Classic Sega, in the best and worst way
When you think about it, there are a lot of similarities shared between Jet Set Radio and the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. Both had unique graphical styles, incredible soundtracks, were heavily focused on gameplay through momentum, and were in tune with a lot of things that were "cool" in their era. But for however important and iconic the original Sonic the Hedgehog was to Sega, I think it is important to recognize that it was also not a stellar game. Like the first game in many franchises, Sonic 1 was an experiment of sorts. Sonic Team had all of the broad strokes down, but the game they ended up with was, in retrospect, kind of clunky and weird. But that's okay, because as with other game franchises that go through this, future sequels refined that base and made it considerably more fun and less frustrating. And much like that first Sonic game, Jet Set Radio is equal parts unwieldy and iconic.
The game introduces itself through the underground pirate radio station Jet Set Radio, hosted by the loud, irreverent DJ Professor K, whom is prone to lyrical rants and dishing out information about your next objective. You start the game as Beat, a ginger-haired "rudie" undergoing initiation in to The GGs, a street gang in a fictionalized near-future version of Shibuya prefecture in Tokyo. Turf wars between rival gangs are common for the GGs, though rarely does that end in legitimate violence - to push back and conquer a rival's territory, you must simply find graffiti they've created and spray over it with your own. Should you actually find yourself in a showdown with the leaders of the rival gang, all it takes is for you to tag graffiti on to their backs in order to defeat them. By contrast, the local police aren't quite as sporting: should you catch their attention, they have no problem beating you with batons, shooting at you with guns, and eventually, even calling in military-grade weaponry in an effort to stop your vandalism antics. In between turf wars and police shakedowns, your gang expands as more rudies challenge you to races and skating competitions as part of the same initiation you experienced at the start of the game.
While all of that sounds good on paper, Jet Set Radio doesn't seem to be quite sure what kind of game it really is, and that's never more obvious than in its controls. Controls are the single most important aspect of a video game - the best level design in the world doesn't matter if you cannot appropriately navigate through it. The controls in Jet Set Radio try to strike a balance between extreme sports games like Tony Hawk and something more like a traditional 3D platformer, but things don't mesh together quite right. The end result is something that feels simultaneously floaty and extremely heavy, and level design requires a degree of precision that can be difficult to conjure. For as much air time as you can get from certain jumps and tricks, you'll be surprised at just how often you miss landing on a specific grind rail or platform due to the game's sluggish controls. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, as even after you understand its control quirks, you still have to contend with increasingly difficult police raids. When the cops pull out tear gas and assault rifles, your only option usually is to avoid them - but as the game progresses, you'll discover that the cops quickly become unavoidable. Eventually, you'll find yourself standing in front of a graffiti location constantly getting the crap beaten out of you during tagging because there is simply no way to defend yourself and no easy way to escape. And that's assuming graffiti tagging even works - more than once I had the game fail to recognize my tagging gestures with the analog stick.
That's due in part because of the quality of the port itself. While there's nothing really game-breaking, the Xbox Live Arcade release of Jet Set Radio HD is chocked full of annoying little graphical problems that simply do not exist in the original Dreamcast release. The original Jet Set Radio was the first game to really popularize the "cel-shading" rendering technique, and while the raw polygons look extremely crisp and beautiful in HD, the rest of the port does not benefit as much from the conversion. Expect to occasionally see flickering textures, z-buffer layering problems, jittery animation, minor letter boxing, an overall darker picture, and even sound mixing problems (DJ Professor K is way louder in this release than he was on the Dreamcast). That's not to say this version is all bad, though - the Dreamcast controller only had one analog stick, meaning the only way to adjust the camera in the original Jet Set Radio was to re-center it using the left trigger. Incidentally, the left trigger was also used for spraying graffiti, meaning in heated scenarios where you have to tag lots of graffiti really quickly, you were also constantly re-centering the camera at the same time. Jet Set Radio HD gives you a number of much-needed options for disabling some or all of the original game's most disorienting camera features, in addition to finally allowing you adjust your view manually with the right analog stick. By themselves, these new camera options come pretty close to making up for the graphics and sound issues seen in the rest of the port.
It may sound like I've been nothing but down on Jet Set Radio HD for the entirety of this review, but in spite of all of the frustration I experienced at its hands, I came away from the game feeling good about playing it. In both the best and worst ways, Jet Set Radio embodies that classic Sega style that no other developer has managed to duplicate. While that means some control and difficulty problems, it also means a bold obsession with being hip and cool in a way nobody else ever was. It may not be the best game in the world, but it is, without a doubt, an important part of Sega's heritage.
(This review was originally posted on TSSZnews.com on September 29th, 2012)