Minimum system requirements: An Xbox 360, PC, or a PS3, an internet connection to buy and download the game, and a tempered pair of nostalgia goggles.
I used to love Jet Set Radio. Before it came out, I bought every video game magazine that even mentioned the game, and I read and re-read every preview for the game over and over again. I ditched school to play the game, and when I beat it for the first time, I immediately went back and played through it again, trying to collect all the game’s Graffiti Souls and achieve a “Jet” ranking on every stage. I made poorly-drawn sketches of the game’s lovable cast in the margins of my notes at school, and I listened to the soundtrack on my then-cutting edge 32mb Rio MP3 player. After I had finished unlocking everything, I forced all of my Dreamcast owning friends to borrow my copy — this was a game that I felt that everyone needed to experience. There were plenty of games I loved on the Dreamcast: Phantasy Star Online, Sonic Adventure, Shenmue, Power Stone, Crazy Taxi, etc… but Jet Grind Radio was always special. It was different; it was stylish, it was slick, it was quirky, and it never stopped being fun. I thought that this game, like so many Sega games before it, would end up being a timeless classic that I could revisit in five or ten years and still have just as much fun.
I was wrong.
Here I am, playing Jet Set Radio 12 years later on a system that’s substantially more powerful than my beloved Dreamcast, and on an HD TV that has a significantly nicer picture than the old heavy CRT that I used to play games on. I’m playing the same game that I fell in love with in 2000, with cleaner visuals and added bonuses like trophies and leaderboards, but… something has gone wrong. There are moments where the magic is still there, and I almost fall in love with the game all over again, but now I find myself getting frustrated and angry at the game more than I used to. The rose tinted glasses are gone, and suddenly, I’m starting to see the flaws that Jet Set Radio has always had, but I was too enamored to see.
Now, I know better than to try to grade a retro re-release by modern standards: I wasn’t expecting Jet Set Radio to be technically comparable to anything released today, obviously. I spend more time playing retro games than modern ones — I spent a good chunk of my summer replaying the original version of Ocarina of Time and a few Saturn classics like NiGHTS (also due for an HD remake later this Fall,) and Burning Rangers — so I think I understand how to adjust my expectations in regards to retro games.
Usually the biggest hurdle people have to overcome when revisiting a beloved retro game is a technical one: as modern games become more realistic and technically advanced, a lot of people have a hard time going back to the lo-fi games of previous generations. This isn’t the problem with Jet Set Radio: the game’s pioneering use of cel-shading has ensured that JSR has, at least in terms of visuals, aged better than a lot of its peers. It’s the same principle that has allowed fellow cult favorite Wind Waker to age equally gracefully: Jet Set Radio’s visuals were based around trying to recreate an art style rather than reality, and as such, despite the antiquated hardware it was originally programmed for, it still looks exactly the way it was meant to look. Even though there have been plenty of cel-shaded games since JSR was first released, it’s unique, bright, graffiti-inspired visuals still manage to stand out: everything in the game, from the characters to the environments, are filled with lots of little details and lots of personality. A lot of modern, overly grim and dark games could still stand to learn a lot from JSR’s colorful, exuberant presentation.
If only Jet Set Radio’s gameplay had aged half as well as its graphics did.
Once you strip away all the style and the flash, JSR is at its heart a platformer, and unfortunately, it commits a lot of the genre’s cardinal sins. The controls in JSR were always kind of loose, and I found myself having a very hard time readjusting to all of the control’s quirks; simply turning around takes far too long than it should, and even simple, straight forward jumps can be hassle when the controls decide to randomly spazz out and send you flying in the wrong direction. The game’s physics and concept of momentum seem completely random: sometimes your character will speed up or take an extra long jump for no discernible reason, while other times you’ll slow to crawl while trying to climb even the slightest of inclines. Sometimes you can jump straight through environmental objects like trees or street lights, but sometimes your character gets snagged on the edge of these same objects and is forced into a complete stop. A lot of the game revolves around maintaining your momentum so you can grind or trick your way up to hard to reach spots around the city, so the random control and physics issues end up turning simple tasks into frustrating, tedious tests of patience.
