at a console since the Saturn. Sega’s marketing team has always been underwhelming, but never more so than with Saturn; its surprise launch backfired and almost brought Sega to its knees with high production costs, low sales, and prejudiced stores (no, really; the stores that weren’t in on the surprise launch refused to sell them).

But the Dreamcast ran into problems of its own. For one, the GD-ROM discs they used were very easy to copy and use, making Sega the first true victims of Internet piracy in the history of video games. And for another, those prejudiced stores still wouldn’t sell Sega – neither their software or hardware – under any circumstances. Which sucks, because less than 4 years after its release, Sega pulled it. If they’d been promoting the right games (this one included), maybe things wouldn’t have gone south for the major video game developer.

Not your usual cup of tea, but entertaining all the same.

Jet Set Radio was the game that had the potential to change all that. The premise is simple: avoid the cops, skate around, and spray graffiti while trying to beat the clock. Its cel-shaded graphics, coupled with vibrant colors and an overwhelming sense of style, made it one hell of a visual experience. And while the controls were extremely simple and easy to get the hang of, it had a lasting challenge factor that, to this day, still gets me.

The story, I felt, was perfectly executed. Three gangs of graffiti-driven skater punks called “Rudies” are vying for control of each others’ territory, and while they play their elaborate games with each other, running around the city, looking for new places to tag, the police resistance starts to get harsher and more out-of-control. At first it seems simply exaggerated, but as the game goes on, you come to realize that it’s a thinly veiled call to action for the art community as a dangerous new gang threatens to take over the place. That kind of teenage rebellious attitude the game has is something unique, all its own, and it feels absolutely fantastic here. It makes me feel young again, and not just because I was only eight or nine when this game first came out.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that this game hasn’t aged. It definitely has, but in a very good way. Reviewing this on the PS3 didn’t just feel weird, it felt different than before. Music that once seemed fresh and new now seemed to come second-nature to me as I skated along. The HD remix comes with 29 of the 30 songs on the original OST, plus bonus tracks that were region-locked until just recently. The characters’ voice acting isn’t remarkable (with the exception of Professor K, who is an absolute blast to listen to), but I found it to be at least fun to listen to the three or four various phrases they suddenly utter while tricking out. If you don’t, if you get bored of it, you can crank the music up in the in-game options and not have to hear it. There are certain songs, however, that I can legitimately say would have fit this soundtrack very well when you’re just looking for a breath of fresh air from the same soundtrack over and over again (even I’ll admit, 30 songs can get pretty old, pretty fast) – an option that the PS3 doesn’t give you, but perhaps the 360 would? I don’t know, so I’m not gonna knock them for this one.

Spray up a town on rollerskates? Hell yeah!

The visuals all feel brand spanking new, though. It’s a totally different game to experience in this glorious HD resolution – the cel shaded characters, who once looked maybe slightly more cartoonish than they wanted, now seem to jump up and dance on their own, and the subtle blue sparks under their feet as they dash and grind feel like oceans of life, spraying in your face. Clouds of dust you kick up from braking hard billow out from under your skates, while enemies dash at you, explosives ring out, gunshots playfully ricochet off the walls and floors, and water splashes up from the sea below as jet-pack wielding madmen fly up to meet you. Characters range from bright and cheerful to dark and playful, with subtle nuances in their design that really pop out at you when you’re taking a second look through the PS3′s incredibly powerful graphics engine. This doesn’t even get into the 16:9 screen resolution which adds an extra peripheral vision that I’ve found to be indispensable. I can’t imagine how amazing this game would look on a high-end PC.
Then we get to the gameplay.

I could write a full page review on the gameplay alone. It’s not particularly immersive, per se; it’s far easier to get lost in the incredible visuals and bass-thumping soundtrack than it is to feel captivated by the gameplay. It’s also, however, by no means a chore. You’re only working with three buttons aside from your analog sticks: the X button jumps, the L2 button either centers the camera on your back or starts spraying graffiti, and the R2 button allows you to dash. The analog controls can be frustrating at first, as they’re not completely perfected, but it doesn’t take too terribly long to get used to, and the tutorial they’ve included in this game really helps get the ball rolling.

The camera issues this game has are much fewer and farther between than I seem to remember. Notably, the right analog stick is a godsend. While you can only really use it while you’re on the ground and not grinding on a rail or anything of that sort, you usually only need it around that point. The right analog stick lets you scope out positions for jumping and evading cops, and it can also help you make sharper turns and hit thinner, straight-line rails. The Dreamcast version had one camera control, and one only: the L button to focus the camera on your back, which glitched out all the time.

“Jeez, guys, I’m just an artist on rollerblades!”

However, the meat of the gameplay really comes from the effects of a sense of urgency that the overbearing law enforcement has on you. This is a score attack game, but it’s a damn good one. The goal is to spray up the town within the time limit, which includes grabbing cans of spray paint from your environment and looking for the next tag to spray. You’re graded on how many points you can rack up spraying large, elaborate graffiti designs, tricking off the rails, walls, ramps, and so on. You’re also graded based on how much time and health you have left, and any unused cans of spray paint also get added to your score. There’s a mission map in the pause menu, just like the original, that does a pretty standard job of letting you know where your goals are, but all the same, especially on later levels of the game, it can also be very easy to get lost.

Once you get into the core of the game, you’re already good enough to take it on, and by that point, it’s picked up so much that you can’t even remember being so incredibly frustrated. That’s a good thing, because if you’re into score attack games like I am, you already prepared yourself for replay value that will last for years to come. Even if you’re not doing anything really productive with side missions or extra characters, this is a game you just don’t want to put down.

In the end, Jet Set Radio is much more than a successful HD remake. It’s a wake-up call to game companies that we need more fun out of our games, and it could be a turning point in what we can expect of games as a result. 12 years later and I’m still coming back for more? I’m willing to bet gamers of this generation don’t even know what that means by comparison.



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