Jet Set Radio Review – nostalgia grinds to a halt

Jet Set Radio (or Jet Grind Radio) was probably the first game to successfully bring the cel-shaded style to a full 3D world of polygons. The unique cartoon-like style, combined with a bombastic soundtrack, made it a head-turner back when it was released on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. After turning on the game, the first thing you’ll hear is, “Jet Set Radioooooooo!” That opening line by the announcer is undeniably uplifting, and it gave me hope that I was in for something special, but as you can see from the review title, that wasn’t quite the case.

Platforms: PSN (9/18/2012), Xbox Live (9/19), Steam (9/19), Playstation Vita (10/16)
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Smilebit (original)/Blit Software (port)
Price: $9.99
Rating: T (Teen)

Jet Set Radio HD is a port, but there are a few new things to look forward to. While I don’t believe that Jet Set Radio started the cel-shading style (games like Pa Rappa the Rapper had black outlines on its characters), it’s safe to say that it helped to continue the trend of bringing cartoon-like characters to life in the video game world. The HD port brings with it the clarity that we expect today, and it looks great. There are a few rough textures here and there, and the world isn’t made up of as many polygons as one would expect now, but nonetheless its visuals hold up really well. There is also a mini-documentary that reveals a little bit about the making of the game. The frame rate and load times have been much improved to the point of not being an issue anymore. Online leaderboards and trophy/achievement support round out the list of new additions.

The soundtrack will probably be the craziest mix of music you’ve ever heard for a video game. It’s original, and it works perfectly for a game that is about subversion. There are dissonant melodies, catchy electronic beats, and influences from techno, jazz, pop, and rock that keep this soundtrack fresh. It’s pretty rare for a video game design team to put so much focus on the aural experience. I can’t say that everyone will enjoy everything that’s on offer, but at the least you should be able to appreciate the fact that the team didn’t seem to limit themselves in terms of creativity.

You start the game off as a character named Beat, a tagger who takes it upon himself to start his own tagger crew, the GGs. Your purpose is to spray paint all over the city, including over the tags of rival gangs. As you progress, other taggers will become interested in joining your crew, but you’ll have to pass their challenges to convince them that you’re worth joining.

The gameplay is relatively basic, with skating, grinding, and spray painting things being the core of the experience. The smallest tags only require you to simply press the tag button while skating or grinding by. Larger tag areas require you to do various half circles and whole circles in different directions and combinations. While there were a handful of times when the tagging controls refused to respond, forcing me to spin the stick around until something happened, or stop tagging and then start again, on the whole they worked perfectly fine (for best results, make sure to do the moves in full).

One of the cooler aspects of the gameplay allows you to leap at walls and billboards, spray them while grinding, and then leap away to another location. It’s just unfortunate that there aren’t enough moments like this. The levels themselves often don’t flow well enough to keep this kind of excitement going, and the parts that do can be hampered by the movement controls and/or the camera.

Depending on the location, the camera can either function okay, it can be irritating, or it can just be downright nasty. One of the most frustrating parts in this game had to be the one in which I had to follow a specific path of another tagger. I watched him grind up a tall ramp, leap from there to a thin wire, and then leap from the wire to a doorway. Okay, looks simple enough, I thought. The major problem here is that once you reach the top of the ramp, the camera stays low and distant and you can’t even view where you’re jumping to. You have to make a blind jump to a thin wire. Now, if it was a perfectly straight jump, it probably wouldn’t have even mattered if I could see what I was doing, but this wire was at an odd angle, and I missed it several times.

There were times when I wanted a better camera view; a slightly higher view from above. I would think that the inclusion of a second analog stick to handle camera duties would fix this problem, but the camera resets to neutral the second your thumb leaves the stick. Since you need your right thumb to press the jump button often, you’re basically stuck with the camera as is.

There are a few instances in which the camera is moved out of its normal position. When you elude your enemies and get to a place they can’t reach you, the gameplay stops and the camera focuses on them for a few seconds to highlight their reaction of your harrowing escape; except that it never ever feels like a harrowing, nail-biting escape. I just want to get on with my game and tag stuff, not watch the same canned response from the enemies every single time I elude them. I don’t know if it was possible on the Dreamcast hardware, but it would have been great if these canned responses were relegated to a small screen in the upper right while I continued on with the game, unhindered. Did I forget to mention that you really aught to remember exactly what you were doing before the game switched over to the enemies’ reactions? You can easily miss the jump you were going for thanks to this neat little camera trick.

