Jet Set Radio (2000, DC)

By onebdi / October 27, 2004

Perhaps Jet Set Radio's biggest problem is how damn-well cool it is. Coolness drips from every cel-shaded polygon. Coolness radiates from every funky Japanese techno pop tune. Coolness *is* Jet Set Radio. Posting a fair review must realistically ignore the coolness; the style, and focus on the substance. But this reviewer apologises now for what is ultimately only going to be an unfair review. Because how can you "fairly" lay criticism upon something so aesthetically perfect?
   Set in a futuristic version of the Japanese city of Tokyo the game places us in the midst of a turf battle being waged by rival skater gangs, all rebelling against a corrupt society's efforts to remove the youth's freedom of expression. The manifestation of your rebellion and the tool of war between the gangs is graffiti.

   Controversial at the time, the graffiti element of Jet Set Radio is one of the game's key aspects. The lead character is only capable of dodging attacks by moving away or jumping away from the threat. Commands are reserved for producing murals on the hot-spots indicated by mimicking the directional arrows on the screen using the Dreamcast's analogue stick. Initially these murals (or tags) are the default GG logo but Dreamkey users will be able to download modified motifs via the Sega website, adding a welcome element of customisation.
   Beginning as a lone skater, you are quickly asked to prove your skills and earn the right to become the leader of the GGs. Once the gang is established, you will be tasked with fighting in the escalating turf wars and recruiting new members in order to meet and beat the trials that lie ahead. Each trial involves a skater being sent to an area of Tokyo to replace rival gang's tags whilst avoiding the attentions of an increasingly desperate police chief and his army of "hut-hut-hutting" constables. To complete a mission successfully, a player must survive the attention of the law and replace all rival gangs tags within the set time.
   It is this timing element that causes the most annoyance. Whilst you are presented with one of the most attractive worlds ever created in a game, at no time are you allowed to just "be" in it. Individual mission improvement comes in the form of trying and failing the level goals. So many times you will long to stop the clock and just see where you could go, what you could see. Not that the goal of the game is to explore, far from it. But occasional moments of cinematic brilliance and incredible views from the top of high-rise buildings will make you long to be able to find your own.
   In between missions DJ Professor K intersperses the action with brief snippets of narrative to continue the story and collectively congratulate on a successful mission. The entire story is presented through the funky DJ booth, with his autistic dancing and electrifying hairstyle, but somehow this lends itself well to the style of the game and towards the end feels positively normal.
   Graphically, as I subtly hinted earlier on, the game is a brain spasm of beautific brilliance. A mind-melge of pop-art meets manga. A living, breathing, rhythmically pulsating, playable cartoon. The technique used (for the first time it must be noted) is called cel-shading and employs over-emphasised line thickness and blocky polygons to create a simplified yet free-flowing graphical form. With the lighting techniques employed within the game, the vibe created is one that welcomes the player and really beckons to be explored.
   The game confidently boasts a vertical learning curve. From the very first second the player is expected to be capable of pulling off all of the game's moves within the time allowance allocated. This is compounded later on as the controls begin to falter (some of the higher wall slides demand near David Blaine patience) and the difficulty increases as the time reduces. To conquer certain missions you will find yourself ordering tasks in such a way as to do the more difficult elements first in case they prove troublesome and affect the overall time. The mission restart option will prove an all too familiar companion.
   Ultimately, Jet Set Radio is a masterpiece of videogaming that manages to stand out on a machine that is rich with masterpieces of videogaming. It's a style-over-substance argument all over again, but where the scales are light on the side of complexity, they are weighed down to the floor on the side of visual and aural genius. If nothing else, Jet Set Radio has invented a style of game art that is bound to be continued in dozens of other titles. But more than that, Smilebit have managed to marry together all aspects of the game's audio and visual appearance to create a vibe; a style that no screenshot can do justice. Just play the game and see for yourself.

Jet Set Radio is runner-up to Insomnia's 2000 Game of the Year.