Jet Set Radio

Published Tuesday, 25 September 2012
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Sega roll back the years with the HD re-release of Dreamcast favourite Jet Set Radio, for download on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

Twelve years ago Smilebit, the Sega team set up with the aim of bringing "joy and smile into the whole world", did just that with the all-action Jet Set Radio.

It was a story of youthful rebellion in a near-future Japan, where gangs of spray-can toting teens roam Tokyo-to on magnetically-driven rollerskates, marking their turf while fending off rivals and dodging a police force intent on crushing street culture.

The game was a unique and exciting creation, blending the 3D platform and extreme sports genres with sumptuous cartoon visuals and an eclectic, hardcore soundtrack.

It dropped jaws in 2000 and now - remixed in widescreen HD with dual analogue controls - it does so all over again, proving it can be fun to watch paint dry.

As a member of Shibuya skate gang the GGs, your goal is to traverse the game's lively inner-city worlds collecting spray cans and laying down graffiti within set time limits.

Your troop starts out small with three playable characters - the iconic green-sunglasses and giant headphones clad all-rounder Beat, graffiti expert Gum and boiler suited mechanic Tab, who is the most technically skilled despite wearing a beanie hat that covers most of his face. More gang members can be recruited throughout the game as you dazzle them with tricks and beat them in showdown races.

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Characters can skate, hop and rail-grind their way across each feature-packed playground, popping tricks and weaving through lanes of traffic. Tapping the L trigger unleashes your artwork on the fly, while larger jobs will require you to stop for a moment and mash out a button combo. Neat obstacles are conveniently placed close together for the sake of flow and spectacle. You'll leap from a highway under construction - which has been built over a giant sewerage half-pipe - down onto a kiddies elephant slide, skimming along the trunk before circling back round via an overpass and wall-bouncing off a billboard as you spray tag it.

But don't expect to have things all your own way. The Tokyo-to police force, in particular the crazed Captain Onishima (who appears to be designed after TV's detective Columbo), are bent on stamping out renegade street gangs with lethal force.

Every completed tag point attracts more law enforcers and it's not long before riot police are advancing past the shop fronts in scenes oddly familiar to this summer in Northern Ireland. Things soon escalate further with army tanks, helicopters, attack dogs, snipers, bombers and an assassin with a lazer whip all on your tail, sapping that precious life-bar as you go about your cool business. A degree of strategy is needed as you plan your route to the tougher targets - leave it too late and you might find a SWAT van or electrified enemy in the way.

The particulars of the game's rail-grinding system - that is to say, successfully landing on said rails and getting from one to the next - take some getting used to and there's little room for error. Precision is the order of the day - this is not Assassin's Creed, where you just point the character in the right direction and hold the win button in order to effortlessly glide up rock faces, onto buildings and across narrow beams without fear of falls or stumbles. But don't worry if you're not carving up the stages in style at first, it doesn't take long and it's certainly worth the work.

It's also worth cautioning against treating this game as a platformer in the purest sense, because that kind of slow and careful approach doesn't marry well with characters on wheels. Fast and gutsy play - going for that dramatic leap or crane-grind - will generally serve you well, while timidly rolling up to obstacles will lead to frustration. Strangely, this need-for-speed feeling is not enforced by the game's time limits, which are almost always far too generous. Enemies and limited spray can stocks give the game a decent amount of challenge, but a 15 minute countdown - even on late stages where previously visited areas combine together in labyrinthine fashion - will not have you breaking a sweat.

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Jet Set Radio's trademark cell-shaded graphics were attention grabbing at release and, with a fresh lick of HD paint, look gorgeous once again. The world of Tokyo-to is designed as dirty and dilapidated yet each of its districts-turned-dance-floors ooze colour, now enhanced by super sharp edges and finer detail. Kogane is particularly pretty, with its pumpkin orange sunset skies fading over a patchwork of red and turquoise-tinged slum roofs, all built atop a shimmering lake.

Many of the technical issues which afflicted the Dreamcast game have also been ironed out. Slowdown is now a thing of the past - even the formerly seizure-inducing slideshow that was Grind Square's skyscraper has become smooth sailing. The draw distance is also vastly improved, so much so that it will be a revelation for old fans in certain stages, while the ability to see far off tag pointers comes as a useful bonus. However a few flickery textures and dated sprites offend the eyes, including some blocky looking character faces. I was also a little annoyed with how the map screen is now hidden an extra button press away on the pause menu.

Perhaps the most major change to the game is free camera control, courtesy of a second analogue stick. It does help in cramped corridors, as well as in those disorienting moments when you crash out during heated tag-chases with enemy gangs, but the old L-centering system got the job done too, and also features here.

Jet Set Radio's energetic soundtrack remains a highlight, fusing everything from J-pop to indie rock, dance to ska and hip hop to dubstep - or should that be 'daub'-step? Players will be humming the basslines for days to tunes like Super Brothers, 'Bout the City, Magical Girl and ... Humming the Bassline. Sega proudly trumpeted the fact it secured rights to the majority of songs, with the only notable skipped record being Yappie Feet. Predictably, some fans are already yapping about it - which is fair enough on the one hand as it was a memorable track, but it's hardly a catastrophe on the scale of Crazy Taxi without The Offspring.

Behind the turntables on the game's titular pirate station Jet Set Radio is the lightning bolt dreadlocked Professor K, who mixes the music into medleys as you mix the paint. It all combines into a game that feels perfectly in tune with its melting pot of cultural influences and somehow still fresh now, even though it pertains to 2000. A nice documentary on exactly that subject rounds off the HD experience, featuring interviews with some of the minds at Smilebit and contributors including graffiti artist Eric Haze. It also features footage of the Dreamcast original, which serves as a timely reminder of just what an overhaul this is.

Before being dissolved in 2004, Smilebit went on to produce a highly-regarded JSR sequel called Jet Set Radio Future, which flipped many aspects of the series with radically different yet still marvellous results. And equally deserving of a re-release, Sega.

But that's enough talk for now - it's time to get back out there and paint the town red, and a whole host of other colours, all over again.

Five stars.

© UTV News
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1 Comments
Aidan in Belfast wrote (655 days ago):
Chris, I don't know whether any readers give much in the way of feedback or attention for UTV's gaming articles, but it's good to see something somewhere about the Jet Set Radio games. I remember this being the earliest time that I was exposed to anything distinctly Japanese and being intrigued by it all. I have a lot of fond memories of JSRF in particular and would love for Sega to do something more with the series on today's consoles. Fare thee well.
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Chris Chambers
Chris Chambers

Chris is an online journalist with UTV, where he writes about everything from news and current affairs to local sport.

In his spare time he's a keen gamer, with his all-time favourites including classics such as Shinobi and Strider, and modern titles like Gears of War and Super Mario Galaxy.

He will be blogging about gaming news and events in Northern Ireland and giving his thoughts on some of the latest console releases.

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