I was a Sega kid, growing up. Having said that, I didn’t own a Dreamcast until after their brief heyday, and only have a small familiarity with Jet Set Radio. Of course, I knew of the title, as it’s visual style and funky soundtrack were hard to ignore, but certainly don’t have nostalgic memories of long nights spent grinding and tagging. Thankfully, I have a chance to right that wrong, as Jet Set Radio has been re-released on Xbox Live Arcade, complete with glorious HD graphics. Does it live up to all the hype? Unfortunately not.
The game takes place in the city of Tokyo-To, and follows the exploits of a group of young hooligans known as “rudies”. Their chief pastime is skating around the city on powered, magnetic skates and spraying graffiti wherever they can, all the time listening to the pirate station known as Jet Set Radio. Of course, the cops aren’t putting up with any of this crap, and are treating these teenage vandals like an invading army: Dogs, guns, tear gas, and even cruise missiles are employed in the effort to stop them.
Your task is quite simple: Skate around, collect spray cans, and tag all the tag points in a level before time runs out. You’ll be tasked with other goals during the course of the game, but this aim is the most common one. That’s really all there is to it. Sure, you can gain points by doing tricks (which you have little-to-no control over), but it’s certainly no Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It’s quite a simple game, with very minimal controls, but this shouldn’t necessarily make it bad. So what’s wrong with it?
I suppose I should begin with character movement. We’ve come a long way with video game control over the years, and this is definitely a throwback to darker times. All you’re really doing is jumping onto rails, then jumping off, then jumping onto more rails, but somehow this just doesn’t work as advertised. It’s so easy to send your skater flying over the target, or not quite lining things up correctly, then falling multiple storeys to the ground. Since you’ll be attempting to navigate all over the unintuitive levels in search of tag points, having to re-ascent structures over and over again gets frustrating very quickly.
Your lack of trick buttons also leads to points of annoyance, as you have no idea if your small hop will instead launch you into a backflip and over the rail you were aiming for. When you consider that you’re looking for specific points in the levels, having an imprecise control scheme leads to more anger than fun.
The levels themselves are poorly laid out, with paths that lead nowhere, and tags sometimes placed many floors above the ground. I have no problem being challenged to hunt for stuff, but unless I’m given controls that facilitate their finding, things just feel annoying and cheap. Also, why the hell are there exit points in the levels? The exit points do nothing but end your current mission and force you to restart. There are no barriers to warn you, so you may find yourself accidentally quitting just before you complete a mission. Either that, or a passing car/explosion will force you down them.
These problems are compounded by the dreadful camera that always seems to leave important things, such as gaps, off screen until it’s too late. Get too close to a corner and you’ll suddenly get a view of the top of your skater’s head, which can lead to more falling off of ledges and into trouble. Camera issues always plagued games from the first decade of 3D, and this is no exception.
It’s not all bad, though. The visual style is still impressive, especially in HD, and the soundtrack fits the mood perfectly. The character design is interesting as well, so it’s a shame that the game itself isn’t a little better. As you advance, things start getting a little more varied, but I can imagine many casual players becoming frustrated and giving up long before they get past the repetitive beginning.
I understand that many people may have very fond memories of Jet Set Radio, and won’t take too kindly to this review. The thing is, I’m not judging this game on nostalgia, or impact of initial launch, but on today’s standards. Is this fair? Of course it is! Potential buyers have to pay today’s money of they want it. They have to choose between this game and the many other current titles available on Xbox Live Arcade. When Jet Set Radio was first released, it didn’t have competition such as Trials Evolution and Mark of the Ninja, both of which are much better places to put your hard-earned money.
Some games age just fine. I can still go back and play Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog and get a huge amount of enjoyment from them, but not everything works this way. Try playing a title like Resident Evil or Tomb Raider these days, and you’ll encounter terrible graphics, awful controls, and laughable voice-acting. At the time, they were revolutionary, but they just don’t hold up by today’s standards. That’s why we saw Resident Evil Zero and Tomb Raider Anniversary – titles that took the core ideas and stories from the originals, but modernized the gameplay. Jet Set Radio, on the other hand, is just a 12-year-old game with prettier graphics.
So overall, I would only recommend Jet Set Radio to long-time fans who want a hit of nostalgia. For these folks, you’re getting an upgraded version of the game you loved back in the day, complete with sharp visuals, online leaderboards, and achievements. For everyone else, please play the trial before you buy. You may have heard great things about it; you may have seen the beautiful cel-shaded graphics; you may have been waiting to finally experience this moment in video game history, but don’t be surprised if you come to realize that some pieces of history are best left buried.
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