Platforms: PC | PSN | XBLA (reviewed)
Developer: Smilebit | Blit
Jet Set Radio released into a perfect storm of demand and opportunity at the dawn of the new millennium. The Dreamcast was already in decline and desperately needed some unique and exciting exclusives to buoy things up, and Smilebit were ready to deliver. Sporting a timeless cel-shaded presentation that poured molten gobbets of awesome into our willing retinas, featuring a killer soundtrack and boasting fun and accessible gameplay, Jet Set Radio became a cult classic. Even now, it still feels fresh and funky if you're willing to dig out your Dreamcast. Which I am. Usually on an annual basis.
You can rely on SEGA to tap into its back catalogue every once in a while, and they've finally turned their attention to Jet Set Radio after delivering a number of seriously slapdash rehashes.
But have the ravages of time and a vastly superior sequel been kind to this 'warts and all' re-release? When the cel-shaded specs come off, the answer is more difficult than you might expect.
Jet Set Radio casts players as a member of the GG skater gang in the colourful streets of Tokyo-To. Instead of mugging pensioners and throwing bricks into high street shopfronts, these free-spirited youngsters express themselves by spraying graffiti all over the city. Thrown into a selection of compact levels featuring rails to grind, jumps to pull off and walls to ride, you'll race against increasingly tight time limits to cover up rival graffiti with your own; mustering as much spatial awareness as possible to navigate the complex environments with time to spare.
The Tokyo-To police take a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to vandalism, deploying an insane detective, squads of troopers, SWAT Teams and more in an effort to take down the rebellious youths. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but suffice to say that there's no force too unreasonable and no war machine too expensive for these trigger-happy coppers. Their presence turns a straightforward timed platformer into a tense and hectic flight for survival as you dodge and race your way through the levels, desperate to find that one last piece of graffiti as the police reaction escalates.
The core gameplay is satisfying and stressful, but Jet Set Radio's unique charm stems from its presentation and personality. Characters bop and dance to the beat of the eclectic J-Funk soundtrack when idle. Levels are introduced by DJ Professor K, a charismatic and suitably manic pirate radio presenter. Densely packed levels bustle with bystanders who leap out of your way, cussing furiously. Crucially, the cel-shaded visuals deliver an enormous burst of vibrant, urgent colour; a varied and visually-arresting feast for the senses. Jet Set Radio has got soul, something sorely lacking from any number of modern games.
SEGA have poured slightly more love and care into Jet Set Radio HD than they usually do with their HD re-releases (not difficult, really, considering that the likes of Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure 2 received almost no attention whatsoever). Besides a new widescreen aspect ratio and the odd tweak here and there, SEGA has definitely put a bit of work into tarting up some of the textures for the higher resolution. Otherwise, it's basically just the same old game.
Which means, of course, that Jet Set Radio still looks incredible. Its timeless cel-shaded graphics and irrepressibly colourful art style are as vibrant and eye-catching as they ever were, proving yet again that art direction and personality are what make games look great, not flashy engines. You could argue that Jet Set Radio is the perfect example of a fully future-proofed game and you'd probably be right.
In a far cry from Crazy Taxi HD, which shockingly neutered the classic soundtrack, Jet Set Radio HD packs all but one of its original eclectic setlist. The only omission is Rob Zombie's Dragula that never really fit the cheerful and funky tone to begin with (and wasn't in the original game anyway, only the localisations). It feels a bit odd to praise a game for leaving good stuff in, but that's the state of the industry these days.
So, the good news is that nothing has changed.
The bad news, sadly, is that I wish several things had. Once the cel-shaded spectacles crack, Jet Set Radio's core gameplay just isn't anywhere near as much fun as you might remember.
What ought to be a fluid and dynamic gameplay experience is stodgy, floaty and slow - both in terms of controls and raw handling on a basic level. Skaters amble along at painstakingly lackadaisical speeds unless you trigger a dash, which can just as easily result in you bumping into a grind rail rather than riding it. There's no way to increase grinding speed without jumping and potentially falling straight off, often leading to painfully coming to a stop on slight inclines. Being damaged results in several seconds of recovery if you're lucky or an overlong recovery animation in the vast majority of cases. And the camera, always an issue with these re-releases, consistently refuses to display the angle you need even though SEGA has added twitchy second-stick manual control.
There's nothing more infuriating than failing to beat a time limit by scant seconds because the controls wouldn't let you do what you wanted. Infuriation that will become your constant companion. Jet Set Radio has settled into my muscle memory on a Dreamcast controller, but playing it on an Xbox 360 controller or Dualshock is enough to jolt even the most die-hard fan out of their rose-tinted reverie. I speak from experience.
Speaking of time limits, that's another real bugbear that feels horribly archaic in 2012. At best, time limits serve to add a sense of urgency and threat to a game, but here they often deny you from exploring the colourful environments to the full. If I was feeling uncharitable, I'd even suggest that they're designed to distract players from the fact that the levels haven't been designed in a considerate or fun-oriented fashion; with grind rails that frequently don't match up in particularly convenient ways, surfaces that should be grindable but aren't and yawning archways that inexplicably lead you back to the main menu if you accidentally pass through them.
Smilebit clearly knew that Jet Set Radio was flawed, and practically admitted as much by correcting nearly all of these issues in Jet Set Radio Future. The Xbox-exclusive sequel eschewed time limits for enormous open playgrounds that encouraged exploration and insane stunts. You could trick during grinds to increase speed, allowing you to grind up vertical surfaces and access hitherto unimaginable parts of each level. The controls were brought up to scratch and jerky floatiness was replaced with tighter fluidity. Jet Set Radio was an infinitely superior game... and since it's backwards-compatible with the Xbox 360, you don't have to take my word for it (be aware that you'll encounter a bit of slowdown, mind).
At £6.49 or 800 Microsoft Points, it's still easy to recommend Jet Set Radio HD. It's a decent remake of a cult classic that provides plenty of raw value, which pales in comparison to something immeasurably more important: real personality. Plus, if this sells well, SEGA might finally consider another sequel (for the record, the Wii U GamePad would be great for designing custom graffiti - SEGA can have that one for free). Despite a new lease of life, though, Jet Set Radio just isn't quite the game we remember.
Perhaps it never was.
- Exquisite visuals and soundtrack
- Excellent value - you get the whole game for £6.49/800MSP
- It's got soul
- Floaty, clunky and imprecise handling
- Tight time limits feel inconsiderate and archaic in 2012
- Nowhere near as fun as you might remember
The Short Version: Jet Set Radio HD is great value for the price and a technically brilliant port. It's worth buying for Jet Set Radio's evergreen personality, visuals and verve; an affordable new way to check out a bona fide Dreamcast classic.
Unfortunately, many players will wonder what all the fuss was about... and longtime fans will have to face some uncomfortable home truths about what was always a flawed title.