Compounding these issues is the game’s camera, an aspect of the game which was criticized heavily back in 2000 and is even harder to tolerate now. The camera still sometimes defaults to the worst possible view of the action, and it still gets snagged in corners and in tight spaces. Sega has added in the ability to move the camera on the fly with the second analog stick, but this does little to help, as the camera automatically snaps back to the default (probably terrible) angle as soon as you let go of the stick.
Of course, when you play a game that’s over a decade old, you can’t expect it to control with the same precision or have the same amount of polish as a modern game. I wasn’t expect Jet Set Radio to control with the same precision as a modern platformers like Super Mario Galaxy or Ratchet and Clank: Future or anything like that, but even when you compare JSR against the controls and camera systems of its peers (or even games older than it,) it doesn’t compare favorably.
These issues are frustrating (I’ll admit it, I threw my controller a few times,) but they’re not quite enough to break the game completely. The game made me want to snap my controller in half more times than it should have, but there were some moments were everything just clicked: the controls and the camera behaved, and I was able to grind and flip my way through the game’s intricate cities like I was doing a beautifully choreographed dance. These moments made me remember why JSR was so special to me back in the day, and they were almost enough to make me forget how frustrated I was just seconds prior. Almost.
It’s a shame that the core aspects of JSR have aged so poorly, because its obvious that Sega put a lot of time and effort into making this HD remastering great: like I said, the game looks gorgeous on an HD TV, and Sega even managed to re-license most of the game’s soundtrack (I don’t think anyone is going to miss Rob Zombie’s “Dragula”.) Unfortunately, Sega didn’t include the original game’s ability to import .jpegs to use as in-game tags (which is strange, since modern consoles have easier access to that kind of thing than the Dreamcast did,) but the addition of trophies and leaderboards helps compensate for the loss. The HD version even features a short documentary about the game featuring interviews with some of the original staff, as well as a selection of a few songs off of the sequel’s soundtrack. Overall, the quality of this HD port is leagues better than the half-assed job Sega did with their first wave of Dreamcast ports from a few years ago.
While my opinion of JSR has painfully changed during my most recent playthrough, at the end of the day, I still feel like it’s still an alright game. Time has made its myriad flaws harder to swallow, but Jet Set Radio still has those moments where the game still manages to deliver on the fun — such as when you’re tagging over the cockpits of attack helicopters in order to make them crash, or when you manage to chain together several consecutive wall grinds to reach new heights just as the soundtrack kicks into a really bad-ass song — that still made replaying the game a marginally enjoyable experience.
Keep in mind though, I’m a guy who basically memorized this game back in 2000 — as frustrated as I was with the game during this playthrough, I think my frustration would’ve been magnified several times if I didn’t already have all the level layouts and enemy behavior committed to memory. As fond as I am of this game, I can’t imagine a newbie picking this game up for the first time today and still having as much fun with it as I did when I first played it. There’s such a substantial learning curve involved with learning all of the game’s little unintuitive quirks that I honestly can’t recommend this game to anyone except people like me with a nostalgic attachment to the original release, or people with a lot of patience and a high tolerance for frustration.
It pains me to say this, but Jet Set Radio is not one of those games that will forever be regarded as a classic. I really, really, want to recommend this game, but that recommendation would come with so many disclaimers and caveats that it simply wouldn’t be worth making. Basically, if you have a pre-existing sentimental attachment to this game, you’ll still probably have some fun playing though the game again. If you’ve never played Jet Set Radio before… well, you might have a better time reading articles from old-timers like myself about how great JSR used to be instead of trying to recapture that long gone moment in time for yourself. Jet Set Radio still has much style as it ever did, but my ability to accept the game’s questionable substance seems to have died along with the Dreamcast.
Final Score: 6.5/10