In another instance, in one level I saw a few billboards placed in a left, right, left, right, left sequence. I knew instantly that I should be able to grind and jump to all of them without hitting the ground. I was right. The problem is, the camera shifted to a “cool” view as I was grinding on one of them, and then switched back to a normal view just as I was jumping off, causing what could have been an awesome experience to become one that was disappointing (my second attempt was successful).

Though the controls can be gotten used to, for the most part, it feels like a hazing–you know, just suffer for awhile and eventually you’ll get through it to the fun parts. The characters have slight differences in movement, but in general they control like a one-legged polar bear on roller blades who performs extended space jumps (which sounds more fun than it actually is). At average or slow speeds, your jumps can be adjusted based on how long you hold down the jump button, but at the higher speeds, you’ll find that you lose the ability to make anything that resembles a small jump. Another tiny oddity occurs when your character goes up a half-pipe; he or she will immediately stop and turn around for no apparent reason. Though this is just a personal preference, the characters also feel a little sluggish.

Grinding is something that occurs when you jump and land on rail-like objects, or against certain walls. To get off, you have to jump, or wait until the rail ends. It would have been great if there were a button designated for grinding, or at least if there were a way to stop grinding and fall off to one side. As I was grinding around a water tower, there was an object to my left that I wanted to get. Jumping off resulted in me wall-grinding on the water tower and then falling back onto the rail to unwillingly grind some more. I had to get completely off of the water tower, and then jump back onto the walkway section of it to go get the item that I wanted.

In another level, I was supposed to wall-grind to get an item that was high up. After grinding on the wall, I attempted to jump, but found that my character actually fell to a lower grind rail. Repeatedly pressing jump had me bouncing back and forth between the wall and the lower rail. You will probably find throughout your tagging adventure that the lack of control regarding the grinding can be annoying. Sometimes you’ll want to grind, but will fail to do so. Other times you’ll grind when you weren’t trying to.

There are many times when you’ll be challenged to race a tagger to get them to join your cause, and these levels can be frustrating. So, you need to follow the tagger, but you also need to beat them. How do you know where to go? Well, you can repeatedly open up the map several times for each section, or you can just follow the tagger the best you can to see where the tag location is (and fail the level in the process). Some levels will show you the whole layout and the tag location, but this isn’t always the case.

To make matters worse, the first halves of these races are often very easy, and the tagger you’re racing will even wait at the halfway point. This makes it all the more frustrating that you have to do the easy part over and over until you finally nail that latter half. If you make a big mistake in the latter half of the level, and you know you can’t win, you’ll just have to wait until the NPC racer wins. Why? There’s no restart option. You can either wait or you can exit the level. Neither of these is an acceptable option.

Speaking of unacceptable, how about those enemies? There is one level in which a group of jet-packing, machine gun-toting enemies relentlessly chase you while you feebly attempt to get some tagging done. As far as I can tell, you can’t outrun them, and you can’t stun them. What I ended up doing is just accepting that I was going to be repeatedly shot and downed while tagging. The regular enemies, the on-foot cops, aren’t fun to deal with either. You have to do your best to get them to follow you, and then race back to the area you wanted to tag, hoping that the cops aren’t already there preparing to tackle you (hint: they probably are). How would I do it differently, you ask? I would probably have players use the left stick to tag while simultaneously the face buttons would be used for counter-attacks when the cops try to interfere with your tagging.

Jet Set Radio being considered a classic in certain circles, receiving some rave reviews when it released twelve years ago, and the fact that I think the concept of the game is awesome made me really want to enjoy this game. Unfortunately, there are numerous problems with the level design, controls, and camera (even more than I have listed here). Jet Set Radio still oozes style, and outside of one annoying song, the soundtrack still excites. I feel that there will be fans who have mastered this game and so they no longer run into the problems that plague this game (or have simply accepted the flaws). If it’s been awhile since you’ve played it, you may be surprised to find that the campaign doesn’t hold up as well as your memories would have you believe. Jet Set Radio is undoubtedly an important part of video game history thanks to its unique game design, art, and music, but the fun that can be had is mostly drowned out by the numerous frustrating elements that flood it.

Grade: C+

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